CIUDAD BOLIVAR | VENEZUELA
I LOOKED DOWN AT THE ENDLESS JUNGLE. BROWN RIVERS MEANDERED THROUGH THE TROPICAL RAINFOREST. BEFORE ME ROSE ANOTHER HUGE JUNGLE PLATEAU, A GREEN FLAT TOPPED TEPUY LOOKING LIKE A GIANT SNOOKER TABLE WITH WATERFALLS CASCADING DOWN IT’S STEEP SIDES. FLYING OVER THE MAJESTIC CANAIMA NATIONAL PARK WAS A JAW DROPPING EXPERIENCE, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU FOUND YOURSELF UP TOP IN A TINY PROP PLANE ACTING AS MAKE SHIFT CO-PILOT. AS MY GAZE WAS DIVERTED BETWEEN THE JUNGLE LANDSCAPE AND THE PRESSING CONCERN ON “KEEPING ON EYE ON THINGS” ON THE CONTROL PANEL, YOU SOMETIMES WONDER HOW YOU END UP IN THESE SITUATIONS. I’M NOT EVEN GOOD MOWING THE LAWN.
I’d arrived in Cuidad Bolivar a few days previously having hopped off the bus from Santa Elena, a small border town near Brazil. I ended up staying at a nice place outside town run by a german guy who was friendly with the german guy I’d been staying with previously. It was a strange set up, like a cult’s compound. There weren’t many other guests, just one other couple in fact who arrived the day after me, so I had the run of the place. Not that there was much to run to. Being outside the town there wasn’t much to see or do apart from relax. The internet was non existent, so I had to use my hosts computer whenever I had stuff to do. He had the air of a bond villain about him. A small, round guy who sat back fully in his armchair and glanced around the place, cigar in hand, like he owned it – which admittedly, he did. Despite being well looked after I sometimes got the impression I was being held prisoner. I had visions of being strapped to a chair and holding a newspaper….
We made arrangements for the Angel Falls tour. Unlike a lot of attractions these days with well maintained roads, and flashy national park facilities, Angel Falls is still very remote. The only way there at present is to fly from the small airport at Cuidad Bolivar, on an even smaller plane, to land at the Canaima airstrip. From there it is a good few hours by boat up river to get to the camp sites. Alternatively you could try tying a bunch of balloons to your house and travel there that way. Considering the world’s helium reserves are quickly diminishing, that’s probably not a very responsible option.
There is a strict luggage weight limit due to the size of the plane. The couple traveling with me had to leave most of their stuff back at the airport. After squeezing myself into the front seat beside the pilot, the guy got back out to start the propeller. The entire plane began to rattle and shake as the engine caught up and spluttered into life. The pilot clambered back inside, and in rapid spanish said something along the lines of “Don’t get sick!”. This wasn’t a Boeing, or an Airbus. The tiny prop plane had all the stability and reassurance of an overloaded wheelbarrow as we scrambled down the run way and finally into the air. We wobbled and banked left and right as the plane was buffeted in the slight breeze. The pilot was Del boy and I was Rodney, and we found ourselves in the Robin Reliant of the aviation industry.
The initial trepidation soon gave way to giddy excitement. There is a completely different feeling from flying in a small aircraft then you get with an airliner. In short you actually feel like you’re flying. You can feel every slight twist and turn, you feel the exciting lurch each time the plane navigates the peaks and valleys of the air currents. It’s amazing. It helped that I had a front row seat, and was never more than an inch or two from the action. The flight was only an hour, but the freedom and the views made it one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip. I was already looking forward to the return flight. When my eyes weren’t glued to the window I tried my best to make sense of the control panel. The antiquated dials and readouts looked more akin to a victorian train than anything I’d expect from a flying machine, anything not made by Phileas Fogg anyway. There was no fancy navigational equipment. On the ceiling was a simple compass that said “North” and we just followed that until we saw the airstrip. On the way back I assumed we just flew around until we pointed “South”. I quite like the Peter Pan method of flying.
In the small village there was some accommodation, a restaurant and a small shop to buy booze. A short five minute walk brought you to Canaima lagoon, where there was small, cute looking canoes tied up, a beach and an impressive waterfall with a view of some more tepuys in the distance. That evening we took a boat trip to some of the waterfalls, and even behind some of them. Even the smaller waterfalls can surprise you with the sheer strength of the water. It was a nice warm up for the main event tomorrow which would be the boat ride up to Angel Falls.
