Venezuela is a country one should always go to. Often it gets overlooked by travelers. I remember looking at my wall map of South America which daily reminds me of all my travels in Latin America, and contemplating…hmm … there are still a few blanks…like Guyana and Venezuela…I must check out these countries on my next trip, I decided.
What to see? Head first for Venezuela, I thought. Fly to Caracas and roam around the hinterland for a month and see the sights.
Obviously one must go to see the Angels Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, which I did during the first week of landfall (separate article). Next I bussed through to Merida, a fascinating university town set in the foothills of the Andes. Here they have a cable car (teleferico) which ascends to the top of the mountain range at 4765 meters. Unfortunately it was under repair and out of action. What to do?
Several adventure sports companies in town offered enticing eco-trips like floating down a river for a few days to view the wildlife. Being of torpid frame of mind I decided that this was for me. The region SE of Merida is called Los Llanos, or “the plains”, which are savannah with innumerable rivers that eventually flow into the Rio Orinoco.
Our little tour group of backpackers set off next morning in a minibus heading for the town of Barinas where we stopped to buy extra supplies for our 3 days on the river. I noted with approval the purchase of four flagons of rum and a crate of Coke Cola which I was told was necessary fuel for the trip (included in the cost).
By afternoon we had arrived at our destination. This was the start of our float trip on an obscure tributary of the Orinoco ….. the Rio Masparro.
We slid the cumbersome inflatable boats down the bank into the muddy waters. Our guide seemed all confident about this float trip through Los Llanos. Before us were central grassy plains of Venezuela with its maze of tributaries feeding into the mighty Orinoco, the third largest river in South America.
Roads are few. The rivers are navigable by motorized dugout canoes used by local Indians who live in grass huts along the riverbanks. Our little group of six piled into a Swedish patrol boat and a smaller rubber canoe. Not being a great swimmer, I was pleased to find the river was shallow, and stowed my camera gear in a safe spot, which is always a problem with boats.
Two of us sat each side with a paddle and we drifted sedately downstream. A tangle of forest overhung the muddy banks. This was no passive float. To get any distance we had to paddle, often furiously, to follow the deep channel and avoid snags, sand banks and overhanging branches.
The sun glared down. We stripped off to shorts and hat. Occasionally we slid over the side to bathe and wash off the sweat. The central ice box was our saviour. Besides perishable food, it contained our booze. The national drink of Venezuela is rum and Coke with ice. Our consumption was one litre of rum per five kilometres of paddling.
Indians in motorized canoes whizzed by , waving in astonishment at our ponderous craft. Fishermen pulled alongside in hope of selling us a fish – huge catfish and small piranhas. Their method of fishing was very efficient.
The fishermen would bang the sides of their canoe with a stout stick to scare the fish into a backwater, then the man standing in the bow would throw a net and drag them in. Sometimes in the shallows, they would harpoon a sting ray up to a metre across. Sting rays are considered to be more dangerous than the piranha. We were told always to bang the water before swimming to scare them away.
Towards dusk we arrived at our jungle camp – a palm thatched roof under which we strung up hammocks complete with mossy nets. Spit roast chicken for dinner. After dark our guide took us on the river again to see the caimanes. These small crocodiles about a metre long which lie on the mud banks with beady eyes glowing in the torch beam. Next day we found dozens of baby ones playing in the shallows.
Los Llanos is noted for its abundance of wildlife. Drifting silently down stream we came across innumerable bird species, iguanas, howler monkeys and an enormous anaconda wrapped around an overhanging tree branch.
I had kept some chicken scraps to use as bait for fishing with a hand line from the boat. A wire trace is necessary to catch piranha, which obligingly take the bloody bait quickly. But how to safely unhook them? After catching some my enthusiasm for swimming diminished somewhat.
By mid afternoon we glided into the broad expanse of the Rio Apure to be greeted by a family of freshwater dolphins. They circled our boat and scraped its bottom, then leapt out of the water in front of us showing their sleek, steely grey bodies and whitish pink bellies. The fishermen regard the dolphins as having the spirit of the river, thereby being a sacred fish not to be molested.
Our next camp on the bank of the Apure was at an abandoned fisherman’s shack. I tried getting more fish for dinner. There was great excitement when I landed a small catfish, mainly because it had two piranha attached to it – three fish on one hook – my catfish had become live bait on being hauled in! Grilled over the camp fire they were devoured by hungry explorers. Catfish is excellent eating, but the piranha is 90% bone, you need a really big one to get a worthwhile fillet.
Swinging gently in my hammock I listened to stillness of the night and thought of the morrow, our last day on the river. We had quite a distance to go to get to the road bridge by noon and meet up with our transport back to Merida. Deflate the boats. Load them onto the truck. Quaff cool beers in the tavern. Civilization! Mossies buzzed incessantly. Bong, bong, bong, the rhythmic beat of a stick on some distant canoe filled the night – fancy fishing at this hour, nearly midnight! I fell asleep, confident that we would make it.