Almost the whole length of the Orinoco, one of the great rivers of the world, lies within Venezuela. It rises in tropical rainforests that continue to the Amazon to form the planet's largest area of rainforest, and it ends at the Atlantic in the only neotropical delta, the most extensive anywhere in the tropics. Here the Orinoco's final journey to the ocean is through a maze of narrow creeks and channels that seep between thousands of low islands of palm forest and mangrove.
The central area of the Delta, about the size of Wales, is home to the 20,000 strong Warao people. Their world is as remote and timeless as the hidden world of the rainforest in which the river began. The history of the Warao dates back perhaps 6,000 years and maybe much longer. Once more widely scattered, they have remained secluded in the labyrinth of the Delta for centuries, weathering Arawak and Carib conquests of the West Indies, and the arrival of the Europeans.
Their way of life is well adapted to their unusual environment and their culture is counted as one of the most long-lived and successful in South America. Although many hundreds of miles apart, the Warao people who live in the Delta find many cultural echoes with the indigenous communities of the rainforests of the upper Orinoco.
In their view they inhabit the centre of a world that is a flat disk, surrounded by water. The disk is rather thin, which explains why the land is permanently sodden.
The Warao's name means 'boat people' and the skill they regard most highly is the making of canoes, to which boys and young men are trained for many years in both craft and spiritual aspects. All are made from single trees and they vary in size from tiny ones a few feet long, to giants capable of carrying 50 people. Hollowed out to leave just an inch of wood, the average canoe for a man is strong, stable and manœuvrable, but longer craft with several crew are needed for large rivers or the sea. Everybody gets about by canoe -- children paddling tiny craft before they can walk.
Warao houses are usually built on tall stilts to cope with constantly changing water levels, and to take advantage of the cooling trade winds. Each house is connected to its neighbour by a raised walkway, to form little family communities or villages of up to a thousand or more inhabitants. Everyone is an expert at fishing, and the moriche palm provides food, wine, boats, rope and hammocks. Other crops include plantains, sugar cane, maize, rice and yucca. Chickens and ducks are kept, but no other food animals are required, given the constant supply of a variety of good fish. Music for dancing is provided by the violin, which has become fully absorbed into Warao culture, with many talented exponents.
Wildlife of the Orinoco Delta
The Delta's birds and animals, though made shy by hunting, are generally easier to see than those of the rainforest: macaws, parrots, toucans, hoatzin, the horned screamer, many species of waterbirds, howler and capuchin monkeys, giant river otter, fresh water dolphin, caiman, turtle, piranha and four-eyed fish can usually be seen in a trip of a few days.
Where to stay in the Orinoco delta
There are lodges close to the land-side edge of the Delta which provide an introduction to the region, its people and its fauna and flora -- with a taste of adventure too. Close to the ocean at San Francisco de Guayo, it is possible to stay in a locally-owned guesthouse on the fringes of a large Warao village -- a wonderful place for relaxation and reflection in the simplest style.