We loaded up our canoes early that morning, and we were soon on our way. These looked like native wooden canoes that had a motor jury-rigged onto the back of it. The journey by canoe would take roughly four or five hours, depending on how often the canoe “had to be carried”. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but when you sign up for an adventure don’t be disappointed when that’s exactly what you’re given. As it turns out, because the river level was quite high, we didn’t need to carry the canoes at all. Which was great. We did almost get stuck a few times though. I would have helped only all the guest were crammed into the middle of the canoes, and getting out and back in again would necessitate everyone rearranging themselves like jigsaw pieces. Best leave it to the guys who know what they’re doing right?
The rolling hills, dotted by the occasional plateau soon gave way to the imposing cliffs and canyon walls of the Canaima tepuys. It was an incredible sight. From the river there was no sign of human habitation at all, nothing but dense jungle lining the water, and behind them enormous jungle plateaus punctuated by whispy clouds. It seemed like a true lost world, even more remote and untouched than what I’d seen the previous week down in Roraima. This was the image I’d always had about South America, and it more than delivered on it’s promise in person.
If only the boats weren’t so goddamn uncomfortable I’d be more than happy to circle around those rivers all day. After four hours with your knees drawn up to your chin, you begin to wonder if you’d be cursed to become a human bowling ball for the rest of your life. Eventually though, we had arrived and unfurled ourselves from our wooden coffin ships. My joints began to snap, crackle and pop more than a bowl of rice crispies.
While our guides began to set up camp, we embarked on the hike to the base of the falls. It’s around a 90 minute walk from the river. Some of the terrain can be quite steep, but I found it especially tough seeing as I messed my knee and my foot up pretty badly badly on the Mount Roraima climb. This made it tougher than it should have been, especially on the way back down. The jungle was nice, and exotic looking red flowers intermingled with thick vines spreading across the forest floor as we climbed ever upwards.
Soon the barely-recogniseable path split in two. One goes to the pool at the bottom, while the other affords a vantage point higher up. I choose the vantage point first. You don’t even realise how close you are to the falls until the jungle abruptly ends right at the edge of a cliff. As you stare down at the pool of mist and spray and across the gap your gaze is drawn upwards, and upwards, and upwards………………
At just shy of a kilometer high Angel Falls is the tallest waterfall on Earth. It tumbles over the edge of the Auyantepui, a name which means “Devil’s Mountain” in the local pemon language. Of course it probably has many other names too. It was the inspiration for Paradise Falls in Pixar’s UP, but in real life got it’s name from American explorer Jimmy Angel who crashed landed his plane on the plateau in the 1930’s. His plane remained on top of the mountain until the 70’s when it was finally airlifted, restored, and placed outside Cuidad Bolivar airport. Angel himself later died of another plane crash related incident in Panama. This didn’t bode well for my return flight, especially if I was still doing co-pilot duties.
It’s certainly an impressive sight. The height from which it falls beggars belief. You are looking at a cliff face one kilometer high after all, it’s hard to wrap your head around that. By the time the water reaches the ground it’s nothing more than a fine spray. During dry spells the water sometimes never even reaches the base! That’s insane. I spun around to take in my surrounding. Behind and below me, and in front of Angel Falls, is the river which forms a border between two sides of what essentially is a huge canyon. Devils’ Canyon the pemon call it. I swear these guys are obsessed. More mountainous plateaus stand guard covered in swathes of mist and forest. It truly is a scene straight out of a pulp adventure novel. For a travel nerd like myself it’s truly one of those pinch-me moments. In fact Angel Falls itself can be a slight disappointment, only in so far as it doesn’t really stand out that much from the amazing stuff you’ve already seen here. On the boat ride we passed by towering tepuys, each with their own waterfalls thundering over the side. You could have told me any one of those was Angel Falls, the world’s highest, and I would have believed you. The visit to Angel Falls was the cherry on an already delicious cake, rather than the entire cake itself.
Retracing my steps I took the other path and descended down towards the small pool. The run off from Angel Falls has created a small river here, and it was fun to lie back on the rocks with your feet in the water while staring up at the falls and possibly giving yourself severe neck pain in later life.
That nights digs was an extremely basic, but enjoyable camp in the jungle on the other side of the river. I’d never slept in a hammock before, and honestly never will again with any luck. I spent that evening trying to set up a time lapse view of the falls with an Australian guy I befriended. By “befriended” what I actually mean is that I listened to him as he lectured me about everything. He was a nice fella, but everything I had done, he had also done. But done better. Or more often. He even told me that his passport stamps looked cooler than mine. Even the ones from the same countries. “Yeah but you got the new version of the Indonesia visa. I have the old one, and I dunno…..it just looks better”.
It looked exactly the same.
