Venezuela - Where Angels Dared To Tread

by Shane Boocock

For the first time visitor to Caracas, it is a bit daunting to have to sort out an argument in Spanish with 12 wild gesticulating taxi-drivers, over who takes the gringo to the city. A sleazy-looking, well-oiled character with long sideburns, the successful bidder tailgated and jack-knifed through a haze of carbon monoxide, past hillside Barrio’s to downtown Caracas. Twenty minutes later and the temperate afternoon heat of Latin America blankets visitors like a warm poultice.

Nowadays, many seasoned travellers journey through South American countries, reliving their youth, and occasionally using well-travelled backpacks from a bygone era. It seems a nostalgic way to travel again, a cool way to stop at funky hotels where travellers of all-ages swap ‘don’t-venture-there’ type tales.

Here in downtown Caracas, you’ll find plenty of pony-tailed Venezuelan’s showing you budget hotel rooms. What I found was closet-space, illuminated by a bare 25-watt overhead bulb with a single bed covered with a well-worn corduroy bedspread – a room offering all the warmth of a penitentiary cell.

Back in 1934, things were a lot different. That year a Mexican engineer charted Jimmy Angel’s monoplane for $5,000 and flew from Panama City, to the heart of Venezuela’s uncharted Gran Sabana region on the Brazilian border. Angel crossed the Caribbean, navigated the dry, parched savanna and an uncharted canopy of verdant insect infested jungle, swooping finally between 900m sheer sandstone cliffs – mesas that ascend like Islands in an ocean of untamed rainforest. He landed safely on top of a 975m tepui (a flat topped plateau) and waited three days for the engineer to return. The man staggered back, so the tale is told, loaded down with seventy-five pounds in gold. A year later Angel returned with his wife and, for good measure, the gardener, adding a chapter to one of this century’s true-life adventures. Searching for his “mountain of gold”, he again landed in cloud on top of a plateau, this time damaging the plane and making it impossible to take-off again. After eleven arduous days hiking down from the tepui through dense jungle, past a magnificent towering waterfall, the party made it to a Pemon Indian village and safety.

From Auyan-Tepuy (Devil’s Mountain), drops the world’s highest waterfall, the thunderous and, at times, deafening Angel Falls, named for the pilot who discovered them that fateful day.

Venezuela – the name itself evokes images of exotic adventures, steaming jungles and tropical tales, and of course Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the President of Venezuela, as well as the odd Miss World candidate strutting her stuff on the streets of Caracas.

Before setting off into Jimmy Angel’s jungle, it’s best to acclimatise in Caracas, a city with a gritty, yet wonderful feel to it. The centre is full of lush green parks and city squares, where old men idly chat or play chess under the shaded canopies of sagging boughs – Simon Bolivar Plaza is much that way. In the late afternoon sun, the white talcum-powder facade of the Presidential Palace looks spectacular, as do many other Government buildings and museums. The city is reminiscent of Barcelona, with outdoor cafes and local stores, openly noisy, with over-crowded boulevards that split the city as effortlessly as an axe splits wood.

Elsewhere, restaurants, oozing the atmosphere of Spain, have chorizo and cured hams hanging from shelves above bars where pungent smells waft across from kitchens as chefs prepare and cook spicy garlic prawns and other local delights.

Arthur Conan Doyle, at the turn of the century, found the region known as the Grand Sabana fascinating, and wrote his book Lost World on the strength of somebody else’s exploits.

About two hours flying time from Caracas is the remote town of Canaima, located inside the National Park Canaima, considered one of the biggest national parks in the world, and gateway to the Grand Sabana. Andreas, a local guide with a large drooping moustache, drove us in an open four-wheel drive vehicle along cayenne-red dirt roads to the banks of the Rio Carrao. Here, a dug-out canoe made the short journey upstream to Jungle Rudy’s, Ucaima Camp.

Ucaima was set up in the early 1950s by Rudolf Truffino, a Dutchman. There is a nymph-green lawn, shaded under large overhanging trees. Inside, a cool tiled floor leads to a small, rustic-looking bar, a place filled with old leather Spanish chairs arranged in a semi circle facing out toward the river and a far-off horizon of mountain tepuis. On a whitewashed mud wall, are floor-to-ceiling black and white sepia photographs of Angel Falls from the 1950s. Elsewhere are tribal artifacts, snake skins and drums.

At 5 a.m. the next day it was still dark at the edge of the wide river, flat calm and reflecting the coming dawn. Chino, a barefoot Venezuelan, seated everyone for the 80km up-river journey. Over the next five hours, the group straddled the sleek, rough-hewn, single-log canoe as it bounced, glided and negotiated roaring upstream rapids, startling to flight countless exotic birds. During the process of the journey, towers of vertical tepuis ascend over 600m, from which cascading waterfalls bleed off the rims or stay hidden behind a halo of floating mist.

