With economic chaos and rampant inflation showing no sign of abating, Venezuela is currently one of the cheapest places in the world to visit. While it is a long haul from the Philippines, visa requirements are straightforward and it’s surprisingly easy to reach, flying via the USA. In many ways, it’s a sister country to the Philippines with it’s volcanic landscapes and strong Spanish influence. M G Martin visited the country to explore one of the wonders of the natural world and penned this diary entry:
It’s one of those classic pub quiz questions: What’s the tallest waterfall in the world? At least half the teams would probably go with Niagara, and most of the others would probably plump for Victoria. But the actual answer is the Angel Falls, from where I’ve just returned, sunburned and exhausted.
While not the most dramatic cascade in the world — it’s just a single stream like a running tap or a pissing horse — it falls an incredible 3,212ft. That’s 15 times higher than Niagara.
I assumed there would be some romantic reason for the name — the falls sound like a choir of angels, or the mist conjures images of cherubic wings — but no, it’s because a bloke called Jimmy Angel discovered them while fannying about in a biplane in 1935. So it’s just pure good fortune he wasn’t called something like Gaylord or Bastard.
I guess they’re not so well known as they’re quite difficult to get to. First we jumped in a minibus for an eight-hour drive to Cuidad Bolivar (flights are available) a well preserved colonial-era town with brightly painted houses and tidy well-kept streets. We arrived quite late and checked into a beautiful old villa, with a colonnaded courtyard and high timbered ceilings. It also has a fridge full of beer on a help-yourself-and-pay-later basis, which is now providing a welcome return to civilisation after the last couple of days in the jungle.
We only had a few hours sleep in the Posada Don Carlos before heading to the local airfield for our flight to Cainama, a little jungle town that’s the gateway to the falls. It was quite an exciting flight — a six-seater propeller plane with a single pilot who was fiddling with his mobile phone for most of the way. Down below lay a quite remarkable landscape of jungle and sheer-sided plateaus, which were the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. It’s easy to imagine that prehistoric life could survive there, kept in glorious isolation by the encircling cliffs.
After touching down on the landing strip and passing through the thatched terminal building, we were picked up by our local guides and taken off for breakfast. After bolting down our eggs and bacon, we were ushered into another truck to begin our journey to the falls.
The only way to get there is by long dug-out canoes, which can carry up to 10 people on hard wooden seats. During the rainy season, when the river is in full flow, the journey takes about two hours. For us it took six, because of the low water levels there were numerous occasions when we all had to jump out the boat and push upstream it against the flow of the rapids.
For the first part of the journey I was wondering why there was such little evidence of life. I saw a couple of ibises, something like a kingfisher and a ragged-winged vulture, but precious little else. It was odd, as the jungle was absolutely pristine and without any sign of human encroachment. Just as I was wondering about this lack of animal activity, I noticed a movement on a small rocky island in the distance. As we got closer I could see it was a plump little creature about the size of a rabbit.
I pointed it out and asked the crew what it was. Without answering, they gave a cry and set course for the island, the outboard motor screaming at full power. The animal, which I could now see was like a cross between a giant hamster and a piglet (some sort of tapir, I think) noticed the commotion and took to the water to reach the safety of the jungle. But it was too late, one of the local lads leapt from the canoe and, picking up a rock, cornered the animal in a tangle of roots on the riverbank. I don’t think he needed to use the rock, as when he waded back towards the boat the creature was wide awake and looked almost relaxed cradled in his arms.
“Ah ha,” I thought. “He’s just caught it for us to have a look at.” But how wrong I was. He took it to the back of the canoe and cut its throat with a quick whizz of the propeller. I did feel a bit guilty for having sealed its fate, but it provided the boatmen with a meal, which meant more chicken for us. It also put up a good fight, biting the bloke’s hand so deeply that the blood ran down to his elbow. One of his mates went to him with a bottle of rum, which I thought was to sterilise the wound. But no, he glugged it down to numb the pain, and then rubbed coffee grounds into the gash.
But it wasn’t just them who were thinking of food during the journey. When the river was running deep it was as dark and lustrous as marmite or Guinness. As it got shallower the colour moved through stages of pickled beetroot, quince jelly, caramel, Assam tea, butterscotch, whisky, toffee and Seville orange marmalade. I’m not sure what causes the distinct hue of the water, leading theories include tannin from fallen leaves and iron oxide. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t look at the water without thinking of something delicious.
As we got closer to the falls, the boat was more manhandled than propelled, and I felt an ever-increasing admiration for the crew. Their handing of the craft was just phenomenal, and sometimes little short of miraculous. It was like being in the belly of a salmon as they steered the craft up through rolling white-tipped rapids.
It was dark when we arrived at the jungle camp, with fireflies blinking in the undergrowth as if in welcome. The lads immediately got to work, and in no time at all we were sitting before steaming plates of spaghetti bolognese, served with dishes of parmesan cheese and chilli sauce. Pudding was strawberry jelly. There was even a tablecloth and napkins.
After dinner we got to work on the rum we’d brought with us, before collapsing into our hammocks.
The next morning we were up at six the climb up to the base of the falls. This was an hour’s walk along a rough jungle path clogged with sinuous roots and jagged rocks. It was a quite a tough trek, but all was forgotten when we arrived at the basin-like pool, which was so perfect for swimming you could almost imagine it being a man-made feature of a Vegas hotel.
After returning to base camp for lunch (chicken for us, tapir for the lads) we were back in the boat for the four-hour return journey. This was obviously a lot easier, with very little manhandling. Taking inch-perfect lines, the crew guided the boat down through the rapids, communicating with each other using some sort of sign language.
This morning we had a few hours spare, so we went to see some other, smaller, waterfalls near the town. In a way these were much more dramatic than the main attraction, as you could walk behind the sheet of water, gazing through the cascade, past the rainbows, over the primordial landscape stretching away into the distance.
As wonderful as the jungle experience was, it’s so nice to be back in a beautiful colonial villa, with a fridge full of beer and the smell of roast beef coming from the landlady’s kitchen.