Moments after spotting the anaconda gliding across the water, our local guide, Rafael, pulled on his rubber boots and hopped out of the boat in pursuit.
tanding in foot-deep water along the river’s edge, he searched the floating vegetation for movement, or a flash of olive-coloured skin, before suddenly turning around and running back to the boat.
“Grande! Grande!” he shouted in Spanish, holding his arms out wide and pointing at the silty brown water. “Tres metros!” he exclaimed -- the snake was three metres long.
Our other guide, Christophe, a lanky Frenchman, grabbed a stick and jumped into the water with him.
Together, they poked at the water hyacinth for several minutes, but with no luck - or maybe luckily for them.
The stealthy snake -- known to swallow cattle, deer, and wild pigs whole -- had disappeared.
The excitement over, we continued our journey into the unspoiled wilderness of Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta.
Located on the country’s northeast coast, the delta is a vast system of tangled waterways that weave through the steamy swamp forest and carry the waters of Venezuela’s largest river, the Orinoco, to the Atlantic Ocean. The web of more than 300 rivers and countless streams and channels covers 28,000-square-kilometres. Subject to the ocean tides, the water levels rise and fall one to two metres a day, changing directions every six hours or so.
My boyfriend, Pat, and I, had arrived in the delta via Margarita Island, a little-known Caribbean getaway 20 kilometres off Venezuela’s coast.
A 45-minute flight to the city of Maturin, followed by a two-hour drive and a one-hour boat ride, put us in the midst of one the largest intact wetlands remaining on the planet.
On land and in the water, the delta's ecosystem supports a huge diversity of wildlife.
During our three-day excursion we saw toucans, hoatzin, parrots, flocks of scarlet ibis, capuchin monkeys, diving anhingas, fresh water dolphins, giant frogs and lizards.
Electric blue morpho butterflys fluttered by across the water and furry grey bats swooped past our heads.
While fishing for piranha in a narrow inlet, a troupe of howler monkeys peered down at our group from the jungle canopy overhead. As we moored the boat along a stand of mangroves and dangled our baited hooks in the water, the howler's eerie calls echoed through the still morning air, protesting our invasion.
There was only five of us in a boat big enough for 20 - myself, Pat, Christophe, Rafael and Joyce, an adventurous, 75-year-old Brit who was on a tour of several South and Central American countries.
In the delta, boats are the main form of transportation for the local inhabitants, the Warao Indians, which translated literally means “canoe people.”
The tribe of hunters and fishermen travel by dugout canoes and live simply in wooden palafitos -- crude log houses raised on stilts along the riverbanks.
With no walls, their hammocks and belongings hang from the rafters for all to see. There is no running water although some of the small villages had electricity.
For lunch, we stopped to visit a Warao family - Rafael’s relatives. Eight barefoot children -- five girls in dresses and three shirtless boys, aged four months to about 15 years old -- watched us with curiosity, crowding around to see the images from our digital camera. Such technology is rare in the delta, although the family did have a 21-inch television sitting in a box next to a generator, with what appeared to be a home-schooling video sticking out the top.
After a meal of tuna salad and el pan - flat bread prepared by Rafael over an open fire - the younger children brought out a selection of handicrafts for sale, made with fibres from the moriche palm tree, also known as the tree of life.
The Indians have more than 40 uses for the tree, Christophe told us. They eat its fruit, make wine from it, use its pulp to make bread, build fishing tools from it and build their homes with it, amoung other things.
One of the girls demostrated for us how the moriche fibres are woven to form rope, which is then woven into hammocks and baskets. I asked her family if I could take her picture, which they okayed. She seemed quite embarrased by all the attention, but proud to show off her skills.
We asked Christophe if he know how old she was. He asked Rafael in Spanish, who in turn asked her parents in Warao.
After much discussion, Christophe replied that she was "around 11." They didn't know her exact age. "For them, it's not important," he said.
For 60,000 Bolivares, or about $30 Cdn, we bought two large hammocks from the family to take home with us.
Back on the water that afternoon, we stopped to talk to an elderly Warao fisherman, paddling by in his dugout canoe, a pile of gurbinata fish and a bowl of water hyacinth laying in the bow.
In Warao, Rafael asked him what the plants were for.
“My canoe was too fast and I needed the weight to slow it down,” he said with a grin. For a glass of cold Coke, he let me to take his picture before heading off down the river.
After a morning on the water, we headed into the jungle to take a closer look at the dense vegetation.
Enormous leaves nearly blocked out the sun. The only sound was the quiet hum of mosquitoes.
As we slogged through the marshy landscape, Rafael pointed out medicinal and edible plants, chopping up a snack of fresh palm hearts with his two-foot machete and breaking open a palm nut so we could sip its bitter juice.
Cutting into the bark of a sangrito tree, he showed us the red sap bleeding out, which is used by the natives to treat foot fungus.
Using his machete again, Rafael fashioned a firestick from tree branches and, using dried coconut husks for fuel, he and Christophe set about making fire the old fashioned way. After a few minutes of intense rubbing, smoke began rising into the air. Sweat poured down our guide's faces from the exertion and the humidity. But their hard work was rewarded when small flames started flicking up.
Back on the water, fires were starting to dot the shoreline and the air smelled of smoke as the Warao women began to prepare the evening meal.
With the sun sinking into the horizon, Christophe mixed us up Cuba Libres and we headed back to our base camp, the Orinoco Delta Lodge, for the night.
After a supper of fresh catfish and vegetables, we sat by the water’s edge and watched a full moon rise over the river, gazing at a million twinkling stars and planning our return visit to this exotic paradise.
Three days was simply not enough.