After a mid-morning break amid goats, tapirs (a relation of the horse and rhinoceros, but gentle and shy) and brightly coloured toucans and parrots, we continued upriver. The canoe skimmed over more rapids and skewed around bends like a speed boat out of control, before the dramatic sight of Angel Falls stunned us like a cold morning shower, as it free-fell thousands of feet.

The hike to within 1km of the falls takes about 90 minutes and is at times strenuous, more so when burdened with the oppressive heat. The track is well marked and climbs gradually through rich fertile rain forest entwined with twisting vines and high-reaching dense foliage.

All at once the cool spray of the falls was a welcome relief. The final steep climb led to an opening in the jungle canopy, where large slip-rock boulders are worn smooth from the incessant spray – the tremendous noise and force exerted by the falls envelopes everything.

Nearly 18 times higher than the famous raging waters of Niagara Falls, and in total 980m from jagged cliff top to steaming jungle floor, the sight is worth every hot sweltering minute, every hot aching muscle captured in every spray filled photograph.

Jimmy Angel would have agreed . . . it’s a heck of a place to lose a plane!

Facts:

Books: Lonely Planet’s Venezuela is a valuable resource book or check out www.angel-falls.com

Transport: Connecting flights around the country can be booked in advance, but it’s better to just find a good travel agency in Caracas to handle all the arrangements.

Accommodation: There are plenty of budget hotels in Caracas that won’t blow the budget and that help weary explorers. Jungle Rudy’s Ucaima Camp is usually packaged with all meals included, offering clean, basic, two-bedded cabins overlooking the river. Drinks are extra, cold showers are inevitable. Book all your accommodation and travel packages in advance, if possible.

Plan Sacaica (3 days / 2 nights)
Meet and greet at Canaima Airport, transfer in Jeep (15 min) and boat ride (5 min) to Camp Ucaima. Welcome cocktail and late afternoon trip to the El Sapo Falls, lunch and dinner included. Two nights lodging at the camp with food, insurance, all transfers as well as a full day trip to Angel Falls. Package prices per person: Double: 3120 BsF (Approximately US$1451 at the official exchange rate). Campamento Ucaima, Parque Nacional Canaima – Venezuela. Tel: Canaima: 0286-9622359. Caracas Tel: 0212-7540244. www.junglerudy.com

Currency:? In January 2008, Venezuela officially changed its currency from the Bolívar (Bs) to the Bolívar Fuerte (BsF). The change chopped three decimal points off the severely devalued Bolívar. So BsF1 is equivalent to the old BS1,000. The official exchange rate was BsF2.15 to one U.S. dollar. However, the black-market exchange rate is very much different from the official rate. The unofficial exchange rate was approximately BsF4.50 to one US dollar.

While in Venezuela, visitors are encouraged to carry a small amount of U.S. currency in low denominations and to avoid wearing expensive or flashy watches and jewelry. Due to the poor security situation, the US Embassy does not recommend changing money at the international airport. Visitors should bring a major credit card such as MasterCard, Visa or American Express. American Express Travelers’ cheques are sometimes accepted. Banks and casas de cambio (exchange offices) will exchange cash; some, such as Italcambio, convert travellers’ cheques as well. A commission of 3% or more is charged.

Be aware of widespread pilfering of credit card data to make unauthorised transactions. It is possible to exchange U.S. currency at approved exchange offices near major hotel chains in Caracas (personal cheques are not accepted) and at commercial banks with some restrictions. Due to currency regulations, hotels cannot provide currency exchange. There are ATMs throughout Venezuela. Malfunctions are common, however and travellers should be careful to use only those in well-lit public places.

An exit tax and airport fee must be paid when departing Venezuela by airline. As of April 2009 the exit tax was 110 BsF, and the airport fee is 137.5 BsF (a total of approximately US$116 calculated at the official exchange rate). In many instances, especially with non-U.S. airlines, the exit tax and airport fee are not included in the airline ticket price and must be paid separately at the airport upon departure. Authorities usually require that payment be made in local currency. Both the departure tax and the airport fee are subject to change with little notice. Travellers should check with their airlines for the latest information

Entry and Exit Requirements: ?A valid passport and a visa or tourist card are required. Tourist cards are issued on flights from the U.S. to Venezuela for persons staying less than ninety days.
Threats to Safety and Security:?Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive, both in the capital and in the interior. The country’s overall per capita murder rate is cited as one of the highest in the world, and Caracas was listed as the murder capital of the world in the September 2008 Foreign Policy magazine.

Getting There: ?Shane Boocock would like to thank Air Tahiti Nui who fly three times a week on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday between Auckland, Tahiti and Los Angeles for assistance on this adventure.