THE WILD MACAWS OF VENEZUELA.
Part TWO, AMAZONAS.
The rainforests, state capital, Puerto Ayacucho.
Parroty parts of the text are in orange if you aren't interested in the journey!
Our next destination was the state of Amazonas, major catchment area of the Orinoco river. The capital city of Puerto Ayacucho lies on the banks of the river. This, the most Southerly part of Venezuela consists of jungle covered hills, even now there are unexplored areas. Here is the mysterious Casaquiere link between the rivers Amazon and Orinoco discovered by Alexander Humbolt in the last century. West of the river is a lawless area of Colombia, a situation viewed with alarm by the Venezuelan government.
Our tour of Los Llanos (go to previous document, 18K) had finished in the town of Mantecal. From there we caught the bus to San Fernando, capital city of the state of Apuré. It rained heavily for much our visit, not that there's much to see. At the bridge crossing the mighty Apuré river one can photograph the meeting of "whitewater" and "blackwater" rivers. The town is pretty depressing and dilapidated. From there we went to Puerto Ayacucho via the strangely named town of El Burro (Sp-The Donkey). All along the Orinoco river the military are active due to incursions by armed criminals and revolutionaries from Colombia.
It had been a two day journey to Puerto Ayacucho. Now we approached the town of El Burro in our ancient bus, (picture, 26K) swerving between potholes through the latest rainstorm. The only maintenance the road seemed to get was from gangs of locals filling the worst of the potholes with gravel and relying on tips from passing bus and lorry drivers. They looked haggard and filthy in the downpour. I was getting pretty haggard myself, water cascaded through the roof of the bus, I was wearing my waterproofs, a rivulet of water trickled down the gangway and gathered about our luggage under the back seat. The conductor however stoutly defended his bus, refusing all demands for discounts and refunds.
The bus had left San Fernando only part full in spite of an extended tour of the back streets. The driver and conductor had been quite agitated, however now they could relax as the bus filled with campesinos and indians gathered up from tiny roadside communities. There were also a couple of teenage army recruits exceedingly worried by the prospect of service in the jungles of far-south Amazonas fighting Colombian incursants. We however were the only passengers making the full run and hence had been accorded the best seats near the back of the bus.
There was a special rule for indians. No matter how many there were, they all had to fit onto the back seats, children on laps. They were mostly in family groups, all scrubbed up for what was clearly a major occasion for them. The little girls were dressed to kill, resembling little bridesmaids with elaborate dresses and white ankle socks and shoes. The rest of the family was also in Sunday best looking for the most part extremely uncomfortable in shoes specially donned for the occasion.
I felt specially sorry for one indian family at one of the infrequent refreshment stops. Clearly unable to afford any of the junky food, they stood stiffly by the door of the restaurant whilst the rest of the passengers gorged themselves. They were sat close to me on the bus, I offered them a crisp from my bag. The most senior grabbed the whole bag and ate them all to himself, not giving any to his wife or children.
As we we drew closer to El Burro there appeared strange conical hills set in the flat plain like the pyramids of some New World Pharoah. Also there were increasing numbers of road blocks and military check points. Troops carrying assault rifles boarded the bus to check passengers against a list the driver carried. Everyone's identity card was minutely scrutinised, our passports and visas were carefully examined. On one occasion everyone had to get off the bus for a search and head count, on another we were singled out and questioned, everything being set down in a big black book. However we never felt threatened in any way, they were always very polite.
We had our first view of the mighty Orinoco river, gigantic even at this point many hundreds of miles from the sea. Distant mountain ranges appeared on the horizon, huge boulders dotted the landscape.
Naively due to watching too much TV I had imagined Puerto Ayacucho to be some frontier town, however in reality it's no different from anywhere else in Venezuela, the polluted streets packed with rotting V8 Yankee iron. It actually seems a little more prosperous than other towns, no doubt due to eco tourists and off duty soldiers that wander the streets. The climate is hot and extremely humid. Nearby are the rapids that were the reason for the town's existance, the transport of goods past them on the river in the past. There are very few roads in Amazonas and none at all in the South, the river and it's network of tributaries being the highway in these parts.
We had been recommended one "Coyote" expeditions, I had thought that we could arrange a river tour of indian villages, spotting scarlet macaws on the way through them. However Luis of "Coyote" told me that he knew of nowhere that macaws could be seen for sure anywhere in the locality. The local indians ate everything they found and were quite partial to roast macaw (and monkey). The only place he knew of where macaws could be seen for sure was in the remote mountains in the Southeast of Venezuela. As it happens there is tourist accommodation located here, the upmarket Yutajé lodge, ninety miles to the East of Puerto Ayacucho. Luis fixed it for us to go, also the air transport and the licence which all foriegners need to travel on or near the river.
Whilst waiting for our trip to materialise, we went on a little trip with Luis to obtain some roofing timbers for a house he was constructing. For some reason it was neccesary to take an inspector with us from the Ministry of the Interior. Apparently the local indians supplied the wood. When the official arrived (three hours late) we set off. Disappointingly the indians lived in rows of identical concrete sheds with corrugated iron roofs. When we viewed the wood I was astounded. It consisted of thick, fungus sprouting twigs about twenty feet long. It was possibly suitable for the construction of a North american indian teepee (provided they weren't too fussy), bean poles or, ideally, firewood. Luis however seemed well pleased by it, but was thwarted by the absence of the indian chief, who was the only one who could close the deal. We returned empty-handed although Luis still had to pay the neccesary bribe to the official.
