Luke's South American Diary
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March 1996

18 March 1996

Llanos, Venezuela (Guárico & Apure)
Having spoken, by coincidence, at a reception just a few days earlier, to a guy who runs eco-tours in Puerto Ayacucho, I felt a little more confident about the route down to Amazonas, destination of my next jaunt into the unknown - it was obviously possible, and he even suggested that it was possible in just one (long) day's drive. However I set off before dawn just in case, knowing well how many things can go wrong in Venezuela.

Consequently the sun was still rising as I crested a hill south of Cuá to be confronted with . . . flatness: the horizon stretched in an unbroken line across the Llanos of Guárico state. From El Sombrero, I headed due south to Calabozo, a pleasant, vaguely colonial, town with an interesting church and lots of cowboys, and from there into the Llanos proper towards San Fernando de Apure. The further I went the flatter it became, although there was a surprising variety of landscape within this so-called Alto Llanos, from dry scrubby semi-desert, to marshy wetlands dominated by the evocative moriche palms, and from time to time even lush meadows of a startling almost fluorescent lime green. In this part of the journey there were plenty of birds to be seen: hawks, vultures, ibises, egrets, herons, etc, and even the odd caiman. Even though it was the height of the dry season, there were still many areas of marsh and small lakes, some natural, some man-made for the livestock, and I could well imagine what I had read about most of the Llanos being literally under water during the rainy season.

The road as far as the unprepossessing town of San Fernando had been excellent, but on crossing the Apure River into Apure state it deteriorated rapidly, although some sections were still fine, and all of it was in better condition than I had expected. Just south of San Fernando there were kilometres and kilometres of emerald green rice paddies, but that soon gave way to dry, open savannah grassland, now completely flat as far as the eye could see in all directions. Hundreds of rivers cross the Bajo Llanos of Apure draining the Venezuelan Andes into the Orinoco basin, and narrow bands of lush forest line their courses, so that often a line of trees on the horizon marking the next river crossing was the only break in the monotony of the vast plains.

These rivers, which varied from narrow caños choked with purple water hyacinths to broad brown sluggish rivers, were crossed mainly by narrow metal bridges, but a couple of the wider ones relied on the chalana system. A chalana is an old rusty metal pontoon propelled across the river by the cunning manoeuvres of a battered old motor boat lashed to ones side, and is presumably the cheapest method of crossing available for such a little-used but strategic route. The chalaneros spend all day shuttling back and forth under the hot sun (and it was hot!), and so can maybe be excused for their dubious habit of dipping an old greasy bottle in the river to quench a heavy thirst (one called it "filtered water" and insisted on offering it round, although there were few takers).

The road across Apure varied from adequate to terminally-potholed to pure sand. From time to time a mini-city of termite mounds would appear by the road-side, looking like a petrified forest. Much of the extensive area around the Capanaparo and Cinaruco rivers is now supposedly protected as the Capanaparo-Cinaruco National park, although one would never know it to drive through, and anyway I cannot believe that it will ever be under much threat of development, given its isolation and extreme climate (but then that is probably what they said about Yellowstone a hundred years ago). In this area, huge sand dunes would loom up in the distance, shimmering and apparently hovering above the ground in the heat haze.

By mid-afternoon, the heat was fiercer than I think I have ever experienced (certainly comparable to Death valley), and I could only cope with a few short minutes outside - just long enough to climb a sand dune or take another photo. It is hardly surprising therefore that there area so few people in Apure - in an area the size of Scotland there are a paltry 80,000 inhabitants, over half of whom live in San Fernando, which is essentially just a small town. I do not know who tended all the skinny cows I passed, because I hardly saw a soul, and passed only a handful of cars in 300km or so. There was usually a little thatched bar at the major river crossings, but almost no other settlements (sometimes there would be a sign heralding a village, but not a house in sight).

