A Trip to Angel Falls
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
Since the 1960īs, tourists have been coming to the area, and although its a bit expensive due to its remoteness, access to the falls is these days somewhat easier than it was in Jimmy Angelīs time.
Rachel and I start our trip to the falls in the hot historic city of Cuidad Bolivar
Its also very hot in Cuidad Bolivar and Rachel and I decide to take an air conditioned room in Posada Don Carlos (50,000 Bolivars or GBP12.00), as we expect to do a bit of catching up with sleep the day we arrive. Two overnight bus journeys and half a day in a plane before arriving here have taken their toll.
We check in at 7am and we are welcomed by the curt and superficially friendly landlady, who shows us to our room which is off a large sunny courtyard. The room has an extremely high ceiling and a mezzanine floor where the beds are. A spiral staircase leads up to the beds which are located under the all-important air conditioning unit.
After some breakfast the landlady explains that they offer tours to the Angel falls for USD$295 per person. It seems quite expensive for 3 days and 2 nights, but we find out that we have to fly to a town called Canaima which has no road connections, and we have to take several boat trips to reach the base of the falls
We make no commitment and decide to research some other possible tour companies. First we have to get some money though and we head into town to see if we can find a working ATM.
ATMs have been our modus operandi for obtaining money on our travels around the world so far. Even in countries like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam we had no trouble getting local cash. I sometimes wonder how people did it in the olden days...but then we got to Venezuela. And we find that things are going to be a tad more difficult here.
Firsty we canīt find a working cash machine anywhere in town. Could it be its because its Mother`s Day here and everyone wants to take out money for that vitally important present? We are also a bit stumped when we get asked by some cash machines for the last two digits of our personal identification document. What its this: the last two digits of my passport, or my PIN, or my card number, or my 3 digit security number?
Secondly the rate given by banks is artificially set low on instruction from the government
Cuidad Bolivar has surprisingly colourful and clean streets in the central area around the church. As soon as we move away more than a few blocks, the spell is broken and the streets become cluttered with vendors of miscellaneous crap goods and the usual accompanying concrete eyesores. The city centre is built at the top of a rocky outcrop that forms a natural barrier to the progress of vast brown Orinoco that flows past the town. The river is at its narrowest for many miles in this location. The heat in this part of the country makes it feel like a place to flee from.
We hear that most of the tour operators have offices out at the aiport, so we traipse out there only to find out that everyone has gone home for the day, except one operator who describes his tour to Angel falls for USD$260. The fat man sounds too much like an over-confident car salesman, and we tell him weīll think about it. We go back into town and try one last operator, Adrenaline Expeditions.
Adrenaline seem to be the cheapest at USD$240, and whats more they offer to take Travellers Cheques in payment (albeit at a slightly worse rate, so it costs us USD$250 in Travellers Cheques). Just as well for us otherwise it would have eaten up all our dollar cash supplies.
That evening we find a Lebanese cafe on a street corner thatīs willing to take dollars in payment for a meal. The extremely fat, but pretty young owner, is disappointed that we donīt have USD$100 bills as she wants to send one home to her family in Beiruit. The food is very tasty.
Gazing on to the streets, we are really struck by how different people in Venezuela are compared to Peru. In Peru the locals are generally diminutive, slim, with high cheekbones and sculpted faces. In Venezuela the people are much bigger, with a Caribbean-look, and we see lots of wobbly flesh for the first time in a while. Some men are even fat enough to qualify directly for US citizenship.
In the morning we pay up and leave Posada Don Carlos. They seem annoyed because we did not take a tour with them.
We are expecting a 2-hour ride in a jeep to an airport in a town called La Paragua, however Luis at Adrenaline informs us there are not enough people for that cheaper flight and we will be flying directly from Cuidad Bolivar to Canaima
From the air we can chart our progress as we slowly move out of savannah-like surroundings into dense tropical rainforest. The trees look like amorphous clumps of green brocolli from above. Huge brown rivers curve and twist like serpents between the trees. We pass over the first Tepuis: steep sided flat topped mountains which support alien eco-systems on their summits.
Approaching Canaima, we see a vast black river that plunges several metres into a lagoon beside the town. The waterfalls are not tall but spread out over a broad area to create the impression that there are waterfalls everywhere. From the air it looks like an exciting place to start our trip.
The plane banks steeply and lands quickly on a dirt strip adjacent to the tarmac runway. Before we know it we are standing in a grass hut that serves as arrivals and departures and has offices for the different tour companies. We pay our 8,000 Boliviars (about GBP2.00) fee to enter Canaima National park
We meet a rep from Tiuna tours (the operator) who tells us we can wander around the lagoon for a couple of hours because the other two people on our tour have not yet arrived on their flight from Margarita Island.
Its only a 5 minute walk from the airport terminal to the shoreline of the lagoon where the Carrao river dumps millions of litres of water per second. We sit on the shady shoreline and watch the spectacle. We spot a small hydroelectric facilty tucked into a corner of the lake and wander over to take a look. An overalled and greasy technician explains that there are twin 4,000kW turbine generators which provide more than enough for the town of Canaima. Following the penstock uphill we get to a viewing platform at the top of the falls where there is a great panorama of water disappearing into the lagoon below.
We rejoin the tour at lunch time in Tiuna camp on the edge of the lagoon, and meet the two other tourists joining us: Frenchmen Alex and Antoine. (John is a little disappointed as he was expecting two French girls... likewise, the boys later tell us that they were expecting 2 British girls). We also meet our guide for the next couple of days: Gabriel
The camp is an extremely ugly concrete shell that would not be out of place in downtown Baghdad. Fortunately the structure is well concealed by trees and we will not be spending any significant time there. We eat lunch in the camp - tasty but basic fare - roast chicken and rice. We are beginning to understand that Venezuela does not have particularly sophisticated cooking.
