Columbus Woz Here

 

In 1498, on his third voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus made his first and only landing on the mainland of South America. This history-making moment happened at the eastern tip of the Peninsula de Paria, in what is now Venezuela.

Not a lot has changed in the last 507 years. Paria is still surprisingly wild and undeveloped. Beyond the occasional town and road, this rainforested, mountainous region remains as Columbus witnessed it.

There are no motorways, golf courses, fast food restaurants or hotel resorts. Some villages are accessible only by sea. Nightlife is non-existent, apart from the nocturnal animal variety. The serene silence is broken only by the sound of birds, frogs, cicadas and palm fronds rustling in the wind. You can have a whole beach to yourself. This place is, for the moment, largely unspoilt and unvisited.

Paria’s 80-mile-long peninsula points eastward like a gnarled finger towards nearby Trinidad. Mostly national park wilderness, it’s a gigantic open zoo and botanical garden, teeming with exotic flora and fauna. This is why I came here: to escape the big-city, concrete jungle and experience nature in the raw.

To get to Paria, I flew from London to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, where I exchanged a trans-Atlantic 260-seat 777 jet for an 11-passenger Caravan turbo prop. This gnat-sized, propeller-driven plane then flew me onwards to the tiny provincial airport at Carupano, on the Caribbean coast. It was a thrilling arrival. The plane dives steeply from above the mountains and glides down onto a postage stamp-sized runway, pulling sharply to a halt just yards from the sea.

I am greeted by my guide, Billy Esser. He organises local nature treks and runs a small, exquisite posada (guest house), Hacienda Bukare. Situated in the mountains above the seaside town of Rio Caribe, it will be my base for the next few days. This adventure holiday has been arranged by the London travel firm, Journey Latin America. Everything is organised for me. All I have to do is forget about Robert Mugabe for a few days, and enjoy myself.

Hacienda Bukare is a working cocoa plantation. The main building – whitewashed and red-tiled – dates back to 1908. It is beautifully restored, with stone flooring and lacquered cane ceilings. The dining area and bedrooms overlook a pretty manicured garden with a small pool, bordered by an unusual species of hibiscus that changes colour during the day – from white to pink to red.

Immediately beyond the garden lies untamed jungle on one side and cocoa groves on the other. Both teem with wildlife, not all of it friendly.

Less than an hour after my arrival, a plantation worker strolls into the garden, proudly displaying two rattlesnakes he caught while picking cocoa pods. Gazing at their huge, menacing fangs, the first thing that comes to mind is the teddy bear’s picnic song: “if you go down the woods today, you’d better not go alone.”

Right on cue, Billy’s father arrives to give me a tour of the plantation. We see some hand-sized, colourful spiders, but no snakes. I am rather disappointed.

My plantation tour is followed by a chocolate tasting session. Before coming here, it hadn’t dawned on me that I’d be staying in chocoholic heaven. High quality chocolate is 60-70 per cent cocoa solids. Bukare’s is nearly 90 per cent. Some is sold as handmade, mildly sweetened bon bons. The manufacturing technique is not yet fully refined, which means they have a slightly coarse texture. But that doesn’t trouble me. The rush from the intense bitter chocolate flavour is ecstatic, almost like being high.

Billy’s family also run a sideline in Licor de Cacao, made from roasted cocoa beans fermented in rum. The matured liqueur has a wonderfully warm, velvety, rich chocolate flavour. Quality control is still a bit uneven, with some bottles better than others. The good news is that it is inexpensive and exported (bukare@cantv.net, www.bukare.com).

On day two, I wake at 8am. Opening my bedroom balcony door, on the jungle side, I step straight into a scene from a David Attenborough nature programme. Huge turquoise butterflies hover a few feet from my face. Iridescent green lizards scamper playfully along the veranda railings. Minuscule red breasted humming birds – with unbelievably long, needle-like beaks – sip nectar from gargantuan magenta hibiscus flowers. I stand there, watching in wonder, for nearly half an hour. Then Billy calls me to get ready.

Today, I am headed for the beach at Playa Medina. A half-mile long, palm-fringed cove with golden sand, this is the main beach in the region. It is quite is busy by local standards. There are 15 people here. The rocky headlands are fun for snorkelling, with coral, sea grass, anemones, urchins and lots of zebra fish.

Later in the afternoon, we head off along dirt trails to the next beach, Chaguaramas; passing through villages with mud and timber houses, pigs and chickens running wild, and naked children playing joyfully in the street.

Playa Chaguaramas is quiet and remote: just three boys fishing, plus Billy and me. The five of us have over a mile of virgin Caribbean coastline to ourselves. I wander to the far end of the beach and strip off, completely. The birds and fish take no offence. With the surf high and wild, I ride the waves until sunset.