Amazonas, Venezuela (Puerto Ayacucho, Río Orinoco, Cerro Autana)
The majestic Orinoco river is the border between Apure and Amazonas states, and it was only on crossing the Orinoco (when the chalana finally decided to turn up) that I saw hills again after so much flat land. However these were not like the mountains of the Coastal Range I had passed through early that morning, but isolated monolithic outcrops of granite, sometimes smooth domes of brown, black or purple, or sometimes just precarious heaps of huge boulders, apparently artfully composed, with palms and other tropical plants arranged in strategic places. Many of these boulders were also scattered around the open savannah and gallery forests which characterized the strip of the Amazonas along the Orinoco. After the twelve-hour drive, I headed straight to find a hotel (very basic but air-conditioned - they have their priorities right) in the state capital of Puerto Ayacucho, leaving any further exploration to another day when I could better appreciate it.

About a third of the inhabitants of Amazonas live in the unexciting provincial town of Puerto Ayacucho, leaving the other 20,000 or so (from some 20 different Indian tribes) to inhabit the rest of an area almost the size of England and Scotland combined, consisting mainly of thick tropical rain-forest. The only building of any note in Puerto Ayacucho is the Cathedral, and even the much-vaunted Indian Market was some thing of a disappointment - I searched for a long (fruitless) time for a watermelon, and ended up buying instead a whole branch of strange red fruits I had never seen before (which, as I found out later exulted in the name pijiguao, and which have to be cooked for two hours before they are even vaguely edible). No matter how much I drove around the town the next day, I never did really find my bearings properly, so strange was its layout, but as a base for explorations it served me fine, and besides there were no hotels anywhere else!

After some disappointing enquiries in Puerto Ayacucho about boat trips and flights into the selva, I set off regardless to see what I could see. The whole area was swarming with Frontier Police, the Orinoco being the border with big, bad, drug-smuggling Colombia (also Venezuela's sworn enemy, although probably no-one would say so in so many words), and it was impossible to go far without having to show ID at police check-points, and answer the same old questions (there was so little traffic that the guys were probably just seriously bored).

My first turn off the main road, which runs south parallel with the river, was to Raudales Atures, a point where the Orinoco is squeezed very narrow by the huge rocks which litter its length. This is the end of navigable progress up the river, and the very reason for the existence of Puerto Ayacucho and the road in the first place. Although there was comparatively little water at that time of year (I could see from marks on the rocks how much higher the water rose in the wet season), and the rapids themselves not particularly impressive for that reason, the river-and-boulder scenery was quite beautiful, and it was gratifying to be the only person there to witness all this primordial beauty.

The next short detour was to one of the granite hills maintained as a National Monument due to the old Indian petroglyphs etched onto its surface. As I signed in at the entrance, I noticed that the last visitor had been there three days earlier, and the previous one three days before that, which graphically illustrated what I had been told in Puerto Ayacucho earlier that morning, namely that tourism in the area was at a low ebb. Certainly I saw very few other tourists or foreigners during the whole of my stay there.

I was assigned an Indian muchacho to guide me, for whom the word "laconic" must surely have been invented (not that it was necessary as it turned out - there was only one path anyway, and he knew next to nothing). His sole topic of conversation was how much, when, and exactly where physically, I was to pay him for his valuable services, and whether I had the correct change, etc, etc. He had a disconcerting habit of walking very slowly ten metres behind me, and when I would wait for him to catch up he would walk even slower and assure me that the path was straight ahead - altogether a very strange character. After half an hour or so (at his pace!), we arrived at a distant view of the petroglyphs, which depict snakes, caimans, centipedes, a vaguely human figure and some other more geometric designs, but it turned out that they were some hundred metres up on a vertical cliff face and totally inaccessible (which of course begs the question of how they were made in the first place). So, that being that, I paid off my "guide", and returned somewhat quicker than I had gone, through the steadily increasing morning heat, with no more information gleaned than what I had read beforehand.

Ticking off the recognized sights of the area, I detoured next to the Tobogan de la Selva, a huge natural area of bare slick-rock in lush jungly surroundings. A small river sweeps down the rock, obviously in a great swathe in the rainy season, but reduced to a single stream when I was there, and the idea is that one launches oneself at the top and slides down the (very) slippery slope, landing plop in the pool at the bottom, presumably with a prize selection of bruises to prove it. As there was no-one there to laugh at me, I gingerly tried out part of it (the bottom part!), becoming slightly more adventurous when I suffered no immediate injuries, and ended by having a whale of a time cannoning into the cool pool below. A whole balneario had been built around the slide, with thatched picnic areas, changing rooms, even a children's play area, all quite tastefully done, so it was rather eerie to be there on my own (frankly, I cannot really imagine it being packed on a rainy season weekend either).

