Some paragraphs extracted from the Traveler's Venezuela Companion © The Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.

Yekwana girlFlying 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.

Spectacled cayman on the prowlThe 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 — you’ll 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.


Yutaje from the airWe 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 out.

I follow the scientists who I’m 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.

"Churuata" lodging at Yutaje


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 katara’s most important ingredients is bachaco ants, who possess the most fearsome mandibles of any insect I’ve encountered. The Yekwana claim their top-blowing ant sauce is an aphrodisiac. Field tests are in progress...


After a swift shower and a snack, it’s 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 celebration.

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.


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 you choose?

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. It’s 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.


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 (they’re 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.

"Piranha," he replies.

Snap-happy piranhaWe 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."



This tour can be booked through Alpi Tour, one of Venezuela’s 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: alpitour@viptel.com web: www.alpi-group.com . Bob Sonderman puts together first-class flying safaris to the wilds of Venezuela.


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