Angel Falls – Cascade from the Sky

10 Dec

Flying through uncharted Venezuelan territory in 1934 while looking for gold, American bush pilot Jimmie Angel nearly crashed his 4-seater plane upon noticing a waterfall nearly one kilometre high freely flowing from the top of towering Auyantepui, one of the area’s biggest table mountains. Little did Jimmy know he had discovered what would become known as ‘Angel Falls’, by far and away the highest single drop waterfall in the world, which cascades a massive 979 metres, more than double the height of the Empire State Building and 16 times the height of Niagara Falls.

Somewhat less intrepid, but still explorers at heart, we wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jimmie Angel and travel to see the almighty Angel Falls. The trip wasn’t for the faint hearted involving a 30 minute flight into a remote area with no road access to the rest of Venezuela, a 3 hour boat ride up river and a trek into dense jungle, but whilst travelling we’d already come to appreciate that often the hardest journeys provide the greatest rewards.

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The trip to Angel Falls is nearly always arranged through a package tour. Independent travel is very limited or almost non-existent due to the isolation of the area and limited facilities in the park. Group travel also makes the experience much more affordable as you can share the costs between you. The gateway city is Cuidad Bolívar, a sizeable metropolis positioned on a wide section of the Orinoco river and with a surprisingly well preserved historic centre. It’s very worth spending a day here whilst arranging your trip. Nearly every hotel and pousada will be able to arrange a tour to the falls for you and there are also several travel agencies in the city.

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Most agencies offer the same packages – a two day, two night trip – including flights and transport in the park, accommodation, all meals and a guide. One day is spent visiting the falls, with an adventurous overnight stay in hammocks deep in the jungle, and the other day spent experiencing the wonders of UNESCO World Heritage listed Canaima National Park, with its endlessly beautiful panoramas, abundant wildlife and indigenous communities.

Trip prices can vary and are no way fixed so barter hard. With the excellent black market rate for US dollars, we managed to book the whole trip for approx.. $100 per person. Many agencies have bank accounts in the US or Europe so if you don’t have US dollars in cash, they can offer the same great rate for a money transfer – which we found to be completely safe and reliable.

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Our trip started in Ciudad Bolívar’s airport on board a 20-seater prop-plane. The 30 minute journey is disappointingly short with stunning scenery below on a clear day. The suburbs of the city quickly turn into endless golden savannah and then transform into dense jungle dotted with hundreds of sheer sided table mountains and wide rivers.

We were all very excited as we stepped off the plane at Canaima’s tiny airfield literally in the middle of no-where. Groups were collected by guides and led on foot to lodges. The thatched lodges had large open-sided dining areas with long tables and benches for communal dining. The bedrooms were set around small gardens filled with tropical looking plants and although the double rooms were undeniably basic, they offered more comfort that we’d expected including en-suite bathrooms with toilet paper, fully functioning ceiling fans and spotlessly clean bedding. However, they didn’t want to offer us that luxury too soon and following lunch at the lodge, we headed to the river to catch our boat.

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There were 10 people in our group, both local and international, and as with many situations that take you out of your comfort zone, we all formed an instant bond.  We knew from the start that the boat driver was made for the job as he powered the canoe-like longboat forward using its powerful engine and used the strong current flowing in the opposite direction to perform a 180 degree turn into a parked position against the river bank.

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We clambered on board sporting the latest in orange buoyancy aids around our necks and sitting in rows directly behind one another we sped off and let nature’s theatre unfold around us.

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The journey up river is 30 miles (50 kilometres) and takes 3 hours in total. We found the planks of wood being called ‘seats’ very unforgiving so many of us traded safety for comfort transforming our life jackets into padded seats!

There are a couple of sections where the rapids were too fierce to attempt with a boat full of people so the driver navigated alone whilst we walked for around 15 minutes but it was actually a very welcome opportunity to stretch our legs and regain the feeling in our bums!

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The river journey is like travelling into a world that time forgot. The scenery effortlessly shifts between lush jungle filled with exotic looking birds and monkeys to monolithic table mountains, their summits shrouded in clouds and waterfalls flowing freely from them.