It was at this stage that, with a rather alarming hissing noise, the car's air-conditioning gave up the ghost. Although grateful that it was nothing more serious, I limped along to the end of the road at Samariapo and Puerto Venado, bearing the full brunt of the fierce afternoon sun (I do not have any statistics to prove it, but it really must have been in the high 30°C's). Despite the stringent security to get into it, Samariapo was an almost no-existent fishing village on the Orinoco, where the river becomes navigable again after the series of rapids; nearby Puerto Venado, which had no security to speak of, was a thriving little port, with supplies going up-river in the quaint thatched bongos, and crowds of people washing in the river (I must have hit village bath-time). Over an ice-cold, dirt-cheap beer, I managed to bargain down a local boatman for a day-trip into the interior the next day, and I left feeling quite pleased with myself.

By mid-afternoon, I was back in Puerto Ayacucho trying to get the air-conditioning fixed (it would be a necessity on the return trip), which involved trailing around town with a variety of mechanics, who would pass me on one to another, to various apparently secret outlets in obscure residential districts of town, searching for a replacement part. In the sweltering heat we pored over a hot engine, while mangoes dropped incessantly from the trees overhead, providing some light entertainment when from time to time one scored a direct hit, or when one landed in a ditch and sprayed everyone with dirty water. Eventually it was fixed and we treated ourselves to a spin around town - with air-conditioning! After gathering supplies for the morrow, especially more water which I was glugging like a fish, I retired early to (air-conditioned) bed, because the next morning was to be an early one.

Of course, I should have known better than to have felt pleased with myself the previous day… Leaving at five to arrive at Puerto Venado at six on the button, there was of course no sign of my fisherman. A beautiful multi-coloured dawn was breaking over the boulder-strewn Orinoco, and a whole riverside community was coming alive on the huge, gently-sloping rock slab which served as port, beach, car park, football pitch and home to whole families. I had noticed the previous day that there had seemed a lot more activity than the few houses would have suggested, but it turned out that that was because most of the community slept either in hammocks strung up in their bongos, or just out in the open on the rock. Indian kids were building little fires and assiduously brushing their teeth and bathing in the river. My fresh, refrigerated watermelon went down very well among all who tried it that breakfast time.

After an hour or so, someone told me that my boatman had been seen over at Samariapo, just down the river, so off a car-load of us went to fetch him. However, arriving back at Puerto Venado complete with boatman, a couple of Guardia Nacional officers, who had appeared from nowhere, informed me that I needed to register at the guard-post in (guess where?) Samariapo, so back I gamely went. There I was told that, all along, I had in fact needed a permit from Puerto Ayacucho in order to travel into the back-country, and after some discussion there seemed to be no way round this. So having let the boatman in Puerto Venado know, I raced back the 70km to Puerto Ayacucho, where I was told in the government offices that a permit could only be obtained if I was travelling with a group with the backing of a travel agency. My plans falling down around my ears, in desperation I tried an agency I had missed on the first day, and a genuinely helpful guy assured me that one way or another he would be able to obtain a permit for me, and off we went to see "his man" in the Justice Department. Eventually it was settled that the agent would obtain a permit for me that afternoon (mysteriously, these things were only done at 3.30pm) but that with a note from him, and "his man" to accompany me to smooth things over with the GN, I would be fine.

So I went along with this (having little other option), and we detoured to pick up two GN buddies and a week's worth of food rations for the Samariapo guard-post, made one or two other errands around town, and then bolted off back to Samariapo. At the GN post there, they were almost willing to swallow the story were it not for the fact that the comandante of the region was actually at another post just down the river, which I would have to pass through on my trip, and he was apparently a stickler for permits (although the Sipapo-Autana region I was aiming for was not a major control area, to get there I would have to pass by Isla Ratón on the Orinoco, which, as I was told, was positively swarming with Colombian drug-traffickers).

