Macareo River Trip, Venezuela:  November 15-December 1, 2008

Click on the above thumbnail for a map of Venezuela

Down the west coast of Trinidad

On November 15, Tusen Takk II and three other vessels (Arctic Tern, Receta, and Asseance) departed from Chaguaramas and cruised down the west coast of Trinidad on their way to the Orinoco Delta, Venezuela.  We passed some interesting vessels that were anchored just south of Chaguaramas, and later passed through the Soldado oil field which was jammed with old and new well heads.  We spent the night in Columbus Bay, where Asseance discovered a diesel leak.  The manly men all dinghied over and ultimately discovered a leak in a rubber fuel line and made temporary repairs that were good enough to last for the trip.  When we left Columbus Bay the next morning, we attempted to time our departure so that our cruise against the current through the Serpent's Mouth -- the passage between southwestern Trinidad and Venezuela -- would see us arriving at the shallow waters at the mouth of the Macareo River at the tail end of a rising tide.  Alas, we overestimated the strength of the opposing currents, arrived too early, and had to drop anchor and wait for several hours after Arctic Tern, leading the way, gently hit bottom.  No harm done.  While we anchored, a large pirogue passed by our companion sailboats and approached us directly.  There were four passengers, one of whom carried an AK47.  Turned out to be the Venezuelan Guardia de Nacional.  A polite young man asked if we could speak Spanish, and switched to broken English when we revealed the depths of our ignorance.  He requested and received permission to board us.  He did a quick tour of the boat, looked at our passports, but did not ask for our boat papers.  Good thing.  Yachties visiting the Orinoco Delta put themselves into somewhat of a dilemma.  One is supposed to check out of a country when one leaves it.  One is supposed to check into a country when one arrives.  Among other things, the new country wants to see (and keep) the exit papers from the former country.  The Orinoco Delta has no check in/out location (except much further up the river than we wanted to travel).  If we checked out of Trinidad, then when we arrived back, we would have no exit papers from another country, and would be in trouble.  So we didn't check out.  We explained to the Guardia that we were intending on spending two weeks in the river, and indicated our expected progress, and he was satisfied.  He asked for -- and received -- double-A batteries for his cell phone, and then joined his heavily armed companions on the pirogue.  They didn't bother to interview any of our companion vessels.

Gas tanker anchored just south of Chaguaramas

Drilling ship(?) in same vicinity

Oil well in the Soldado oil field

An older well head in the field

What the radar looked like as we approached the field

This tern visited us at Columbus Bay

The boys head over to help Asseance a diesel leak

Trini settlement on the north shore of the Serpent's Mouth

Anchored right at the mouth of the Macareo, this rusty ship serves as a depot for ships bringing iron ore down the river

Pelican Island

We spent our first (and last) night on the Macareo river anchored off of Pelican Island -- an apt name that could only be made more precise by the appellation "Pelican and Scarlet Ibis Island".  The breeding pelicans were recognizable by the brown swatches on the back of their necks and their behavior, which involved flying about with nesting materials in their bills.  In the morning we were treated to the sight of a communal bath by some of the pelicans.  They gathered together in the water and used their wings to splash themselves and their fellow bathers.

Flock of scarlet ibis arrive at Pelican Island to roost for the night

When they have all landed the mangroves will look like decorated Christmas trees

Circling with proof of his/her sincerity about starting a family

As is this one

Communal pelican bath


Cruising up the Macareo river

No watermaking in these muddy waters, so we deployed our water catcher ...

... and caught about 35 gallons in one shower!

Our four vessels at anchor

Lots of hyacinth floating down the river -- sometimes lodging on our boats

Hunter pulls a log/hyacinth jam away from Tusen Takk II's bow

Animal skin stretched for drying at one of the dry-season camps

Departing after a lunch gathering on Tusen Takk II

Empty dwelling along the river (note walkway between huts)

Another annex to the (currently) empty complex

Asseance passing an old "tripod" marker

Hunter burning trash on a bit of high ground -- dressed in anticipation of an attack by mosquitoes (which didn't happen)

Through Jesse Jackson's Members Only Taxi and Tour Service we obtained rough charts and descriptive literature for the Rio Macareo.  Here are some excerpts:

The Orinoco is the most northly of South America's four great rivers.  It is bounded by the Andes to the north and west, the Guyana Highlands to the east and the Amazon watershed to the south.  It is 1700 miles long and covers 366,000 square miles, or four-fifths of Venezuela and a quarter of Columbia.  Orinoco means "a place to paddle"...

