I dropped my hook baited with chicken into the water and thrashed the surface with the broken nine-iron that was serving as my rod. Our guide Victor nodded sagely in approval of my technique – it seemed to be the established method of attracting the piranha we were after. Feeling a tug on the line, I yanked it upwards, pulling up a hook that had neither piranha nor bait. Victor, who had caught three in five minutes, smiled knowingly and turned back to the search for his fourth.
While some of our group fished in Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta, others swam in the warm water – after first ensuring that the hunters weren’t about to become the hunted. Despite our position in the middle of a wide channel, the heady smell of jungle was still overpowering. Howler monkeys peered from behind the foliage, their location often more discernible from the shaking branches than the occasional flashes of their bright red fur.
Our drifting progress brought us to a junction with another channel, the convergence doubling the width of the already-enormous river.
“Which river was that?”, I asked Victor, looking back at the enormous tributary.
“So what river were we on?”
“Also the Orinoco: the land in the middle is an island…” said Victor.
The Orinoco, though not even in the world’s 50 longest rivers, comes fourth in terms of discharge, with an average 7,260,000 gallons per second flowing into the Atlantic below Trinidad. Before reaching the ocean the water flows through the delta, a vast 15,445-square-mile region of interconnecting tributaries, known as caños, forming a network of waterways navigable by dugout canoe or speedboat.
Venezuela is actually named after this area, the conquistadors having proclaimed it “Little Venice” upon seeing the unique canal-based geography upon arrival on the continent.
Seeing what the Spanish saw, you begin to understand why. While obviously not as diverting as its namesake’s Grand Canal, the Río Grande thoroughfare is astonishing in its size. Smaller waterways break away from it, and these again have further offshoots, like Venetian back alleys.
It was down one of these, its entrance invisible to us Europeans on board, that we had arrived in the region. It had been a two-hour speedboat ride to The Orinoco Queen, our camp of thatched huts, cranberry trees and wooden walkways. Speedboats roar up and down the Río Grande, this waterlogged region’s equivalent of a motorway, reacting to each others’ rocky wakes as cars would to speed bumps. Hugo Chávez called this the “Heart of my Homeland” in his presidential reelection campaign and his face beamed benevolently from posters hung on riverside huts.
The Orinoco Queen is the smallest and most personal of the area’s “resorts”, with five cosy huts set back from a larger dining hall, where the bar serves just four drinks: beer, caipirinha, Cuba libre or neat rum. The last is the most popular with Venezuelans, who hail from a country which produces some of the world’s best.
Back on the river we headed a few jungle-blocks over for a stroll through the bush. Tying the boat to the nearest tree, we scrambled ashore. We had been warned about the mosquitoes and were dressed in long sleeves, Wellington boots and thick coatings of insect repellent, not that the creatures were much discouraged: the patch of jungle chosen for our afternoon sojourn felt like the HQ for all the continent’s mosquitoes.
After half an hour’s walk through thick jungle we arrived at a clearing. The vast green canopy above was raucous with life. A group of capuchin monkeys loped away overhead, aware of having been spotted; their shadows moving quickly in time with the rustling of their effortless tree-hopping. On the jungle floor, the buttress roots of enormous trees were marked with the levels to which the water rises in the rainy season.
Turning to us, Victor proclaimed, “there are jaguars in this area. If I was caught, which way would you head back to the boat?”
A unanimous verdict decided we would retrace our steps in the opposite direction. Victor nodded and walked on. Grinning at having walked us unwittingly in a complete circle, he moved a particularly large bush aside with his machete to reveal the boat, invisible seconds before through the dense jungle.
Passengers and supplies are moved efficiently between the indigenous Warao communities, tourist camps, Ciudad Bolívar and the state capital, Tucupita. Ciudad Bolívar is central Venezuela’s main hub, the access point for both the delta and Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall. The city and state of which it is the capital take their name from national hero Simón Bolívar.
The liberator of much of northern South America from the Spanish imperialists, Bolívar and his influence is visible throughout Venezuela. He lends his surname to everything from the currency to the town centres, which are always named Plaza Bolívar. His portrait is everywhere, recognisable for his signature style of big collars and impressive sideburns.
From the camp we made an overnight visit to Guacaha ra, docking to find a man scraping the barnacles from bright blue crabs, a woman filleting an enormous piranha and a pet anteater happy to offer his belly for scratching between concentrated attacks on a nearby termite nest.
The matriarchs jumped up from the main communal area, a shack slung throughout with hammocks, to sell the colourful wicker baskets typical of the region. The majority of the menfolk were to be found over at the village volleyball court, where the teams far exceeded the regulation six players, an oversight which was compensated for by an abundant lack of skill.
Sunset was spent at the widest part of the Río Grande, where the fading day cast a hazy purple light over the convergence of two enormous caños.
