We slide the cumbersome inflatable boats down the bank into the muddy Río Masparro.
Ahead lie the 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 pile into a Swedish patrol boat and a smaller rubber canoe.
Two of us sit each side with a paddle and we drift sedately downstream. This is no passive float. To get any distance we have to paddle, often furiously, to follow the deep channel and avoid snags, sand banks and overhanging branches.
The sun glares down. We strip off to shorts and hat. Occasionally we slip over the side to bathe and wash off the sweat. The central “esky” is our saviour. Besides perishable food, it contains our ice supply and rum and Coke, the national drink of Venezuela.
Indians in motorized canoes whizz by, waving in astonishment at our ponderous craft. Fishermen pull alongside in hope of selling us a fish – huge catfish and small piranhas.
Their method of fishing is very efficient. They strike the sides of their canoe with a stout stick to scare the fish into a backwater, then the man standing in the bow throws a net and drags them in. Sometimes in the shallows, they harpoon a sting ray up to a metre across. Sting rays they consider to be more dangerous than the piranha. They tell us always to bang the water before swimming to scare them away.
Towards dusk we arrive at our jungle camp, a palm-thatched roof under which we string up hammocks complete with mosquito nets. We have spit roast chicken for dinner.
After dark our guide takes us on the river again to see the caimans. These small crocodiles, about a metre long, lie on the mud banks with beady eyes glowing in the torch beam. Next day we find dozens of baby ones playing in the shallows.
Los Llanos (the plains) are noted for their abundance of wildlife. Drifting silently down stream we come across innumerable bird species, iguanas, howler monkeys and an enormous anaconda wrapped around a branch.
I kept some chicken 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 bait. But how to safely unhook them? My enthusiasm for swimming diminishes somewhat.
Mid-afternoon we glide into the broad expanse of the Río Apure to be greeted by a family of freshwater dolphins. They circle our boat and scrape its bottom, and leap 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 is an abandoned fisherman’s shack. I try getting more fish for dinner.
There is great excitement when I land a small catfish, mainly because it has two piranha attached to it – three fish on one hook. My catfish had become live bait on being hauled in!
We grilled our catch over the camp fire. Catfish is excellent eating, but the piranha is nearly all bone, you need a really big one to get a worthwhile fillet.
Swinging gently in my hammock I listen to the stillness of the night and think of tomorrow, our last day on the river. We have a fair way to go to reach the road bridge by noon and meet our transport back to Mérida. I fall asleep, confident that we will make it.
How to Get There
American Airlines has frequent daily flights into Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, from LA, Dallas and Miami. Coming from a Central or South American country it is necessary to use one of the national airlines.
Caracas, population 3.5 million, although located close to the Caribbean coast, is sited 900 metres above sea level and so enjoys an agreeable climate. It is not a place to linger but the entry point from which to go some place else, such as the Caribbean coastal resorts, the Gran Sabana and Angel Falls, and the Andean cordillera centered around Mérida.
Andean and Los Llanos expeditions originate with tour companies based in Mérida, the mountain capital of Venezuela.
Population 230,000; altitude 1650 meters; University town, has access to Sierra Nevada National Park with peaks reaching 5000 meters. Transport Caracas to Mérida (bus 12 hours US$12; by plane 1 hour US$65).
Plenty of good value posadas (family-run guesthouses) costing US$12 to $25 for double room. Those at the cable car end of Calle 24 are conveniently close to tour agents, bars and restaurants. Plenty to do. You may end up staying a month!
The float trip described was part of a Los Llanos expedition (4 days and 3 nights) organized by Arassari Trek, at Calle 24, #8-301, opposite the cable car. Cost is US$40 a day which includes transportation, accommodation, meals and guide.
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.