The climate in the Orinoco Delta is tropical with the seasons marked by variations in rainfall rather than temperature.  The mean is about 29 degrees C with a range of about 2 degrees. ... The wet season is from April to September and the "high water" period is from April to October. ... During WWII the mouth (and possibly elsewhere) of the Macareo was dredged and marked to allow ships to be routed to the sea via the Rio Macareo ... as this brought them directly into the Gulf of Paria where the danger from enemy submarines was much reduced.  Some time after 1945 the channel was dredged to a depth of 8 meters to allow ore carriers to take their cargo the USA.  ... Dredging ceased in 1955 when it would appear the maintenance of all navigation aids also stopped.  Occasionally, large, rusty tubular tripods will be seen on the banks.  These carried lights marking the channel.


There are over 1000 species of bird in the Orinoco River Basin ...


In Venezuela there are five Indian tribes -- each with their own language -- but the Wareo of the Orinoco Delta consider themselves Venezuela's original inhabitants... The name Wareo ... means "canoe people".

In the first 75 to 80 miles of the river these gentle, short, fine featured, reddish skinned people live along the river bank pretty much as they have always done in small open-plan huts built of mangrove wood on piles by the river bank.  Four or five of these huts, called "palofitos", linked by walkways make a village.  Palofitos have thatched roofs and open sides with the families' possessions hanging from the eaves.  Space is divided by social distinctions... Furniture is rudimentary [or non-existent (cts)].

Theirs is a typical forest culture combining hunting, fishing, gathering, and upstream from the estuary, a little agriculture.  ... Until the arrival of Europeans they had no domestic animals except dogs.  They did not form states or central political organizations and did not have castes of warriors or priests but lived as one large extended family in their communal houses. ...

They have their own language, Wareo, which is taught in the school at Macareo Village and most appear to have some knowledge of Spanish.  It is only recently that they have started to give their children names.  Previously, they were "named" by describing their family relationships.  For example: aunt, wife of her mother's oldest brother.

When a girl first menstruates her hair is cut short to indicate that she is ready to marry.  When she does marry then her husband comes and lives in her village and works for her father.  If her father dies then the son-in-law works for the widow. ...

They bury their dead in the jungle under a small hut in a wooden coffin covered with mud.  After a year the wisiatu, or shaman, goes back to the grave, uncovers the bones and studies them to decide who is guilty of the death and how much they have to pay.  Each village may have several wisiatus

They are semi-nomadic people who rely upon the river for their water supply.  In the dry season when salt water comes upriver the Wareo migrate south following the fresh water and them come downstream again in the wet season. ...

When surveying this area for oil (they found none) Amaco agreed to fund, for three years, an aid project to work with the Wareo.  [One of the bases was established at Macareo Village.  Chavez has continued to support the original foundation.  (cts) ]  ...

This has changed the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Wareo in Macareo Village and nearby settlements.  Instead of following the fresh water upstream during the dry season they are staying at the river mouth taking advantage of the school and the hospital and fishing for salt water instead of fresh water fish.... [But when the waters have receded enough to expose occasional high spots along the river sides, the men still create camps upstream for extended hunting trips.  (cts) ] ...


Every time you pass a village canoes will come out to trade... The Wareo are not looking for luxuries or little extras but essentials which they would have to buy from the traders coming down form Tucupita or make (and pay for) the six hour journey there themselves.  There is no point in coming without trade goods and bring at least twice what you think necessary for every village you trade with on the way upstream you will meet them again as old friends on the way back.  ... [The occupants of the canoes come out shouting "cambio", which is Spanish for "exchange".  They also shout out the desired item they would like to trade for, which is most often "tela" (cloth).  The children shout "bomba" (balloon) or caramelo (candy).  The occupants with goods hold up what they are willing to trade:  baskets they have woven themselves, or necklaces made of beads and/or seeds and/or teeth are the most common options.  (cts)].

When we arrive ...

... at a settlement ...

... the canoes come swarming out to trade

Receta trading

Trading w/ Tusen Takk II -- some of the canoes are pretty full

This family came from a small settlement

Can you guess what Barb traded?

They return to their hut happy -- note Barb's frying pan in the canoe

We had commissioned items here. When we returned their canoes were away, so the girls dinghied in to trade

Many of the canoes had only woman and/or children

Village at Boca la Pela

The village at Boca la Pela was our turn-around point.  We did some trading from the boats when we arrived, and then retired off a bit to anchor for the night.  Next morning, we returned to the village by dinghy and went ashore -- the first really substantial amount of solid ground we had seen for the entire trip.  We found a row of government-sponsored houses on stilts.  Unusual, because the homes had walls -- but little or no furniture -- and tin roofs made of metal instead of thatching, and floors made of planks instead of poles.  Some of the siding of the homes had "disappeared".  No surprise -- see the photo below of a man making a new paddle (in hopes of a trade with us.)

