The Amazon jungle of Manaus in Brazil, the Grand Canyon in Colorado, the Tiz Gorges in Morocco, the Dogon country in Mali in West Africa – none are equal in natural beauty to landscapes found in the national park of Canaima, in southern Venezuela.
To get to Canaima, most airplane routes travel via Caracas, capital and slum city of Venezuela, which is redeemed only slightly by its excellent theatre and music hall, Complejo Cultural Teresa Carreño, and its fabulous modern art museum, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo.
The plane ride to Canaima from Simon Bolivar Airport, just outside Caracas, is a smooth two hours on a small Avensa plane, the national carrier of Venezuela. As we – I took my husband along for the ride – arrived, the cloudless sky allowed us to see for miles across the flat plains. Wide rivers meandered back and forth, spurting into many fast-flowing waterfalls and large lakes. The area is famous for its tepuis, large table-shaped mountains with wide tops that stick up out of the plains and are visible from afar. If you imagined filling the Grand Canyon with sand, patting it smooth, and then inverting the mould onto flat land, this would be a close equivalent.
We landed on the tiny airstrip at the village of Canaima, the only means of accessing the jungle terrain this far south, and climbed out of the 50-seater. As arranged, we were met by Enrique, our guide, from Salto Angel Tours. It was a heady ninety degrees in the sunshine, and I was glad of the two water-bottles we had presciently brought with.
Enrique met us as we wandered off the tarmac. A pony-tailed hippy with a wide array of tattoos, he spoke impeccable English and German due to his international travels, which included at least one wife (in Switzerland) and a bevy of beauties in other locations. He bundled us onto wooden benches in the waiting open-air van, and we met our nine fellow travellers: two young Germans just finished university, several Italians, and two Swiss girls working as nannies in Caracas. No one was over thirty-five.
First stop was the local Five and Dime, where we had to pay eight dollars a piece for the waterproof jackets (read ‘plastic sheets’) that we had forgotten to bring with us in case of tropical downpours.
Then, after a quick lunch of barbecued chicken, rice and potatoes, we were off, leaving all our belongings in the truck. Enrique set us a brisk pace down a dusty path, where we shortly arrived at Laguna Canaima. Here, Enrique dutifully gave us his ‘good tourist’ spiel, which included noticing flora and fauna, and not throwing rubbish on the pavement. For good measure, he added what a rip-off the main hotel in Canaima was and therefore how clever we were to be traveling with him. He didn’t mention the fact that the hotel had air-conditioning and running water, whereas we had signed up for a couple of days of sleeping in hammocks in the jungle.
The lagoon water lapping at our feet was an unappetizing orange-brown color. Enrique explained that this was due to all the micro-organisms decaying in it. We crossed the lagoon in a small paddleboat, passing close to the ridge of waterfalls that swept their murky liquid over tufts of grass and into the lagoon. Tepuis rose out of the fauna in the distance on all sides.
Across the lagoon, we re-took the trail. Enrique stopped at every leaf and twig to explain its Indian name, origin, medicinal use and past life. While this was useful in as much as it meant frequent stops in the blistering heat, I soon found myself overdosing on information without even intaking the bright orange poisonous beanstalk mushrooms that lay hidden under the dewy leaves.
We climbed through the forest beside the Río Carrao, sheltered from the heat by the branches of the 300 year old trees. After a couple of hours, that would probably only have been twenty minutes if not for Enrique’s diligent chatter, we arrived at Salto El Sapo, a fifty-foot waterfall. A path has been cut into the rock so that you can actually walk under the water to the other side. The path is quite narrow, so even pressing against the rock, we got completely drenched, and both my contact lenses disappeared into the back of my eye sockets. Luckily the knowledgeable Enrique had insisted we strip down to our swimming costumes and cover our cameras in plastic before hitting the water.
Once on the other side, a path leads to a plateau above the falls, and a stunning panoramic view across the fertile plains. Palm trees poked up out of extensive green meadows, mountains bordered the horizon, and the yellow-brown water, full of minerals, gurgled past us on its way downstream. A couple of rocky ledges in the river created gentle waterfalls and the chance to cool off.