In the afternoon Gabriel gives us a pile of bin-liners to wrap our bags prior to beginning our exploration of the river. We jump into a long dug-out canoe hewn from a single tree, and powered, not by a paddle, but by a 75bhp Yamaha outboard. The boatman coaxes it out into the frothing lagoon, and as close to the thundering waterfalls as he dares. Rachel takes a couple of photos before deciding to put the camera away in a plastic bag.
We are wearing our swimming gear so the spray from the waterfall is not too much of a concern. We pull the boat into a shallow bay, and disembark at a point where we can walk behind the thundering waterfall of Hacha. We shout and whoop with laughter as we are splashed and pounded from above. Gabriel and Dimetri are careful to make sure we donīt wander too far off the prescribed route because falling in would almost certainly mean anhialation by H2O.
Dimetri takes us to another branch of the river to Sapo waterfall, which is even bigger, and there is another path that allows us to walk behind the crashing torrent
We wander up a path that takes us to the top of the Sapo falls, and spend some time looking at the moving mass of water from our new higher perspective. Then we jump into another longboat that will take us upriver to the overnight camping spot, halfway to the Angel falls.
We power upstream in the dugout, a column of spray rising from her bows as she is pushed at a speed way beyond her original paddle powered design intent. The forest grows thicker around us and the sky is ominous and dark as rainclouds gather threateningly. From time to time the sun breaks through and lights the banks vibrantly. Enormous electric blue butterflys, larger than any Iīve seen before, flutter around illusively.
The river water is black and flecked with white foam like Guiness. Where it runs shallower, the tannins in the water imbue it with an orange hue like Lucozade. Our guide tells us the combination of minerals in the water is not attractive to mosquitoes.
After half an hour in the boat we get out and walk on land while the boatman negotiates a series of dangerous rapids. Back in the boat we continue to power upstream, marvelling at the tepuis which rise into the cloudy sky, their tops obscured by cloud and mist.
At about 4 pm we arrive at the camp which is a short way up a small tributary of the Carrao
After dinner, its not long before everyone is feeling tired and sleepy and we think about heading to bed for the night. Outside there is a tropical downpour in progress with a thunder and lightening show. The sound of the rain on the tin roof makes conversation difficult. The hammocks turn out to be fairly uncomfortable but not as big a detriment to sleep as one fat Venezuelan man who snores loudly in the adjacent hammock, keeping everyone awake. Eventually one of the English girls gives him a mouthful but within 5 minutes heīs back on maximum volume again. I eventually get fed up and give him a shake and he snops snoring long enough to let me drop off (not literally).
We get up at dawn the next morning, not having slept too well on our first night in hammocks, but looking forward to the day ahead
Soon we catch out first glimpse of the Angel Falls which crash out of the cloudy sky in a vast fan of white water. We begin a hike up to the base of the falls through thick rainforest where the path is tangle of tree roots, puddles, and rocks.
After an hour of tough, hot, hiking we get to the end of the track where there is a rocky prominitory to view the falls from. We are surprised to find out that there is no one else there at all. Just Rachel, me, the two Frenchmen, and our two guides. Our guides tell us that its not the tourist season, and we feel very fortunate to have the place to ourselves. As we wait, the cloudcover slowly dissipates allowing us to enjoy a close up view of the uninteruppted 807m drop (total drop of 979m) of the Kerepakupay river.
The water is falling from such a great height that it breaks up completely into droplets on its descent. From where we see the falls, the water looks to be moving down impossibly slowly, but its the scale that deceives us. It appears as though vast quantities of fine wheat flour is being thrown down, not water. As it crashes into the rocks at the bottom it is atomised into a fine mist that billows out from the base. We are probably about half a kilometre from the base of the falls but we are continously engulfed by the fine spray of droplets carried on the downdraught. Nearer the falls the vegetation is limited to only the hardiest of plants, and after a couple of hundred metres there are a few trees with their trunks angled steeply away from the watery blast
We find another path that leads down to the Kerepakupay river and a short section of the falls where there is a large plunge pool and river to bathe in. The water is absolutely freezing as it has come from the top of a 2500m Tepui. We lie back in the pool looking at the waterfall immediatly infront of us and the vast Angel Falls in the background. It feels like a special place to be.
After spending a few hours at the base of the falls we return to where the boat is moored to find a delicious dinner of fire-roasted chicken almost ready for us. I take another dip in the Carrao river to cool off from the hike back and tuck into a very welcome lunch.
That afternoon we head back to the camp. It rains when we`re on the boat and I feel cold but Rachel keeps warm and dry inside a black bin-bag. The next morning we retrace our steps back to the lagoon at Canaima before getting on a plane to La Paragua. On the plane is the fat Venezuelan man who was snoring so much on our first night. He makes a joke about his sleep habits and his girlfriend titters nervously. She must have a lot of endurance.
A highly tuned Toyota Lancruiser takes us back to Cuidad Bolivar at lightening speed. On the roads there are a surprising number of V8 US gas guzzlers. People don`t care here as fuel here is the cheapest in the world. How does 100 Bolivars per litre (2.5 GB pence or US$0.05 per litre) sound?
We decide to get out of Cuidad Bolivar as soon as possble, so after another hurriedly eaten dinner in the Lebanese Place we head down to the bus station to get on our way to Santa Elena. From Santa Elena we hope to climb Roraima Tepui, similar to the vast Auyana Tepui which spawns Angel Falls. Having gazed at the falls we are curious to know what life is like on the flat mysterious summit. And Roraima, unlike Auyana, just happens to have a footpath to the top.