The Orinoco River – the third largest river in the world – is 2,500 km long. It originates in the Sierra Parima at 1,074 m and receives water from more than 2,000 tributaries before discharging into the Atlantic Ocean. Its drainage basin is the third largest in South America, with an area of 830,000 km². Where the Orinoco River meets the Atlantic Ocean in northeastern Venezuela, the sediment deposited during thousands of years has formed the Orinoco Delta, an area of around 40,000 km².
The climate of the Orinoco River basin and delta is tropical with a wet season from May/June to November and dry season from December to April. Rainfall typically ranges from 1000 to 2000 mm per year and is greater to the south, in the Guayana region. Temperatures vary little throughout the year, with a typical range of 24.8 to 26.7 degrees Celsius.
The Orinoco Delta eco-region consists of around 60 caños (waterways) and 40 rivers. These have created a mosaic of swamp, mixed tropical rainforests, flooded grasslands, river islands, savannah and mangroves. It is one of the largest intact and largely pristine wetland areas remaining on earth. Two types of streams are found in the Delta: brown-water streams (which are directly connected to upland rivers and carry suspended sediment) and black-water streams (which drain delta swamps and carry clear water rich in humic acids).
The Delta provides a critical habitat to a number of endangered species such as the Orinoco crocodile, Amazon River dolphin, jaguar, bush dog, giant river otter, Orinoco goose, and the Harpy eagle. The vast Orinoco Delta plain includes important refuge and nesting areas for many bird species, including hoatzin, macaws, parrots, toucans, caciques, kingfishers, cormorants, egrets, falcons, hawks, weaverbirds and hummingbirds. The rich waters provide natural breeding and hatchery areas for amphibians, reptiles and fish: anaconda, boas, vipers, fer-de-lance, coral snakes, iguana, caiman, turtles, piraña, stingrays and catfish can all be found here, as can many rare varieties of plants.
The Orinoco Delta is also home to a significant population of the Warao, an indigenous Amerindian people whose traditional way of life – fishing, hunting and gathering – centres on the water system. The name Warao means “people of the canoe”: the only mode of transportation for hundreds of miles is by dugout canoe. On the banks of the water, the Warao live in huts (palafitos) that usually have a thatched roof but no walls. These huts are constructed on stilts due to the frequent flooding of the Delta. A fire pit made of clay – used for cooking – is in the centre of each hut and the people sleep in hammocks. The Warao are skilled craftspeople, using local materials including balsa wood and the moriche palm to make souvenirs such as baskets and carved animals for travelers.
Orinoco Eco Camp
On your excursion to the Delta you will stay in the Orinoco Eco-camp, on the north-eastern edge of the national nature reserve. The camp was constructed a few years ago with the help of local Warao builders, using the same natural materials and design that they use for their own homes. 16 open-sided, thatched-roof sleeping cabins sit at the confluence of two rivers, surrounded by rainforest. Each cabin has 1 or 2 double beds with mosquito nets. A boardwalk connects the cabins to a toilet and shower block, and to the kitchen and eating area. All meals are included. There is a small bar and communal area with wooden seats and hammocks where you can relax and talk with other travellers during the evening. A generator provides electricity for part of the day, so you can charge your camera batteries. There are no TVs or Internet to disturb you, and no mobile phone reception: just the beauty and tranquility of nature. The camp is looked after by experienced English-and Spanish-speaking staff, helped by local Warao people. Their aim is to give visitors an authentic and simple experience of Delta life – unlike the larger and more commercial tourist lodges on the eastern side of the Delta.
Depending on how many nights you stay in the camp, you can go on guided jungle walks; motor boat river trips in search of exotic birds and animals; night excursions in a small Amerindian canoe to look for caiman and snakes; swimming: a trip to a local Buffalo farm; visits to the homes of local Warao people who live on the banks of the rivers to buy some of their handicrafts. For those travellers staying longer, you may decide to spend the night in a Warao village. There you will sleep in a hammock in a Warao hut and get the chance to know more about the culture and lives of these fascinating “people of the canoe”.