June, 2016: We’ve just been bundled into a clapped out, rust bucket of a taxi at 7:15am and I’ve got a shoebox stuffed full of 100 Bolivar notes on my lap. I’m feeling nice and sticky as there was no running water in our posada this morning due to shortages. ‘Look at you, two girls and one guy, how lucky! Ha, ha, ha!’ This is the first thing the cheeky looking taxi driver says before she floors the accelerator. Our rust bucket hurtles out into the early morning traffic of Ciudad Bolívar. We’re on our way to the airport to board an equally clapped out light aircraft down to Canaima. On the tarmac our already sweating pilot has left a sizeable portion of his breakfast on his crumpled pilot’s shirt. It would appear he has tried to wipe it off with his coffee stained paw. We’re off to Angel Falls!
In 1933 an American bush pilot named Jimmy Angel flew on a gold prospecting flight over the Auyantepui mountain in south east Venezuela. He discovered a 979m high cascade of water falling down into the jungle below. While the local indigenous tribes had no doubt known about it for eons, for everyone else, Angel Falls had been found.
Fast forward 83 years and our pilot dropped us neatly onto the tarmac at Canaima airstrip. Canaima is a small village whose main reason for existence is as the gateway to Angel Falls. We spent our first morning talking rubbish and watching the falls from the comfort of a little lakeside beach. In the afternoon we explored the Ucaima and Golondrina waterfalls with our path taking us in behind the gushing torrent. It was like we had a front row seat to a ginormous cathedral of water, deafeningly loud and ominously powerful. We gaped in awed silence as stupid amounts of water rumbled down into Lake Canaima. It made us all feel quite insignificant.
The next morning we spent a bum numbing but quite mesmerising 4.5 hrs motoring up the Carrao and Churun rivers. The rivers alternated between a glassy highway reflecting the sky above, to a tumble of deep, toffee coloured water gurgling noisily over stones worn smooth by the endless current. The forest either side was never ending and appeared like an impregnable wall of green. All around cliffs of giant tepuis towered above us like mystical fortresses playing home to long forgotten indigenous tribes. Despite our aching derrières, this trip up river was magic.
After several hours we caught our first glimpse of the falls. They appeared as a single column of white water, gushing from the peak of a massive tepui. While disappointed to be coming to the end of our river journey, our aching arses were eager to get up from the wooden planks of the canoe. It was good to be up and walking the final stretch up to the falls through thick jungle.
As we walked gradually uphill, we became increasingly aware of a dull roar. The temperature dropped markedly and suddenly it seemed to be raining despite the clear sky above. The roar became ever louder until, after a final scramble, we had the world’s tallest waterfall in front of us. According to our guide, the falls themselves were only at about 30% volume but were still amazing. Fi and I perched on a boulder and sat in silence, mesmerised. Over and over we would pick a single cascade of water and follow it from top to bottom. It seemed like a never ending journey before disappearing into the chaos of spray and rocks at the base of the cliff.
To get to the falls takes a two hour flight, 4.5 hour canoe trip and one hour walk. This journey brings you to such beautiful isolation. Standing looking up at the falls and then out to the surrounding jungle clad tepuis, you feel so insignificant. It’s surreal to stare at such a sight in the absolute middle of nowhere.
That evening as we sat around the candlelit camp table feasting on BBQ chicken, we could hear the jungle all around us. Rain came and went along with a symphony of sounds. Later we crawled into our hammocks, pulled our blankets up under our chins and marvelled at how lucky we were to be there.
Angel Falls travel tips:
- We organised our trip from Santa Elena but it was booked through Posada Conexion Tours in Ciudad Bolivar. The agency has an office in the Ciudad Bolivar bus station. The posada itself is on Calle Libertad, between Calle Angostura and Calle Bolivar. The posada provides one night’s free accommodation and breakfast before your trip.
- The Angel Falls trip itself cost around USD520 for 3D/2N which included flights to Canaima, all meals, accommodation and guides for both of us. Don’t expect anything fancy but we were perfectly comfortable, safe and well fed. In Canaima we had a basic but clean ensuite room. At the falls we slept in hammocks in an open hut.
- Pay cash if possible! We payed for the trip via international funds transfer to an offshore, intermediary account which the posada had in Portugal. When we returned to Ciudad Bolivar we were told that we hadn’t transferred the full amount. We checked our bank account and verified that the full amount had left our account but the posada’s owner wasn’t satisfied. What started as a fairly amicable discussion turned a little nasty because we refused to pay anything more. We were threatened with the police and were told we wouldn’t be allowed to leave Ciudad Bolivar. In the end we waited a few more days for the bank’s to reopen in the UK so we could actually talk to them. We identified that the issue was with the Portuguese bank and were eventually able to leave. The whole thing was a real shame as the owner of the posada was super nice and we loved the trip to the falls. Moral of the story…pay in USD cash when ever possible.
- To visit Angel Falls more cheaply you can try and buy your own flights at the Ciudad Bolivar airport. Once you get to Canaima you may be able to negotiate the Angel Falls part of the trip with the guides themselves. Some dudes on our trip did this for a decent saving.