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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales



High in the Andes, Higher in the Amazon

© 2011 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved



 “Primitive rainforest dwellers! The very words tantalized my imagination, but nothing prepared me for the quirky, enlightening adventure awaiting us deep in the Venezuelan Amazon.”


My father joined me aboard my sailboat, Sparrow, in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. This time he didn’t come for the sailing, though. Our goal was to explore some of Venezuela’s diverse interior together, mostly by car and small plane, but as it turned out also by foot, horseback and dugout canoe.

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I left Sparrow in the care of another skipper and Dad & I flew to Caracas, where we rented a car and immediately headed west. I was anxious to get to the Andes, my first visit to South America's legendary mountain range. My father was up for that, too, but his real passion had always been tropical rainforests and the animals and primitive tribes that inhabit them. So we had agreed to do both, traverse the Andes and then visit  Venezuela's Amazon region. It is this second half of our trip, the Amazon, that I want to tell you about, but here's a photographic peek at the Andes. Throughout this web page, you can click on the smaller photos to enlarge them.

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The week and a half we spent traveling through the Andes was full and fun. Too soon, it seemed, we were dropping off the rental car in the mile-high city of Merida and boarding a shuttle flight towards the next phase of our adventure, another world altogether. We had to layover in Caracas en route, but the next afternoon a twin-engine plane deposited us on the unpaved landing strip in Puerto Ayacucho, a rough-hewn frontier town on the upper Orinoco River deep in the Amazon region of southernmost Venezuela.

We spent the night there, then moved to a no-frills eco-tour camp miles from town, wedged into the unabated Amazon jungle. (My father was quick to correct my vocabulary, explaining that the word “jungle” is passé; it's called “rainforest” these days. No doubt, but when I first beheld that impenetrable mass of foliage gone ballistic it sure looked like jungle to me, the kind that makes you want to pound your chest and yodel like Tarzan.)

At the camp we were assigned a small bunkhouse entirely to ourselves. It was the slow season; Dad and I were the only guests, with our choice of wood plank cots from a double row of them, each covered with a thin mattress and a mosquito tent. We spent the next few days exploring the Orinoco River and its tributaries, traveling with local guides in cayucos, dugout canoes carved from solid tree trunks, ours powered by outboard motors, the local Indios' by hand-carved paddles. At the end of each day we'd return to our base camp sweaty, tired and happy.

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One day we shared a small charter plane with a European couple, to see some of this amazing terrain from the air.

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That evening after supper several of the young Venezuelan guides were having a beer together on the porch, passing a guitar around and entertaining themselves with popular Venezuelan songs. I watched for a while and they invited me to join them. When the guitar came my way I amused them with a few old calypso favorites. They might not have understood the words, but they definitely got the rhythm. Sharing music is a universal friendship magnet and in no time we were all buddies. (I suppose the beers didn’t hurt, either.) Just before turning in, they told me that tomorrow was their day off and they were going to visit a remote Indio tribe, the Piaroa, to do a little trading. Would my father and I like to join them? Well, they didn’t have to ask twice. We accepted enthusiastically.

My father, Roy Pinney, was a renowned nature writer/photographer/filmmaker with 2-dozen books, a score of television documentaries, more than a thousand articles and countless published photographs to his credit. President of the New York Herpetological Society and a lifelong member of the Explorer’s Club, he had visited and occasionally lived with some of the world’s most primitive tribes. So this kind of mini-expedition was nothing new to him. For me, though, it would be a first glimpse into a world I’d only read about. Primitive rainforest dwellers! The very words tantalized my imagination, but nothing prepared me for the quirky, enlightening adventure awaiting us deep in the Venezuelan Amazon.

We got an early start, the three off-duty guides, my father and I, piling into a jeep and driving for nearly 2 hours on progressively rougher forest roads. The road degraded to a track and soon ended, abruptly, at a wall of green. We grabbed our packs and set off on foot along a narrow trail, the guides incongruously lugging an Igloo cooler with them.

