Leaving behind the sparkling waters of the Caribbean, the flat savannah stretching to the Andes comes into view across the 2,500-metre high mountain range that separates Caracas from the sea. The turbo-prop aeroplane flying from Caracas to Puerto Ayacucho, in the Amazonas State of Venezuela, flies low allowing a closer look at the beautiful views. Fifty minutes into the flight, the Rio Orinoco comes into view. The flight follows the Orinoco to Puerto Ayacucho airport, where friendly local tour guides greet visitors.
Amazonas is the southernmost state of Venezuela, occupying about 20% of the country. However, it is home to only 1% of the population, composed mainly of the different Indian communities.
The Orinoquia Lodge, 20 kilometres south on the banks of Rio Orinoco, is an ideal place to stay as it is situated on the banks of the Orinoco and is built in traditional native style. The units are circular with a double bed on a mezzanine floor under a high, conical thatched roof. They have no windows, are open to the elements, but remain shady on days when the noonday sun blisters down on the rainforest and keep you dry when warm tropical downpours soak the region. Each unit has a bathroom, ceiling fan and mosquito net to keep nighttime visits from local bugs to a minimum. The local chef cooks superb meals and the freshly caught Orinoco catfish, fried with bananas, topped with a white cheese sauce and served with salad is a local specialty not to be missed. For an interesting culinary experience, try catara sauce. Its ingredients include the heads of leaf-cutter ants, peppers and yucca juice.
The four main native Indigenous groups in Amazonas State are the Piaroa, Yanomamo, Guahibo and Yekuana.
The Piaroa (pronounced Pee-ah-row-ah) are the main ethnic group in this area. Their mode of transportation is via the bongo, a form of dugout canoe by which they navigate the tributaries of the Amazon and Orinoco. They collect the lightweight balsa wood, native to the rainforest, for use in their hand-carved sculptures. All sculptures are hand-decorated with natural dyes from plants gathered in the rainforest. Birds, animals and figures from their mythology play an integral part in their art.
When one thinks of the Amazon, thick tropical jungle and unexplored territory come to mind. Youâ€™ll experience the isolation of the mighty Amazon when youâ€™re alone with your boatman on a canoe in the middle of the river, a kilometre from either river bank. Apart from the occasional Piaroa Indian passing in his bongo, the only sign of habitation is the laundry drying on the large granite rocks on the banks of the river.
Fifteen kilometres downstream from Orinoquia Lodge is the beginning of the Atura rapids. On the Colombian side of the Orinoco, a short trek across the granite and tussocks of the savannah a new world opens, with circling vultures, insect-eating flowers, miniature frogs and a spectacular view of the Atura rapids. These and the Maipures rapids further upstream are the reason that a 63-kilometre road was built from Puerto Ayacucho to Sampriago in the south.
The peace and tranquillity of the Piara Creek, a small tributary of the Orinoco, is wondrous and the mangrove trees block the scorching midday sun as the canoe drifts past the occasional Piaroa in his bongo jiggling his fishing line in the water. Kingfishers and butterflies add dashes of colour to the deep green backdrop of the trees. The small, colourful colibrĂ (humming birds), smaller than some of the butterflies, dart from flower to flower searching for nectar that will keep them in a constant state of overdrive. The frantic beating of their wings produces a characteristic hum, which tells the savvy traveller to look for a splash of ruby red or emerald green in the trees above.
Turtle Rock, so named because of its shape, is sacred to the locals, and it is forbidden to walk on or climb it. To the south, are the outlines of the majestic tepuis (Table Mountains). The most illustrious is Cerro Autana: the Piaroa believe it is the birthplace of the universe.
Puerto Ayacucho, with a modest population of 70,000, is nevertheless the largest town in the region. The local museum, Museo EtnolĂłgico de Amazonas, is very interesting as it shows the lives and handicrafts of the local Indians. A stroll around the native market is a must: every morning the locals sell carved brightly coloured birds and clothing amongst other itemsâ€”you can even get catara sauce!
It is not easy to reach the remote corners of the Amazon: but the jungleâ€™s unique sights, smells, and sounds, make the trek well worth it.