Coconuts were produced from the cooler and opened with the machete, an aperitif before dinner, which was spent giving the carnivorous piranha a taste of its own medicine. Then I took refuge under a mosquito net for the night, a comforting barrier after an introduction to a tarantula which was apparently resident close by.
After a breakfast of arepas – disks of savoury cornbread stuffed with fillings which depend on the time of day (this Venezuelan staple having no mealtime designation) – we took our seats in the speedboat for the journey back.
As we disembarked at the jetty a pelican flew overhead, peering down its long beak at the waters below. Spotting something, it dived from on high, thrusting below the surface before bobbing back up with nothing to show for its effort. Victor smiled knowingly, unimpressed by the bird’s fishing prowess; “wrong technique,” he said, sagely.
Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com) has daily flights to Caracas from Gatwick, connecting in Madrid, from £559 return. Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) flies to Caracas daily from Heathrow, connecting in Frankfurt, from £645 return.
From Caracas, Rutaca (0058 212 237 9317; rutaca.com.ve) flies daily to Ciudad Bolívar from £68 one way. Transfers from Caracas to Ciudad Bolívar can be arranged directly by Lobo Tours or your hotel.
Lobo Tours (0058 414 871 9339; lobo-tours.de) operates The Orinoco Queen, and offers an all-inclusive four-day tour of the delta from £400 per person, including transfers from Caracas.
If you want to see more, the company organises tailor-made countrywide tours, such as a 12-day all-inclusive package to Angel Falls, the delta and Caribbean beaches from £950 per person, excluding international flights.
The UK-based operator Geodyssey (020 7281 7788; geodyssey.co.uk) runs a 13-day tour, which also includes the Andean state of Mérida and the cowboy ranches of Los Llanos from £2,725 per person, excluding international flights.
THE INSIDE TRACK
The official rate of the Venezuelan bolívar is a vast exaggeration of its actual value. Bring US dollars or euros to exchange at the paralelo (parallel) rate, which can triple the value of your money. Bank transfers are also possible with most hotels and tour operators if carrying wads of cash doesn’t appeal.
For an accurate idea of current paralelo rates, visit lechugaverde.com.
If travelling by bus, make sure you bring thick clothing or a sleeping bag as air-conditioning can be excessive.
Juice is an unexpected delight in Venezuela. Delicious flavours such as pineapple, papaya or guava are available at restaurants. Orange juice is also readily available from street vendors who squeeze it in front of you.
Taxis do not have meters and the fare should be agreed upon beforehand, preferably after consulting a third party.
THE BEST HOTELS
Posada Don Carlos, Ciudad Bolívar £
A beautifully restored mansion in the colourful old town, this German-owned posada preserves its colonial history, and has a leafy courtyard, spacious rooms and an atmospheric saloon-style bar. Also organises tours in the region (0058 285 632 6017; posada-doncarlos.com; from £26 per night).
Altamira, Caracas ££
A stylish, secure and friendly location in the central business district, a short walk from the metro station and plaza (212 267 4255; from £52 per night).
La Casa Grande, Ciudad Bolívar £££
The best in town, if not in all of Venezuela; this stylish hotel seamlessly blends modern boutique flair with colonial decadence in the former Red Cross headquarters. The roof deck has a pool and wonderful views of the Orinoco (414 851 2295; cacaotravel.com; from £122 per night, including breakfast).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Comidas Margarita, Ciudad Bolívar £
The coffee is free, the juice comes in jam jars and the servings come stacked high with plantain, beans and rice at this family-run Creole restaurant. Share a table with the friendly locals or watch the world go by through the open-fronted entrance. Open for breakfast and lunch, around £7 per person (Calle Bolívar; 285 617 8424).
Lunchería Doña Agapita, Caracas £
To experience the real Venezuelan cuisine, grab a seat at this raucous open-fronted place where the national staples are prepared in front of you. Open daily except Sunday until 8pm; around £8 per person (Av Sur 13 below Plaza La Candelaria; no phone).
La Cocina de Francy, Caracas ££
The menu focuses on Venezuelan dishes and the kitchen concentrates on doing the basics well at this stylish restaurant. Their signature pabellón criollo is an excellent introduction to the national dish. Open until 6pm, mains from £15 (corner of Avs Este 2 and Sur 11; 212 576 9849).
What to avoid
Don’t change money on the street or at the airport. Do so in a comfortable setting with your tour operator or hotel.
Malaria is a risk in Venezuela’s rural areas; speak to your doctor about a course of antimalarials. You may be asked for a yellow fever vaccination certificate upon arrival, for which the jab is best procured four weeks in advance.
While Venezuelans are keen to talk politics, it is wise to avoid sharing strong opinions on President Hugo Chávez, who has a zealous countrywide following.
There is no internet coverage in the delta and mobile phone signal is limited at best.