"Thwap! Thwap!" went our guide's machete on the surface of the lagoon. "Thwap, thwap!" again as he lowered himself into the chest-high waters, clutching a rope overhead. With the assurance (?) that snakes and other hungry creatures were cleared of the area, Licho made his way across the deepest part of our watery crossing, and tied the other end of our lifeline to to a small tree. Each of our four-person group then followed suit, pulling ourselves hand-over-hand through the murk on our newly constructed umbilical cord.
Our journey to Lago Guanico, the largest asphalt lake in Venezuela, began just after breakfast at 7am. We put on our worst clothing, carefully placed our lunch boxes tied with string in a knapsack, and said a cheerful good-bye to the folks of Posada Puerto Real. Excited about our hours-long journey to the rarely visited lago, 75 years abandoned, we waved and greeted the people of Guariquen as we headed out of the village and onto the rutty path. Displeased that my running shoes were getting covered with mud, I attempted to distract myself with the cacao and platano haciendas dotting the countryside. Soon I abandoned my careful leaps over puddle and bog â€“ this was obviously going to be a dirty day.
We stopped at a crudely constructed building just after 9 am, and a pack of dogs greeted us with howls. Noting that the cacao farmer must be out in the fields, and that we had assuredly passed the midway point to the Lake, we plunged ahead on the path. However, soon after our mid-morning pause, the vegetation began to change from lush and rather neatly cultivated plants to jungly mess. I caught the faint scent of calla lilies (only ever before encountered as captive greenhouse natives) and the first whirring drones of mosquitoes. In moments, Licho was hacking his way through overhanging branches in order to keep to the path, and the conversations stopped as people began relentlessly slapping at the hordes of mosquitoes rising from the soggy underbrush. We paused for a moment to light cigarettes, and puffed away hoping the plaga would leave us alone. I became light-headed. No food, little water, and now nicotine whirring through my system.
Two and a half hours later, we found ourselves standing in the middle of a lagoon, and readying ourselves for the next submersion. "Thwap! Thwap!" again went LichoÂ´s machete. He paused to cut me a walking stick, which I gingerly sunk into the earth before each step. I looked around eerily at the vegetation growing around about me â€“ Jurassic-era aquatic plants whose arrow-shaped, gigantic leaves stand 15 feet above the water. Everyone paused as the hoatzin called, that wonderful bird of the same era, whose jagged crest and juvenile wingÂ´s claw remind us of the ancient avian ancestor â€“ the dinosaur. I try not to think of the kindly warning of the Posada management that morning as the murky waters again creep up past waist â€“ Women, please pee after the lagoon crossing â€“ this water gives infectionsâ€¦
LichoÂ´s machete once more takes up the vegetative assault, and I am suddenly blinded by a bright light. Readying myself for an imminate meeting with the maker, I reluctantly step through the clearing, the color contrast is so mind-blowing I immediately throw up my hands to shield my eyes. There before me glittering in the until-now obscured midday sun is an endless expanse of savanna. Collecting my wits, and retrieving my eyesight, I notice beneath my soggy shoes the thick black pitch of asphalt. Jesus may not be here, but I am certainly standing on lake â€“ rich black craggy lake with golden colored grasses emerging from its depths. Awe-struck, each of the senses comes to me singly and intensely. I get the sulfurous smell of the asphalt, reminiscent of hot summer road tarring days. Then the sound, the lack of sound, as the last mosquito fades away. And finally the whoozy feeling of gradual sinking, being sucked down, the sticky asphalt (I have to touch it) between and on my fingers.
We stay some time wandering the vast and bizarre landscape of the Â´lake,Â´ pulling up strings of asphalt on sticks, posing on the remnants of a pump 75 years out of use, and feeding our bodies on omelets, potato pancakes, and bread. But the jungle calls us back, the 4 hour return journey calls us back, the promise of cervezas on the porch call us back. Numbly crossing the savanna, feeling the warmth beneath my sneakers, and the emptiness of the place, I have no words for my state of mind. Then the low, deep moan of the howler monkey calls to me from the jungle, vibrating in my mind, jangling my soul. Time to go.
Travel tips: Bring bug-spray, long, plants, long sleeves! The plaga is fierce! And don't expect to bring your shoes back the way they came...
Must see/do at this place: Stay at the Posada Puerto Real - they know the only guides in the area, and will fix you up beautifully with good food and soft beds when you return.
You should avoid here: Don't get caught without enough water, and did I mention bringing bug spray? Bring it!