Angel Falls never Fail!

Published: July 10th 2007
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To get to Angel Falls is a tricky business. Unless you have a machete and a lot of time on your hands you have to fly in and the cheapest method is to go via Ciudad Bolivar (oh yes Bolivar got a town named after him too) a 10 hour bus trip from Caracas. So it was with little sadness that I left my grotty hostel in Caracas (though I had been having a nice chat with two danish girls under a mango tree on the balcony there when a mango fell down on the table - we promptly ate it!). I dared the metro at 8pm to the Rodovias bus terminal, despite being advised to get a taxi, and was beginning to regret that when I realised the last 300m to the terminal were along an unlit street. I tried to blend into the shadows, look mean, etc... In fact I only passed by an old lady and her daughter so there was nothing to worry about.

On the bus I yet again failed to remember to take my sleeping bag onboard, so froze once more with the aircon. One day I'll learn.

I arrived early the next day to Cuidad Bolivar, and had a little tour of the city from a taxi driver intent on not taking me to the Posada I'd asked for. Finally we arrived, and I found a friendly little German (or was it swiss?) run place, with (relatively) cheap hammocks on the roof, and free drinking water - very handy since it was a hot and sticky place. I also met another traveller, a girl from Spain, who was also looking to do the Angel Falls the next day. The two of us set out first for breakfast (empanadas, coffee, and guava juice!) on the cute little main square, then to organise a tour to the Falls (the only way to do it, 750,000 bolivares as cheap as we could get for a 3 day-2 night excursion including flights) and a little walk down to the Orinoco River that borders the town. The river is huge at this point, but it is actually the narrows (in fact Ciudad Bolivar was previously called Angostura which means Narrows). In the distance was a huge suspension bridge, the only bridge over the Orinoco over its entire x000km course.

That night we hooked up with some Irish travellers who were also a lot of fun, and went out for food (and a rather expensive bottle of wine! oops!) before coming back for my first ever night on a hammock. By the end of the night I was hoping it was going to be my last ever night on a hammock. For the first hour I was bitten to hell by an incredibly itchy variety of mosquitos, then I gave up on the hammock and lay on the floor in my sleeping bag, but that just made me sweat and attracted the mosquitos even more. Finally to compound matters at 3am the guy (a local guy who worked in the hostal) in the next hammock (which infuriatingly had a mosquito net built in) arrived and started snoring his head off. At that point I went downstairs and slept in the common area, which for a while was mosquito free. The traffic noises outside were infinitely better than the snoring.

So to the falls...

Well firstly good news: we were on the budget tour, so supposedly getting a flight from a place 3 hours drive from Ciudad Bolivar. That flight didn't have enough people and we got a direct flight instead. The flight was in a little 6 seater and a lot of fun, over some weird terrain. Finally we arrived at the start of the area with tepuis (table mountains) and Canaima below. The first thing we did there was wait for 2 hours (nice for me as I was desperate to catch up on sleep) as our group grew from 4 to 6 to about 15. So it turns out whatever tour you book (and however much you pay) you end up in one of about 2 big groups all pretty much doing the same tour.

First activity was to take a boat to the nearby lagoon and see the powerful Niagara-esque (but smaller) falls there. It turns out that you can walk all the way behind one of the falls (called El Sapo, or the Toad). Little did I realise just how wet this would get. I inadvertently took my wallet, camera (in a flimsy plastic bag) and passport through what turned out to be rather like a washing machine on rinse cycle. Incredible! But they all made it through to the other side and back again and me too! (the previous day someone had slipped, broken their leg and had had to be carried out!)

Next after a nice walk above the falls in the sun we were taken direct to our first nights camp in the jungle via motorboat. That was quite a wet ride too (not that we cared as we were all totally soaked from the previous waterfall) - i was silently praying that the binliner my rucksack was inside wouldn't fail (note for future river trips: always double bag your stuff!). Indeed by the end of the three days unripped binliners were like gold dust and there was a bit of a black market up and running.

