2011 - Exploring the Manamo River

When I first suggested a trip up the Manamo River in Venezuela, Glenys’s reaction was not very favourable, “Hmmm, let me think about that – jungle, hot, humid, mosquitoes & piranha.  Err, I don’t think so!”  

Then in Trinidad, we met Rixzene & Steve on the catamaran “Pogeyan”.  Rixzene had done the trip a couple of years earlier and raved about the wildlife and the Warao Indians in their dugout canoes.  She said that it wasn’t too hot and it was good fun.  We also talked to Ian and Jackie on their 40 foot yacht “Blackthorn Lady” who wanted to go as well.  A week later, our small flotilla of three boats headed south west, armed with a hand drawn map of the river system and some notes written by cruisers who had done the trip in previous years.

Warao Indians

The Manamo River is part of the vast delta created by the Orinoco River.  It’s a region of wild forests, jungle and mangrove swamps, which is woven with rivers and channels called “canos”.  The approach to the river mouth starts about seven miles out and is roughly four metres deep, going past some very shallow patches.  We found the GPS coordinates provided by the cruising notes and the electronic charts of the approaches to be accurate. 

After a ten hour passage, we anchored off the small town of Pedernales and went to see the Guardia Nacional to clear in.  We speak very little Spanish and they spoke no English, but we managed to let them know that we wanted to cruise the rivers for a couple of weeks.  They simply wrote our details down in a ledger and that was it.  We hadn’t officially entered Venezuela, but they didn’t seem to mind.

The next morning, we headed off around the point from Pedernales into the Manamo River itself.  The delta mouth is almost a mile wide at this point and there is a shallow bar that sticks out half way across the river.  We nearly went aground a couple of times and it was a pretty tense hour of watching the depth gauge and working out which way to turn when it was getting shallow.  Fortunately, once we were in the river, the depth varied between 6 and 10 metres deep.  

At this point, the river was about 400 metres wide, the jungle was very thick on both sides and the water stayed deep to within 20 metres of the shore. We took it nice and slow and enjoyed a gentle two hour trip up to Ibis Island.  Once anchored, we had several groups of Warao Indians visit us.  

The Warao Indians are the indigenous people of the region and traditionally live in wooden dwellings, supported above the water on wooden piles and thatched with palm branches. They still fish from dug-out canoes and live off the jungle, going to the towns to trade their traditional crafts including woven baskets and hammocks.  This is changing rapidly as the Venezuelan government has been supplying the Warao with powerful outboard motors and setting up large villages with schools and more modern facilities.

Trading with Warao Indians

Our first contact with the Warao was not encouraging.  They arrived in an assortment of dugout canoes and pirogues and were mostly children who wanted hand-outs.  At one large village, we were mobbed by ten large pirogues full of children expecting sweets.  However, on the third night, just as I was starting to get despondent about the begging, we anchored by a village and hoards of Warao Indians arrived with something to trade.  

Glenys had a fun time bartering for baskets and bracelets.  She established a process where she first chose one or two items from the many being offered.  She then showed the Warao a small selection of items that she was willing to trade and laid them out on the deck, indicating how many items they could have.  We’d been prepared for this and had brought small items like toothpaste, pencils, colouring books, small towels, clothing, soap, dress material, etc.  

The fun part was watching the ladies touch the various objects trying to decide which one they wanted.  They are torn between the practical items like soap and the more frivolous items like toys for the children.  Most times they ended up with a choice between two items and went for the practical object, at which point, Glenys cracked up and handed them both items. 

On our fourth day, we had our first encounter with Water Hyacinths.  Large rafts of these floating plants drift around with the current and can get lodged on anchor chains.  The first morning it happened to us, I spent fifteen minutes hacking with a machete to clear it.  Rixzene told me later that the best way to get the hyacinths off is to motor forwards then to reverse back, leaving the bora separated from the chain.   

Glenys catches a Piranha

There are a few small “Eco-resorts” in the river.  At the Boca Tigre Lodge, we organised a guide to show us around the area.  We first donned big wellington boots and walked through the muddy jungle while the guide pointed out various trees which the Warao Indians use.  Then we went fishing for Piranha, which live in the smaller side canos.  We used simple fishing poles with a ½” long hook and small chunks of uncooked chicken for bait.  The secret is to attract the Piranha by splashing the water with the end of the fishing pole to simulate an animal that has fallen in the water.  Glenys and I caught one each, which we cooked later and shared with the others as a starter for dinner – very tasty.

The wild life is amazing.  Parrots are constantly flying overhead squawking loudly, howler monkeys roar in the distance and toucans can be occasionally spotted in the trees.  We were visited by river dolphins on many occasions.  These strange, pink mottled mammals seem to like the shallower water where we preferred to anchor.  Or were they just curious about us, like the Warao Indians?

After a week cruising up river, we arrived at the furthest navigable point which is a small town called Boca de Uracoa.  There’s an electrical cable strung across the river. Some cruisers have managed to get underneath the cable, but with a 60 foot mast, I didn’t want to try it. Boca de Uracoa is a real one horse town. There are impressive, gaily painted water taxi stands on the river front, but beyond that there is one main street with a few shops and food stalls. The main grocery shop doesn’t have any sign, but can be found by the crowd of people hanging about outside the small frontage.  There are red iron gratings stopping anyone going into the shop and you have to ask the shop keeper for the items that you require - shop lifting is obviously a problem.  

