Adventure playground: The heart of Venezuela
Hermione Eyre wanted to get away from it all in the wilds of Venezuela. But even in the jungle, she couldn't escape the President's beaming smile
Sunday 01 February 2009
My new prized possession is a blowpipe, intricately handwoven, unassuming and deadly. A few weeks ago a man sold it to me on the banks of the Carrao river in the tangled green heart of Vene-zuela where these pipes are still used for hunting. This isn't a line put out for tourists: I know the indigenous Pemon people in Auyantepui really do use blowpipes because, wandering off the jungle path one day I found a sort of lean, mean cocktail stick lodged in the soil. What was it? A blow dart that had missed its prey. A sight unchanged these 4,000 years. Such things you see on an Explore trip to the interior of Venezuela.
I saw a sleepy sloth sunbathing. I saw holy mountains wreathed in mist. I didn't see a proper hot shower for 14 days, but I did walk behind the Salto el Sapo waterfall, where the torrent made it dark as twilight. I saw a Pemon woman cooking with termites. "They taste," said our guide, "like electricity." It was an intense two-week group voyage through four terrains – delta, jungle, savannah and mountain.
We were in Hugo Chavez's heartlands, and he was everywhere, plump and paternal, beaming from posters in the poorest homes; from roadside walls, next to well-tended Catholic shrines; from election billboards, eyes scrubbed out and splashed with red, hostile paint. Ten years in power (and seeking a mandate for 13 more), President Chavez is loved and hated with equal ferocity.
Travelling there you constantly feel the impact of his radical political personality. Don't cash your dollars for bolivars at the airport: Chavez has fixed the official exchange rate so low that everyone uses the tacitly tolerated black market. Don't order a beer: Chavez has decreed the whole country must be dry for the weekend of the elections. Do sit up straight: the Chavista guard with the red beret and the machine gun wants to see your passport, now!
No wonder everyone disagrees about him – even our two Explore tour guides, who made a handy dialectic. Douglas, a Brit based in Venezuela since the 1980s, believed Chavez was ruining the country. "In a few months there will be food rationing, just you wait." But our other guide, Hanneke, a Venezuelan of Dutch descent, was a loyalist. "He's the only hope for this country's dispossessed. He should stay in till 2021, definitely."
It was certainly nicer believing her view of things. On landing, our group of 16 was met by Douglas. "Welcome to Caracas where the murder rate is about 50 every weekend." Our jet-lagged faces fell a little as we looked out of the minibus window across the deadlocked traffic. Cable car pylons stretched across the slums, unfinished. "Erm, would we be a target? Being tourists?" stammered one of our number, an American. "In Caracas, everyone is a target," said Douglas darkly.
Willingly, then, we left early the next morning, flying over the Caribbean sea via Maturin, to the little river port of Volcan, where we boarded motorised canoes and sped for seven hours down the Orinoco to its delta. It was some journey: we were sun-baked at first, then rain-sodden, breeze-whipped and, finally, night-blinded, so that when we arrived after dark at our destination, a local Warao Indian palafito home built on stilts, and stepped tottering on to the wooden pontoon, we must have looked to our hosts like a brigade of huge, helpless bats, blinking and flapping our plastic macs.
We slept in one open dormitory of hammocks. We went to bed strangers but woke up fellow foot soldiers after a night of muttering, kicking, snoring, belching and sleep-grumbling. Breakfast – scrambled eggs, watermelon and stodgy arepas or corn cakes – saw some lively debriefing.
"Who was that snoring?"
"Grunting, more like!"
"It came from your direction ..."
Hanneke stepped in with the plain truth: "It was a pig foraging under the floorboards. More jam, anyone? It's guava."
Such trips live or die by their guides and Hanneke was brilliant: tough ("What do you mean, will there be air con? Of course not!"), warm ("My dear, have you got your sun lotion on?"), and a fount of knowledge about our hosts, the Warao.
She guided us round their peaceful wooden villages, timeless except for a Hello Kitty towel here and a solar-powered satellite dish there. Their reed homes have no walls, but they have Dallas on TV. Hanneke helped us to communicate further than shy waves and smiles – embarrassingly, what she usually needed to say on our behalf was "sorry, I am too fat for this canoe – do you have a sturdier one?". Late into the night – well, till about 10pm when the generator cut out – she would pass round the white rum and tell us Warao creation myths, or talk politics, the national fascination.
