Thursday, January 27, 2011
Canaima National Park & Angel Falls (Salto Angel)
After spending a few days at the posada to regroup, we talked to Peter about a trip to Canaima and Angel Falls. Luis had changed the oil in the motor and our generator and the ladies that work here have been taking care of our laundry. Besides basic RV upkeep, we have lazed by the pool and read and Winston has gotten acquainted with everyone. Now we are ready for some action. There are no roads into Canaima so the only option is by plane. We opt for the one day trip. A flight to Canaima where a guide takes us to 3 of the smaller waterfalls, lunch and then a plane ride over Angel Falls before coming back to Ciudad Bolivar. That way we don’t have to have someone watch Winston for too long and accomplish what we want, which is to view the falls. At first Tom had wanted to see the falls via helicopter but the price over $1000 per hour, ouch! was prohibitive, so, by plane it is. It has been raining off and on all week and we are hoping for a clear window to view the falls. Friday morning we were up early. Luis, who is driving us to the airport, is also going to take care of Winston whilst we are gone. We leave with two other guests who are going on the 3 day tour. Luis shepherds us through the airport process and makes sure we are checked through. “See you at 4”, he says “and have a great time, I will take good care of Winston”. Winston is back at the RV with the windows and door open and the fans going, only the screen door is closed. We feel very satisfied with the security at the compound and have no worries about leaving the RV unattended. There are about 30 people milling around the airport and at least 95% are German. What is it about Germany and Venezuela? Does Venezuela actively advertize in Germany as a tourist destination? I vow to check Google the next time I am online. After about 20 minutes, our names are called. Along with two other couples we are escorted to an 8-seater Beechcraft and the pilot, with the airport guard look us over. They are deciding who will sit where so as to balance the plane. Tom goes in front with the pilot. I and another man sit directly behind. After that another man and woman and at the back the last lady and all the luggage. As it worked out no one couple sat together. As I glanced around I noticed the lady in the back looking decidedly nervous and blessing herself. “It’s ok” I told her “but if the pilot starts doing that, we should bale”. She laughed and I was glad I could take her mind off the flight. Truth is told I was pretty nervous myself. As it turned out, besides a couple of clouds and some slight bumpiness the flight was uneventful and an hour later we landed in Canaima, having flown over some amazing rock formations and vast flood zones. One disconcerting moment was when we realized the pilot, instead of landing on the tarmac runway elected instead to land on the dirt road off to the left. Besides for the excitement factor, we have no idea why. Canaima seemed like chaos but there is order in the madness and everyone gets taken care of. We are whisked away by bus to a reception area. While the others are briefed on the overnight stay and their itinerary for the day, Tom and I grab coffee and wait. Eventually a guide comes over. His name is Chemon and he is descended from the indigenous people of Pemon. He tells us that our schedule is flexible and is based on the weather, more importantly the clouds. The pilot will notify him when he feels there will be a break in cloud coverage and we will leave then for Angel Falls. It may be before or after lunch. For now, he suggests we will walk to the beach and take a dugout canoe to some lower falls. One in particular is Salto El Sato where we will be able to walk through the rainforest and go along the back of the fall. It will be wet, he warns us and I change into a swimsuit for the trip. The sand on the beach is gorgeous. Fine grained and snowy white with a touch of pink. The lagoon we will cross is also a mixture of blue with bright red swirls. The red, we are told is natural tannins from the surrounding fauna. The canoe is carved from a single tree trunk and thanks to modern technology is equipped with a motor. Staying close to land to get the full effect of the falls, we head for a small beach where we will hike to the back of the falls. They are magnificent. The torrents of water as they plummet into the lagoon send off huge sprays and the earth seems to vibrate with the intensity. And we did get wet. Drenched in warm cascading water. We stood underneath and felt the power of hundreds of gallons of water thundering into the lagoon as it massaged our shoulders. Chemon with his eye on the time guided us back to the boat. “Lunchtime”, he said. During the hike and at lunch he regaled us with stories of his people, the Pemon and their lifestyle. Things have advanced. They have satellite TV and the internet now. The local children who attend school not only learn Spanish and their own language Pemon but also English via virtual classrooms. Chemon converses in good English and speaks it with his three children at home. I remark to Tom how ironic it is. Here we are in the relative backwater of civilization by American standards, with access only via plane or boat and yet the children who go to school here will not only have a high school education but be able to converse in a minimum of three languages. And we wonder why American school children are getting left behind educationally regardless of how much money we throw into the school system. Lunch consists of chicken breasts with rice and cole slaw. Very good. The clouds are clearing. Chemon says that we will go to the airport and wait for our pilot to give the go ahead for the flight over Angel Falls. Excited would be an understatement along with our fervent prayer for clear skies and for me an extra prayer to keep us safe. During my lifetime I have flown thousands of miles and yet each time there is that slight gnawing of fear in my stomach. The pilot is 30ish, good looking and I watch him probably likes his life and wants to keep living. I assume he will take no risks! It is a 6 seater Cessna but only 4 of us, including a co-pilot will fly. As we leave Canaima we follow the river that others will travel in the canoes and fly over huge mountains and tepuis (flat mesa-like structures). We see countless waterfalls. As we get closer the pilot adjusts the plane to the right a little and the co-pilot turns around. “Just wait,” he says. Suddenly we are over the cliff and the pilot points the nose of the plane down and banks first to the left, then the right. We have flown directly over Angel Falls and as the earth plummets beneath us to the valley floor, the falls are immediately ahead. My stomach flips and I squeal with trepidation and excitement. Tom is grinning ear to ear. It is magnificent. What a rush. The pilot turns around and gives us thumbs up. You can tell that this never fails to thrill him also. We circle back and forth for about 20 minutes as we take photo after photo. Finally, after getting our consent, he points the plane back in the direction of Canaima. As we land we are cautioned not to go too far as the same pilot and plane is going to fly us back to Ciudad Bolivar. We take on two more people and with a full plane of 6, do the return flight to the city. Tom and I sit together, holding hands in silence. We are speechless and still awestruck. Luis is waiting on the tarmac as we get off the plane. We are grinning. “Good?” he asks. We nod, amazingly well. He has walked Winston a few times and fed him treats but we are still treated to a welcome that only a dog can give. We open a beer and look at each other. This day will go down as one of our most memorable to date.