After a short hike to by pass a section of rapids which were 'too dangerous' for tourists (we didn't have to carry the boat thankfully) and a further 2 hours aboard (by which time backsides were well and truely numb) we made first camp. Not quite the Sheraton, but at least they'd remembered to bring enough hammocks for everyone, and the views of the waterfall strewn (we were hoping the Angel Falls would be slightly bigger thought I must say) Auyun tepui all around were stunning. After a quick change of clothes and a cup of coffee dinner was served - not bad at all, but not Inca Trail or Galapagos standards. Afterwards we soon discovered that even the night before the Angel Falls theres not a lot to do when it gets dark. We all hammocked down listening to the sound of a huge rainstorm coming in, praying that the weather would recover for the next day.

That night passed surprisingly mosquito free and I slept pretty well, though it was a tad cold(!), despite having a blanket. In the morning we were greeted by clouds straddling the highest part of the tepuis above us, but no rain. It seemed like we might be in luck. After a breakfast of donuts and cheese, and a brief scrummage for unripped binliners, we were on our way. Another 3 hours or so by boat, through more dramatic scenery, with clouds thinning all the time, brought us to our first view of the Angel Falls. Even at this distance they were huge, an order of magnitude bigger than any of the other falls we'd seen on the way. Clearly this was going to be impressive!

Finally we arrived at our even more basic second camp at the base of the falls. After a brief break we began the hour hike up to the viewpoint overlooking the falls. The hike itself was nice, through the jungle, and a rare treat - in the jungle but sunny! Underfoot was a bit slippy, but nowhere like the mudbath and steep slopes of southern Ecuador, so no slips this time.

The view of the falls from the top was definitely worth the expense and sore bottom of getting there. For a brief while I had the place almost to myself, just me and a beer drinking colombian who I got to take a photo of me. The first photo only had half the falls on it, so the one I kept was his second attempt. Bit by bit the rest of the group caught up, and everyone was clearly equally impressed. By this point the sun had come out properly and I found myself taking a million photos of the falls just in case the lighting had got better (advantage of digital cameras). Of course at the same time the camera was getting more and more covered in the fine spray that was reaching us on the wind from the falls (even though we were still over 200m away). Our guide in one of his rare informative moments told us that we were really lucky to see the falls at all. Only 40% of people do, and most of those don't see it's entire height (about 1km). Of course he was probably just saying this to make us feel even more happy (the next day however was seriously overcast so maybe he was right). Also it was the rain season, and the falls were full. In the dry season they reduce to a mere trickle when the falls are so high that the water never actually reaches the ground.

Back down we scampered for more relaxing at camp, a bit of a swim in the river (though it had clouded over by this point and had got distinctly cold) and then a dinner of roast chicken which was pretty yummy. By this point the english speaking fraction of the group had started to gel, and we had a pleasant evening chatting amonst ourselves - an irish couple Sinead and I forget, a tall american guy Kevin, and my Spanish friend Damaris who i'd met in Ciudad Bolivar (who's english was excellent as she'd lived in the UK for 7 years).

That night I slept well, but was awoken a couple of times by people getting in and out of hammocks (it shakes the whole beam) and strange spitting noises. It was only in the morning that I discovered that half the camp had been sick - the chicken was the main culprit. Well I thanked my lucky, travel-hardened stars - I was fine.

That morning was a rainy start. A wet 2 hours down to the previous camp for breakfast where we met the group going up the day after us. They were looking a bit disconsolate. The view we'd had the preious day of the tepui was completely obscured... hihihi but what did we care! After breakfast a further 2 hours of bottomache followed before we reached Canaima. There we were quickly whisked off to our plane, this time back via Paragua and a 3 hour bus trip to Cuidad Bolivar. I tried to sleep but that was hard - the driver insisted on playing Ibiza style rave music at full volume. I put in my headphones in a vain effort to stop my eardrums from splitting. Finally we got back and headed for the bus station for a bus out of town...

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