Christopher Columbus sailed in the 15th Century through an area he considered to be heaven on Earth. The area was characterised by its fresh water estuaries, where rivers meet the sea. The strong current and the maze of narrow rivers made it challenging and something new. Even for the most experienced explorers. Who would have known that this unknown area had been inhabited already for a long time by the Warao indigenous people? Nowadays this heaven on Earth is called the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela.
Not a tourist hotspot
Even today the Warao live in the delta of eastern Venezuela. With its impenetrable forests and swamps it’s not the easiest region to go through. And this in combination with the current socio-economic situation of Venezuela and the safety issues, it’s definitely not a tourist hotspot for now. The delta is also part of the Orinoco River, which is actually the third biggest river in the world. To get there, you’ll need to go to San Jose de Buja and take a little boat for a couple of hours to get to one of the few lodges in the area.
In 2014 – when I visited Venezuela – barely anyone visited Orinoco. In my camp I was alone for a few days with a photographer from Argentina. The negative media attention gave me the opportunity to experience an area with a high population of indigenous people without losing the authenticity. Sleeping in a little hut with a view on the water from your bed, a mosquito net and the sound of nothing but birds, monkeys and insects. This truly was very different from the Amazon experiences I had before.
The ultimate wildlife experience
Every morning navigating through the narrow rivers, seeing the animal wake up: loads of red-blue and blue-yellow scarlet macaws, enormous butterflies, tukans, howlers, giant otters, caymans and even pink dolphins. What else would you dream of?
In the afternoon the guide would stop paddling and tell us to put some tiny pieces of raw meat on our fishing rods – or better said tree branches – and throw the line in the water. Almost instantly a piranha grabs the bait and is pulled out of the water. Seeing the piranha up close and realizing how sharp the teeth are is something that I thought was fascinating. When we are done fishing piranhas, the three of us jump in the river to cool down. The thought of having piranhas so close to you is a bit scary, but apparently they are different than in the movies.
Before returning to the camp we still need to see the sunset, with beautiful views over the river and the sun going down behind the forest. When it’s dark it means nightlife spotting: caymans and boa constrictors. Imagine these mornings, afternoons and evenings and you have what I think is the best way to fill your holidays. It doesn’t get boring. Ever.
Warao can paddle “before they can walk”
There is so much wildlife in the Orinoco Delta that we almost forget what makes this region unique: the Warao. The name Warao literally means ‘boat people’. And not surprisingly, the only way to travel from place to place is by boat. And you can see a lot of Warao in their hollowed-out boats, especially in the morning. From families with their tamed pet scarlet macaws to little children playing around on the water. Kids – who have just learnt to walk – already master the skills to paddle around in their tiny canoes. Most huts are open-sided, are standing on stilts and have thatched roofs. They often have their own canoe parking spots in front. That reminds me of another funny detail; they sleep in hammocks.
The Warao hunt, gather, fish, create art and seem to live a happy life. A guide who can translate is definitely recommended. So that it really feels like you can be part of Columbus’ heaven on earth. Or better said: the heaven on earth of the Warao.
Did you know that Venezuela actually means ‘Little Venice’? Lago Maracaibo – in western Venezuela – reminded Amerigo Vespucci of Venice in Italy. He could have best saved this name for Orinoco, because I assume you all now get the idea of Venice of the Amazonas.