“Where is the highest waterfall in the World?”
Hidden in a wilderness region, called the Gran Sabana, in Venezuela.
They tumble 1000 metres off the edge of an escarpment of the mysterious
Auyan Tepuy, a sandstone mesa of 700 sq kms. The Angel Falls were
discovered by accident in 1935 by Jimmy Angel (1899-1956), an American
adventurer and bush pilot who operated in Central and South America.
Last summer I made an excursion to view the Falls and learnt of the
exciting history of their discovery.
Jimmy Angel owned a Fokker monoplane of 1930’s vintage, capable of
carrying 3 passengers and freight. He became a legendary figure in
Venezuela, in his quest for gold and daredevil flying.
While flying up the Devil’s Canyon sector of Auyan Tepuy he spotted
amongst the clouds an impressive waterfall that hurtled into space to
spray the jungle below.
In 1937 he tried to land his plane on top of the flat-topped mountain
close to the Falls, but ended up in a bog. He and his passengers had to
abandon the plane and proceed on foot. A near vertical kilometre of
cliff was descended to reach the jungle below. After 11 days of
bushwhacking they reached an Indian village on a river that lead to
Jimmy Angel’s plane, “El Rio Caroni”, remained on the summit until
1970, when it was airlifted out and put on display at Cuidad Bolivar
airport. It is in an excellent state of preservation, looking more
robust than the little Cessna I flew in to Canaima.
Near midnight I booked into the Hotel Italia on the waterfront of the
Orinoco River at Cuidad Bolivar, after a long, air-conditioned bus ride
Carlos, the manager, greeted me.
“Want to join a tour group to see the Angel Falls?” he asks, “Come and see me in the morning.”
That’s service for you!
The tourist entry point is the isolated village of Canaima located at a
beautiful spot on the Rio Carrao where a series of cataracts plunge
into an extensive lagoon. This is Canaima National Park of 3 million
hectares and there is no road access. The airstrip perimeter is a
clutter of light planes of amazing variety. Twice a day a jet from
Caracas disgorges tourists who are shuttled off to upmarket,
My tour group consisted of 6 Europeans, German speaking, and a
Venezuelan guide who spoke English. We boarded a motorized dugout canoe
and sped across the lagoon in front of the cataracts. On the far side
we hiked above Salto El Sapo, where another canoe laden with provisions
was waiting to take us into the jungle.
Canoe access to the Angel Falls is restricted to the rainy season, June
to November. Thanks to El Niï¿½o, the rains had continued and the river was negotiable at the end of November, but only just. Alternatively, weather permitting and with absence of cloud, you can fly by the Falls, but blink and you’ve missed them.
The Rio Carrao is up to 200 metres wide and leads straight to Auyan
Tepuy. We donned lifejackets and huddled under canvas drapes to shelter
from the spray as we roared up several scary rapids. Towards dusk we pulled into the bank at Camp Orquidea – a jungle camp beneath towering rocky bluffs.
The shelter was open-sided with a thatch roof. Sandstone floor paving
stones show ancient ripple marks. Other tour groups used the camp.
About 50 hammocks complete with mosquito nets awaited our tired bodies.
Soon the kitchen was a hive of activity and we enjoyed spaghetti bolognaise by candle light, joined by a group of 20 Italians who raged into the night.
Next morning our canoe headed up the tributary Rio Churan to take us
deep within the mountains. Rapids were more frequent and frightening.
Huge sandstone blocks stud the river bed.
Finally we reached Rat Island
opposite Devil’s Canyon and our first glimpse of Angel Falls, an awesome
plume falling from the clouds that shroud the mountain tops.
Our guide explained that an hour’s hike up through the jungle will bring us to the Mirador, a rocky outcrop from where we would see the Falls in their entirety. Up, and jungle, are the operative words – a tangle of lianas, fallen branches, mossy rocks and mosquitoes made progress miserable but it was worth the struggle. The cloud cleared from the tops.
A river took off into space high above. What a sight! A tremendous
amphitheatre at the base of the Falls was a swirling mass of spray.
A DC3 tourist aircraft flew by, in and out of the cloud – Wow, I
thought, I’m glad to be on tierra firma and not dodging mountains!
We clambered down the rocks to the stream and bathed in the first
substantial pool below the Falls. The cool mountain waters cleansed us
of sweat and grime and left us invigorated for the hike back and a
welcome lunch at the boat landing.
The return journey next day by canoe down the Rio Carrao was a delight.
Above the rapids, we were put ashore to hike for a few kilometres while
the boteros took the boat down unladen for the water level had dropped
considerably. The afternoon flight to Cuidad Bolivar by Cessna taxi
gave us a bird’s eye view of neighbouring mesas poking up from the
Carlos, at the Hotel Italia, welcomed me back.
“You must join tomorrow’s tour of the Gran Sabana by minibus.” he implores.
What a salesman!
How to Get There
American Airlines has frequent daily flights into Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, from Dallas and Miami. Coming from a Central or South American country it is necessary to use one of the national airlines.
Caracas, population 3.5 million. Although located close to the Caribbean
coast, Caracas is sited 900 meters above sea level and so enjoys an agreeable climate.
It is not a place to linger but is the entry point from which to go some place else, such as the superb Caribbean coastal resorts, the Gran Sabana and Angel Falls, and the Andean cordillera centered around Mï¿½rida.
Angel Falls – Highest in the World
Close-up access to the base of the Angel Falls is by motorized dugout
canoe. This is best done in the rainy season from June to October. I
was lucky to get there the last week in November – from then on the
river flow is too low.
You can still fly by or access by helicopter but
in the dry season the falls are reduced to a disappointing dribble.
Tours to Angel Falls
The entry point to the Canaima National Park where the Falls are located
is the tourist base of Canaima, located on the Rio Carrao where the river forms a series of magnificent Niagara-type cataracts. There is no road access – you have to fly in from Cuidad Bolivar or Caracas.
You don’t have to stopover at Canaima, which has mainly upmarket
accommodation. Backpackers should take a bus from Caracas to Cuidad Bolivar (ca.9½ hours, cost US$14) and join an el cheapo tour from there.
Cuidad Bolivar is a quaint, hot city on the bank of the Orinoco River.
Take a taxi to the Paseo Orinoco on the waterfront where there exists
several budget hotels (US$7-10/night) that have tour agents.
Hotel Italia has Cunaguaro Tours and Hotel Colonial has NecKar Tours;
both provide customers for Kamaracoto Tours operating at Canaima
My trip to Angel Falls was for 3 days/2 nights and cost US$230
(Cunaguaro Tours) which included camping-type accommodation, food, guide
and transportation (by motorized canoe to Falls, plus flight Cuidad
Bolivar/Canaima in/out by Cessna). The flight alone is $50 each way.
To fly in and around the Falls (40 minutes) is an extra, weather
permitting, costing US$60.
Catering for more upmarket tourists are:
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.