A journey along Paria's wild shores

The coast of the Paria Peninsula remains one of the most pristine and untamed corners of the Caribbean. East of the one-telephone town of San Juan de las Galdonas, the coastline stretches wild and wooly to the country's eastern tip, a gull's glide from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.

From the point known as Boca de Cumaná, an hour's boat ride from San Juan, the Parque Nacional Península de Paria begins, harboring rich cloudforests which rise to over a thousand meters.

As one travels east, Nature slowly but remorselessly takes back what was once hers. Toe-hold settlements at the mountains' feet begin to peter out. Traces of human impact - the odd forest clearing, the occasional zinc roof - become less distinct. Gradually, only the crenellated spines of the mountain range remain. The forest's pelt muffles the valleys. Trees and palms quilt the crests of hills like hairs on a pouncing cat's back. Rivers disgorge onto palm-lined beaches or chute from rock faces into the turquoise waters below. Frigate birds, cormorants, terns and pelicans hover and swoop. The land becomes as Columbus would have seen it, over five hundred years ago.


Grumpy old Botuto...Few men know this coast well. Fewer still as well as Botuto, the fisherman-teacher who would be our captain, guide, cook, fish-spearer and source of much laughter over the next three days. Botuto is Spanish for 'conch'. His real name is Clemente, but the name really doesn't fit the man. With his proclivity for diving to dim depths recognized from an early age, one of his brothers came up with this more appropriate sobriquet. While his enthusiasm for the natural panorama is infectious, his love for the sea verges on the unhealthy. He'll skin-dive to 20 or 30 meters in search of grouper the size of sharks, or lobster weighing more than small children. He's proud that no-one in the area can dive deeper or for longer. Like all fishermen, his arms tend to elongate with every telling, but what's a few inches between friends when you're presented with a freshly-speared dinner of lobster, red snapper and mussels?

Botuto, with his round face always about to break into a smile and his belly one crate of Polarcitas away from a barrel, has taught in most of the villages and hamlets that cling to these wild shores. As we set out from San Juan in his 10-meter wooden launch on a clear, crisp morning, he hugged the shoreline like an old friend. We passed a village called Tacarigua. Public transport along the coast is non-existent. You have to hope for a ride from a passing fishing boat. At Tacarigua, Botuto would swim 300 meters out to a rock, his pupils' schoolwork carefully waterproofed and wrapped around his waist. There he would wait all day for a lift. On a few occasions, when none appeared, he'd have to swim back.

Botuto was ably assisted by a towering, six-foot, black-as-night fisherman called Toto (real name: Robin). Toto's voice boomed from his large chest. When we first met him, his manner verged on the rude. He swung, surly, in a hammock and glared at us.

But as we took to the sea, and the banter between them flew, Toto turned out to be quite the opposite. He told us about a fishing trip when he'd accidentally shredded the engine's fuel cable - not exactly confidence-inspiring. He and his companions had languished adrift for four days. They survived by scooping sardines overboard and rationing water down to a few drops. Eventually another fishing boat caught sight of the signals they'd been sending - from the polished lid of an old tin.

Throughout the days languishing at sea, Toto said he'd sung and prayed, trying to remain positive. His friends, convinced they were all going to die, and unable to understand how he could sing about it, nearly lynched him. His boat was eventually towed to Isla Blanquilla, an offshore island some 400 kilometers from San Juan.


Always keeping close to the shore, we rode the swells in and out of the jaw bones of bays whose tumbling hills would end in island incisors and molars. Atop these blanched rocks, colonies of torpid pelicans would preen. Occasionally, one would fly over to the guano-bleached eaves of nearby trees, or dive into the rolling waves.

We passed the isolated house of the "Cuaima de la Frontera", Alcadio Arcía. Of Trinidadian parentage, like most of the inhabitants of the coast, people came from all over to visit this old hermit. He was a master of galerón songs, an inventive, playful 12-line form, sung throughout Venezuela. Alcadio had won nationwide competitions, Botuto recounted. More remarkable than his choice of back garden was the fact that he couldn't read or write.

About two-thirds of the way to our destination of Uquire, we stopped for some snorkeling. Botuto donned his wetsuit, weights, mask and fins. I settled for a mask and fins. We dove off in the lee of a calm bay, the midday sun casting rays through the blue-green waters, illuminating the maze of rocks and shoals of colorful fish below. On the first dive, I stuck with Botuto to about ten meters, pushing back the pressure in my ears. We then swam further out. There, we dove again and Botuto just kept going and going and going. Short of breath, and getting claustrophobic, I struggled back to the surface. And waited and waited and waited. I was on my way down again, some two minutes later, before Botuto came shooting up from beneath me.


As proficient as he was underwater, Botuto readily admitted that he was useless in the forest. Above five hundred meters, Paria's cloudforest is a dense, dark, scary place. Only the locals know their way through the jumble of jungle vegetation. And even then, they still get lost. Walking barefoot and shirtless, with their packs of hunting dogs yapping ahead, Botuto had the utmost respect for the men who had to spend the night in the forest, alone, having lost their way in search of game. The woods are still rich in brocket deer, tapir and paca, but also less fluffy residents: grunting peccary and snarling jaguar.

Paria's forests are also renowned for the number of poisonous snakes which cross the paths of unsuspecting hunters. Just the Latin name for the fer de lance - Bothrops Atrox - sends shivers down your spine. The nearest hospital is leg-amputating distance away. At dawn in Uquire, we awoke to the guttural groans of red howler monkeys echoing across the bay. Botuto told how he and a group of tourists had once spent the night on a beach on constant paranoid watches, convinced the howls were those of jaguars.

