ok... here we go!
The hopefully reliable mini aircraft that took us down to Caniama (and back again)
After an exceptionally slow last day at work I was finally free and headed first thing to the bus station where I had arranged to meet Ewa, a friend (and, like me, an English teacher) who was to be my travel companion for the week to come. For both of us this was the start of a seemingly endless Christmas holiday and the moment we had both been waiting for, more or less ever since we arrived, four months earlier. Filled with an emotional mix of anticipation and relief we checked in our newly acquired backpacks and embarked on our first journey with a Venezuelan night bus. As there are no railroads, coaches are the preferred means of state wide public transport and due to the size of the country, it seems to make sense to travel by night, and try to get some sleep, while at the same time covering the many miles needed to take you anywhere. But traveling on a Venezuelan night bus is nothing like accidentally falling asleep on your average Megabus or National Express and waking up several hours later with your neck frozen into a position you never before knew was possible. Instead, these 'all
... us and a whole load of frozen chicken
you could ever wish for'-coaches come with two floors, leg room that would suit even the tallest Scandinavian man and huge seats with fold out lower leg support and backs that go so far back you can almost fool yourself you're in bed (as a true child of the Ryan Air-era I never cease to be amazed by seats which can be pushed back at all). And to top it all of, a screening of 'Million Dollar Baby' on the TVs, just to get us settled in (a clearly illegal copy, of course). The true price of this comfort, however, is not the financial cost of the ticket, rather it's the 12 hour feeling of slowly freezing to death. For some outrageous reason, that is beyond me and everyone I've ever debated this matter with, someone must have at some point decided that it would be favourable to paralyze all travelers with help from the most powerful ACs in the world, for the entire duration of the journey. Of course, once you are aware of this (as the Venezuelans somehow seem to be from birth - like an instinct passed on from generation to generation), all you need to do
is bring a well insulated sleeping bag and the problem is solved, but in my little European mind I cannot help but keep thinking "Why? Why? Why?!".
The next morning we arrived in Ciudad Bolivar with a slight blueish shade to our lips and hands and, perhaps more importantly, almost four hours late. Luckily delays are standard and our veteran travel agent Luis was still waiting for us when we arrived, seemingly unfazed by our extreme lateness. With him was also Mari Carmen, the Mexican girl we had met on the beach a couple of weeks earlier and decided to team up with. Together we quickly headed for the small local airport, staffed by two check-in officers and a few pilots. After a less than two minute check in process (in which a girl in front of us got into a bit of trouble for not having her passport with her but was eventually let on anyway, as no one really cared) we were soon out on the landing strip, getting crammed into the tiniest airplane I could ever imagine. Four passengers and a huge bulk of frozen chicken later the plane was packed to the brim and it was
time to take off. The one hour flight was as if extracted straight from a National Geographic episode, with a breathtaking scenery that outdid everything I'd ever seen from the air before. Magnificent landscapes of flatland, dense rain forest and dark rivers spread out beneath us, making us feel like true past century explorers, headed for the unknown.
The teeny tiny airport in Canaima, which also serves as the entrance to the national park, was covered from top to bottom with tourists, waiting to start various tours, and indigenous women selling souvenirs and mosquito repellent. This was the first place we'd ever encountered in Venezuela that seemed to have a proper infrastructure for tourism. We were quickly greeted by our local guide Oswaldo and taken to our little campamento. The village of Caniama has two streets (both mud-based but I suppose broad enough to be called streets) and although our guide claimed that there are about 1000 people living there, I imagine they must be spread out over a vast area, as a short walk around gave us the feeling of there being about twenty houses around, maximum. But as soon as we reached the little beach that was the
goal of our first walkabout, we all fell silent, stunned by the beauty of the little paradise that had just unfolded in front of us. The soft pearly white sand led down to the dark redish water where palm trees seemed to grow out of nowhere in front of a chain of powerful waterfalls, making us feel as though we'd unknowingly walked onto an immaculately arranged movie set. From there we embarked on a short boat journey across the water. The dark, shimmering water that is said to be absolutely full to the limit with gold and diamonds, but due to the National Park protection laws are off limits to anyone attempting to extract it for personal gain. Although the legend of El Dorado is thought to have originated somewhere closer to what is now Colombia, local legends pinpoint the entrance to the Golden City to a hollowness in the rocks of Canaima National Park. After having it pointed out to us we decided it was probably safer to leave nature untouched after all. Besides, we had other adventures in mind. A short walk took us to Salto El Sapo and our first up close face to face meeting with
a majestic waterfall. Although not one of the highest, Sapo is tremendously beautiful and as we were all carefully balancing behind it, in between the cascade of water and the mountain, we definitely felt alive. Perhaps me more than the others as I, in a moment of weakness, lost my footing on the slippery rocks and fell flat on my back, causing a few cuts and bruises but luckily nothing more serious than a bump to my ego and we could all continue to the outlook point and swim in the waterfall, as planned.
The next morning we met up with a larger group of people that would join us on the journey to our main destination - Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall. After cramming thirteen people with backpacks and a stack of provisions to keep us all going for two days, into the slim little river boat, we were ready to leave. After just over an hour of sitting still on the wooden benches we were glad find out that we had reached a little waterfall where we would rest and have some lunch. However, we soon had to pack our butts back into the boat for another
round with the benches. By this point we were all soaked through and through by the rain that had started at dawn and never really given up since. And although the rain created a very intense, misty atmosphere on the river, with temporary waterfalls gushing down from every crack in the table top mountains surrounding the river, there was a slight air of desperation around the boat as we were told to prepare for another three hours on the water. Luckily using our life-jackets as cushions for our sore behinds did provide a little bit of relief. As Angel Falls finally appeared in the misty distance I think we all shared a confused thought that went something like "fantastic! but... is this it? it's so... unimpressive". For although it was unarguably beautiful, the huge waterfall (a drop of nearly one kilometer) seemed to small in the distance. After getting out of the boat and walking up a mountain for about an hour, to get to the outlook point, the powerful impression we'd all been waiting for had still not grabbed us, despite the view from there being absolutely spectacular.
That night we were rewarded for our butt torture boat ride
with a nice cooked meal and a night's sleep in hammocks, in the rain forest. And although I didn't get much sleep, as sleeping in hammocks turned out to be freezing cold and a more difficult balancing act than I'd anticipated, it's still a nature experience I would not want to be without.
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