When she was at school she was taught that indigenous people did not exist. Finally, in Chavez they have a champion. "There is a government hospital here, staffed by doctors from Cuba. There is an incubator, penicillin, food deliveries. The Warao now have a chance." Douglas was sceptical, as ever. "He's bought their votes, and their independence. He's even given them washing machines, which is ridiculous." And we did see, outside a few homes, the abandoned hulks of state-sponsored washer-dryers.
After three nights in the delta – and a trip to swim off the wide sandy shore of the Atlantic – we journeyed back to Volcan, speeding past the old Catholic mission, staffed by ancient nuns. Everyone waved to us from their boats, uniformly flying Chavez flags, all passengers wearing Chavez T-shirts.
Out of the delta, and into the jungle. Kamarata, our next stop, is inaccessible by road, so we flew there in Cessnas, tiny one-engined five-seater planes that traversed steadily over the Guri dam, then swooped marvellously over Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, and dived down to land, passing nonchalantly at the last minute over an old crashed plane, rotting on the side of the runway. Nervous fliers need not apply.
Perhaps because they are so remote, the local Pemon people have remained more independent, less politicised. No Chavista insignia here. Motoring upriver to Angel Falls, we stopped to visit one isolated home untouched by modernity. The lady of the house, a hut woven from reeds, was tightening a press to squeeze the cyanide off a yukka plant, making comanche (hot chilli sauce – the one the termites go in). She graciously offered us tiny, delicious bananas and lemons from the Eden of her back garden, and as we moved on upriver we wondered what we had given her in return, except for an eyeful of hulking, sunburnt Westerner. But Hanneke makes sure a fair deal is struck. She is a tour guide to us but a friend to the Pemon; the lady we visited had recently lost her husband, and Hanneke brought her a framed photograph of him. Tourism like this could easily go wrong, but here it felt right.
We spent four nights in jungle shelters along the Carrao, Churun and Akanan rivers, our team of seven porters setting up kitchens wherever we pitched camp. In the morning we bathed in the tea-black river; at night we swung next to one another, mosquito nets our only privacy. No room for vanity here. I had filthy nails, wet feet; mosquitoes ate me alive and I didn't look in the mirror for three days. Easier to remember, the daily treats such as the (extra) trek to the glorious Kavak Canyon, nature's stateliest Jacuzzi; and the jungle march to get a better view of Angel Falls.
Finally, we arrived at the outstanding natural beauty spot of Canaima, a lagoon fed by six hypnotic waterfalls. Once a popular Venezuelan holiday destination, it is eerily deserted. The national airline Avensa, which flew there daily from Caracas, doesn't offer the route any more, and the grand hotel complex overlooking the lagoon (Campamento Hoturvensa) operates with a skeleton staff. "Canaima" means "place of mischief" and local stories bear this out. A previous management reputedly failed to pay its Pemon staff properly, and some years ago, on 12 October (the Day of Indigenous Resistance), the roof of the hotel restaurant mysteriously caught fire.
Canaima is symbolic of tourism in Venezuela: huge natural potential, but deeply dysfunctional. Wherever we went we learnt to expect some fresh adventure: motorboats breaking down, a national coffee shortage, or political unrest – rather brilliantly, Explore chartered us a private jet so we could avoid revisiting the potentially turbulent Caracas during election weekend. When we arrived in the hot plains of Los Llanos, there were five cane toads in the shower. "All the better to eat the flies,"said Hanneke brusquely.
The pay-off was an amazing abundance of wildlife – storks, tiger herons and vermilion flycatchers; capybara, spectacled caiman, turtles basking on rocks. In our hostel's backyard alone there was an iguana, several dogs, a turkey, a green parrot, and two orphaned baby wild boar trying to suckle a puppy.
The final ethnic group we encountered was German: high in the Alp-like mountains of Aragua, west of Caracas, a colony of Black Forest émigrés lived undisturbed in Colonia La Tovar from 1834 to 1960. They are here today, thankfully slightly more genetically various now but still wearing dirndls, cooking strudel and dancing around Bavarian maypoles. One night here made a surreal ending to a demanding but life-enriching trip.
How to get there
Hermione Eyre travelled to Venezuela with adventure specialist Explore (0844 499 0901; explore.co.uk). Its 16-day Angel Falls & Orinoco tour departs in April, and monthly between August and December. Prices start at £2,205 per person and include return flights from Heathrow (regional connections available); all transportation; 14 nights' B&B in hotels, hammock camps, stilt-houses, jungle shelters and a mission; 18 other meals; and the services of a tour leader. To take the trip privately, contact Tailormade Explore (0844 875 1890; tailormadeexplore.co.uk).
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