At this stage, "my man", as he now was, was suggesting all sorts of possibilities, some more or less legal, most distinctly illegal, and many of the guards were unexpectedly arguing my case. We had more or less decided on a ploy whereby I was to drive along a dirt track to a place further up the Sipapo River, thus by-passing the guard-post, and the boatman was to meet me there. By this time it was 11am and the trip would have to include an overnight stop at an Indian village in the interior, which suited me fine. However, with all the plans seemingly settled, the boatman disappeared, at which point I decided to call it a day as I was obviously fated not to go. If I had had another day (or been told about the permits the previous day), I am sure it would have been possible, but events had conspired against me, so we had a beer and hauled back to Puerto Ayacucho, wiser for the experience.

To fill out the day, and by way of consoling myself, I drove about 40km into the forest, through a sad little Piaroa Indian village, constructed, like all the others I had seen, of squalid Nissan huts, and swarming with young children. An old lady, clearly unused to strangers, stared at me from under her cardboard box parasol. The Indian children are generally speaking very pretty, but old age obviously sets in around 18 years old and the downhill slope is clearly precipitous and irremediable, so that the adults appear by contrast hard-featured and bitter-looking. The road dead-ended at an unnamed river, and I noticed a path leading parallel to the river through dense jungle and swarms of butterflies. This was to be my only real contact with the rain-forest of the Amazonas (on this trip at any rate), but I was content, and consoled myself that if a jaguar was to savage me, it would be an awful long time before anyone found me, which made me feel sufficiently intrepid.

With more time to spare, I then attempted to climb up one of the huge, black, granite monoliths, one known as Piedra de la Tortuga (Turtle Rock) for its shape. I did not make it to the top - the steepness, but most of all the heat, defeated me - but the views over the savannah were fine, and it was interesting to see up close the unique ecosystem which had developed on such unwelcoming terrain (mainly various types of cacti and thorn bushes, but also many orchids, not unfortunately in bloom, but easily recognizable from my time in Caracas' garden centres). On the way back down, I could see that back down on the road-side my car had attracted some unwelcomed attention, and I immediately assumed the worst, although it was quite unharmed when I arrived back (this was not after all, Caracas). I rounded off the day, which I was by now philosophical enough to put down to experience, with a glorious bask in the cool Orinoco.

On my last morning, still trying to compensate for the previous day's failure, I decided to splash out and take a one-hour plane ride over the area which I would have covered by boat. When the little Cessna had been unloaded of its last cargo of food sacks, we set off - pilot, co-pilot and me! Great views of the Orinoco opened up immediately, but soon we were heading out into the great forested interior of Amazonas. Here was the never-ending jungle I had been hankering for, as far as the eye could see, the isolated granite outcrops giving way to tree clad hills as we continued. We were soon over the great wall of the Sierra Guayapo mountains which reach nearly 2,000m, and the formations were more like the tepuyes of the Gran Sabana, with sheer cliff faces and waterfalls cascading over them. At one point we passed a perfect black lake with a golden sand fringe way up on a small plateau, like something out of a Roger Dean painting.

Our goal was the Cerro Autana, not so high but, because of its striking appearance, the sacred mountain of the local Indians. Shaped like a huge flat-iron, or like the prow of a stranded ocean-liner, it rises sheer-sided from the jungle below to a sharp edge, and it is indeed inspiring. Three-quarters of the way up, a mysterious hole penetrates all the way through at its thickest part (which can be reached with the right equipment and training), which is apparently large enough for a helicopter to land inside. On the way back we passed more impressive isolated waterfalls, rivers gleaming in the morning sun, and more trees than I have ever seen before. Then came the Venezuelan speciality, a white-knuckle ride just metres above the Orinoco, thoroughly dangerous and highly enjoyable. It cost a significant amount of money for an hour's enjoyment, but he experience will live with me for a long time.

When I felt I had put off the return journey as long as I feasibly could, I set off back parallel with the Orinoco. I detoured briefly to the lovely Pozo Azul, actually not a pool at all but a shallow place in a small, perfectly clear, almost luminescent, river, set amid luxuriant jungle growth. It was ideal for swimming and snorkelling through the shoals of tiny fish, and a little deserted balneario had been built there also. I got rather side-tracked following some sandy tracks nearby, past some more authentic Piaroa Indian villages with their distinctive thatched conical-roofed churuatas, but eventually, without enthusiasm, I found my way back onto the main road.

