The mighty Orinoco is one of the world’s great rivers. It rises in the Sierra Parima, at the very southeastern tip of Amazonas State and flows in a giant ‘C’ shape for 2,140 km totally within Venezuela. This, the eighth largest river in the world, is fed by 2,000 other rivers. No less than 70 percent of Venezuelan territory drains totally or partially into the Orinoco, which then pours 1,110 billion cubic metres of water into the Atlantic Ocean each year at a rate of 18,000 cubic metres per second.
The Orinoco, which in the local Warao language means ‘father of our land’, has formed over time into one of the largest deltas in the world, covering an area of over 40,000 sq km (roughly the size of the Netherlands) in the far northeast of Venezuela. It is a region of wild forests, humid jungles and mangrove swamps, where the great Orinoco splits into an tangle of rivers, channels and estuaries carrying the waters of this great river to one or other of its more than 70 major mouths.
The main part of the river continues east and pours out into the Atlantic at Boca Grande, near the Guayanan border. Northwards the river breaks into a mass of meandering channels which terminate in the bocas chichas, or little mouths. The delta, strangely enough, is named after the Amacuro River, which flows northwest from the mountains on the southern side of the Orinoco to merge with the great river. It is home to manatee, dolphins and a variety of birds such as toucans and parrots.
The Delta Amacuro, as it is officially known, is still inhabited by the Warao people, who have adapted so well to their particular environment that they are said to learn to swim and paddle a canoe before they can even walk. They have been preserved as an ethnic group thanks to the difficulties of travelling and living in the delta and by its lack of precious commodities. The Warao are famed as canoe-makers, or curiara, as they are called. In fact, Warao means ‘people of the boat’. All others, outsiders, are called Hotarao – ‘people of the land’. If you take a tour from Tucupita into the heart of the delta, you’ll see the traditional Warao dwellings, called palafitos, which are open-sided buildings of wood and palm-thatch raised up on stilts.