One of the main reasons for someone to visit Venezuela is to go see Angel Falls. This is the tallest waterfall in the World with a height of 979m/3,212ft and at one point the water falls 807m/2,648ft. The waterfall cascades over the edge of Auyantepui mountain in Canaima National Park.
Angel falls is considered one of the least accessible attractions in South America and it takes a lot of effort to get there. All this effort was well worth it and it was an experience I’ll never forget.
Booking a tour…
To get to Angel Falls you are required to book a guided tour that is operated by members of the Pemon indian tribe who are local to the area. There are many companies offering this tour throughout the country and most of them are located either in Caracas, Puerto Ordaz, Cuidad Bolivar or Santa Elena.
In most cases the agencies that offer this tour coordinate through a company based in Cuidad Bolivar or Puerto Ordaz which are the only two airports that offer flights to Canaima National Park. The agencies will arrange the flights to the park as well as accommodation for stays before or after the Angel Falls excursion. It is very common to arrive at the park and set out for the falls the same day but depending on when you arrive or depart you will need accommodation at some point. Some people also stay longer to take in the natural beauty in the main area of the park. Here there are also quite a few local attractions such as waterfalls and lagoons near the park entrance. There is also a small native settlement in the park where the locals live called Canaima town which has a few lodges, hotels, restaurants, craft shops and general stores to keep you going throughout your stay.
I chose to arrange my Angel Falls tour through Backpacker Tours who I also did my Mt. Roraima trek with. They handled the booking through the tour agency who locally operated the tour. The name of the company is Gekko Tours and their office is located at the airport in Cuidad Bolivar. There was no premium for using Backpacker Tours to book this excursion even though it was another company arranging the tour and yet another company operating the actual tour.
This was convenient and I knew I was going to have a tour group waiting for me when I arrived in Canaima after spending 12 hours on a bus and taking a flight to the national park. I am glad I booked in advance as I later found out from some others that they were unable to join a group once they got to Canaima as all the guides were already booked by other travellers.
I was able to book my Roraima trek in advance but the Angel Falls tour is booked closer to the actual date because getting there depends on the current levels of the river that you have to travel on to reach the base camp. The water levels are reliant on the amount of rainfall and the season so they won’t book you in for a tour unless they receive confirmation that you can make it up the river. Even though it’s nice to have something booked in advance I appreciated the honesty and them not just taking my money whether I could get all the way up the river or not, which I’m sure some agencies would have done.
The cost for the 3 day/2 night excursion and our return flight from Cuidad Bolivar was 60 000Bs/$320 which I found quite reasonable. This was fair price and competitive to what other operators were charging.
Recently there has been a website created called La Gran Sabana that is dedicated to helping people obtain information and book tours, accommodation and other services online. They also have a Facebook page which is very informative.
My starting point for all my adventures in Venezuela was Santa Elena which is the most common place to source out the many ecotourism options in this country. Located near Canaima National Park this was the perfect base for me to further explore this region of the country.
To get to Angel falls you first need to travel to either Puerto Ordaz or Cuidad Bolivar. From here it is necessary to take a small airplane into Canaima National Park. From Caracas you can fly to either city and then make a connection onward. From Santa Elena the only option is to take 12 hour bus ride to Cuidad Bolivar and from there you can get on one of the frequent flights into the national park.
The bus system in Venezuela is the most common form of transportation in the country for any long distance travel. From what I saw and what others told me the only way to book a ticket was to go in person and buy them on the day of travel. This means long lineups early in the morning for some destinations and I was advised to be at the bus station at 4:30am on the day of departure to be certain I would get a ticket. This wasn’t the most welcome thought, especially since the day before I had just finished a 6 day trek to the top of Mount Roraima! My time was tight and I knew that if I wanted to see Angel Falls it would be necessary to do so as soon as possible. I was also lucky enough to have had a rainy week leading up to when I wanted to visit the falls which meant it would be possible because of favourable river levels.
I took a taxi from my hotel to the bus station in Santa Elena which is located on the edge of town at 4am and when I arrived at the bus station there were already 6 people ahead of me waiting in the lineup. Others were sleeping on the floor of the bus terminal having been there all night and there were 2 military police armed with automatic rifles patrolling the area.
