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Travel

Exploring Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta

By Jason Gardner
Published March 20, 2007

The dawn over Venezuela’s Orinoco River creates a grey mist that obscures the jungle where river meets sky. The veil, intermingled with floating constellations of water lilies, creates a boundary-free, otherworldly environment.

The dawn over Venezuela’s Orinoco River creates a grey mist that obscures the jungle where river meets sky. The veil, intermingled with floating constellations of water lilies, creates a boundary-free, otherworldly environment.

Our group explores an emerging South American eco-tourist destination—the Orinoco Delta, an area covering over 25,000 square kilometers in northeastern Venezuela, the native home of the Warao (literally “canoe people” in their language). Our driver cuts the motorboat’s engine, and we float in the dawn stillness, scanning the diversity of birdlife roosting high up in the jungle canopy: macaws, toucans, flycatchers, turkey vultures, kingfishers, and countless parrots. As we steady ourselves, crouching in the boat while focusing our binoculars on the treetops, the parrots suddenly begin to lift into the sky by the thousands–a screeching parade to the opposite bank of the river.

With the sun rising higher into the sky, we start the boat running again—the best defense against the oppressive heat and humidity is to keep moving on the river.

Soon we arrive at a Warao village, built completely on stilts, or palafitos. As the morning fog dissipates, the villagers are beginning to ready canoes and boats for the day’s fishing. We visit a family gathered around a steaming iron cauldron and reed baskets filled with live river crabs. The father kills 10 crabs while we watch, crushing each with his bare hands. The family giggles as one of our group tries—but fails—to emulate the father’s crab-killing technique. While the father puts on a show, and the children are unable to conceal their interest in us, the women continue chopping wood with machetes for the cooking fire and beginning to work on the stilts of another home.

A young Warao father, Jorge Ramon, joins our group to guide us on a jungle walk. First though, he tries to teach us piranha fishing using rudimentary sticks as poles, with simple lines and hooks baited with bits of raw chicken. The piranhas steal our bait almost without detection, until Jorge demonstrates a method of splashing the pole in the water to simulate the struggle of a dying fish. Eventually a few are caught, and Jorge holds one while inserting a green leaf in its mouth to display the notorious carnivore’s razor bite.

Then, outfitted in knee-high, black rubber boots, long sleeves and pants, and layers of bug spray, we slog through the thick mud and stultifying heat and humidity for over two hours, slapping away clouds of mosquitoes and avoiding poisonous snakes. Jorge hacks at the dense wall of plant life until we come upon a rotting moriche (palm tree) log lying in knee-deep brackish puddles. Without another word, he pries open the log and starts digging around in the remains. Jorge suddenly stops and triumphantly displays a grub, writhing in his hand like a giant maggot. Jorge offers us the creature like a tasty treat it probably is, but all refuse. Well aware of the impact on his audience, Jorge eats the grub while we snap photos. For the Warao, the moriche grub is a valuable source of protein, just as they use the tree’s inner core in bread making, its leaves as dinner plates, and the husk of the bark to make protective head coverings. It is easy to see why the word moriche means “tree of life” in the Warao language.

Jorge shows us how the Warao signal each other by rapping on the base of a mangrove, creating a hollow loud sound that resonates in the jungle. He shows us the termite nest, a vital part of how the jungle decomposes. He cuts a celery-like substance that is a natural cure for diarrhea, colds, and fever, safe to chew but not swallow.

It is all fascinating, but the heat and mosquitoes make it very difficult for us to stay long in the jungle. We come away astonished at how tough life must be for the Warao. Jorge says that many die from malaria since they have no repellent, mosquito nets, or anti-malaria