Some paragraphs extracted
from the Traveler's Venezuela Companion © The Globe Pequot Press.
Reproduced with permission.
over the seemingly endless rug of emerald forest of Venezuela's
Orinoco Basin, you enter a time-warp world. Although settlements
in the north of the region have grown over the last decade, in essence,
the land and its soul belong to the Indians who have
historically inhabited it.
Enter this world, and
you cross the threshold of a cathedral. The shafts of light filtering
through the leaves of too-tall trees; the songbird choristers; the
aisle-like forest paths; the baroque exuberance of the vegetation.
All combine to make you tread softly and speak in hushed tones.
You also step back in time, to a world a million miles, and years,
from your own. As Joseph Conrad puts it in Heart
of Darkness, "Going up that river was like travelling back
to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted
on the earth, and the big trees were kings."
Amazonas State in southern
Venezuela is immense. It covers all the land from the border with
Colombia on the western bank of the Orinoco, to the natural border
of the higher ground of the Guayana Shield and Brazil to the east.
The region extends over 175,750km², of which over a third falls
under protected in theory land. It is home to around
40,000 Indians: the Guahibo (Jivi), Piaroa, Yekwana (Makiritare),
Baniva, Yanomami and Sanéma. In the depths of the forest, they lead
lives virtually unchanged for centuries, in houses whose basic ingenuity,
and aesthetic beauty, are startling.
The cathedral forests also shelter immense natural riches.
The Orinoco Basin, like its neighbor the Amazon, is a haven of biodiversity:
a living, breathing bank for the future without parallel. Within
the protective clutches of the undulating hills and valleys, occasionally
punctuated by the last mountain flings of the Guayana Highlands
Cierro Neblina at 3,014 m (9,886 ft) is the highest mountain
in South America west of the Andes youll encounter
electric blue butterflies, squawking macaws, a dozen species of
monkey, and even jaguars or ocelots. In the rivers, piranhas
jaws happy-snap alongside fiery peacock bass (pavón), fresh-water
dolphins (tonino), spectacled caiman crocodiles (babas)
and turtles. On the forest floor, hairy tarantulas, stinging ants,
hand-length cockroaches, and mighty fer-de-lance snakes turn some
jungle jaunts into obstacle courses.
BECKHAM IN THE JUNGLE
We circle in a six-seater
plane above the Yutaje camp in northeastern Amazonas state, on a
tributary of the mighty Río Ventuari, which in turn feeds the Orinoco.
White plume waterfalls embroider the flanks of two adjacent mountains,
while below, forests paw at their skirts, their green tendrils petering
out on the valley floor, where a pancake-flat savanna fries in the
glaring sun. Tannin-brown stained rivers weave through the green
forest fleece. They disappear, as our pilot Bob Sonderman banks,
only to emerge again, glinting Morse signals. Finally, we land on
the caked-mud airstrip, taxiing the hundred yards to the camp's
entrance. Open the cockpit door, and the humidity punches your lights
I follow the scientists
who Im accompanying over to the main roundhouse (called a
churuata in Venezuela). I've just flown two hours, and for
the last hour and three quarters, I've hardly seen a human settlement.
For the last hour or so, nothing but forest, forest, forest. Inside,
half a dozen men lounge, sipping rum. On the wide-screen television
to which they're glued, Manchester United are losing to Bayern Munich.
HOME SWEAT HOME
Yutaje is the oldest of the Amazonian jungle lodges. It
was established in 1962 by the Italian José Raggi, who sadly died
in 1999. Today, with satellites beaming soccer matches, and faxes
confirming reservations, it's still hard to fathom how a camp can
survive out here in the wilderness. But in Bobby Charlton's heyday?!
Set in a half moon crescent
ringed by forest, seven circular, thatched churuatas and various
other buildings are laid out on the pedicured lawn. A blue and red
macaw squawks as I make my way to my bedroom: hot water, a desk,
a comfy bed and a ceiling-fan. Home sweat home.
The scientists are deep in discussion.
One of them reckons he's found traces of testosterone in the local
Yekwana Indians chili sauce, "katara". One of kataras
most important ingredients is bachaco ants, who possess the
most fearsome mandibles of any insect Ive encountered. The
Yekwana claim their top-blowing ant sauce is an aphrodisiac. Field
tests are in progress...
After a swift shower
and a snack, its off upriver in a dugout canoe powered by
an outboard. Fifteen minutes of winding bends and sandy banks away,
the Coro Coro Falls slinky down a series of rock stairs. At their
feet, white-foam paisley patterns paper inky black pools. They swirl
and contort before my hallucinating eyes, before fading to nothing
as the river gathers momentum once more.
It's not sunny, but considering
the heat, that's no bad thing. After a swim, I fall asleep, splayed
on a smooth warm rock, my camera bag as a pillow. I awake to the
sounds of ¡Epa! and ¡Dále! and beer cans dropped into pools. The
satellite phone has just been installed in Yutaje. Cause for Venezuelan
On the way back to the
camp, we pull up on a sand bank. In a palm at the edge of the beach,
bright yellow-chested birds buzz about. The cacique bird builds
ingenious twig n vine nests suspended from palm fronds,
enjoying a symbiotic relationship with neighboring wasps. Not content
with brilliant plumage, its song is equally exuberant.
