Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Angel Falls is hard to get to.
Canaima Camp, the last settlement on the journey to the world’s tallest waterfall, is on the banks of a lagoon, deep in an area of the jungle that is only accessible by chartered plane from the nearest city, several hundred kilometres away.
When I hopped off the 6-seater aircraft and into the 40-degree heat, I expected to see a bustling settlement with hundreds of other tourists. Angel Falls, or Salto Angel to Venezuelans, is well-known the world-over, its column of water at a neck-aching 979m tall.
The lagoon at Canaima Camp
When Tourism Gets Political
Having visited similar hotspots around the world, like Victoria Falls in Zambia, there is often a massive tourist economy and infrastructure supporting the thousands that come flocking to tick the sight off their bucket-list. Whilst this can make the experience feel somewhat less ‘authentic’, this is coupled with the knowledge that local communities (arguably) substantially benefit financially from the hundreds of thousands of dollars which are spent throughout surrounding towns and villages. This brings with it employment opportunities, schools, medical facilities, new houses and often better transport and utilities’ infrastructure. The list goes on.
That is what Canaima Camp was like ten years ago. Now, it has the Chernobyl-esque feel of eerie abandonment.
The restaurants and hotels listings in my guidebook mostly no longer existed, and the dilapidation of the area was obvious.
The roads were cracked and close to being reclaimed by the fibrous grasses; the soviet-style trucks that used to transport tourists were red with rust; and nearly all the single-story hotels were closed, their white paint peeling and hinges so loose that the wooden window-shutters could barely hang on. The local community has yet to move on though, still clinging on in hopes of the tourists’ return. Families are still there and the local school has over 700 pupils.
My hotel, Tapuy Lodge, seemed to be the only one open, and whilst its ten rooms gave no indication of the surrounding decay, it was unsettling to be the only group wandering around the town. The local shop was open, but its wares were covered with a thin layer of dust. The lagoon’s beach, with its towering palm trees and sugary white sand, was empty aside from bathing children.
The reason is political.
At least twenty-four were killed in the three weeks prior to my visit in violent protests in the country’s capital, Caracas. Food rationing is in place. Basic medicines are unavailable. Military and police checkpoints line major roads at regular intervals, constantly interrupting the flow of traffic. Every fourth or fifth vehicle was thoroughly searched by men in khaki with AK-47s dangling from their necks.
A caiman killed for its meat, something only seen in the past couple of years
It is easy to see why tourists have abandoned Venezuela, and much would need to change with the political and security situation before they came back. With inflation at 700% this year, most Venezuelans can no longer afford to visit tourist attractions within their own country. Their state-regulated salaries must be spent on the increasingly unaffordable staples.
Walking around towns and cities, even near the pinnacle that is Angel Falls, what strikes you most is what was and what could have been, not what still is. Gone are the cafes, bars and shops. What remains is boarded up or less than half-empty.
But despite all of this, the remoteness and beauty of Angel Falls, and the national park in which it hides, is its saving grace; I felt completely safe during the trip.
Onwards to Salto Angel
After a night at Canaima, the journey upstream to the base of the waterfall began at 5am, in a narrow dugout canoe with a stuttering motor. It had, long ago, been painted green and blue, but it was now peeling to reveal the burnt, black hardwood beneath. In some places, the wood had worn so thin that water intermittently sloshed through.
It was on the cusp of the wet season, but water levels were still low. The river had turned wine-red from tannins and minerals washed down from the tabletop tepuis that we were slowly winding around. The little boat couldn’t quite make it up many of the rapids still revealed from drought – every ten minutes the crew would be forced to jump in and heave it up by hand, while the passengers waited ashore.
The jungle was encroaching on the river at every opportunity, trees bending deeply out from the undergrowth to reach more light and water. White-winged swallows flew close overhead, skimming for skaters, and kingfishers dipped for flying fish. There were no settlements, no other people. Just dense jungle.
As we went further upstream, the river became rockier – small boulders lined the water, covered with thick layers of grass making them look like soft, green pillows. After five hours, the boulders had grown to the size of houses, the crew navigating around them with a seven-foot-long wooden oar.
A total of seven hours after setting off, we finally reached the wooden hut which would be home that evening, positioned just off the bank of the river. From there, you could look up and see the Falls in the distance, hazy from the moisture rising off the tree canopy and incomprehensibly high; it is near-impossible to understand a kilometre of water falling.
After hanging my hammock, I set off on the sweaty up-hill scramble to reach the bottom of the waterfall. Banana tree leaves six-foot-tall; the distinctive water-droplet Oropendola birdcall masked behind palm trees; red flowers bursting into ribbons of fireworks; the occasional tarantula crossing the path; and hanging vines as thick as a limb.
Once I’d completely soaked my clothes through, the forest opened into a clearing at the base of Falls itself. It is so high that the water becomes mist one third of the way down, before re-forming and crashing into this lower, secondary cascade of water. The pool I was standing near was white with thick foam from the force and power from above. The rock that surrounded the column seemed to embrace it; two arms wrapping around it for protection, damp with effort.
After I spent far too long trying to scale the slippery walls and spectacularly failing and falling, the humid trek back down began.
The inaccessibility of Angel Falls is a sign of the political times in Venezuela. From a pure tourism perspective, though, it meant that the journey was just as intriguing and impressive as the destination.
To read more about the political instability in Venezuela, check out my blog post on protests here.
Travellers should check the FCO advice for Venezuela before deciding to visit, due to ongoing instability. Official travel advice has changed since my visit, to ‘advise against all but essential travel’ and some areas of ‘advise against all travel’.