Ahh… Venezuela

Overlooking Canaima Lagoon

Overlooking Canaima Lagoon

This one one of a series of travel emails I sent to friends and family who wished to follow my travels through Latin America in the first half of 2007

We stepped carefully on the smooth slippery stones, being sure to ensure that each stone was not loose before committing our full bodyweight to it. Nick walked ahead and carried the double burden of also having to concentrate on where his head was going in relation to the rocks above (Nick is very tall). I had a double burden of my own, being the (un)lucky owner of a very sensitive pair of feet (I can actually tickle myself) and having to concentrate on controlling the involuntary ticklish twitching that accompanied every step that I took. We had taken our shirts, shoes and socks off earlier, and a good thing too, because by now, a thin glaze of water had formed on our skin from the spray coming from the falling water to the right of us. My camera sat safely inside a ziplock plastic bag in my shorts pocket.

It was the “dry” season in Venezuela, though you would never know it. Salto el Sapo, the waterfall under which we were walking was flowing with generous amounts of water – generous enough to make anyone attempting the walk-under thoroughly wet. This was our last full day in Venezuela and we had finally made it to Canaima national park, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to the famous Salto Angel – Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall. Our journey here wasn’t the smoothest we could have had, although, by this stage, the worst of it had blown over and we were just very relieved to be standing where we were, being sprayed by the refreshing mist being generated by the considerable impact that the falls were making on the lagoon below.

We stopped to take photos, or rather, I did. Nick’s camera wasn’t functioning, it had decided to look as if it had run out of battery when we boarded the 15-seat light aircraft which was to take us to Canaima. Just minutes before boarding this plane, Nick had managed to leave his wallet on the tray at the X-ray machine when passing through the security checkpoint. Just moments before walking under Salto el Sapo, he was carefully placing our cameras into a plastic ziplock bag when the bottom fell out of it, dropping both our cameras on the rocks we were standing on. Luckily neither of our cameras was damaged, but Nick really wasn’t having a good day. I searched desperately for a dry sliver of clothing to dry my hands on before removing my camera from its protective plastic bag. I rather suspiciously wiped my hands on the inside-surface of my shorts on the side facing away from the water.

“Did you want a picture with you in it?” said Nick. I could barely hear him above the mighty roar of el Sapo. “Yeah sure” I screamed back. Our guide looked bored. Oh what a chore it must be to be a tour guide in what is possibly the most extraordinarily picturesque national park ever. It reminds me of the staff at the Louvre who seemed to spend all day looking out the window while priceless artifacts, paintings and sculptures adorned the walls of the interior. Nick’s picture came out very well. In a few minutes, we would return to the main campamento in canaima, be served a tasty and generously-portioned meal (all part of the package tour), then be flown back to Puerto Ordaz in time for our flight to Caracas where we would stay one more night before moving on to Los Angeles early the next morning.

Arriving in Caracas the second time promised to be far less traumatising that the first. On that occasion we were (un)fortunate enough to arrive about an hour before midnight. Arranging accommodation and transport from Cuba was next to impossible due partly to the incredible cost of everything in Cuba to tourists and partly to the out-of-date guidebook (2001 edition – Venezuela changes quickly) we had from which we were able to extract only one working phone number for a nearby hotel. After being mobbed by “official” (officially suspicious) airport staff wanting to change our money at a dodgy rate and put us in a taxi, we finally succumbed, having little choice as all “properly” official offices were closed for the evening.

Our taxi driver, luckily, didn’t rob us at gunpoint as we feared he might. He did, however, talk an awful lot about our choice of hotel and mentioned something about “bad girls”. I just put it down to my bad Spanish interpretation skills. The hotel reception was a very impersonal window, almost like a ticketing booth. How interesting, they seem to be selling razors at reception. How considerate. What else are they selling? Lets see, phonecards and… condoms. Condoms? Hang on a tic. Upon entering our room, all the pieces came together – there was a mirror on the ceiling. Razors, phonecards and condoms for sale at reception, and a mirror on the ceiling – classy establishment. We hesitantly pointed the remote control at the TV and were relieved (or maybe it was disappointed) to find “normal” Venezuelan network TV.

