TOUCH THE ANGEL'S WINGS
extracted from the Traveler's Venezuela Companion © The Globe Pequot Press.
Reproduced with permission.
Map of Auyan
Tepuy area -- Gran
to Angel Falls" video
Up the forest path
we pant. Up and down and over and round, slowly climbing as the
hill grows steeper. In the dim light, everything remains indistinct,
merging into an amorphous mass that connives to trip me up. I’m
still half asleep and I can't climb quickly enough; just 20 minutes
ago I was still slung in my hammock, dreaming of four-poster beds
and a huge hot breakfast brought to me in bed on a tray.
A toucan’s distinctive ‘eeowooo’ brings me out
of my daydream and stops us dead in our tracks. It's very close.
We wait for its mate to reply. ‘Eeowoooo, eeowoooo.’
The metallic cry echoes through the forest, its possible sources
seeming to multiply as we listen. We stand there, peering into the
forest canopy, our chests heaving, hoping to catch sight of one
of the nose-heavy birds. Then my guide, Yesé, grabs my arm.
“Mira,” he says, "Look".
I turn towards the mountain, still shielded by the obstinate forest.
Through the trees and leaves, a band of ochre stretches across it.
As the sun rises over the eastern hills, its first rays bathe the
entire vertical flanks of Auyan Tepuy, the Mountain of Evil, in
pure golden light.
There's no time to lose now.
Like two over-excited schoolboys, we hop, skip, jump and scrabble
up the rocks along the path. I want to look up to make sure the
light is still there, but every time I try, I trip, or my ankle
feigns a twist. At last we come out into the open, to a rock ledge
at the foot of the mountain. There, in full view, glowing like the
first gold-leaf letter of a medieval manuscript, the tallest waterfall
in the world vaults from the top of the mountain's gothic cathedral
façade. We've made it.
Angel Falls truly is the Eighth Wonder of World. It's Venezuela's
most touted tourist attraction, and rightly so. The falls plunge
in free-fall for close to a kilometre amassing to some 20 Niagaras
piled atop one another. Millions of dancing droplets swirl as you
gaze upon it from the lookout. After the hot and sweaty walk up,
it feels like an angel's wing caressing your face.
The falls cascade from a canyon
which prises open the heart-shaped Auyan Mountain. Auyan, the largest
of the unique mesas of the ancient Guayana Shield, rises a staggering
2,510 metres (8,233 ft) at the north-western edge of Canaima National
Park, the jewel in Venezuela's already shining crown of national
What’s in a name?
Perhaps it would be more poetic if the falls’ name derived
from a miraculous saintly figure who once appeared to an Indian,
or echoed the shape of their white plume cascading down from the
Heavens. The truth, however, is far more entertaining, and, in a
land rich in gold and diamonds, far more appropriate.
|In 1921, the dour geologist and explorer,
J.R. McCracken contracted a maverick bush pilot called Jimmie
Angel, a Canadian Air Force pilot of the First World War with
a penchant for red-heads, to fly down to the Venezuelan outback.
McCracken never showed Jimmie a map, and simply told him where
to go. Jimmie did as he was told, eventually landing his plane
on top of one of the 'tepuys' ('mountains' in the local Pemon
Indian tongue). McCracken then proceeded to pan a river, and
fill a sack, so the story goes, full of gold nuggets. So many,
in fact, Angel feared they wouldn't be able to take off again
with the extra weight in the fast-fading light. As they nosed
off the mountain, the plane plunged thousands of feet before
Angel managed to level out. They returned to Caracas, and McCracken
paid Jimmie the other half of the money he had promised him:
$3,000, a tidy sum back then.
began Angel's obsession with the 'River of Gold', taking his place
in the long line of adventurers who have raked the region in search
of El Dorado. Over the following years, he persuaded various backers
to fund his trips into Venezuela's Gran Sabana in search of 'his'
mountain. But he never found it.
But in 1933, Angel returned
to his favourite bar in Caracas, the American Club, very excited.
This time it wasn't the river, the gold, the tepuy or even a red-head
that had caught his imagination, but a waterfall. He claimed to
have sighted surely the tallest in the world. His altimeter read
around 6,000 ft. "A waterfall a mile high" he claimed.