“Pogeyan” and “Blackthorn Lady” found the fuel dock and filled jerry cans with diesel.  They bought 35 gallons of diesel for 7.5 bolivars which is approximately $1 US – that makes diesel only three US cents per gallon. There’s a small bar next to the fuel dock, where we managed to buy a case of beer for $15 US, which makes beer 71 times more expensive than diesel.

We travelled back to the Boca Tigre Lodge where Glenys and I went exploring.  All of the electronic charts stop about half a mile west of the lodge, so I thought that it would be interesting to map it out and see if it leads to San Hose de Buja which has a road going to a city called Maturin.  After an hour, we came across a junction in the river, where there was a floating barrier across the branch which heads south west.  This was made from 56 gallon oil drums, strung together with chain and logs.  The purpose appeared to be to stop Water Hyacinth going up that part of the river – and it looked to be effective.  We watched a local pirogue slide across by pulling up their outboard, but there didn’t seem to be any way that we would be able to cross it with our 2 metre deep keel.

Exploring narrow branches in the Orinoco delta system

We continued up the other branch, continually doing battle with the ever thickening rafts of water hyacinths.  When we were eight miles from the anchorage, we came across another junction in the river.  Both river branches seemed to be getting thicker with hyacinths, so we decided to call it a day and head back.  

The cruising notes have a couple of paragraphs giving some sketchy details about a yacht that went down a small cano and managed to get across from the Manamo River to the Pedernales River.  We anchored close to the start of this cano on our eleventh night.  I was keen to give it a go, but “Pogeyan” thought that it would be too narrow for their 47 foot catamaran and “Blackthorn Lady” decided to stay with “Pogeyan.” 

The next morning, Glenys and I lifted our anchor at eight o’clock and motored off by ourselves.  The first half of the linking cano has depths between 6 and 15 metres and is initially over 50 metres wide.  After an hour of motoring at 5 knots, the cano started to narrow and trees began to encroach on the water.  An hour later, we came to a junction where there is a Warao Indian village.  They had very traditional dwellings with palm leaf roofs and most of the kids were naked.  There were many happy, smiling children waving at this strange apparition passing very close to their homes.  

We took the right hand fork which was 30 metres wide with many of the trees hanging over the water.  From this point onwards, Glenys was stood on the back deck, watching the trees and making sure that we didn’t hit branches with our 60 foot mast and rigging.  I focussed on slowly steering us through this maze and watching out for water hyacinth and sodden floating logs.  We hit two big logs with a thump, but both times I had the engine in neutral gear and no damage was done.  The depth hardly ever dropped below 5 metres, which was a great relief, as we had enough to worry about with zigzagging between the trees.  The narrowest point in the river was 15-20 metres wide and there were no places where we touched the trees.

It took us an hour of intense concentration to weave our way through to the Pedernales River and what a welcome sight it was.  In retrospect, the route was not difficult at all, but it was stressful because we didn’t know whether there was a way through.  At some parts, where the trees are thickest, there is little room to turn a 42 foot yacht around, so we were pretty committed to keeping on going.  Once we got through, both of us thought that it had been good fun.

Happy smiling kids on Pedernales River (note satellite dishes)

We slowly motored north down the wide river towards Pedernales, stopping for one night anchored off an island in splendid isolation.  The Pedernales River is quite shallow compared to the Manamo River, being between 5 to 10 metres deep.  The vegetation on the shore was more regular with less palm trees as we went towards the sea.  There are a lot of pirogues travelling up and down the river.  Most of the boats slowed down to stare when they saw us.  We passed a few big Warao villages – these had more “modern” buildings with corrugated iron roofs.  Many dwellings still don’t have walls, but most of them have satellite TV dishes.  Only a few dugouts bothered to come out to stare at us, but the children waved and smiled from the shore.  I don’t think that they see many yachts down the Pedernales River.

We met up with “Blackthorn Lady” and “Pogeyan” who were already anchored off Pedernales and preparing to leave for Trinidad the next day.  One of the problems that we faced going back to Trinidad was that we wouldn’t have any documentation to show that we had been in Venezuela for two weeks.  Some cruisers have had a very hard time from the Trinidad customs officers when they arrive with no papers.  We had prepared a home-made departure document (zarpe) which we hoped that the Guardia Nacional would stamp.  

We went in to see the Guardia Nacional with the others.  I had written down what I was going to say in Spanish, “Es possible para usted meter una marca en mi zarpe?”  He seemed to understand and immediately stamped my homemade exit papers and wrote down our passport details in his ledger.  We found the officials to be very friendly and helpful – a credit to their country.

We all left early the next morning.  Glenys and I decided to head directly to Grenada and the others went back to Trinidad.  Twenty four hours later, we were back in the “civilisation” of Prickly Bay where we had no problems clearing in with our home made zarpe.  It was a fantastic two weeks of cruising and exploring an area not often visited by yachts.  The people were friendly, we had no concerns about security and the environment is very different from the West Indies.  As an added bonus, the fresh river water killed off all the barnacles that we had picked up in Chagaramus.

As we travelled and explored the area, I drew a detailed chart with cruising notes, including the cano connecting the Manamo and Pedernales Rivers.  This chart and a more detailed diary of this trip can be downloaded from our website:   http://www.thehowarths.net/downloads.html