Exploring Canaima National Park, Venezuela

by Tom Rowsell

Canaima National Park is 30,000 km² of jungle, waterfalls, rivers and grassland in Southern Venezuela. Read my journey through the dramatic landscape travelling by canoe and sleeping in a hammock

Canaima National Park can be approached from the north or the south. St Elena de Uairen on the Brazilian border has some small affordable hotels, and is the nearest developed settlement to Mount Roraima - the famous tepuis mountain, on which Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World was based. Ciudad Bolivar North of the park has a far better selection of hostels and hotels, and it is possible to arrange your tour from this city.

The easiest way to enter the park is by light aircraft leaving from Ciudad Bolivar and flying directly into the heart of Canaima and to fly over the world's tallest waterfall - Angel Falls. Alternatively you can arrange for a canoe to take you up river to see the falls from Canaima's modest airport, strewn with the debris of crashed aircraft. There are a number of tour operators who organise trips to Canaima; most of them will include a visit to Salto Sapo and Salto Angel. I was with Sapo tours. There is little difference between the different tours, except price, which can and should be negotiated.

It was with mixed feelings of awe and terror that I touched down on the dusty jungle landing strip in Canaima. The evidence of failed landings was plain to see, but I found myself more interested in the numerous waterfalls spraying from gaps in an endless sea of rich green vegetation.

Upon arriving, we took a canoe across the lake, coloured red from the rich minerals in the soil, to a small, open sided structure with hammocks strung up inside. After dropping our bags off we took a dip in the lake to cool off, it is filled with little fish but there are also anacondas in the water. The guide assured us it would be safe, but the fact that an anaconda corpse was rotting on the sandy banks was evidence that there were beasties to be aware of.

The tour included all meals, and we were served up a good spread of chicken, arepas (Venezuelan corn pancakes), salad and cantaloupe melon. After a feed we set off on foot through the jungle to Salto Sapo (meaning Frog Falls), It's a wide waterfall that allegedly resembles a frog although I would not make the comparison. You can walk underneath the falls through a cavernous walkway with ropes to hold on to. The walk through the jungle from camp passes a haunting monument to the colonial explorers who discovered Salto Sapo. It is merely a gathering of old possessions and animal skulls, a reminder of the danger that this breathtakingly beautiful environment poses to those who live here.

That night, after a heavy rum drinking session with a friendly group of intrepid Americans, I slept soundly in a hammock listening to the sound of the waterfalls. The following morning we prepared a canoe to take us up river to the mythical Angel Falls. I learnt that Disney/Pixar had sent a team up here to prepare for the making of Up, which features a Venezuelan waterfall named paradise falls, clearly based on this, the world's tallest waterfall. The journey up river in the scorching tropical sun lasted hours and was punctuated only by a couple of stops at Native American Indian settlements. The Pemon are the indigenous tribe of this region, and are very welcoming of visitors. They allowed me to try their root based yucca bread, dipped in spicy termite sauce and have a swig of their fermented yucca beer. I was honoured, but I am certain it caused a horrific sickness that lasted for several days afterwards.

After passing a number of breathtaking tepuis (flat topped mountains), which seem to erupt from the forest canopy like immense anvils surrounded by broccoli, the water grew too shallow for the boat to go any further, we disembarked and continued on foot through the jungle. The guide advised us to stick together as there were jaguars in this part of the jungle. The Americans had told me that the up hill jungle trek to the point where the falls were most visible would take two hours, but we managed it in 40 minutes. The sheer scale of the falls is breathtaking. The water becomes vapour long before it hits the ground, giving the two flumes the appearance of smoke blowing from the nostrils of a fearsome dragon.

We headed back down to the river to bathe and set up camp. The guides skewered a few chickens on sticks and left them over a fire and that was to be our simple but delicious dinner. We slept in hammocks as we had the night before, but sleeping this deep in the jungle was a very different experience. The sheer noise of the insects, birds and beasts is almost deafening. That night I had the most vivid dreams of my life and I fantasised about the seemingly endless jungle and its mysterious inhabitants. Truly, it was an unforgettable and life changing experience.

Where to Stay

It is possible to arrange the entire trip from any city in the country, but negotiating a trip from Cuidad Bolivar or St Elena de Uairen on the Brazilian border will enable a traveller to obtain the cheapest deal.

There are no hotels in Canaima national park itself, only camps. The hotels I recommend are located either side of the national park and are good places to stay before embarking on the trip to angel falls

Hotel Colonial

Telephone: 0285 632 4402

This is a large and old hotel which faces the Orinoco river. Excellent views and facilities, reasonable price. The accommodation here cannot be described as luxury.

Posada Doña Carol (Hostel)

Address: Calle libertad , Ciudad bolívar , Venezuela
Telephone 0285 511 6171

Website: www.hosteltrail.com/posadadonacarol

There are 5 rooms in this new hostel. Some of which have no windows but all of them are clean and have kitchen access

Hotel Casa Grande de Angostura

Address: Cnr calles venezuela & boyacá, Historic center , Ciudad bolívar
Telephone: 0285 632 4639
Email: angostura@cacaotravel.com

This modern style hotel has a roof terrace with a pool and also has internet access. There is a fountain in the open courtyard and each room is spacious. This is a good hotel to meet other travellers with whom you can split the cost of a tour.

Posada Amor Patrio

Address: Calle amor patrio, Historic center , Ciudad bolívar
Telephone: 0285 632 4485
Email: plazabolivar@hotmail.com

This hostel is also popular with backpackers. It is a 265 year old colonial building with a shared kitchen and bathrooms. There is also a bar and you can sleep in hammocks on the rooftop terrace if you want, although this may be your last chance to sleep in a bed for a few nights.

Hotel Augusta

Address: Calle bolívar, Town center, Santa elena de uairen
Telephone 0289 995 1654

This is a half decent hotel near cashpoint facilities and decent restaurants serving both Brazilian and Venezuelan fare. The Palm trees and tropical decor are nice but the caged parrots tend to make a lot of noise. There are 21 rooms which are cooled not by AC but by fans.

Hotel Lucrecia

Address: Av perimetral, Town center , Santa elena de uairen
Telephone: 0289 995 1105
Email: hotellucrecia@cantv.net

If you are staying here after a trip to angel falls or Roraima you will e pleased to know it has hot water in all 15 rooms. There is also a garden veranda and a pool. Breakfast and dinner are available also.