The early explorers of these shores were no less prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy. Arawaks and Caribs inhabited Paria's coast when Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci et al first arrived. The Acios of Arawak descent were at the time buckling under the aggressive expansion of the Carib Pariagotos, from whence the name of the region: paria meant 'mountain'. These two races, one peace-loving, the other bellicose, aptly illustrate the divided European reaction to the people of the New World.

The Caribs (called canibales in Columbus' journal) provide the source of the word 'cannibal' and the myths surrounding the savage, wild men which fitted so snuggly into the Elizabethan pageant of ghouls and demons. Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest, for instance, is a neat anagram of cannibal. As one historian has noted, "Cannibalism helps to justify the presence of the invader, the settler, the trader bringing civilisation... [It] marks its practitioners as throw-backs, barbarians, stone-age men, yet the conqueror's imagery can betray that he is himself the devourer."

The myth of cannibalism was just that, a myth, no different from those employed in modern 'theaters of war'. In 1504, by decree of Queen Isabella, the Caribs were deemed "undeserving of Christian commiseration." They were legally condemned to slavery and extermination, drafted in their thousands to dive to their deaths for pearls off the island of Cubagua - the "Island of Satan."

The Arawaks, on the other hand, epitomized the myth of the Noble Savage, "wild in the same way as we say that fruits are wild when Nature has produced them by herself," as Michel de Montaigne described them after observing a troupe of Brazilian Indians brought over to France.

Sir Thomas More's Utopia, published in 1516, echoes Columbus' and Vespucci's enthusiastic accounts, where land was held to be "as common as sun and water." Shakespeare again drew on these accounts, depicting "sun-burnt Indians, that know no other wealth but peace and pleasure" in As You Like It.


One of the victims - or proponents, depending on your point of view - of these myths was Sir Walter Raleigh. Having established the colony of Virginia (named after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I), in 1595 Raleigh turned his deluded attention to Guiana, believing it to harbor the last Inca hideout: the city of El Dorado on the fabled shores of Lake Manoa. According to his publicist, Richard Hakluyt, "All that part of America eastward from Cumaná unto the River of St Augustine in Brazil contains in length along the sea-side 2,100 miles; in which compass and reach there is neither Spaniard, Portuguese nor any Christian man, but only Caribs, Indians and savages; in which places is great plenty of gold, pearl and precious stones."

From Trinidad, Raleigh crossed the Gulf of Paria and made his way up the Orinoco Delta, reaching the cataracts and rapids at the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní rivers, the present site of Puerto Ordaz. Despite the disasters of his entrada, and his humiliating, empty-doubletted return to England, Raleigh believed he had found the Arcadia so potent in the imagination of his contemporaries. "I never saw a more beautiful country," he admitted in his idealized, poetic account, The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guiana. Its illustrations by De Bry rank among the most vivid of the Conquest, replete with handsome feathered Indians, Amazons torching hapless men, and nubile, naked women who look like Greek goddesses.


Fisherman mending his nets and hopesRaleigh would still recognize this coast, but the Indians are gone, replaced in large part by African slaves brought over to work the cacao plantations, and settlers from the windward Caribbean islands. The spanner in the spokes of so many well-intentioned diets remains the inhabitants' chief cash crop, the cacao pod's seeds laid out to dry on every patio and doorstep in Paria.

Venezuela's cacao ranks among the finest in the world. In the nineteenth century, its production, controlled by mainly French and Corsican immigrants, furnished the great chocolate houses of Europe. In the twentieth century however, the landowners abandoned their farms to climb aboard the black gold bandwagon. Today, attempts are being made to revive the industry, a far more ecological alternative to the natural gas and oil mega projects also being discussed in air-conditioned Caracas conference rooms.

In the hamlet of Santa Isabel, villagers still subsist from tending their forest clearings and fishing the seas. Life, despite the holiday brochure natural setting, is hard.

I spoke to an old fisherman who sat beached on his doorstep. The folds of his nets encircled him like the age-lines of a tree. He enumerated the prices of nets, weights, ropes and floats in the regional capital of Carúpano. My mind boggled at the sums involved. Although a good outing can sometimes result in a bumper harvest of fish, most of the time the fishermen take unenviable gambles. Like most gamblers, they end up in debt, crippled by interest. The old man told me, as he passed his shuttle from hand to hand and his grandson scurried about on the relics of a plastic bike, that he hadn't struck it lucky for a while. The lebranch season was just beginning. Maybe he'd win the lottery this time, he smiled unconvincingly.

The beach at Santa IsabelParia, despite the threats to its wonders, is not only bucolic - fulfilling Europeans' and North Americans' visions of a terrestrial Paradise - it is also symbolic. Captivated by the friendly Indians, the exuberant vegetation, benign climate and extraordinary landscapes, Columbus dubbed it Tierra de Gracia - Land of Grace. When Columbus wrote of his experiences on the coast of Paria, he enthused "I found a land, the most beautiful in all the world... I'm convinced this is Paradise on Earth." As we made our way back to San Juan, and the deforestation, roads, houses and pylons multiplied, I felt like Adam, banished from Eden back to the big wide world. To console Adam, the Angel at the end of Milton's Paradise Lost tells him that having learnt all he has, "Then will thou not be loathe to leave this Paradise, but shall possess a Paradise within thee; happier far." Anyone following in the Admiral's wake with Botuto and Toto won't want to return to civilization. But they will come away happier far, guaranteed.



Botuto can be contacted in San Juan de las Galdonas on tel: (0414) 779-8398 or (0616) 894-0914. All-inclusive boat trips for three days all the way to Uquire can cost up to $600, so it's best to book as a group to share costs. He can also take groups out for shorter, cheaper journeys closer to San Juan. In Santa Isabel there is a modest posada with sea views run by Doña Cucha (no phone).


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