There are a few bus companies that make this trip on any given day but I took my chances waiting in the line that already had the most people. I was told that Espressos Occidente was my best choice for a bus and the others were also lined up in front of their kiosk waiting for it to open for ticket sales. Other options for the bus were Los Llanos which also runs a comparable serve to Occidente. Other more economical bus lines offering this route were Caribe, Turgar and San Cristobal. Turgar operates the only day bus service between Santa Elena and Cuidad Bolivar as the other companies only offer an overnight service.
As each hour passed more and more people crowded into the bus station to wait in line. Most people were waiting in the line that I was in as well as another line formed in front of the Turgar and Caribe kiosks. The line I was in had more people waiting so I was using this as a guideline that I was in the right line. Most buses that do leave this terminal go to Cuidad Bolivar so I wasn’t worried about if I was in line for the right bus. Instead, it was more a question of whether this bus company was actually going to be running any buses at all today. It was obvious that anyone who was in a group had one person in each line just in case.
I waited until 7:30am until the sales attendant arrived to the kiosk. As this happened anyone from the other lines rushed over and people crowded against the small window waiting to be able to buy tickets. Chaos broke out and luckily I was close to the front of the line as two guys pushed their way to the front of the line sending everyone else out of the way. They then pulled out a stack of money and bought as many of the tickets as they could. Coincidentally this is when the military police that were patrolling the area were nowhere to be found.
Luckily they ran out of money before they could buy them all and there were still 10 or so tickets left for sale. I was happy I was there at 4:30am to get in line and I was even more happy to be lucky enough to buy one of these tickets. After showing my passport and having my info recorded by the sales agent I paid the 2400Bs/$12 and walked away with my bus ticket for the 1pm departure that day. As I walked away from the ticket counter I noticed the same guys that bought all the tickets had their own lineup formed in front of them as they sold the tickets off at a profit.
6 am at the bus stop in Santa Elena and already lots of people lined up to buy tickets.
Armed military police stand watch to keep order as the bus starts loading our bags and we begin to board.
The bus to Cuidad Bolivar…
After a short nap and packing up my gear I got another taxi to the bus terminal an hour early and waited for the bus to arrive. It arrived half an hour late and by the time we got our bags tagged and everything loaded up and hit the road it was already 2pm. I liked how they put a numbered tag on each bag as sometimes I don’t trust leaving my bags under the bus and in most cases like to travel with less baggage so I don’t have to do this and can keep it with me at all times.
We weren’t assigned seats so it was first come first serve getting on the bus and choosing a seat. I sat at the very back and even though this is often a rough ride it is the best choice for being able to keep an eye on your baggage as you can put it behind the seat. This changed when what seemed to be a friend of the bus driver hitched a ride and laid down on the floor of the bus behind the back seats. I guess he figured a free ride is better than no ride!
Once underway on this 12 hour bus trip the AC was on full blast like most buses in these countries. I made sure I wore long pants, a sweater and some people even had thick jackets and blankets. I was happy I did as this bus was one of the coldest I’ve ever been on! It is also expected on these buses that most people will put their seat as far back as possible which seems to be the norm in Central or South America. There were also people listening to music all the time on the bus from their cell phones and noone said anything so this must also be normal down here.
As we travelled we hit a military check point every few hours where they checked the ID of the Venezuelans and didn’t seem particularly interested in me showing my passport but I did each time we stopped just in case the military police in one area were more strict than in other areas. Each time the guy who was laying on the floor in the back of the bus was hauled off and questioned but each time he got back on and took up his section of the floor behind the back seats.
Half way through the trip we stopped in a small town at the side of the highway to get out and buy some food, drink and stretch our legs. Here there were food stands set up but a few locals were walking a little further down the road so I decided to follow them to see what was on offer. They went into a small market which had a deli counter and some hot items. This was a good choice and I got some chicken with white rice and coleslaw. This was similar to what the roadside stands were serving but there was a place to sit that wasn’t as crowded as where the bus had parked. The food was like most meals I have had in Venezuela. Simple, filling and well prepared. I don’t think Venezuela is considered a foodies paradise but I didn’t have a meal that didn’t do the trick and left me unsatisfied.
One of the roadside food stands serving up some food to some of the bus passengers.
Chicken, rice and coleslaw from the place I went to down the road. What you typically see in Venezuela is simple and fresh food.
