Ciudad Bolívar and Puerto Ordaz
A full 400km from the sea, Ciudad Bolívar is the highest navigable point on the Orinoco. It was an important town in colonial times, a small Manaus, trading the agricultural riches of the Llanos directly with Europe and looking more to foreign capitals than Caracas.
The city was then called Angostura, meaning ‘narrows’, as here the Orinoco is funnelled through a deep channel just a mile wide. The bitters for pink gin were invented here before production moved to Trinidad. A modestly grand cathedral was built, and city streets of fine houses leading down to an evocative waterfront.
Bolivar - the Liberator
Simón Bolívar, the key figure in Latin America's struggle for self-determination, paused here after a series of defeats in the campaign for Venezuela’s independence.
Here he re-focused on the idea of ejecting the Spanish not just from Venezuela but from all of South America, and uniting the colonies in a grand federation.
Those he hoped to rally to his cause assembled here at the ‘Congress of Angostura’ in 1819, were won over and appointed him President of the putative federation. At a celebratory banquet Bolívar leapt on the table and announced to his guests "Thus, as I cross this table from one end to the other shall I march from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Panama to Cape Horn until the last Spaniard is expelled!"
Bolívar was then 35. By the time of his death at the age of just 47 he had liberated Venezuela, Colombia, and modern day Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and presided over territories of 3 million square miles—larger than the Roman Empire at its zenith.
Arrogant and determined but selfless in his objectives, Bolívar led by inspirational oratory and physical example: in the course of his gargantuan achievement he travelled 20,000 miles on horseback, crossing and re-crossing some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, and fought around 300 battles and skirmishes, marked by decisive generalship and speed of manoeuvre.
The campaign began with unconscionable cruelty and slaughter on both sides, and finished with a disillusioned Bolívar, wearied to death and trapped in a labyrinth of intrigues, idealisms, petty rivalries, the leftover emotions of a string of affairs, and the abiding memory of his wife and true love who died when he was 20.
In a typically Venezuelan juxtaposition, Ciudad Bolívar brings together not just the echoes of this past, but also one of the most important small contemporary art collections in Latin America: the Jesús Soto Museum, dedicated to the principal figure of kinetic art who was born here.
With its origins in 1950s Paris, but inspired by the vibrating intensity of light in his home town, Soto’s wide-ranging work inspired a group of other Venezuelan artists.
Their art has visual parallels with that of Bridget Riley, for example, but its social aesthetic finds Soto’s sculptures on the Caracas metro and suspended in airport halls over geometric floors designed by Cruz-Diez, and the communal art of the Paria village of Chacaracual by Juvenal Ravelo, rather than restricted to moneyed dealers and white-walled galleries.
Nearby Puerto Ordaz is Ciudad Bolívar’s 20th century equivalent: the commercial heart of eastern Venezuela. Puerto Ordaz is well worth a visit, principally to see the massive cataracts of the Río Caroní as it descends in a swirling maelstrom half a mile wide bringing black waters from the Gran Sabana to join the Orinoco’s brown waters from the Andes and the Amazon.
Sir Walter Ralegh
Here Sir Walter Ralegh’s expedition of 1595 came to a halt, though his scout Berio reported that beyond them to the south lay mountains of crystal, high waterfalls and doubtless the gold of the El Dorado legend.
South to the Gran Sabana
Driving southwards today towards the Gran Sabana, farmland gives way to tropical rainforest in which there are gold mining concessions where international companies fulfil Berio’s promise, and trading posts where hard-working private miners exchange nuggets for the family groceries or the fleeting pleasures of hard liquor and loose women.
Not for nothing does a small town on the road bear the name ‘El Dorado’ to this day.
Travel ideas to Ciudad Bolivar and Puerto Ordaz
Small group holidays
Angel Falls, Orinoco Delta and Paria
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