We described our visit to Colombia in three film titles. Venezuela could be summarised in just two: The Lost World, and Castaway.
The Lost World
In this famous book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, on which more than one film has been based, a team of explorers discover dinosaurs still living on top of a flat-topped mountain in the unexplored jungles of South America. These mountains, called ‘tepuys’ by the locals, are found in Canaima National Park in south-east Venezuela. That is where our tour took us, although sadly we failed to find any dinosaurs.
From Caracas we flew to Ciudad Bolivar, a city on the mighty Orinoco River which has a famous history as a centre from which Simon Bolivar led the independence struggle from Spain, but which seemed to us fairly squalid. From there we had a long drive with a guide southwards to the Gran Sabana, an area of mountains and rivers on the east side of the national park. We passed through several gold-mining towns which our guide likened to the Wild West, due to the lack of any law in these parts.
We spent three nights in the Gran Sabana, driving along bumpy dirt roads to visit Indian communities and hike to waterfalls, of which there is a splendid profusion. We saw some tepuys, but in the distance, looming through the haze. At the south end of the park we reached the town of Santa Elena, close to the border with Brazil.
The main adventure began when we flew out of Santa Elena in a 6-seater single-engined Cessna to Canaima, in the heart of the park. On the way we passed a number of tepuys, including the most famous of all – Ayun Tepui, the home of Angel Falls. This is the highest waterfall in the world, falling almost 1000 metres in a sheer drop. To show it to us, the pilot flew right into the heart of the tepuy and circled round so we got a good view.
We landed at Canaima, which is only accessible by air, and spent two nights at Waku Lodge there, on the shores of the lagoon with a view of five waterfalls. Immediately on arrival we were told to get into swimming togs and whisked off on a tour by canoe and foot, which ended up with us walking behind Sapo Falls. After that, a shower, drink and dinner were much appreciated.
Not content with seeing Angel Falls from the air, the next day we set off on an expedition to see it from the ground. This involved a 4-hour trip upriver by canoe, going through several rapids on the way, followed by a one-hour trek through the jungle to reach the viewpoint near the base of the falls. Then we had to wait nearly an hour for the clouds to clear before we could get a view of the whole height of the falls from the edge of the tepuy to the rocks at the base. On the way back it rained steadily, so it was a sodden group of explorers who returned to base, again in need of shower, drinks and dinner. We were happy, however, to be greeted by the lodge’s resident toucan, who posed nicely for us.
Perhaps overdoing things slightly, the next day our itinerary included an actual sightseeing flight to Angel Falls, so off we went again. Because of the uncertain weather at this time of year, we were worried that we might not see the Falls at all; in fact, we got to see them three times in three days. We were surprised to find it was the same small plane which was flying us out of Canaima and back to Ciudad Bolivar. From there we went on to Caracas airport, ready for the next and final stage of our adventure.
Our last stop in Venezuela, and in South America, was on the archipelago of Los Roques in the Caribbean. We flew there in a weird little three-engined plane, and stayed three nights. The advertising promised that each day we would be ferried to a coral island to spend time on the beach, and we imagined being left alone on a desert island, something like Lost or the film Castaway. The reality was somewhat different.
Los Roques is a popular holiday destination with Venezuelans, and since it was a weekend with a public holiday attached, there were a lot of people on the islands. Each morning a swarm of little boats sets off from Gran Roque, the main island, to take holidaymakers to nearby beaches, leaving them with a sun umbrella, deckchairs and a cool box containing drinks and lunch. It’s very pleasant, but not Robinson Crusoe. The only time we felt marooned was when the boat which was due to pick us up at 4pm didn’t turn up till after 5 – we were starting to look round for materials to build a raft!
We managed to visit beaches on three different islands during our two days there. Our other main activity was watching the sunset and the diving pelicans from a beachside bar back on the main island. Tough job, but someone has to do it!
Finally the last day of our five-month tour dawned, and it was time to fly back to Caracas and then on to England via Madrid, waiting to see what further adventures awaited us there.