After our short break from the road the bus sounded the horn and we all got back on board the bus. The next part of the 12 hour journey we had many more stops at military check points and like all the check points before they pulled the guy off the bus who was sleeping on the floor behind the back seats and then after a few minutes he was allowed back on and off we went.
Finally arriving at Cuidad Bolivar at 3 am I got off the bus and got the first taxi I could see. This city isn’t considered the safest but considering the country on a whole isn’t I didn’t find it too bad. A bus station in most countries at 3am isn’t somewhere you really want to spend any more time than you need to and I didn’t see any military police that were keeping an eye on the area.
I had a room booked at La Cumbre Lodge which is located a short distance from the main area of the city. This is the closest to an eco resort as you will find in the city and the lodge is built up on a hill overlooking Cuidad Bolivar. They have a large pool area and most rooms have a view. I was only interested in one thing while I stayed there. A shower after 12 hours on the bus from Santa Elena and a short nap before having to catch a 9 am flight to Canaima.
Single, double and matrimonial rooms start at 3200Bs/$16 and go up from there. The rooms were very nice and mine had a balcony with a decent view as well as a hammock that was strung across french doors that led outside. They also have a sushi bar and a few other restaurants giving it that resort feel.
Flight to Canaima National Park…
After a few hours rest at La Cumbre Lodge I woke up and got a taxi to the Tomás de Heres Airport. From here I linked up with Gekko Tours who have their office inside of the airport. This was a straightforward process as all of the bookings had already been made through Backpacker Tours in Santa Elena so all we had to do was show up and wait for our flight. The airport is very small and they didn’t have much in the way of snacks to purchase. Also, knowing that I was then travelling to an even more remote location within Canaima National Park I stocked up on snacks before I got to the airport.
Another good thing about Gekko Tours being located at the airport is that they provide bag storage while you are doing your excursion. This came in handy as I could store much of what I had packed that wasn’t going to be necessary while on this part of my holiday. This allowed me to only bring a small bag with a few days worth of necessities which meant that I wouldn’t have to lug around any unnecessary items. Also, due to the size of the plane we were going to be boarding there is only room for a few small bags as it is most flights from this airport are using Cessna aircraft with seats for 4 – 6 passengers.
Tomás de Heres Airport – Cuidad Bolivar.
Once our flight was ready to board we went through security and walked the tarmac out to the small aircraft. Once our bags were loaded up we took to the skies. I don’t know anyone that gets into an aircraft this small in a foreign country and isn’t a little nervous. I am usually a pretty good flyer but soon into the trip you could tell the turbulence and constant movement of the aircraft was making the others sick. The flight first took us over savannah and then over dense jungle. Once the flight was over and we touched down you could tell the other passengers were on the verge of getting sick from the motion of the small plane and were happy to be back on land!
My trusty 45liter backpack rode in the forward compartment.
The other passengers boarding the small plane.
I sat at the back and shared the plane with some other international travellers.
Dense rainforest and rivers dominated the landscape as we flew overhead to Canaima.
The Canaima lagoon and the 5 waterfalls from above!
Arriving in Canaima National Park…
Upon arriving we walked over to the park entrance beside the landing strip and checked in with the park authorities and paid our entrance fee of 800Bs/$4 as well as had my vaccination for yellow fever verified. This is necessary to enter Venezuela at any point so they were just double checking.
Once I was given my entrance permit I had a quick snack at the restaurant beside the landing strip and bought some bug spray and sunscreen. From the moment you land here and walk around you are surrounded by beauty. The Canaima lagoon and the 5 waterfalls that feed into it surround the main area of the park entrance and small town of Canaima. This is worth the trip in itself and got my excited for what I was going to see as the adventure into the park progressed.
The entrance to Canaima park is a basic thatched roof building that is located beside the landing strip. They also sell some general items and serve food.
Setting out for Angel Falls…
After our group was rounded up we were introduced to our guide who was a local Pemon native who has lived in the park his whole life. He told us the itinerary for our day ahead and beyond and I could already tell it was going to be a long day of hiking, rivers and above all untouched natural beauty!
Once we organized our packs and got set up for the day we were loaded up onto these 4×4 transport vehicles and took a bumpy ride to where our riverboat was waiting. These were traditional dugout canoes called Curiara which are now being used with an outboard engine. It would be a 4 hour boat ride using these boats so I made sure that I had everything packed away that I didn’t need and also any electronics that I had were placed in a sealed bag for protection.
