Friday, February 17, 2012

February 16, 2012 - Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela

Who wants a ride to the Amazon?!

We last wrote to you from Caicara, a dull town overlooking the mile-wide Orinoco River and its flanking sand flats. The climax of our stay there was a bus trip to the Venezuelan capital to pick up a package of goods ordered from the States and get a visa from the Brazilian Consulate. Caracas has the highest homicide rate in the world according to most sources so we meticulously planned this trip. Some things are mysteriously difficult in Venezuela; it took three trips to the bus station just to buy tickets! The bus left in the evening and at dawn arrived at a three-story bus station in downtown Caracas. We spent the day in crowded subways and apprehensively walking among skyscrapers. We accomplished our goals in one day and took another 14-hour bus ride back to Caicara where we caught up on sleep. We were happy to have received the much-needed laptop computer, hatch covers, motor parts, pressure cooker parts, and treats from Mama Phelan who facilitated the shipping for us.

We then went to an internet place, turned on Google Earth, and used its tools to trace electronic “tracks” of the river’s shorelines and islands. Ginny converted the tracks to Garmin files and loaded them onto our handheld GPS. The cursor shows where we are relative to the shorelines, which is helpful because the land is flat and there are many islands and tributaries. Looking at the horizon it all blends together. The river is constantly changing course and the Google Earth images aren’t very current, but they help us decide whether to turn left or right around shoals.

To get from El Baul to Caicara we had motored downstream but upwind.  On February 2 we sailed upriver but downwind toward Puerto Ayacucho. It was the same strong trade wind we fought on the Venezuelan coast. On average the current was 3 kilometers per hour, our speed through the water was 10 km/hour, and our progress was 7 km/hour. It was nice to use our sails again.

The GPS also helped us look for places to stop at night. We prefer to be alone in nature at night and for no one to be aware of our presence. We need a beach facing away from the prevailing northeast wind with no houses nearby. No boats can pass between the time we stop and that of full darkness. If we then remain quiet and shine no lights we remain unnoticed.

Unfortunately, houses and fishing camps were common around beaches and coves, and fishermen were especially active at dusk, setting and checking nets. Sometimes we traveled for hours without seeing anyone but as dusk approached the fishermen came out, ruining great sites for us. The fishermen are honest and hard-working, but we are very strange to them and they may mention our presence to predatory people. One night we failed to find a spot before dark and ended up parking in front of a house. We stayed very quiet so as not to frighten the people and left early. Another time we parked on a beautiful beach, were found by fishermen, then moved to re-establish privacy.

One night we thought we had found the perfect place, inside a calm cove in the sand flats. We got there as it was getting dark. Only one house was within sight. But before we could settle in a boat approached. They stopped at a shoal. Two got out and walked toward us yelling something. When they got close one raised a rifle, racked the action, and aimed it at Steve.  “Manos arriba! Nombre!” It turned out the “house” we had passed was a Guardia Nacional post and we had parked in a turtle preserve! Normally we don’t like people pulling weapons on us, but in the interest of turtles it´s OK. We followed them to their installation and slept tied to the bank. In the morning we toured their facility. They had three large tanks full of baby Arrau tortoises, one of many species that used to be common on the Llanos and Amazonas rivers. We got to hold them in our hands! They fold their heads and tails sideways to take shelter in their shells. We were glad to see they had friends devoted to returning them to the rivers.

We stopped at the town of La Urbana and bought bread and bananas, but then got lost in a maze of sloughs. We kept thinking the next channel would lead to the main river but it was always a dead end. Finally we returned to the town, got directions, and got back onto the principal channel.

On February 6 we reached the Rio Meta, an east-west river that joins the Orinoco at a right angle. North of the Meta is Venezuela, south is Colombia. We stopped at Puerto Paez, on the Venezuelan side, to get an exit stamp but they don’t have an immigration post anymore. (Steve entered Venezuela there in 1992.) We then went to Puerto Carreño, a larger town on the Colombian side.