The aircraft we flew in was single engine Cessna 182, what you think about flying over such rugged terrain, (picture, 32K) in single engine aircraft is up to you! The route is very flexible, being made up on the spot according to the number and destinations of the wouldbe passengers. This can lead to abandonment at the lodge when the return journey is due, if there are insufficient passengers to make up a route! This happened to us, however Luis of "Coyote" deduced what was going on and resolved the matter, there was quite a lot of bad feeling at the air line (Wayumi) over the matter I suspect.
The Yutajé Lodge, (picture, 25K) is located at the foot of the Serranìa Guanay (mountains) near the confluence of the Corocoro and Yutajé rivers. It's at the limit of navigation (picture, 31K) on these rivers (picture, 40K) and consists of a jungle clearing surrounded by some twee little huts, a bar and a restaurant. There's electricity, running water, three hundred channel satellite television and an unreliable microwave telephone link. Nearby is the second highest waterfall in Venezuela, the 2,200ft Yutajé falls.(picture 20K) There's no road, the only access is by river (a hundred and fifty mile journey) or by air, the lodge having it's own airstrip.
At the Yutajé Lodge the wealthy of Venezuela drop by in their light aircraft, (picture, 32K) for a few days sipping pink gin in this remote and lovely place. By local standards it's expensive, however by first world standards it's very reasonable. Here one can hob-nob it with the educated, the wealthy and the beautiful. The quality of the food is very variable, ranging from excellent to terrible.
Included are walks with local guides into the surrounding forest, canoe trips (picture, 31K) and visits to local indian communities. (picture, 41K) The forest is not primary rainforest but there is a range of different types of forest depending mostly on altitude. However there is plenty of wildlife to see. Whilst we were there, jaguars killed cattle belonging to the Lodge.
We had expected to find scarlet macaws here if anything, it seemed ideal territory however once again a surprise, for here were the largest concentration of greenwing macaws (Ara Chloropteris) we have come across. All day, but especially in the morning, their contact calls could be heard and from time to time pairs or small groups flew over the lodge. Guided by their calls it was possible to sneak up on them (picture, 48K)and get quite a close view, the racket (sound file, 333K Realplayer or equivalent neccesary.)was such and the forest so dense. They were feeding on figs. When they caught sight of us they were off, trumpeting their alarm calls!
Some of them at least seem to reside in the Serranìa Guanay mountains to the North, coming down the river valleys and returning on a daily basis and dispersing on the plains to feed. There is a point on the nearby Corocoro mountain where this can be viewed in the early morning and evening. Small groups of them stream along the valley bottom calling raucously to one another, an amazing sight we have seen nowhere else.
Whilst walking along the river bank we saw pink river dolphins. They came so close we could hear the sigh of their breath as they surfaced.
Visits to the indian communities were extremely interesting. Apart from wearing shorts and tee shirts and having some steel implements they had a very traditional lifestyle. Dugout canoes and bows and arrows are manufactured and utilised. These wooden artifacts were in fact extremely sophisticated, utilising principles "civilised" man would never think of, or has long forgotten.
One pet of special interest we saw in an indian village was a yellow crowned amazon (Amazonas ochrocephala ochrocephala) (picture48K) almost a thousand miles outside the range specified in "Forshaws". Interestingly there were no macaw pets. We followed up several rumours of macaw nest holes, all proved to be false, leading me to suspect that the other rumour we heard (that they nested in the mountains to the North) was correct. Pet macaws are usually removed from nest holes.
It's possible therefore that the amazons we saw were not local pets but were destined for the pet trade elsewhere, for whilst prowling about the Yutajé Lodge, I came across a filthy cage inhabited by a couple of amazons and a blue headed parrot, both fairly common around here. A few days later they had disappeared to be replaced by a toucan. I made enquiries about this but received only evasive replies. It was quite obvious that that there was a little trading going on here on the side, which I thought quite amazing for a so-called eco-tourist establishment.
Hopefully the Macaws at least will be safe in their mountain stronghold, protected by unnavigable rivers and thick forests.
Suitable travel guide to read in conjunction with this account:- Lonely Planet "Venezuela".
Av. Aguerrevere No 75
Tel/fax (048) 214583
1 Av. Santa Eduvigis
Res. SantaEduvigis. Local 1 y 2
Tel (0058-02) 283 69 60
Fax(0058-02) 283 26 27
Mobile (016) 63395 58
German run, hence probably reliable, twin engine aircraft available. Not the ones we went with. Flights direct from Caracas.
Information/bookings at Yutajé Lodge
Urb. Andrés Eloy Blanco,
Avenida La Marina,
Calle San José No 986,
Tel (048) 425002/3
The return airfare was US$120 from Puerto Ayacucho.
The cost per day was US$70 (double room).
This included all meals and a daily programme of guided walks and river trips. This is big money by Venezuelan standards, I thought the meals might have been better.
Part 3,Delta Amacuro, blue and gold macaws (and others).
Go to "Wild Macaws".
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