Transport vehicle in Canaima National Park.
Curiara dug out canoes waiting on the shoreline to take passengers up river to Angel Falls and other destinations near Canaima.
Canaima lagoon and waterfalls pouring into it.
Setting out to begin our adventure!
How far up the river you can go using is dependant on the height of the water in the river which is directly dependant on rainfall which is then dependant on the season. Luckily it had been raining for the past few days and because of this I was hoping it would also mean that Angel Falls would be flowing heavily! Once we arrived at the banks of the river in the transport vehicle we loaded up our gear onto one of the dugout canoes and went as far up the river as we could.
After less than an hour we landed on a small beach shore lined with small and dunes. We then had to hike for a little over an hour to where the next boat was waiting to take us to the Isla Ratan Angel Falls base camp where we would spend the night.
This hike was over fairly flat ground along the river banks and through a riverside savannah landscape. In the distance were rocky table top mountains and lush rainforest that I couldn’t wait to be in the midst of. This first hiking section that day was easy going and the only issue was the intense heat and mosquitos. Luckily I had stocked up on bug spray and sunscreen and covered up well for the hike. I didn’t pack a lot but what I did pack was well thought out.
The sandy shore of the river that we landed on before starting the hike to the other boat where the next boat was waiting.
After the hike we arrived to another dugout canoe and loaded it up and started our way towards the Angel Falls base camp. This would take roughly 4 hours going upstream through fast moving water and rapids of the Carrao River then a short distance further up the Churun river.
The first section of the Carrao River was fairly calm but as we rose in elevation towards the base of the mountains the intensity of the flowing water increased more and more. It was common for us to have to take a few runs at certain sections of the river to overcome the rapids and find channels where the water was deeper. In some cases the guides assistant seated at the front of the dugout canoe would use his oar to fend off of the rocks and on a few occasions had to get out of the canoe. Waist deep or more into the churning rapids he had to muscle us onto some of the rocky sections and drag the boat over the rocks. This was obviously dangerous for him to some extent but this guy had obviously done this often and it was amusing to watch. We only had to do this a few times and it added to the adventure!
One of our guides preparing to jump in the water and help the boat across the rocks to get into deeper water.
After a few hours we stopped at the side of the river to rest at a small waterfall called Quebrada de Jaspe. This was the perfect place to stretch our legs after being in the canoe for a few hours which weren’t the most comfortable form of transportation. This waterfall was calm and so relaxing making it the perfect place to eat our lunch. We ate pasta and bread and drank bottled water and cola. After eating we went for a little dip in the waterfall and laid around in the water for a bit before setting out again for the final few hours of our boat ride up the river to Angel Falls base camp.
This next section of river took us further up the Carrao river and then we started the next section of our voyage that took us onto the Churun river. The Churun flowed a lot faster but was also deeper and we didn’t have to needle our way through small cutouts in the rocks or over them. This was a windy river and flanked by denser jungle than what we had seen on the wider Carrao River earlier in the day.
As we made our way along this river we were getting closer and closer to the huge tabletop mountains even though we couldn’t see Angel Falls yet. Having these huge mountains surrounding us was exciting and as we neared the Angel Falls base camp we were in deep water with large rock formations in the middle of the river. This was like nothing I have ever seen before and witnessing this untouched beauty it felt like we had gone back in time.
Some of the tabletop mountains that we approached on our way to the base camp.
Angel Falls base camp…
After the 4 hour boat ride up the two rivers we had finally reached the Angel Falls base camp. The site where we stayed was on Isla Raton and faces Auyentepui. The camp was operated by Kavac Excursions who would also be providing my accommodation when I returned to Canaima town where I had set out from.
The camp was about as rustic as it gets and was a long building with nothing but a roof and a small enclosed kitchen area. The whole length of the building was strung up with two rows of hammocks and there were long picnic tables for eating and hanging out just outside of the building. There were also basic shower and toilet facilities but it was far from fancy which was fine with me.
The Kavac Excursions base camp and the many hammocks available for a nights rest.