Colombia and Venezuela used to be one country so it is interesting to compare their relative progress. Historically Colombia has been plagued by civil wars and drug cartels while Venezuela has been relatively peaceful and has lots of oil. So you would think that Venezuela would have advanced more. But Colombia has the clear advantage now. Stepping onto Colombian soil Ginny felt the weight of the universe lift off her shoulders. After two and a half months in Venezuela, Puerto Carreño looked clean and prosperous. The military presence wasn’t overwhelming. Tourists from Colombia’s interior cities took pictures from a commanding hilltop and sat at a riverfront bar drinking beer. We got money from an ATM, bought groceries, and left for Puerto Ayacucho.

From El Baul to Caicara we were in flat llanos. But the Orinoco has the llanos to its northwest and the Guyana Massif to its southeast. The massif consists of blue hills in the distance and huge rounded rocks closer up. They are hard, glossy-grey, of ancient volcanic origin. Sometimes they are bedrock, sometimes they are mounded boulders the size of a car or house. Some are whole, some are split. They are smooth in big scale but rough to the touch. They often lay partly submerged in the ubiquitous tan sand or in the river. Trees, rocks, drifting sand, water, blue sky, and fluffy clouds combined nicely in the landscape. We climbed among the boulders for views, and hiked across tracts of cracked mud. The riverine flats were often thick with a stalky bush that bends easily when underwater but stands up straight when the waters recede.

A day and a half after Puerto Carreño we reached Puerto Ayacucho, a substantial city. It is the capital of the Venezuelan state of Amazonas and situated at its northwest tip. It is a frontier town in that it is on the border with Colombia and also in that it is the final civilization before the road-less Amazonas.

We stopped at a Guardia Nacional post where a lieutenant gave Thurston her most thorough search to date. He ripped into us for supposed equipment deficiencies. We sat passively. He eventually gave up with whatever was his intention. We next proceeded to the naval base. This included a four-story, open framework docking structure designed to accommodate boats both in the dry season and in the rainy season, when the river rises forty feet. The sailors occupied us for hours with questions and instructions then let us tie up. From the river bank we climb three flights of steps up the dock structure, pass through the naval base, and exit a guarded gate to enter the city.

Above Puerto Ayacucho there are impassible rapids, but the river is navigable again
starting at a place called Samariapo. We need a portage plus permission to navigate to Brazil. We first took a bus to the immigration station and got stamped back into Venezuela. On our way back we saw a building with “Tourist Information” painted in large letters on its front. Inquiring, we met Virgilio Limpias, a Bolivian-born doctor who also has ran a guide service into the Amazonas for thirty years. Virgilio runs the office by himself. He has white hair, animated mannerisms, and a perpetual grin. When we told him our plan he was ecstatic. He said that in thirty years only two other parties have gone through with their own boats. Brazil and its other countries don’t have any large Amazonian wildernesses anymore, only Venezuela. He showed us maps and literature he had gathered. We soon realized we could never negotiate the many permit requirements by ourselves so we retained him.

During the coming week we worked together. Virgilio’s extroversion, patience, and humor opened many doors for us. He had relationships with many of the officials and does them assorted favors. We have obtained permits from customs (a despacho de aduanas para cabotaje), immigration (a post-dated exit stamp because there is no immigration office on the Brazilian border), the port captain (a zarpe exemption), the transportation authority (a road permit to move the boat), the state petroleum company (permission to buy 100 liters of fuel), the Guardia Nacional (a control de la ruta de combustible that will be validated at Guardia Nacional posts along the way proving that we were using the fuel, not selling it as contraband), and the Gobernacion Indigena Amazonas, Secretaria de Turismo. The latter was the most difficult because Brigade General Jesus Manuel Zambrano Mata had to sign it, which took some doing! We were also interviewed by a major in Military Counter-Intelligence and a captain in the Military Intelligence Department of the 52nd Army Brigade. The National Guard, Navy, Department of Military Intelligence, and National Institute of Aquatic Spaces all searched our boat!

After much anxiety, uncertainty, irritation and unpleasantness we have obtained all the necessary permits to continue our travel. We will transport tomorrow past the rapids and continue on the Orinoco to the Brazo Casiquiere, reportedly the most pristine portion of the Amazon basin and also possibly made by aliens! It flows into the Rio Negro a couple days travel north of the Brazilian border.  The Rio Negro then flows into the Amazon River at Manaus. We intend to flow with it!

It may be a month before we have internet again. Thurston is packed to the brim with supplies. Take care all.

More photos online here: starting with Leaving the boat at the Naval post in Caicara.