For an hour we passed through dense, virgin rainforest, the high canopy filtering out all direct sunlight, enveloping us in a shadowy, tangled world of spectral views and muted sounds. As we walked I kept a sharp lookout for wildlife, but saw very little; a few birds, one small snake. I had expected more and commented on this to my father. He replied simply, “There’s more than you see, but less than you think.” Dad had a knack for saying a great deal with a few words.

Our arrival in the Piaroa Indio village was gradual. The rainforest thinned a bit and we emerged onto more open ground. One small, domed thatch hut appeared and then another; then several with a few curious Indio women and children eyeing us warily from open doorways. Finally we arrived at the village proper, several acres of cleared land with more huts in closer proximity. Downtown Piaroaville.

Here the Indios came to us smiling, welcoming - young men, a few women and a hoard of darting, giggling children. Most of the adults were dressed in western-style shorts and t-shirts, light cotton dresses for the women, a hodgepodge of faded hand-me-downs. I had the sense they had just put them on when they heard strangers were approaching, a notion reinforced when the village chief appeared wearing only a white loincloth and a necklace of small bones and animal teeth. A short, wiry man of indeterminate age, his hair hung straight and thick and black, parted in the middle, worn like all the men of his tribe in a plain bowl cut.

click any photo to... oh, hell, you know what to do


It was obvious these people recognized our guides and especially the Igloo cooler, brought at such laborious cost. When it was opened, the first ice cold Coca Cola was presented to the chief. Then the other soft drinks and treats were handed out to men, women and children alike, creating a holiday-like atmosphere of smiles and banter. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand a word they said, nor they us. Theirs was a soft, staccato tongue spiced with occasional nasal sounds strange to our ears. We only had Spanish; our guides’ fluent, mine more or less conversational. My father spoke only English (and a little Yiddish). No matter. Everyone was friendly and easygoing and, now that the Igloo goodies were gone, most of the villagers drifted back to whatever they had been doing before we came.

The chief, our guides and a resident interpreter (more about him in a moment) began some discussions and inspections of their respective trade goods, practical household items from civilization in exchange for native handicrafts from the forest. This left my father and me free to wander about, escorted by a troupe of happy, half naked children. They led us to the village swimming hole, a natural pool fed by a clear stream across which a fallen tree trunk provided a diving and king-of-the-mountain jostling platform. I watched a while, delighted by the kids’ antics. My father, ever the naturalist, soon began perusing the path margins for small wildlife to study, a troop of curious children in his wake.


This interpreter I mentioned was from Caracas; quiet, long-haired, in his early 20’s.  He had been living with the tribe now for many months, learning their language and teaching Spanish to some of the young men so they could barter more effectively in Venezuelan marketplaces beyond the forest. For us he was a godsend, enabling us to communicate with the natives, particularly the chief, and them with us.



Dad and I returned to the village and the chief invited us all into what was obviously the community center, a domed thatch hut like the others only much larger, with the tribe's signature, gracefully curved peak at the top. The thatch came all the way to the ground giving the appearance of a great, shaggy, inverted bowl pierced by a single, low, arched entranceway with a woven mat for a door and a ventilation hole at the roof’s apex for smoke from indoor cook fires.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, I felt like I’d walked into one of those lifelike exhibits in the Museum of Natural History, a domestic scene 2,000 years ago. Nearly everything was handmade from forest materials; walls, floor mats, hammocks, baskets, a few stools, a baby’s cradle, a couple of long, tubular blow-guns with darts for hunting monkeys and birds. Two small fires smoldered in widely-spaced fire rings, one with a large cauldron over it. I also noted evidence of our guides’ earlier trading expeditions; some manufactured cooking utensils, assorted plastic bowls & containers and a couple of nylon mosquito nets. A few Indios were already there, including a mother unselfconsciously breast-feeding her infant. Several others followed us into the hut, enjoying the diversion from the ancient routine of the village.