A short walk from the base camp that was located directly on the Churun river you could see Auyentepui and Angel Falls in all its glory dominating the landscape. This had to be one of the most exciting parts of my trip just knowing that the next day I would be setting out to hike my way to the base of the tallest waterfall in the world! I sat on the edge of the shore marvelling over the size of the waterfall for an hour or more and soon enough it was wash up, eat a warm meal and then get some rest.
The view of Angel Falls from our base camp was wonderful. For some people this is as far as they are able to go as the hike to the base of the falls is very demanding and requires a lot of stamina in often difficult conditions.
The guides served us chicken that was cooked on wooden stakes over an open flame. This was the first time I had seen chicken cooked like this and it was one of the best meals I have ever had over an open fire. We also ate fresh arepas, coleslaw and rice as was the most common meal in Venezuela and this did not disappoint. There was more than enough food for all of us and the chicken paired with some home made pepper sauce really hit the spot. I couldn’t have imagined a better meal after such a long day of flying, hiking and pounding the dugout canoe up river!
Chicken being prepared over an open flame! Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside!
After a good meal we all turned in for the night and nested down in our hammocks. It poured rain all night and the sound of the heavy rain on the rooftop put me right to sleep.
Hiking to Angel Falls…
After a great sleep on a rainy night I woke up refreshed, excited and ready to hike to the falls! Luckily the rain stopped in the morning and this worked out perfectly as it meant that the falls would be heavy with water which makes it even better for viewing. We ate breakfast and drank some juice and coffee before gearing up for the 1 hour hike to the base of Angel Falls.
Our breakfast was eggs, ham, cheese, crackers and arepa.
I decided to change into my wet gear for the hike even though the rain had stopped. I knew that I would be hiking through dense rainforest and that I would be brushing up with wet leaves while on the trail. Like most large waterfalls there is a lot of air movement and mist as you approach the cascade and I didn’t want to arrive wet and be cold while I was enjoying the scenery I had spent so much time and effort to arrive to.
Once we were all geared up and ready to go the hike started. Soon we were trekking through the dense rainforest that was heavily shaded and filled with an abundance of tropical plants. Everywhere you looked there were orchids, giant ferns, bromeliads and massive trees covered in plant life. Lots of fallen trees were now home to plants clinging to the bark and mushrooms grew inside of the weathered logs.
The trail itself was extremely difficult. You had to plan each step you made for the entire hike as the trail was not only wet but it was also a constant uphill path that is covered in mossy stones and thick tree roots. Most of the trail there is a high side and a low side. Sometimes it was easier to take the high side and use the trees lining the path for balance. In other situations it was necessary to grab hold of roots and branches or crawl on all fours in order to be safe and not risk any slips or falls during the hike.
The trail leading to Angel Falls was extremely slippery with wet stones, branches and moss covered roots.
As you approach the falls the sound of the water crashing down is unreal. As you get even closer you can hear the mist rising into the air and feel the moisture increase with each step. Finally after a little over an hour of hiking over the wet terrain the falls came in to view and we had reached the base camp. There are times in life where you are truly humbled by nature and for all the places I have been and natural landscapes I have seen this is one of the most spectacular.
Once arriving at the base of the falls the loud noise of the falling water, the sound of the mist and the plunging water down into the small pond at the bottom of the falls was so powerful. You couldn’t help but be completely energized here. It was also the type of experience that words can’t even fully describe. I felt blessed to be here and enjoyed sitting and taking in the amazing scenery and power of the waterfall.
When we first arrived the top of the waterfall and mountain was hidden by the mist. The massive amount of water falling and the calm air above the mountain allowed the mist to hang around the top of Auyentepui Mountain which the falls cascaded down from. After being patient and waiting we decided that this was going to be how it was for the next few hours until the day progressed and we decided as a group that what we were looking at was going to be the best we will see there that day. But then just as we were turning around to leave the falls cleared up for us and everyone got excited to take photos! As much as the falls themselves were amazing to be around, feel the energy of and witness we all wanted to have a photo of the full waterfall which was impossible up until this point. Everyone was trigger happy with their cameras and I have to admit that the photos I had taken initially didn’t compare to the photos I managed to take once the breeze came through and pushed away the mist and low lying cloud cover. This made my day and the photos I took at Angel Falls are some of my most prized pictures.
After we all had one last chance to enjoy the falls and take a few extra photos we started our hike back to the base camp. I have to admit that I didn’t want to leave and could have spent an eternity at the base of Angel Falls. It was literally that good!
