Angel Falls & Canaima: What To Expect From Travel To The World's Tallest Waterfall
Angel Falls in a Nutshell
In a world of over-hyped "wonders", Angel Falls is one of the few that can truly live up to the title.
Located deep in a wilderness of impenetrable rainforest. Surrounded by the mystical tepuis (table mountains) of southeastern Venezuela. Vaulting off of a cliff that seems to exist only to support the falls, then plunging a sheer 2,648 feet through space, the mist from the falls blending into the shrouds of cloud that drift across the brooding face of Ayantepui.
Perhaps the best part of Angel Falls, however, is that it has so far been spared the fate of Niagara Falls, where casinos and shopping are now as much of an attraction as the falls themselves. There is only one way to get to the base of the waterfall: the same way that some of the first explorers reached it. While some basic comforts have been put in place along the way, the area is as wild today as it was when it was officially discovered in 1933.
The adventure of getting there is not for the faint of heart, but is certainly doable for anyone with an open mind and reasonable physical fitness. If you're planning a trip to the falls, a good base of information can set your expectations and help you avoid having your experience marred by any unpleasant surprises. Here's what you need to know before you go...
Angel Falls On BBC's Planet Earth
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Angel Falls: Who, Where, When
Given the effect of the curling spray from the falls, it's easy to see why most people have the misconception that Angel Falls is named for angelic associations, when in fact it is named for its discoverer. Jimmy Angel, an American aviator, flew over the falls in 1933 while in search of ore (incidentally, he crashed his plane on top of Ayantepui and was forced to hike back to civilization to share his discovery). The falls now bears his name, as well as its native Pemon name, Kerepakupai Vená, or "waterfall of the deepest place".
The falls vaults off the side of Ayantepui in Canaima National Park, in Bolivar state of Venezuela, South America. Water from the falls collects and empties into the Río Curún, which drains into the Río Carrao.
Trips to Angel Falls generally run from June to December, when water levels in the Río Curún are high enough to accommodate dugout canoes. The river is the highest and the falls the most impressive in September and October, but this is because of heavy rainfall that can completely hide the falls and make for a very soggy trip. The best time to visit is likely early November or August, when river levels will be high, but there is a better chance of getting a clear day.
The first leg of your journey to Angel Falls will begin in an airport, most likely Ciudar Bolivar (Puerto Ordaz). From there, flights can be arranged to Canaima National Park, at the Inparques (Venezuelan Parks Service) station at Laguna Canaima. The flight from Ciudad Bolivar is a quick 45 minute hop on a small (approx. 30 seat) plane, and tepuis start to come into view about halfway through.
Upon landing, you will be greeted by a guide, who will lead you to the park kiosk to pay entry into the park. Depending on which camp or hotel you arranged to stay with, you and your luggage will be transported to likely Campamento Canaima by Hotel Venetur, Waku Lodge, or Tapuy Lodge, the three major outfits in the area. Don't be offended if the staff isn't as formal and welcoming at first as you're accustomed to, Venezuela in general is a bit behind in the customer service game.
After a welcome cocktail and checking in, the hotel staff or your guide will fill you in on the details of your visit. The basic options are to visit Angel Falls for the day, spend a night or more at Campamento Isla Ratón at the base of the falls, fly over the falls in a helicopter, or any combination of these. Most commonly, the package will include an afternoon exploring the area around the lagoon, and a trip out to the falls the following day.
Pouring into the laguna are several smaller waterfalls, the destination for a quick afternoon excursion. From closest to the camps to farthest away, they are Ucaima Falls, Golondrina Falls, Wadaima Falls, and Hacha Falls. Until the afternoon tours to nearby waterfalls, you will have a chance to swim in the laguna, walk along the beach, or just relax and watch the waterfalls.
Depending on water levels, in the afternoon you will be taken to hike behind one of the waterfalls, a truly impressive experience. If the water is low, you will be taken to hike behind Hacha Falls, then for a short hike to the top of and behind Sapo Falls yet another falls on the other side of the laguna. Should you visit during high water, the walk behind Hacha is to dangerous, and you'll go straight to Sapo. The view from above and behind the falls is well worth the hike, and you will be able to watch the sun set on the Grand Savannah from atop one of the waterfalls.
Regardless of where you go, there is one absolute truth to these hikes: you will get completely soaked. At several points you will have to cross under a curtain of falling water, and spray from the falls is constant. In addition, for better traction on the slippery rocks, your guide will likely have you walk only in your socks, so wear a pair that you don't mind destroying.
It is also the instinct of many travelers to carry important items such as passports, credit cards, etc. on their person at all times. While this may be generally a good idea, in this case it isn't. Don't bring anything to this trip that you don't mind ending up on the bottom of the river, a very real possibility if you drop it, a zipper falls open, or a spray of water catches you by surprise. Bring waterproof cameras ONLY, regardless of how many ziplocs you plan to use, and seal all other gear you wish to stay dry in a waterproof drybag.
Day Pack Supplies
For your trip to Angel Falls, make sure to bring the following in a day pack:
- Bug spray
- Toilet paper
- Rain jacket
- Light fleece jacket (it can get surprisingly chilly)
- Sunscreen (the sun in the boat can be brutal)
- Water (at least 1 L)
- Medicines or other sanitary needs
- A book (if you're spending the night at camp)
- Some cash in a ziploc bag (for tips at the end of the day)
- Water shoes (worn in boat, but make sure you can hike in them)
- Lightweight synthetic long pants
- Lightweight synthetic long-sleeve shirt (protects from bugs, sun, thorns, etc.)
- Perfumes (insects love this stuff)
- Makeup (smears, leaks, spills, messes. Besides, you're in the jungle, not on the runway...)