The next morning, we slept in. This would be our only sleep-in in Venezuela. We wandered out into the area of Catia la Mar in an effort to find some brunch and quickly realised that this wasn’t the most upmarket of suburbs. Luckily, I had been here before and led us into a four-star seaside hotel and marina, where I stayed for two nights in 2003 to go fishing after missing some flights. The meal there was quite decent, and I sat in the exact same seat that I sat in the last time I was there – creepy. We then took the bus and our bags to the airport so that we could arrange our flights to the US and, of course, within Venezuela.

This was about when things started to go wrong. I called a friend of mine in Barquisimeto who we were planning on meeting up with to find that… we couldn’t meet. There was an emergency, she was an architect, a building or part of one had collapsed and she basically wasn’t going to be in Barquisimeto while we were there. Damn. After wrestling with expedia.com and my credit card company for a few hours, we had at least gotten our flights to the US organised, but it was getting late. We didn’t want to be at the airport after dark, so we quickly headed over to the domestic terminal so that we could arrange our trip to the only other reason we were in Venezuela at all – Salto Angel.

The domestic terminal was even more disorganised than the international one. We foolishly gave into the hustling of a tour operator who promised us a full package to Angel falls including meals, board and boat trips to other nearby waterfalls. Things were starting to look up, that is until he told us that this trip would cost 470 USD each… which was more money than we had. After thanking him politely for wasting our time, we made our way to the ticketing desks of various airline companies in a vain effort to try and get us either directly to Canaima or at least to one of the stepping-stone cities which was on the way. One flight was full, all the other desks had closed for the day. It was dark, we were tired, the tour operator who had wasted our time seemed to feel at least slightly responsible for us so he made a reservation for us (which, we discovered later, is actually different to booking and *paying* for a flight) and got us safely to a different nearby hotel (which didn’t have mirrors on the ceilings) and told us to come back at 7am to fly out of Caracas.

We arrived at the airport at about 6:45 the next morning in a very tired state and almost allowed the slimy tour operator to change our money to pay for the flight at the “official” rate (which is about 2/3 the usual black-market rate). We arrived at a city called Puerto Ordaz a little bit after 9am and, having woken up slightly, realised that we got rolled. Firstly, we should’ve realised that the booking wasn’t set in stone and just gone straight to Canaima, where accommodation is cheap and secondly, that, of the two intermediate stepping-stone cities to Canaima, the one we were at was, not only more expensive to stay in, but also more expensive to organise tours to Canaima from. Why? Because there were only two tour companies here, one of which was the same company as the one where the slimy tour operator camped out.

Luckily, there was a cafe in the terminal which had free wireless internet so Nick went to task organising accommodation arrangements in the US. I went around the terminal to ask around about getting us to Canaima for a reasonable price. By early-afternoon, we had both at least been successful in these tasks. I had found a tour which was reasonably cheap and included one night in the park, which would save us a night in a hotel. But, after we ate some lunch and strolled over to the desk… there was nobody there. They had closed for the day. It was Saturday. Bugger. Luckily, not all hope was lost. We managed to find a guy at one of the desks who, after a few phone calls, was able to give us a price which was only slightly more than the one I had negotiated which basically included the same things. Excellent, be in front of the desk at 7am the next morning and we would be off to Angel Falls at last.

That night was fairly uneventful, save for Nick being held at knifepoint while out shopping for dinner by a couple of pugnacious teenagers who were, luckily, much shorter than Nick and intimidated enough by the height difference to have been scared off. Dinner was tinned tuna and muesli bars (staple food of poor students and travellers alike). When 7am came around the next morning, we had both been sitting on the floor of the terminal for about 10 minutes kicking ourselves for not realising that it was Sunday. The only other people at the airport were the security staff.

Several hours later, people finally started arriving. We were told that there were no flights until 10. So we headed off for a quick breakfast before returning to find someone at the desk we were told to wait at. Moreover, he hadn’t heard anything about our “reservation”. He did, however, have space on the flight to Canaima which left at noon on that day. There was one catch – there was only one spot. There was a day tour the next day which he could fit us on, but he couldn’t find us a return flight… so there was a chance that we would miss our connecting flight back to Caracas.