When we arrived the fog was so thick that this was all we could see through the mist.
The falling water fed a smaller waterfall almost 1000 meters below.
After the mist cleared this was our view! Pictures truly don’t do it justice and visiting Angel Falls is one of the best experiences I’ve had on any trip.
The hike back to base camp was even more difficult on the way down and noone was trying to hike too fast as we all knew that every step had to be calculated to avoid injury. This hike was something that not everyone could do and if you can’t manage the hiking, time in a boat and rustic sleeping options then your best bet is to do a fly by the falls in a helicopter or airplane which is also commonly available to people that don’t have the stamina, determination or willingness to stay in such basic accommodations.
For me it was a dream come true and the adventure that was involved in reaching the falls was one of the highlights of my trip to Venezuela and also made it even more special to have been able to have seen the falls up close and experience this natural marvel.
Back to Canaima camp…
After we arrived back at the base camp we packed our gear and loaded up the boat for the trip back to Canaima where we had set out from the day before. The boat trip back to the camp was quite a bit faster on the way back and because of the extra rainfall we had received the night before the river was a lot higher and it meant we could use the boat to get all the way back without hiking for an hour. This worked out perfect and we made good time on the return trip.
Once back in Canaima we checked in to our room at the and were fed a really good meal of roast beef with mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes and coleslaw. This was prepared by one of the local natives and all the food was fresh from the local farms. The building where we ate was also used as a community centre and hall for events that the local Pemon natives operate. The food was really good and it hit the spot.
The town itself didn’t have a lot going on but there were a few general stores where you could buy snacks. As you walked the road towards the more touristy area situated on the lagoon there were a few restaurants and hotel/lodges that were considerably more pricey and aimed at travellers that weren’t into roughing it so much.
That night was relaxing and after I ate I wandered in to town for a few drinks and then decided to make it an early night.
Canaima lagoon and the five waterfalls…
I was up early the next morning and after breakfast our guide picked our group up at our room and we took the transporter truck to the lagoon. From here we all got into a dug out canoe and were taken across first across the lagoon and past the waterfalls to get a good view and then on the way back we stopped at them one by one. From left to right facing the falls from the lagoon you see Ucaima Falls, Golondrina Falls, Wadaima Falls, and Hacha Falls.
Located around the corner from these fall is Sapo Falls which was the highlight of the day. The thing that made Sapo Falls so unique was that you could walk behind the falling water in small caves and that was an experience in itself. After you walk underneath the one section of the waterfall you can then hike up a steep trail and this brings you to the top of the falls. Here you can relax and swim in wading pools. These were a far enough distance from the edge but I didn’t see anyone getting too adventurous with swimming over to where the water was starting to churn before falling over the edge of the cliff. I was more than happy floating around after a strenuous last few days and this was fine by me. After being at Sapo Falls we did a close up drive by the other waterfalls with our dugout canoe and then went back to our camp site and checked out as I had a plane to catch at 11 am.
Hecha waterfalls in Canaima lagoon.
Looking out over Canaima lagoon from the top of Sapo Falls.
Smaller waterfalls feeding in to Sapo Falls.
Back to Cuidad Bolivar…
After packing my bags I was picked up by the transporter and taken to the park entrance. There I had a quick bite to eat at the snack bar beside the landing strip. I ate a few arepa and drank some fruit juice to tide myself over until the next meal. I also didn’t want to eat too much in case the plane underwent any turbulence which could have made me sick.
I was soon loading my gear back onto the cessna and flying back to Cuidad Bolivar. After the short flight we landed in Cuidad Bolivar where I would spend the day before taking the night bus back to Santa Elena and finish up my time in Venezuela.
All I could think of on the flight home was how great of an experience it was to see the tallest waterfall in the world and be in such a lesser travelled place in the world. This experience involved 24 hours on a bus let alone being at the bus station at 4 am the night before to buy a ticket. Two flights on a cessna of an hour each. 5 hours of fairly difficult hiking both in the hot sun and in dark wet jungle. An additional 8 hours by dugout canoe all to spend a few hours at the base of Angel Falls.
Was it worth it? You bet it was and I would do it again! Except next time I will do the 10+ day trek to the top of Angel Falls!
Gone on a whim…