Thursday 17 October

I sleep soundly until I am woken again by the electronic carillon at 6 am. Our journey today takes us south out of the hills and into the great plains, ‘Los Llanos’. Leaving Apartadoros, we climb for a short way before beginning our long descent down winding roads. The vegetation soon becomes more tropical and waterfalls run between the trees down the sides of the steep valley into the reservoir at the bottom. We make a morning stop at a small roadside café just before we finally leave the hills behind us. Hundreds of colourful butterflies flit all around us.

Los Llanos is a complete contrast to the Andes. It is flat as far as the eye can see in all directions, a mixture of grassy plains, scattered trees, and farms. Our guesthouse is at Puerto Nutrias. The rooms are arranged on one side of a grassy courtyard with a swimming pool in the middle. On an adjacent side is the restaurant. I feel as though I am melting in the heat. There is time for a brief swim and a shower, then we are back in the bus to drive the short way to the River Apure, where we cross over a rather rickety-looking suspension bridge (holes in the steel deck) into the town.

We stop several times to pick up ice, fishing line, and other miscellaneous bits and pieces, and finally pull up by the concrete wall next to the river. Life-vests are handed out and then we transfer to the waiting steel canoe. Apparently the River Apure is a favourite smuggling route from Colombia, and we must report to the military police on the opposite bank before leaving. But finally we are away heading upstream.

The journey seems to go on forever, and there is not much sign of wildlife under the hot sun. Finally, we turn off down a narrow channel, and catch sight of howler monkeys, iguana, a kingfisher, wood-pecker, and a strange bird, in appearance a cross between a pheasant and a chicken (although apparently more closely related to the cuckoo) called the hoatzin. The hoatzin has many curiosities, not least that the young hatchling has a claw on each wing that it can use in order to climb back into the nest after jumping out to escape a predator. One of our Indian guides quickly illustrates this fact by fetching a young hoatzin from a nearby tree for our inspection. We are not altogether comfortable with seeing the mother’s evident distress in the nearby tree, but the young bird is seemingly none the worse for its experience as it claws its way along a branch back to the nest after the guide releases it.

We are all unsuccessful in the billed activity of piranha fishing, other than to give the piranhas a good afternoon snack. Pieces of raw meat are skewered onto large barbed hooks, which are then cast into the river on the end of a line. When you feel the nibble on the line, you pull it in fast. Every time, the hook is empty, and the piece of bait is smaller. One of the guides does catch a piranha but it is too small to eat. It does nevertheless sport a frighteningly sharp array of teeth.

On our return, river dolphins come to investigate us, always though keeping a cautions distance from the boat. They are hard to see as they are always between us and the setting sun, but the low and somewhat angular dorsal fin gives them a very different appearance to the seawater dolphin.

We return just as the sun is setting. A bored official at the military checkpoint makes a cursory check that we have not picked up any extraneous passengers, and we disembark and return to the bus. Half way across the suspension bridge, Miguel stops the bus and we get out, carefully stepping around the holes, to admire the sunset and feel the deck shake as a small lorry drives across.