Tell us another tall story, retorted the other regulars at the bar.
As B. Traven puts it in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, "It
was the usual gold-digger's story: true, no doubt, and yet sounding
like a fairy story."
On a flight in 1937, Angel
attempted to land on the surface of Auyan Tepuy, a mountain the
size of Menorca. His small Flamingo plane, the Río Caroní,
stuck in a bog. He and his party, which included his wife and the
Venezuelan Gustavo Heny — who, fortunately, had explored the
area in previous years — were forced to find a way down off
the mountain on foot. They eventually made it to the mission of
Kamarata, southeast of Auyan, 11 days later, somewhat slimmer. This
time though, they had all got a good look at the falls, and Jimmie's
story didn't look so tall after all.
In 1949, the gutsy American journalist
Ruth Robertson, all five-foot of her, organised and led an
overland expedition to measure the falls. No one, certainly
no white person, had ever been up the Churún Canyon
to the foot of the falls. The local Pemon Indians were in
awe of the angular-shouldered mountain that rose sheer above
the emerald forests of their lands. The tepuys are the home
of their marawiton spirits. To approach them is to incur their
Failing to persuade National Geographic
to fund the expedition (although they later published her
article), Robertson fell back on various sponsors, including
the bush pilots whom she'd befriended while living in Venezuela.
Robertson, however, was fortunate to recruit the Latvian-born
Alexander Laime to her cause. Laime was one of the few white
men trusted by the Pemon. He knew the region, if not the area,
well. He would later become known as "the hermit",
living out his days on a remote island in the shadow of Auyan
and occasionally spending days roaming its summit in search
Following various setbacks,
the group's over-laden dugout set out from near the remote mission
of Kamarata. They skirted the east of Auyan along the Akanan and
the Karrao rivers, until they reached the mouth of the Churún.
Here, the Pemon painted their faces and bodies with red vegetable
dye, and nervously recited their magical invocations, taren.
Having set off at the end of
the dry season, the boats soon ran aground in the shallow Churún.
They unloaded and set off through the forest, sharing the weight
of their photographic and radio equipment, movie cameras, theodolite,
generators and camping gear with their 10 Pemon porters. Three days
of slashing and one near-mutiny later, the expedition emerged at
a spot where the falls were clearly visible. Angel's altimeter was
off by a few thousand feet, but the falls still weighed in at a
colossal 979 m (3,211 ft), with an uninterrupted drop of 807 m (2,647
ft) — undeniably the tallest waterfall in the world.
Or at least that's one version
- the most colourful one to be sure - of the Angel Falls story.
Another one suggests the existence of the tremendous waterfall was
first reported as early as 1910 by a Venezuelan naval officer, and
later gold prospector, Ernesto Sánchez La Cruz. La Cruz's
claims, however, don't stand up to inspection.
Their true name, given by
the Pemon, who probably knew of their existence all along, is Kerepaküpai
Merú. Kerepaküpai means 'the deepest place', while merú
'falls'. After Jimmie's death in 1956, his ashes were scattered
over the falls, and in 1970, the Venezuelan Air Force rescued the
rusting Río Caroní from the top of Auyan. After restoration,
it was ceremoniously placed in front of the airport in Ciudad Bolívar
on the banks of the Orinoco, where you can see it today. It’s
just as well his surname wasn't Smith.
more photos of Canaima, Angel Falls, Kavak and Uruyen, go here.
TO GET TO THE FALLS:
The village of Canaima, gateway to Angel Falls, enjoys an idyllic
setting at the north-western edge of Canaima National Park,
north-west of Auyan Tepuy. Canaima may be touristy by many
standards the souvenir shops certainly are and
the original Horturvensa camps architecture somewhat
disappointing, but the overall effect is magical, even to
the well-travelled eye.
The alternative, which I recommend, is to begin your trip in
either Kavak (to visit the canyon) or Kamarata. From the latter,
you take a dugout from three days, passing Angel Falls, and
ending in Canaima. This tour can be arranged through Cacao Travel and Angel
organise the trek up
Auyan Tepuy, all the way to the top of Angel Falls, which
takes a minimum of ten days from Kavak. A trip to remember, and
one I intend to do soon!