The next day we head south to Turuepano National Park – a vast, Everglade-like swampland, criss-crossed by canals. En route we pass through the small town of Tunapuy and can’t resist stopping off at the religious icon shop selling garish plaster statues of the Virgin Mary, Simon Bolivar and, for some inexplicable reason, assorted Viking warriors. Viking worship in Venezuela? There must be a rational explanation but I was unable to discover it.

Two hours later we arrive at a remote village and transfer to a small dingy powered by a putt-putt outboard motor, with a boulder on a rope for an anchor. Our watery journey starts in a river but soon diverts along a narrow canal that cuts through dense jungle. We duck and dive to avoid hitting low branches and getting entangled in thick tresses of Spanish moss – here known as English beard – that hang from every tree. There are caimans, fresh water dolphins, manatees, otters and piranha in these canals. They must be having a siesta because we don’t spot any. But when we divert into a large waterway, Cano Ajies, we are rewarded with the sight of large flocks of flaming red Scarlet Ibis.

Arriving at Boca Grande delta, just beyond the northern fringes of the Orinoco basin, we anchor in the shallows and jump overboard into the swirling mix of fresh and salt water. After pausing to feast on yellow passion fruit as big as oranges, we dive down to collect handfuls of velvety, grey mud from the delta bed. Full of minerals, it makes a great face pack. We return to Hacienda Bukare looking five years younger.

The following morning we breakfast on arepas (grilled corn scones) spread with Billy’s home-made chocolate sauce, washed down with fresh-made coffee from nearby plantations.

Our destination today is the Guacharo caves, which were documented by Alexander von Humbolt in his 1799 expedition. It is a three-hour drive. Crossing the mountain pass at 1,000m, thick cloud cuts our visibility to almost zero. A bit further on, landslides force us to detour off the road onto dirt tracks through the jungle. It makes the M25 seem almost civilised. We are compensated for our bumpy ride with a great view of the so-called red mountain – its slopes swathed in vermilion-coloured flowering grasses.

The main cave is 11km long, and home to a colony of 18,000 Guacharos or Oil Birds. A nocturnal species, they navigate by sonar. Guacharos make a hideous guttural sound, like an old man with a heavy cold clearing his throat. Not surprisingly, predators keep their distance.

Inside the cave is au naturel, exactly the way it has been for thousands of years. No walkways, hand rails or lighting. The light from the entrance peters out after 250 metres. It is pitch black. Our guide carries a small gas lamp. We enter a cathedral-like chamber, studded with six metre stalagmites and stalactites. The calcite content makes them glitter, like huge jewelled fingers.

Passing a small stream, we progress through two more chambers and, 400 metres inside, come to a small pool. Tiny fish dart back and forth. Crabs and millipedes scurry over mounds of Guacharo guano sprouting small plants. How can life exist in this total darkness?

Squeezing through a long, low crevasse we emerge into a new chamber, and discover a ribbed “piano” stalagmite. Tapping the ribs, they each ring a different note. I tried a rendition of The Internationale. It must have been passable because a voice from out of the distant darkness shouts: “Viva companero!” His greeting echoes around the chamber several times.

From here onwards, the passages get tighter and the chambers smaller. We stoop and scramble to the 1.2km point, before turning back.

Soon after emerging from the cave at dusk, a thunderous flapping of wings breaks the jungle silence as the first flocks of Guacharos fly out in search of dinner. A cue for us to snack on some of Billy’s home-made bollos – boiled corn dumplings stuffed with vegetables and cheeses.

On my last full day, I hike up Cerro Humo (smoke mountain), so-called because its 1350m peak is almost always covered in puffs of smoke-like cloud. Paradise for botanists and bird-watchers (Venezuela hosts over 1,300 bird species), the mountain is also alive with sloths, armadillos, howler monkeys and brilliant blue Morpho butterflies with 15cm wingspans.

My verdict? Paria Peninsula is untamed nature, up close and personal. But it may not last forever. What are you waiting for? Get there and see what Columbus saw – before some greedy fool tarmacs and commercialises paradise.

Way to go

Journey Latin America offers tailor-made tours to Venezuela. Prices start at £1,145 for the Paria Peninsula, including international and domestic flights, transfers, 7 nights accommodation and most meals, based on two people sharing. A 4-day extension to the Angel Falls costs an additional £550, including flights from Caracas, accommodation and all meals. Reservations: 0208 747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk
Further info: Venezuela Tourist Office: 020 7584 4206, www.venezuelatuya.com

Time difference: GMT – 6 hours

Country code: 00 58

Flight time from London: 12.5 hours (via Paris or Frankfurt)

Currency: £1 = 4,040 Venezuela Bolivares

Copyright Peter Tatchell 2005.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Guardian travel section on 11 June 2005, under the title: It’s a jungle out there.