My return route kept me south of the Orinoco river, into Bolívar state, passing just a handful of Indian villages in the 200km to Caicara. In places, young lads with loin-cloths and spiky hair-cuts (looking like Mowgli from Disney's "Jungle Book") were selling plantains on the road-side, but unfortunately I decided I could not really use a whole branch-full of plantains. The scenery continued open savannah, dotted with hills and the artfully arranged piles of boulders. Further east towards Caicara, it became less interesting and gradually merged into the flat open plains of the Llanos. Luckily, I timed the ferry across the Orinoco just right, and the hour-and-a-half crossing (yes, to cross a river!) presented me a very different river with wide sand-bars, and lovely golden beaches along its banks. Back into Guárico state, it was very much head down and drive the pot-holed road back to civilisation, as, other than a pretty sunset, there was very little to entertain the eye between Cabruta and Chaguaramos, some 200km to the north.

I rolled into Chaguaramos just after dark, more or less as planned, looking for somewhere to stay. The first hotel I stopped at had a boxing match going on in its foyer, and the other, which I eventually plumped for through lack of other choices, was round the back of a busy petrol and truck stop, had no lights in the corridors and fierce air-conditioning in the rooms. Because of its position at a major cross-roads in the Llanos, Chaguaramos has obviously developed into something of a hard-case town, with clumps of undesirables hanging around, lots of posturing, ball-hitching, shouts and mock fights. After an excellent (but ungracefully served) pizza, I decided not to sample the night-life any further, and retired straight back to my room to squash as many ants as possible before attempting to go to sleep.

The shame of it is that, by the light of day, Chaguaramos is actually quite a pleasant old town (away from the by-pass), but I pressed on through El Sombrero and Ortiz back into more familiar mountain scenery. Having a little time to spare I decided to try and find a trail up into the Morros of San Juan, the strange sugar-loaf mountains I had last visited quite some time ago. Eventually, I found a well-hidden narrow channel between the houses on the main road, and crossed the river on a precarious suspended footbridge. After a few dead-end trails to small farms (and a longer one which also dead-ended at a small farm), I was eventually able to ask someone, and although they thought I was nuts walking in the hot sun, I did in fact find access to a whole network of small trails, which I did not have time to explore in depth, but which I could at least re-visit for my guide to walks in the Caracas area.

I arrived back at 2pm. At 3pm, I was off again to pick up a friend from the airport (actually, a friend of a friend of a friend, but it is a long story). He had just finished college and was setting off on a round-the-world trip starting with six months in South America, which sparked a certain amount of jealousy in me. I was pleased to be able to offer what tips I had gathered over the months, and to give him a comfortable bed and hot meal or two to start him off, and to put him on the bus in the right direction. Had the timing and circumstances been different, I may well have been tempted to share some of his planned adventures.

But Julie was off on another business trip to Colombia and Peru for a week, and my job was at home looking after Elena. The early morning and evening shifts I could cope with fine, but the full days from 5.30am to 7pm when Maritza had a day off for a Bank Holiday was a real killer, not so much because Elena played up (she is generally much better behaved these days), but just keeping up with her and keeping her amused is a full-time occupation, and meal-times are still quite a psychological and, at times, physical struggle. However, I definitely feel that I am moving in the right direction as regards what could be considered normal parental feelings towards her - she really is quite cute at times, and there are not so many bad times to make me forget the good.

26 March 1996 Back to top

Elena has been making her first steps in the last few days, and, if some wobbly balancing followed by three steps into my arms counts as walking, she probably qualifies as a toddler (frightening to think of, really). Apparently there will now be a quantum leap in potential problems, and we have a whole new world of falls, scrapes, and broken ornaments to look forward to. There is serious talk about significantly raising Venezuelan petrol prices after Easter in order to sweeten the IMF, so it will be interesting to see whether that sparks any flames (so far there has been less public dissent than I had expected). The Brady Bond rate (the unofficial guide to the real exchange rate between the Bolívar and the Dollar) reached B's 540, compared to the official rate of B's 290, fell a little when some Cabinet ministers started talking some unexpected economic sense, and then continued upwards when it was realized that they were doing just that: talking…

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