Cloud had set in around the Auyantepuy and persisted until morning. Angel Falls had revealed herself, but now the show was over. “Always leave them wanting more” is a famous quote by Gypsy Rose Lee. I was hoping Angel Falls wouldn’t take advice from a dead stripper but you can’t win ’em all I guess.
The next morning brought more stunning scenery into focus as the clinging mist released it’s grasp on the jungle and the tepuys returned in all their glory. As did the cramping as we found ourselves once again contorted into the canoes like chinese acrobats. The entire trip had felt like a genuine expedition into the unknown. There are no roads here, no electricity, no services, no trace of modernity what so ever. We took small wooden canoes through an ancient looking landscape to the base of a jungle waterfall, and camped in the forest, sleeping on swinging hammocks. OK maybe not sleeping.
And the best part? We got to fly back in that awesome little plane! My australian friend put himself forward as co-pilot this time. He probably felt more qualified to fly the plane then the actual pilot, I’m just thankful he didn’t. I loaded my backpack into the trunk (yes it was just like a trunk in a car) and soon we had wobbled our way back up into the skies. Ever since I watched Arachnophobia as a kid I promised myself never to visit Venezuela. But kids are stupid. This country is more than worth the risk of being eaten alive by a venomous spider and having your desiccated body shipped back home in a box. A bit of a nasty surprise for your family maybe, like when you open a bag of bananas from Tesco and there is a nest of bird eating spiders inside.
After bathing my feet, my knee and every other body part still attached to me I took the bus north to Venezuela’s infamous capital Caracas. This city is well known as one of the world’s “murder capitals”. I’d only be spending one night there, my plan being to take the bus into Colombia. However it only takes one night to get murdered so I was on my guard. In short Caracas wasn’t as bad as I was led to believe. Sure I found myself alone in a market place in a dodgy part of town looking for the bus station, where people looked like they’d rather stab me than talk to me, but it was grand. As someone once told me “If you find yourself going through hell – keep going”. Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but instead of showing fear when you enter into a certain area and immediately realising you’ve made a huge mistake, the trick is to appear confident and in control. Make yourself less of a target. So I found myself strutting around Caracas in the dead of night with all the self assured-ness of a coked-up Mick Jagger.
I told my hostel host where I’d been and his face grew ashen. “You really shouldn’t be alive”. Just how I roll.
Despite what I’d read on the internet the buses which go direct from Caracas to Cartagena, Colombia are seasonal. The next one was a few months away. I’d probably get there quicker by walking. My only option was to take the night bus from Caracas to Maracaibo, and from there switch to the local mini bus to the Colombian border. The initial stage of the journey went smooth enough. The next morning at Maracaibo I was mobbed by hustlers as soon as I stepped off the bus. Eventually I was herded into one of the local buses heading towards Colombia, and that’s when the fun began. We started by filling with up with gas, and almost leaving an old man behind in the toilets. Then came the checkpoints. This route is a notorious contraband highway, and the short distance between Maracaibo and the border was filled with nine military checkpoints. Nine. I counted them. I always knew a checkpoint was coming up as the designated briber on the bus passed the hat around to get “donations”. Usually in a situation like this the best thing to do is to follow the locals lead, so I threw in some money too. It obviously didn’t work. At each checkpoint some guys were hauled off the bus, never to be seen again, and we just continued on our merry way as if nothing ever happened. I was concerned I’d be in for some rough treatment being a foreigner, but they showed no interest in me whatsoever. They were out for the locals.
After a few hours of navigating the dusty roads, and the checkpoints – most of the time probably spent handing over money to mustached guys in uniforms – we eventually reached the Colombian border. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was my first time surviving an A-Team movie. Yep, it’d be plain sailing from here.
“Where are you going from here?” one of my bus friends asked. “Cartagena” I replied. “Word of advice” she continued “when you get to the bus station on the other side of the border, don’t leave it under any circumstance. Even if you have to spend the night inside do not leave. It’s the most dangerous town in Colombia”. I think the town she was referring to was Maicao. I’m not entirely sure where I was at this stage as I was looking over my shoulder so often. Sure enough when I got to the Maicao bus station I made a B-line for the ticket booth. “The next bus to Cartagena leaves in 10 minutes”. Music to my ears. Looks like I wouldn’t be spending the night in one of South America’s most dangerous frontier towns after all. I’d spent the entire bus ride practicing my hard man face, but the illusion is ruined when it’s obvious you’ve pissed yourself.
Next time: A late night arrival in probably the most beautiful city in South America. I hijack a pirate ship, and I meet an Irish person who gives out to me for being Irish.