The scientists get excited
again. The man heading the study, David Acancio of Cornell University,
is trying to establish the use of a gland on the birds' rump. They
employ it when preening their feathers. He believes there's a link
between the birds insect diet and the chemistry which allows
them to live relatively bug-free lives, even in the Tropics. Humans
could do with such a gland methinks.
That night, the rains
pound my tin roof with Tyson fists. I don't sleep much, but awake
with my ears intact.
SPIT AND SAWDUST
Twenty minutes downstream
from the camp, swooped by kingfishers and heron, lies a small Yekwana
settlement. As we arrive, a group of curious children scurry off
to hide behind trees and giggle. The thatched roofs of mud huts
poke up in the clearing like witch's hats. The nearby Piaroa Indians
build their roofs right down to the ground: you have to scrape the
floor to get inside. All Indian housing is made with earth packed
into a flexible wood structure. It's a relief not to see the rusting
zinc roofs which often supplant thatch in some parts of Venezuela.
Palm thatch has to be replaced on average every four years; zinc
last a decade or more. It might not be as pretty, but which would
The mother of some
how many? of the children is busy working on manioc. Manioc
is to the Indians of Amazonas what tea and biscuits are to country
parsons. It's a root vegetable, about the size of a marrow, though
narrower. The Indians sew it with gusto in their forest clearings,
and it provides communities with their main source of carbohydrate.
The root is first peeled,
then left to soak. Shredding comes next. This is done on large wooden
washboards inset with either sharp flints, or nowadays, metal shards.
The resulting mulch is left to dry on woven palm trays. After it's
lost some of its water, a sebucan is employed. The sebucan
works on the same principle as the Chinese puzzle remember
those woven finger-vice things when you were young? The sausage-shaped
press is suspended from an outhouse's horizontal beam, with a pan
to catch the residue beneath it. At the bottom of the mulch-filled
sebucan, a trunk is threaded through a large loop. This pulls the
whole thing down, thus squeezing the manioc inside.
Eventually, the manioc
is removed from the sausage (by pulling it the over way...). To
make the wafer bread, an earthen oven is stoked with a large metal
tray as a lid -- this used to be of stone. The Indians spread the
manioc thinly over the flat surface, and after about an hour, you
get a half-inch thick pancake voilà: 'casabe'. The beauty
of casabe to my mind is that's super-lightweight, doesn't go moldy
quickly and it fills you up in no time at all. Its perfect
for trekking. The downside? It takes like sawdust. Manioc can also
be fermented into alcohol with the addition to saliva. The
root gives a whole new meaning to spit n sawdust.
After watching the scientists
net birds in the forest using calls broadcast from a tape recorder,
I juggled some green fruits for the benefit of the kids. That always
breaks the ice, and ensures you leave an impression of utter buffoonery
in your wake.
SOME LIKE IT SNAPPY
From the village, we
ventured further downstream along the muddy-dark river hemmed by
overhanging trees and foliage, to a lagoon where fresh-water porpoises
put on aquatic shows in the morning. We sat, tap-tap-tapping the
bottom of the boat, hoping to entice them out. But it was too late
in the day by then. The following day we returned, early this time,
and were treated to the sight of two of these shy, beautiful creatures
breaking the surface, and blowing kisses through their snouts.
Continuing on, we approached
a dug-out canoe. The members of a Yekwana family lined its seemingly
unstable body, from Dad at the front, followed by the peaks and
troughs of small and not-so-small children, a dog, pots, pans, and
Mom in the stern, looking decidedly bored.
The Yekuana are known
as the boatmen of Amazonas. Their canoes, shaped from whole scooped-out
trunks, are highly functional (theyre shallow and maneuverable)
yet remarkably beautiful. Their paddles approach works of art
so stylized they resemble the spade in a pack of playing cards.
The father cast a line.
"What are you fishing
for?" I asked in Spanish.
He looks up, grinning.
We wait. Not two minutes later, he
yanks his arm upwards, and a hand-length fish comes flapping and
flailing into the air. He seizes its body, and, grasping his machete,
prizes open its mouth. Its teeth, razor sharp and menacing, glint
"all the better to eat you with, my dear." The Yekwana
withdraws the blade. The jaws clamp shut with a dull clunk, which,
in the immortal words of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot,
"turns my spine to custard and makes me goose-pimply all over."
can be booked through Alpi Tour, one of Venezuelas foremost,
and most experienced tour operators and travel agents. Contact tel
+58 212 283-1433 fax (0212) 285-6067, in the USA (520) 447-7959
email: firstname.lastname@example.org web: www.alpi-group.com
. Bob Sonderman puts together first-class flying safaris to the
wilds of Venezuela.