After a long and, at times, awkward and difficult discussion, Nick decided that there was absolutely no way he was going to chance any aspect of the journey to the US and, since Angel falls was clearly much more important to me than it was to him, that I should go alone on the earlier flight. After a bit of psyching up, we approached the desk to find that they now could guarantee us a return flight on the day tour, but we would have to purchase their company’s guided tour package in Canaima as well. Cost – too much. After a short discussion, we decided to stick with our original plan. But just as we were about to go ahead with it the tour operator with whom I had originally negotiated a tour price with decided to show up to work. It was now 11am. “Hold on sir, let me call my boss to see if there are enough people for the tour to run tomorrow”. There were. We just had to be there at 7am the following morning ready to go.

We spent the rest of the afternoon, wandering around a park in Puerto Ordaz which was very much like the Botanical gardens in Melbourne, in that it was extraordinarily well-kept and well-designed. Of course, being in Venezuela, it had a few advantages over the ‘tan in Melbourne (apart from just being in Venezuela). It is basically a collection of small islands at the intersection of two major rivers. All these islands have cute little bridges linking them, or, where the water is very shallow, there are stepping-stones. As if that wasn’t enough, there is a 20 metre waterfall as well. This would be our first major waterfall (and certainly not our last) but we were terribly impressed by it.

“Hey Nick, do you think you could touch the bottom?”
“What? under the waterfall? I think I would almost certainly touch the bottom!”

The next morning we were finally on our way to Canaima. The airport at Puerto Ordaz only has one gate and it organises everyone via the use of two “waiting lounges”. Our flight was a little bit late, which caused us to stress a little, especially since another flight to Canaima left several minutes before ours and caused us to think that we might have missed our flight. We hadn’t. A bus came to take us the considerable distance of 100m from the terminal to the plane. What’s more, the bus was about 12m long but it had about 12 seats in total, so Nick finally got a decent amount of leg room.

The plane we got into had about 15 seats. There were 5 passengers. I got a whole row to myself and was constantly moving between left and right windows to take pictures of the spectacular views on either side. From where I sat, I could see the centre display on the instrument panel. It was a simple square LCD with a small plane in the middle, a red line originating from it and a small bit of text in the bottom-right corner that said simply “Salto” – “Waterfall”. Despite being very sleepy, I couldn’t sleep at all during the hour-long flight, such was my excitement.

We passed over an impressively large lake, some rivers and a great deal of very very thick jungle. Some smaller streams couldn’t be seen through the canopy except when one happened to be directly aligned to reflect the morning sun at our small aircraft. In the distance I could see tepuis, pre-cambrian-period landscapes which had been eroded away until only these rocky flat-topped mountains remained. Clouds awkwardly surrounded these mountains looking like they were ships which had suddenly run aground as they curved into the side, up, and over the edge of the cliffs. The navigation LCD indicating the location of Salto Angel told me that it was getting closer.

The plane dipped slightly. The pilot said something over the PA of which all I could decipher was “agua” – water. It was all I needed. In an instant, I was pressed up against the right hand side window of my row of seats and trying very hard to keep my jaw off the ground as Auyan Tepui panned across my field of view and a magnificent, unbelievably high waterfall streamed off the top of it. Almost one kilometre high, in the dry season there was a small but nontrivial stream of water coming out the top, but the waterfall was so high that it was entirely mist by the time it got to the bottom. The low morning light created an intriguing rainbow effect about halfway down. The plane came around for another pass and I reminded myself to take some pictures, especially since Nick’s camera wasn’t functioning.

We flew towards then directly over the waterfall and over Auyan Tepui. The river that fed the waterfall was barely visible, even though we were quite close to the ground. I know it sounds cliched, but the experience was truly breathtaking. We landed not long after on the airstrip in Canaima, the only access to the park in the dry season, when many of the rivers aren’t deep enough for boats to pass. As I came off the plane, and Nick rushed towards the helpdesk to determine the whereabouts of his wallet and to eventually cancel his credit cards. I must’ve looked like a right bastard because I couldn’t help but smile a very satisfied smile at finally seeing the famous Angel Falls and having it live up to all the hype. I had promised myself in 2003, the last time I was in Venezuela, that I would come back to see Angel Falls – promise made – promise kept.

Angel Falls, the worlds tallest

Angel Falls, the worlds tallest

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