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Our eyes twinkled with child-like delight at every turn and three hours passed quickly. At one stage we were completely surrounded with tepuis – nature’s skyscrapers and the inspiration to Arthur Conan Doyle’s epic novel The Lost World, where dinosaurs still roamed the planet.

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The further upriver we went, the wilder it looked and our long boat navigated around some half submerged boulders and beneath hanging branches.

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Then, as we turned a final bend in the river, our driver cut the engine and the magnificent Angel Falls came into view.

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The amount of water going over the falls and weather conditions can vary hugely. During the rainy season (August and September) water dramatically plunges over the side of the mountain but clouds can obscure views whilst during the dry season (January to May) views of the falls are largely clear but the flow can dry up to just a trickle of water, turning into a fine spray long before it reaches the base.

The boat engine spluttered back to life and we drifted closer until a natural clearing on the river bank emerged. We clambered out of the boat onto smooth round rocks and absorbed the silence interrupted only by the distant grumbling falls.

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We wondered on several occasions if we’d shrunk in size as the nature around us was grand in scale. Enormous butterflies danced across leaves the size of dinner plates and python-like tree roots crept across the jungle floor.

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It’s roughly an hours walk from the river to the fall’s look out point, with much of it a steep uphill climb, but those of reasonable fitness won’t find this a problem. Early on in the walk it’s necessary to cross another tributary of the river so be prepared for some knee-deep wading through fast flowing water on slippery rocks! Hold on tightly to your cameras!

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The sheer scale of the Auyan-tepui, meaning “Devil’s Mountain” is really hard to comprehend. Its flat top stretches 666.9 km2 (257.5 squared miles) and is covered in unusual rock formations, caves, pools and endemic flora and fauna. There are more than 100 tepuis in the area and most have never been climbed or explored.

Nearly two years after the initial sighting of the falls, Jimmie set off once again with three companions on board his 4-seater plane but after landing on top of Auyantepui the plane’s wheels became stuck in thick mud and it had to be abandoned. They left a message “All OK” on one wing of the plane and an arrow in the direction they headed. It took 14 days for them to find a way down the plateau and to reach  civilization. The indigenous community would have surely thought Jimmie Angel was sent from the gods or outer space when they saw him!

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The experience of reaching the falls sent us into sensory overload.  The air felt charged with energy and we had the mischievous urge to open our arms and roar back at nature!  When Jimmie Angel relayed his discovery of the falls to the local community, he beautifully and simply described it as a “cascade from the sky”.

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A fine spray drifted from the base of the falls encouraging thick mossy foliage to cling to rocks and trees. It quickly soaked its spectators and drops of water clung to our camera lenses distorting our images like looking in a mirror from the fun fair.

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From a distance it appears that one single flow of water cascades over the edge of the Tepui, but closer inspection revels several outlets from where raging waters then collide and race to the ground. Down the face of the sheer rock, small platforms jutted out and broke the water’s fall for a split second before cascading over its edge again.

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After several hours at the viewing point we retraced our steps to the river and crossed by boat to the far bank where we sleep for the evening. The experience of spending a night in the jungle was every bit as magical as the falls.

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With no beds we slung hammocks between beams at a basic wooden shelter. With no electricity we lit candles and the group sat around a large wooden bench. With no TV we watched the star-filled sky come alive. With no radio we listened to the intense sounds of the jungle with cicadas and frogs making all kinds of deafening noises you’d expect from animals 10 times their size.

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Despite being one of Venezuela’s top tourist attractions, reaching Angel Falls had not been a simple affair but that was just the way we liked it!  It was worth every adventurous step!  The fact hoards of tourists can’t simply access the falls by the coach load adds to it’s beautiful mystique, helps to preserve the wonderful natural setting and in some small way it allows you to experience the thrill of discovering the falls for the first time just as Jimmie Angel did.

One Response to “Angel Falls – Cascade from the Sky”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Canaima National Park – Finding a Lost World | latin chattin' - December 14, 2014

    […] of Canaima is a mixture of native village and tourist hub.  It’s the jumping off point for Angel Falls, undeniably the highlight of any visit to the area, being the world’s highest uninterrupted […]

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