Venezuela boasts South America's largest lake and third-longest river. It has the world's highest waterfall, the longest of all snakes and some spectacular landscapes. The snow-capped peaks of the Andes are in the west, steamy Amazonian jungles in the south, the magnificent Gran Sabana Plateau with its flat-topped mountains in the east and endless white sand, palm-fringed beaches on its Caribbean coast.
Angel Falls is hidden deep in the 3 million-hectare World Heritage Canaima National Park in Venezuela's south-eastern state of Bolivar, close to the borders of Brazil and Guyana.
The park was established in 1962 and its size was increased in 1975 to safeguard the watershed functions of its river basins. It then became the world's largest national park, before gaining World Heritage status in 1994 in recognition of its extraordinary scenery and geological and biological values. Canaima fulfilled all four of UNESCO's criteria for qualification.
The flat-topped mountain formations known as tepuis were popularised in novels from the early part of the last century, with many of them inspired by the 19th century British botanist, Everard Im Thurn. The formations, similar to those in the deserts of northern Arizona, came about by a process of erosion of surrounding lands over millions of years. They are shrouded in mystery, mythology and spirits.
The remote, indigenous village of Canaima is the gateway to Angel Falls. It is in an idyllic setting at the north-western edge of the national park, north-west of Auyantepuy.
Canaima Lake is at the heart of everything. The broad, blue expanse is framed by beach and palm trees and a dramatic series of seven cascades, back-dropped with anvil-like tepuis so visitors heading to Angel Falls have a bonus before they undertake the final part of their journey. The falls are a curious pink colour, caused by the high level of tannin from decomposed plants. You can experience the hammering curtains of water by hiking behind one of the falls.
The Pemon are the traditional inhabitants of south-eastern Venezuela. Their population is around 20,000 with around three-quarters living within the national park.
For most visitors, Canaima conjures up jungle tours, boat trips in dugout canoes and visits to the Angel Falls. For the Pemon people, however, Canaima is an evil spirit lying in wait for them in dense forest in the form of poisonous snakes or sharp branches that injure them. It might be in the form of a jaguar in the forest or a spirit passing through their huts. According to local legend, all ailments, large and small, are the work of the evil Canaima spirit.
As with most pre-Colombian tribes, they do not believe in natural death. An eternal disappearance from the earthly world is put down to Canaima who pursues them relentlessly until they are defeated and die.
The area is totally remote there is no road at all. From the Laguna de Canaima to the Angels Falls site, it’s 91km if you go in a straight line, but the Carrao River snakes, extending the journey to 115 kilometres.
Carrao, to the Pemon people, means traitor as the seemingly calm and harmless surface belies a fearful current running below. What is living in the river, though, has sustained them for thousands of years. There is a break from the river at a campsite on Orchid Island. It's pretty basic but comfortable enough.
Back on the water, the further you travel the more you experience the feeling of remoteness. Vegetation changes and the air becomes more humid. Views change as you take each bend in the river, and as it narrows and the forest closes in, you just know you are in for something spectacular and you are.
At the end of the boat ride there is a walk through the jungle. It's not too difficult and when you are faced with the reason you are on the journey, it's all worthwhile. It's something you just cannot prepare yourself for.
Angel Falls has a total height of 979m and a continuous drop of 807m. They leap and thunder from the heart-shaped table mountain Auyantepui ("Mountain of the God of Evil").
Ironically, Angel Falls is not named after a divine creature, but after an American bush pilot, Jimmie Angel. No one believed his story that he had seen a mother lode of gold, capping a gargantuan jungle waterfall, so in 1937 he set out with three others to prove his story.
He did locate Auyantepui but his four-seater aircraft stuck fast in the marshy surface. Without food or supplies, the dazed gold-diggers trekked through rough, virgin terrain to the edge of the plateau before descending a steep cliff and returning to civilisation, some 11 days later.
His claim was verified in 1949 and the awe-inspiring cataract now bears his name. The plane was later removed from the tepui by the air force, restored and placed in front of the airport in Ciudad Bolivar where it now remains. Before then, only the Pemon knew of the existence of the world's most magnificent falls.
In the dry season January to May the volume of the falls lessens and fizzles out to mist as it drops. It is the best time of year to see the falls by plane. Boat trips are slowly phased out during this time as waterways are too shallow to navigate. Boat trips at the beginning or end of the dry season take longer due to the need for portage. In the rainy season, particularly August and September, the flow turns to a gushing shower. It is also the season when the falls can be covered by a veil of mist and clouds. Climate patterns are variable and unseasonable droughts and deluges can greatly affect the falls.
Canaima National Park in Venezuela.
Kumuka Worldwide has tailor-made itineraries across the globe. In Venezuela they have tours including visits to Angel Falls, Los Roques and the Orinoco delta. Eight days, including accommodation, personal driver, guide and internal flights costs $2750 per person twin share.
Prices correct at October 2, 2008.
For further information
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Ph: 1300 667 277 or (02) 9279 0491
Street crime in Venezuelan cities is common, particularly in Caracas. Exercise the commonsense you would in any large, chaotic city, and if you are walking after dark, be aware of neighbourhoods considered to be zonas rojas, high crime areas where you may be at risk.
It is recommended travellers to Venezuela see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there are specific vaccinations recommended. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended and are best discussed with your doctor. For further information visit www.welltogo.com.au.
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