- Passport (not something you want to chance taking a swim, safer in the hotel)
- Anything you don't want to get muddy/wet/broken
The Boat Ride In
Your next part of the journey begins early in the morning the next day, usually around 4am.
That's right. 4am. So go to bed early the previous evening (after the above-mentioned hikes, this should be easy).
This is to allow for maximum time at the falls, and to provide enough time to get back before dark. If you are staying the night, your starting time may be a little later, but don't count on it.
Dugout canoes are the vessel of choice here, good for shallow spots and quick movement upriver. The seating is simple benches without any backs, so be aware that you will be sitting in a somewhat cramped position for 3-7 hours, depending on water levels. The cushions on the seats aren't really enough to be comfortable after a while, so carry a lightweight, inflatable cushion if you have lower back issues.
To break up the trip into more manageable chunks, there are several planned stops along the way (I say "planned" for a reason, see below...). The first is about an hour in, where a series of rapids makes navigation easier without passengers in the boat. You will hop out and take a leisurely stroll across the savannah to meet the boat on the other side. The hike is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and take in the scenery, is essentially flat, and takes about half an hour. If you need to use the restroom, this is also your chance to find a quiet spot in the savannah and take care of business (carry toilet paper with you!).
After meeting up with the boat on the other side of the rapids, another 45 minutes in the boat takes you to Campamento Isla Orquídea, your break spot for breakfast. Around 45 minutes here gives a chance to use an actual bathroom, stretch, eat a very basic sandwich and juice box, and admire the view of Ayantepui now looming before you.
Now for the fun part.
Depending once again on water levels, the last leg is either an uneventful, scenery-filled 1.5-2 hour ride to Campamento Isla Ratón at the base of the falls (high water), or a 3-5 hour high-intensity workout. This is due to the canoe running around in shallow spots as the river gets smaller and smaller, and the muscle power you will need to supply to get it going again.
If the river is low, and you are a reasonably fit male under the age of 50, you can expect to be called on to hop out of the boat from 1-20 times, drag the heavy canoe and female passengers upstream through the rapids, then quickly hoist yourself back into the boat as the motor takes hold. Two phrases you should know are "Al agua!" ("Into the water!") and "Sube!!" ("Get in!!"), as you will be hearing them if duty calls. For this reason, a good pair of water shoes is vital.
It is actually a lot of fun, at least the first few times. My first trip to Angel Falls was around Thanksgiving (US) on a dry year, and we were in and out of the boat easily 30 times (though it felt more like a million).
Ladies will luckily/unfortunately not be asked to participate in this adventure, not because they aren't fully capable, but because Venezuela is very definitely a Machismo culture, and that is just the way things are done. No offense is meant, and none should be taken. It's more of a chivalry gesture than a commentary on modern feminism.
If you're a guy, you'd better hope for high water...
The Hike to the Base
Angel Falls will loom into view on the right side of the river just before you arrive at Campamento Isla Ratón, your home base if you are planning to stay for a night or two. If you are only up for the day, you will just be eating lunch there.
Across the river lies the trailhead for the hike to the base of the falls. The hike takes about an hour, depending on fitness levels. The trail itself is fairly well-worn and obvious, but has lots of exposed roots and rocks that can easily trip you if you aren't careful, so take it slow.
For the first half of the hike the climb is so slow it's hardly noticeable. The second half is a different story, with several parts of the trail becoming more or less an upwards scramble. As you get nearer to the base of the heavily eroded Ayantepui, the boulders get larger and the forest gets thinner and lower.
You will catch your first good look at the falls from a spot on the left side of the trail about 5 minutes from the top. Through the trees you will see the towering face of the tepui, and craning your neck back will give you a glimpse of the top, provided the clouds have parted for a little while.
"The Top" is just a bit further, and is actually just an especially large group of boulders that emerge from the vegetation to give a clear look at the falls. Real estate on this rock can get crowded fast, and the slope of the boulder faces a long drop down into the Devil's Canyon. To avoid being jostled, there is a much quieter alternate spot just to the right of the "real" spot, where one can get some peace for photos, pondering life, and so on. If the water is low, your guide can take you around to the pool that forms just below the base of the falls for a little swim and playing on the time-smoothed rocks.
Given the small amount of space at the top (the total size of the viewing area is maybe half the size of an average Starbucks), and the general noisiness of people, it is always a good idea to time your visit to less-popular times. If you're staying at Isla Ratón, you have a lot more flexibility, so try to talk your guide into being one of the first ones up in the morning, or in the afternoon when most day-trippers are heading for Laguna Canaima.
Said day-trippers will have to more or less take what they can get, but maximize your chances of solitude by not packing in behind other groups on the hike up, or racing to the top. Nobody needs much more than an hour or two at the base, and the more time you give others to take their mementos and head back down, the better your chances of getting it all to yourself. Around midday is a good time to get there if you can only spend a day, since most of the early morning crew has come and gone by then.
Provided you elected to stay the night, you will cross the river back to camp, and set up your hammocks for the night. Sleeping in hammocks sounds fantastic, but they're really not as comfortable as you think they will be. Improve things by spreading your ties as far apart as possible to avoid swinging into your neighbor in the night, and bring earplugs to muffle snorers.
There are showers at the camp, but brace for intermittent hot water (again, you're in the jungle). Generators are off around 8, after which you can be lulled to sleep by the river's murmuring, or go down to the river's edge to stargaze with Angel Falls as a backdrop. For an unimaginably beautiful treat, time your visit to coincide with the full moon, and hope for clear skies to watch an Angel Falls moonrise.
No matter what visit you choose, Angel Falls is truly impressive, one of the very most special things that we have the good fortune to share a planet with. Your trip will be one that you will remember forever, and a dose of preparation beforehand ensures that the memory will be one of your all-time favorites.