Not all of the dug-outs were in good repair

Hunter (and Steve) brought along balloons and entertained the kids by making balloon animals and hats

The proud owner of a new balloon hat

Steve makes a balloon with a face ...

Happy girl w/ her balloon

The villagers milled about as we walked along in front of their homes

Someone had mentioned "baskets" the afternoon before -- here the man is the next morning attempting to finish a basket for trade

Paddles were also mentioned, so here we have a frantic attempt to finish a paddle (using a board from the side of a house)

Family of the paddle maker -- note lack of furniture ...

... and places to keep "kitchen" utinsels

Until they reach a certain age, all the little boys go totally naked

Barb gifted this girl with the bubble blower and solution

Barb had a successful trade with this lady

The woman's basket-making materials

A young family from another small village asked for us to photo them and to stop by when we passed -- which we did

Macareo Village

Macareo village is near the mouth of the river.  We paused there to trade from our boats on the way in, and anchored there to spend a night on the way out.  On the way out, we were entertained by Antonio Collins, who speaks decent English and has served for a number of years as the unofficial "host" to cruisers who enter the river.  He has recently been appointed by the government as "chief of the river", as he describes it, which means he has replaced the former chief of the village as the person who dispenses government aid to the people.  (The former chief has fled in disgrace -- abandoning his wife and children).  In particular, Collins -- as he is known --  had just recently delivered a diesel engine to the village (for use as a electrical generator), and his family has been providing meals to the community.  He told us his next project was to try to get the government to underwrite the cost of constructing a boardwalk that would stretch along the village behind the homes.  (They now mostly move form dwelling to dwelling by canoe or power boat.)

Collins asked us to see if we could get the generator started -- we couldn't, but we are convinced we "fixed" several things that needed fixing

School building in Macareo Village

Collins show off his refrigerator -- used for storage since there is no electrical power

We were invited over for dinner and these fish and dasheen were served -- along with sweet Argentine wine

Collin's wife Elinor cooking fish heads for her family

The fish heads

Collins kids and grandkids

Grandma shows how palm frond fiber is turned into "thread" for use in basket making

Young wife in an adjoining hut -- which means she is part of the extended family

Smoke from morning fires in Macareo Village

Used by the kids for "local" traffic

Chuck traded an old sheet for this child's paddle

Nature trips in our dinghies

We usually indulged in an exploration of side rivers (called a caņos) in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, timing the latter so that we got back to the boats before the mosquitoes descended down upon us.  Devi (Arctic Tern) is an ornithologist, and the area abounds with avians, so bird-watching was especially rewarding and interesting.  Our trips up the side caņos were often terminated by hyacinths, but on at least one occasion we were able to push up a branching caņo until the water just got too shallow and the passage too narrow.  We were in the watershed at the end of the rainy season, so we saw little solid ground on the trip.

This flower ...

... turns into this "nut", which looks like (and must be related to) cocoa beans, but is not

Carving in one of the dry-season camps

Huge (toxic) caterpillar suddenly appeared on Hunter's shoulder. It was flicked away with a knife.


Wasp nest

Hunter's dinghy ingested a piece of hiacynth and chewed up the impellor...

... so we towed him home and subsequently put the crew from four boats into three dinghies


Yellow-rumped Cacique

Cacique nests

Hoatzins engaged in some quick intercourse

"Gosh, darling, do you think they saw what we were doing?"

Crested Caracara

Black-collared hawk

Ringed Kingfisher

Snail Kite

Yellow-crowned Parrots

Horned Screamer (note head feather and hook at wing "elbow")

Blue and Yellow Macaw

White-throated Toucan

Clear tea-colored water from a side caņo meets the muddy Macareo

Lounging around at a hiacynth blockage

Steve and Ann (Receta) with passenger Hunter (Arctic Tern)

Steve fly fishing on a still morning

Imprompto raftup during a dinghy expedition

Lightning did a number on this tree


Silent and brown Capuchin monkey

Reddish and sometimes deafening ...

... Howler ...

... monkeys ...

... were often visible in the afternoons

Fresh Water Dolphins!

Often displaying an amazing amount of pink ...

... the fresh water dolphins differ from ...

... bottlenose not only in saltiness of habituated waters ...

... but also in having a much attenuated dorsal fin ...

... and bulbous head with long cylindrical snout

Socializing on Tusen Takk II

Steve & Hunter playing Bananagrams

Playing Mexican Train dominoes

Collins attended Barb's birthday party

Hunter's sister Brooke was aboard Arctic Tern for the trip

Hunter wearing his Thanksgiving hat (supplied by Brooke)

Don and Steve wearing their hats

The girls wearing their masks