Of the local Canaima- or Orinoco-based operators, the most expensive is Canaima Tours tel: (0286) 962-5560 www.canaimatours.com, the agents for the Horturvensa camp. Tiuna Tours tel: at Ciudad Bolívar airport (0285) 28697, and Kamarakoto Tours tel/fax in Puerto Ordaz: (0286) 27680 make up the other larger operators.
As well as these, local Pemon families run smaller operations.
Also worth mentioning is Bernal Tours tel/fax: (086) 620443 or (014) 884-0965, run by the family of Tomás Bernal, a veteran of the Sabana who died tragically in 1998.
You can only travel by dugout up the Río Churún in the rainy season,
which runs from April-May to late November. However, trips might
be possible on the fringes of these months as well though
you might have to get out of your boat more often! At other times,
the only way to see the falls is by plane. These are usually old
DC-3s with adapted windows, or else smaller Cessna-type planes.
dozen operators and campamentos in Canaima make it their business
to organise the trip by large dugout curiara boats with outboard
engines up to the falls, and 90% of visitors to the falls pass through
the village. At the 'airport', most operators have desks or wait
around for arriving planes. If you havent arranged a boat
trip before arriving in Canaima, do so there.
well as the one, two or three-day river trips up to the falls, the
operators also tout fly-bys and excursions to other closer falls.
In the dry season, the latter become the operators bread and
STAY IN CANAIMA:
Most lodging is notably cheaper if you come independently and reserve
directly with the owners. Prices are high due to Canaimas
remote location, where absolutely everything has to be flown in,
and er, greed.
|Views from Wakü Lodge — dawn, afternoon and dusk
The best new development in Canaima is run by Canaima Tours
(see above). It's called Wakü Lodge, and is
located on the western shores of the lagoon. It's by far the most
attractive of the camps on the lagoon, and only has 15 rooms in
The largest development is the Horturvensa (Hoteles y Turismo Avensa)
Campamento Canaima, run by the airline Avensa/Servivensa,
tel: (022) 907-8130 (022) 907-8054 fax: (022) 907-8053. But I don't
rate it that highly compared to the other option, with far more
character, charm and jungle-feel: Campamento Ucaima (also
known as Jungle Rudys) tel/fax: (022) 693-0618 or (0286) 622359
Medium price option:
Parakaupa tel/fax: (0286) 614963 email: email@example.com
It has good views, a nice garden, decent food and fans.
The camp built by Tomás Bernal: Possibly the
best location of all the lodging in Canaima. Its isolated spot,
just up from the pink-tinted beach, makes for a wonderful hide-away.
You sleep in hammocks and the family prepare meals with advance
warning, tel/fax: (0286) 620443 or tel: (0414) 884-0965 website:
Posada Churun tel: (0414) 8840511 has 5 simple rooms, and some
hammock-slinging space. They have a large restaurant next-door,
named after its owner, Simon ( who was the village 'captain' when I last visited in late 2002).
Many of the villagers will rent hammocks and space to sling them,
among them Nasario Rosi of Iwana Meru.
HOW TO GET TO CANAIMA:
The best flight service to Canaima from Caracas is with Avior (www.avior.com.ve) direct. However, it's about $200 return.
Aerotuy (www.tuy.com) flies from Porlamar in Margarita.
Rutacas (tel: (0285) 632-2195) small planes leave Ciudad Bolívar in the early mornings, usually providing flights out in the afternoons. Rutacas planes essentially go to wherever there are passengers in the Gran Sabana, and are the best option for getting to Kavak and Kamarata, or on to Santa Elena.
Don't miss the "Journey
to Angel Falls" video!
The Gran Sabana, Canaima, Roraima, and more, see
Robertson, Ruth: Churun Vena, The Tallest Angel.
Conan Doyle, Arthur : The Lost World.
George, Uwe: Venezuela's Islands in Time, National Graphical
Magazine. May 1989: 526-561.
Marrero, Roberto: Guide to the Gran Sabana (also publishes maps).
Huber and Febres (eds.): Guía Ecológica de la Gran Sabana.