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Venezuela: pink dolphins and grilled piranha

Exploring Venezuela's Orinoco River.

Robin Esrock/Robin Esrock

It was way off the beaten path, in an off-the-beaten-path kind of country.

Not many people think of Venezuela as a tourist destination, perhaps because its outspoken President, Hugo Chavez, seems hell bent on soaking up all the limelight. Locals didn't seem to mind on Playa Colorado, however, as they crowd the red-sand beach rolling into the turquoise Caribbean.

It's here that Chris Patterson, a curly-haired Scot with more stories than a skyscraper, set up his rustic Jakera Lodge in this small town as a launching pad for guided jungle adventures. To get me in the mood, he towed me behind a fishing boat with wild dolphins ("Watch out for the tiger sharks, mate!") and took me abseiling off a nearby waterfall ("Oops, almost forgot to tie the rope!"). Suitably inspired and terrified, I helped load up the Land Rover with kayaks and supplies for our weeklong encounter with the Orinoco Delta, and the People of the Canoe.

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Mr. Patterson has been guiding small groups into the Orinoco Delta for years. He has established a good working relationship with the Warao - Venezuela's People of the Canoe - and a healthy respect for their culture and environment. Typically he prefers using low-impact kayaks on a two-week journey, paddling alongside dense jungle for about 150 kilometres up the tributaries. I only had a week, so we used a speedboat. Accommodation consisted of hammocks surrounded by mosquito nets, and our meals were camping staples, or whatever we could catch. The Orinoco has the second-largest river drainage system after the Amazon, an average temperature of 27 C, and is 25,000 square kilometres of pristine, undeveloped ecosystem - protected and inhabited by the Warao. It's a true jungle adventure, and not an easy one.

We paddle into a stilted wooden shack on the riverbank. There are no walls, just a thatch cover and wooden floor, in the manner of Warao dwellings. The sun is setting, and mosquitoes are sharpening their claws. They seem to like the taste of my citronella repellent. Mr. Patterson swears by his mixture of baby oil and herbal tincture, his skin so slick "there's nowhere for the bastards to land." Our Warao guides use nothing. Cocooned shortly after dinner in my hammock, the mosquitoes cling to the net, close enough to hear their chainsaws in my ears. By morning, I have two-dozen red welts. In the jungle, bites are collected like war medals.

Along the river, it feels like I've entered Pandora (the jungle planet in Avatar). Pulsing river stingrays bob to the surface, monkeys swing from trees, a spider web in the foliage looks like it could trap a bicycle. Warao men float effortlessly by in their hand-carved canoes, while our speedboat feels clunky and alien. With the river as their lifeblood, it is said that Warao children can swim before they learn to walk. On a narrow waterway, five young girls with high cheekbones and soft hooded eyes row past us. They are almost ethereal in their silence.

We come to a village, where the local government has provided bright-blue water containers to prevent people from drinking contaminated river water, encouraging them to collect rainwater instead. Young boys are floating on the blue lids, playing around.

"Say, aren't there piranhas in these waters?" I ask.

Man-eating fish with razor-sharp teeth are more terrifying in James Bond movies than in real life. I'm told piranha typically only go after bigger fish, and you'd have to be unlucky to lose a finger or toe, which does occasionally happen. My Warao guide hands me a stick with a thin vine attached to a hook. He splashes the tip against the water, and within seconds snaps his arm up to reveal a small piranha twitching. On the grill with some lime, it's better we eat them than vice versa.

On the final night, we hole up in a river lodge, still remote, yet close enough to a town for tourists. A muscular tapir crosses a wooden boardwalk. A toucan and macaw flutter freely at the reception. The German bartender packs some drinks for a sunset swim in a fast-flowing section where the tributaries meet. It may have been the strong rum, but the sky explodes in spectacular purple and peach. Just then, a pink river dolphin leaps into the air, a few metres from my head. As one of the most endangered species, it's the first and probably last pink dolphin I'll ever see.

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"That didn't just happen, did it?" I ask.

"Oh it happened, and I got it on tape!" says Sean, my cameraman. In my TV show, the shot lasts but a fraction of a second. In my memory, it's a freeze frame of pure magic.

Missionaries were handing out Bibles, toys and shampoo to grateful Warao kids. I was equally out of place, an emissary from another world. Progress and politics have already eroded Warao culture, with speedboats, electricity and satellite dishes. In 2008, a mysterious illness linked to bats killed 38 people. The Warao are physically, ideologically and environmentally under threat. Jungle ecotourism, like Mr. Patterson's customized trips, might be an answer, or it may further exasperate the issue. How we encounter another world, without changing it, gave me much to chew on the drive back to Playa Colorado. There were 43 bites below my kneecap. The bugs had had plenty to chew on too.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Catch up with Robin at or on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels.

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