The Orinoco symbolizes all that is mysterious, wild, and wonderful in South America, and makes for a spectacular alternative to the over-visited Amazon
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Originating in southern Venezuela, the river runs north along the border with Colombia and then east across Venezuela to the sea
1,699 miles (2,735 km) CLIMATE Temperatures range from 81°F (27°C) to 88°F (31°C); the Orinoco is much less humid than most tropical rivers
The Orinoco will not fail to delight even the most jaded traveler. The Amazon may be bigger and better known, but it doesn’t provide direct access to the continent’s most astonishing wildlife and scenery the way the Orinoco does. This mighty river system is home to some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, and runs a breathtaking topographical gamut, from tall mountains and tropical forests to humid llanos (plains) and marshy deltas, before finally emptying into the Atlantic.
For centuries this mysterious river has intrigued explorers and adventurers. The mouth of the Orinoco was sighted by Columbus in 1498, but it was not until the 1950s that explorers finally stumbled upon its headwaters at Cerro Delgado- Chalbaud, one of the most remote spots in the western hemisphere, located high up in the Parima Mountains on the border between Brazil and Venezuela. Even now there remains some doubt about the river’s true source, and several of its tributaries have yet to be explored.
What makes the Orinoco so impressive is the incredible diversity of microclimates, fauna, flora, and terrain, which fall within its enormous basin – an area of more than 340,000 sq miles (880,000 sq km).
Though the Amazon boasts remarkable biological richness, much of the river is either inaccessible or prohibitively expensive to reach, while the Orinoco – which is navigable for most of its length, unlike the Amazon – is easily seen and explored. Keep your eyes peeled and you’re likely to spot alligators, pink dolphins, boa constrictors, herons, howler monkeys, and pumas. The Orinoco protects one of the last pristine ecosystems on the planet, and boasts the highest biodiversity rate of any river system. Nearly a dozen new species are discovered along its banks every month. And the river’s mouth, the Orinoco Delta, is thought to be the continent’s richest area in aquatic biodiversity. At last count, this still largely uncharted river was home to more than 10,000 plant species, 1,400 bird species, 1,200 fish species, and at least 340 different types of mammals. You won’t find those numbers anywhere else on earth.
FORGET THE AMAZON?
THE BUILD-UP There’s no doubt that the Amazon, a long-time favorite with explorers, remains a big draw for travelers. It is, after all, a superlative among rivers: it is the longest river in South America (some say the world), has the largest drainage basin on earth, and, by dint of its sheer size, is home to a staggering array of flora and fauna.
THE LETDOWN But what will you really have a chance to see here? The few towns teem with tour operators and travel agencies, all of which charge top-end prices, but few of which deliver.
Hardly any of these tour operators are located on the river. And then there’s the Amazon itself – unlike the Orinoco, parts of it are literally impassable, and the foliage is often so dense that you may not be able to see much of anything.
GOING ANYWAY? For those who feel they must see the Amazon at all costs, one option is to fly to Manaus in Brazil, and start the journey there. The city’s central location and innumerable tour operators will make your planning easier.
Getting There and Around
Many travelers choose to start their trip at the mouth of the river, which is northeast of Ciudad Guyana in Venezuela, and stock up on provisions in the city. There are many reputable tour operators here, who will take you around some remarkable sights, including picturesque waterfalls and pools, before you get to the river.
Where to Eat
On a river excursion like this you will probably have your own food on board. However, it’s likely that you will stop off at several towns along the river, where you’ll have the chance to sample local food ranging from traditional chicken- and rice-based dishes to more exotic flavors, including ostrich and even piranha.
Where to Stay
Although you’ll probably spend most nights on the boat, the town of Caicara de Orinoco, 373 miles (600 km) southwest of Ciudad Guyana, is a perfect stopover point.
The Hotel Miami (tel. +58 35 67 587) here is comfortable and inexpensive, and is also only a stone’s throw from the town’s best restaurant, Caicara de Orinoco.
When to Go
The best time to visit is in September, when humidity is at its lowest and you have a good chance of seeing wildlife.
Budget per Day for Two
Roughly US$150, depending on your tour operator.