At the chief’s invitation we all sat in a circle on the floor. For a while no one said anything, we gawking at our surroundings, the Indios gawking at us. Then I asked the chief, through the interpreter, what that was cooking in the cauldron, half expecting it to be alligator meat or monkey stew. He replied that it was beer. They were brewing beer. Now, I fancy myself something of an aficionado where beer is concerned, having sampled local brews all over the world. So I asked if I could taste it. The chief said he was sorry, but it would not be ready for a few more days, all this back and forth through the young hippie interpreter; Spanish to Piaroa, Piaroa to Spanish, which I translated to English for my father.

The group sat silently again for a minute or two. Then the chief asked if I would like to try some… he said a name I didn't know, the interpreter simply repeating the Indio word. Well, whatever it was I was up for it and I nodded appreciatively. What the hell, right?

An Indio brought a dish of herb to the chief, who proceeded to roll it up in a leaf and light it. He inhaled a large a puff and let it out slowly. A faraway look came into his dark eyes. As soon as I smelled the smoke I was sure it was marijuana, but the Indios insisted it was some other herb that grows in the forest. The “cigar” passed around the circle and we all partook, including my then-77-year-old father who never smoked anything and rarely drank. It sure felt like pot to me. Later one of the guides suggested maybe the Indios were reluctant to admit to outsiders that they smoked cannabis, fearing problems with Venezuelan officials. Whatever, it was one heep’m good peace pipe, kemosabe.

So now we were all mildly high, sitting, gazing around, smiling. The chief seemed to be studying me. After a while he asked, “Would you like to try yopo?” Of course I had no idea what yopo might be, but true to form I answered “sí.”

This time someone brought a small, tightly woven, oblong basket. As the chief opened it I asked if I could take some photographs. Sure, he nodded, go ahead. I'm not sure he actually knew what photographs are. Inside the basket was an assortment of what I can only call paraphernalia, small, specialized instruments for partaking of a favorite drug. Among the artifacts was a narrow Y-shaped leg bone from some bird, the bones being hollow tubes. Small, dark beads had been fixed to the tops of the “Y”, an addition, as I was about to discover, both ornamental and practical. The whole kit reminded me of what hippies back in the ‘70’s used to call a stash basket.


The yopo itself was brought separately on a wood dish. It looked exactly like a large chunk of hashish; firm, irregular, dark brown in color. No, no, not from cannabis they insisted again. And it wasn’t. The chief ground the chunk to a powder with a mortar and pestle, and then laid out neat lines of it on the plate, like cocaine. He then demonstrated, placing the beaded tops of the leg bone “Y” into his nostrils, holding the other end of the instrument to one of the lines of powdered yopo, and snorting it in one swift inhale. Then he sneezed, once, and the Indios in the group giggled a little.

The chief held up the Y-bone and dishful of lines and asked who would like to go next. Without any hesitation, my father – a straight, sober man all the years I’d known him, but above all an adventurer, anthropologist and lifelong admirer of primitive cultures – my father knelt into the circle first and received the offering. He tucked the Y into his nose and snorted up a line. Then he sneezed, once, and the Indios giggled again. Apparently there was some little joke in the tribe about the inevitable, single sneeze that follows a snort of yopo.

The plate made the rounds, each of us snorting and sneezing. When it got back to the chief there was one line remaining. Who wants it, he gestured? Well, since I had no idea what I had just inhaled, no notion of how strong it might be, I held back. So did the rest of the visitors. But the young interpreter from Caracas knew exactly what yopo was and readily volunteered to finish it. Snort, sneeze, giggle.

For a while we all sat there, immersed in this eerie time/culture warp, sort of waiting to see what would happen next. As the yopo took effect I began to feel light. My perceptions gradually became magnified and things took on more… presence, became more real. It was as though veils were slipping away from my eyes and I was seeing everything with a much clearer, richer perspective. For those of you readers who have ever eaten psilocybin mushrooms, it was a lot like that but not so giddy. It felt good. I became very absorbed in the looking and the seeing.