Then we traced our way back down the path and once more battled through the torrents of water. We shoved our clothes back on our gluey bodies, and returned to the route onward. More forest, more named but nameless plants, a quick swing on a jungle creeper (it’s harder than you think, I have a new-found admiration for Tarzan), and we arrived at camp, where our possessions awaited us. Hammocks were already in place in a large open area, covered by a corrugated-iron ceiling. Large plastic bins of rainwater out back provided water for tooth-brushing, and those who still felt they needed a shower, even after the waterfalls of the day, stood outside with shampoo and soap as an evening downpour provided a good cleansing.
The multi-talented Enrique made dinner after the cook had unexpectedly disappeared, and we sampled boiled fish with carrots and aubergines. Whisky appeared out of nowhere, and tales of the lost jungle began. There are still tribes hidden in the depths of the rainforest, but most natives have been ‘westernized’ by the continual influx of tourists bringing t-shirts and sneakers. “I hate that. They’re destroying my jungle”, said Enrique.
We crawled into our sloppy hammocks and pretended to sleep. I can now verify that hard boards are indeed the best support for bad backs as I awoke to a chorus of aches and pains in the morning. A thick mist that made visibility impossible over fifty feet and the tepuis all-but invisible, curled around our sleeping space and hung in the tree-tops. We boarded thin motorboats to begin our trip to Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall at 979 metres high. We were lucky to have had rains the night before as in June, it can be too dry to get to the falls by river, and there are no walking trails to Angel Falls from Canaima. (The rainy season runs from April to October.)
We sat for four hours on the hard wooden benches in the boat, and forcibly (by Enrique) noticed every passing bird, tree and root. Enrique promised us warthogs and jaguars, but we were out of luck. As the mist cleared, the pinky-brown sides of the tepuis became visible behind the forest that hemmed in both sides of the Río Churún. After a brief rain shower, the sun poked through the clouds and the temperature became noticeably warmer.
In spite of Enrique’s warnings, we did not have to push the boat through the multiple rapids, and arrived on the sandy shore at the bottom of the falls without getting our feet wet. From there, we climbed for a couple of hours through the forest, again delayed by Enrique’s compulsory biology lessons. As we made a last turn, the mist finally cleared and Angel Falls came into view: a trickle of water spilled over the top of Auyantepui (‘Mountain of the God of Evil’) about a mile away, vertically. We had arrived at a pond at the base of the falls, which provided a swimming opportunity and a chance to wash the sweat off our backs, particularly meaningful for one of the Italians who had insisted on taking his entire rucksack on the uphill journey.
We feasted on fried chicken with watermelon and oranges, joyously throwing the bio-degradable remains into the waterfalls with Enrique and lauding the pleasures of natural food. No one mentioned the Coca-Cola cans from which we were drinking, that we would have to cart back to base camp, and then on to Canaima.
Sated and dried, we headed back to the shore, walking upstream for a good vista of the entire tepui and the obligatory tourist photo without which no trip would be complete. Then came the return river journey, where all the birds we had seen on the way up were suspiciously in exactly the same positions, leading me to suspect Enrique of a secret ability with a wood-carving kit and bottle of Crazy Glue.
More dinner, more sleep. A boat ride back to Canaima, with another waterfall stop. More swimming, more panoramic views, more chicken. I wondered what qualifications were required to become a guide and spend my life quietly getting stoned in the jungle.
We arrived back at the airport an hour before our plane was due to leave. There was no time (nor aircraft available) for a 45 minute trip over the falls, a favorite with tourists who are not hard enough to hammock it out, but after our close encounter with the falls themselves, we felt no need to see them from a distance.
As I kissed Enrique goodbye, I thanked him for his words of wisdom, and pressed a fiver into his hand. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a T-shirt?” I said with a wink, as I hopped away and boarded the plane back to ‘civilization’ and the grime of Caracas.
I read later that the yellow-brown color of the water is actually caused by tannin, a substance found in local trees and plants. Ah yes, but I prefer Enrique’s stories.