At some point we all got up to go back outside. I pushed the mat aside and stepped through the low doorway into brilliant, brilliant sunlight. There, gathered around the hut’s entrance in a lose horseshoe 2 and 3 bodies deep, stood most of the villagers, staring at us as we emerged. Apparently the word had gotten around that the chief had shared yopo with their guests and everyone came to see. Their faces were deadpan, staring fixedly. I locked eyes with one young man and a thought occurred to me. “Oh, so this is what you people are doing out here. You live in this tropical paradise, eat monkeys and yucca, swim naked in the streams and get high. Man, you’ve got it made!” As the thought formed in my mind, I began to grin and then smile, broadly, my eyes still locked with the Indio’s. And he seemed to answer me telepathically, saying “Ah, now you get it,” and he broke into a great big smile, and there we stood eye to eye, beaming at each other across several millennia and who knows how many cultural and cosmic dimensions.

Then everyone dispersed. I wandered off into the forest following a footpath, simply enjoying the natural magic of the place. Not far along I heard faint voices coming, it seemed, from some bushes. I reached out and parted them to see what lay beyond. There, standing knee-deep in a pool of clear water formed by a forest stream, stood a young Indio couple, teenagers, facing each other a foot apart and completely naked. They were speaking softly and as they did they gently stroked each other’s hair and shoulders. It was a private moment of shared affection, unbearably tender, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

They didn’t notice me, but I felt guilty invading this sacred scene, albeit by accident. Silently I eased the bushes back together and walked on down the path, utterly enchanted by that glimpse of earthly bliss.

When I returned to the village my group was forming up to leave. We had a long hike ahead of us to the jeep, and then a bumpy ride out of the forest and back to our camp. Some of the villagers milled around offering friendly smiles and gestures. My guides had small bundles of artifacts for which they had traded. My father acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. When I asked him later, he said he hadn’t felt any effects from the herb or the yopo. Sure, Dad.

The chief still clung to his empty Coke bottle, like the aborigine in the movie, "The God's Must Be Crazy." He held my gaze for several long moments, a penetrating, accepting look, as if to say we weren’t so different when you see beyond the surface. I learned later that yopo is normally reserved for special religious ceremonies in the tribe, taken by supplicants in doses many times larger than what we had done, who then go into trance states, sometimes for days, during which they visit their ancestors in the spirit world to communicate and gain wisdom. It was rarely shared with outsiders.

As we walked single-file along the path past the outskirts of the village, several small children were playing in a tree, chattering and laughing like so many happy monkeys. One of them held up a hand, palm facing us, and called out, “Shao-wada-wah! Shao-wada-wah!” in their dialect's peculiar nasal tone. One of the guides told us, “That means ‘farewell, friend’ in Piaroa.

Thank you, good people. Thank you for being here. Shao-wada-wah.




Father & Son

Roy Pinney – world-renowned herpetologist and naturalist, award-winning photographer and filmmaker, war correspondent, museum curator, university professor, author and adventurer extraordinaire – died in Manhattan in 2010, just 3 days shy of his 99th birthday. He left behind 5 children, 5 grandchildren, 3 great grandchildren, a few good friends, many admirers and one hell of a legacy.


Tor Pinney (www.tor.cc), Roy’s second son, is a writer/photographer, marine industry consultant, sea captain and lifelong cruising sailor with nearly 150,000 nautical miles logged under sail. His articles appear in boating magazines worldwide and his authoritative book, "Ready for Sea! - How to Outfit the Modern Cruising Sailboat" (Sheridan House), is available in nautical bookstores and online. Tor is presently revisiting the Caribbean aboard his 42’ ketch, Silverheels.



                                          ~ End ~


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