VENEZUELA 2002: Canaima, gateway to Angel Falls

Ciudad Bolivar was ever more tranquil this time around - I ended up not doing too much. One novelty this time around, however was a parade commemorating Bolivar. This came replete with some speeches and whatnot in the plaza below. Otherwise it mostly served only to wake me from sleep in the hammock. I took in the numerous children decked out in festive, Caribbean-seeming attire dancing. Oompah bands provided the music as I wondered how much any of them really knew about Bolivar beyond what Chávez came up with on a nightly basis in his harangues on the government TV channel.

I was far more intrigued with what Martin was arranging for me: a flight to Canaima, including an island stay in the lagoon there. For only a few days this would run $225, but I'd possibly decide to bite the bullet for a little more if I I found that it might be possible to get my stay extended. This was not typically allowed, but Martin would put in a word ahead of time to the family he knew there of my interest. Beyond the stay I'd check out its main attraction, Angel Falls, via an overflight: I'd heard that the river was running quite low to make a boat approach enjoyable.

The flight to Canaima - which could only realistically be reached by air - was relatively uneventful. Still, this was my first time in a tiny, six-seater airplane. We were lightly bounced around the entire time, all apparently very hum ho stuff as the pilot soon took to reading the newspaper without even a cursury glance outside. Meanwhile, from the front passenger seat (shotgun) I could have touched all the controls and ruined everything if need be. But I didn't, so we eventually dropped in on the tiny town by the lagoon.

Walking out from the airport, I immediately discovered that my new digs consisted only of a few dirt roads that kept one thousand people evidently well hidden. But what a spectacular location! Right after ambling down the red dust road to the lagoon, I knew I wanted to stay longer. Shortly thereafter, the several Brits and I who had flown in together were greeted by a member of the Bernal family - the owners of my coveted island in the middle of the lagoon. We all hopped into a dugout canoe, were whisked for a few minutes past some beautifully tiered falls, then landed at the island. I immediately spoke with our host Irma about staying two days longer for $25 a pop - and she quickly agreed. Yes! Beauty was all around me, and in spades - I'd relish this.

That day I hung out with the Brits, later swimming on the falls side of the lagoon. There I found strong undercurrents mixed with fantastic views, especially at sundown. Again I was in clean, tannic water that was amazingly refreshing - just like on the Río Caura. This suitably began the pattern I'd establish for five days: at lunchtime I'd meet with whomever was spending the night with me on the island (night 1: Brits, night 2: Germans and a French family, night 3: Bavarian drinking crew, night 4: Dutch guys and British family), then take a siesta. Later I'd go for an afternoon swim at the other lagoon (under Sapo Falls, via a path that took twenty minutes through the jungle). Dinner was at eight-ish, then bed would come relatively early at ten-ish - when the generator was turned off. In the morning, breakfast was followed by another swim (also in Sapo's lagoon), with the tourists arriving at 11:30 or so. Then it was lunchtime all over again! What an idyllic life!

On the very first day, though, I also went on the typical organized hike that came after lunch for a few hours. This involved the usual jungle explanations, noting of flora and fauna, etc. With the caveat that it was truly spectacular in this locale, on another scale than the usual sweating mixed with muddy water. Afterward we swam at the beach under Sapo's Falls (where I was to spend so much time), then walked through them (although they were practically only a trickle in the dry season, spare one drenching step or two which could not be avoided). Later we went above them to see the stair-like formation of rocks which formed the waterfall (just like all the others in the main Canaima lagoon). This was filled with frogs and tadpoles, mostly the latter. All the while it was the views that really made it - the savannah and the tepuis in the distance, palm trees, and that refreshing lagoon.

I immediately decided on making the Sapo lagoon "my" spot for five days, usually spending time there completely alone. I even got some great exercising in - increasingly more each day - and lounged around in the sands underwater. It was very shallow - you could generally stand with head assured above water - spare in the one main channel. The temperature was nothing less than perfect. Once again, did I mention idyllic? Yes! At times I also took some "forbidden" (the powers that be frowned on individual adventure here) walks around the island, through some jungle and whatnot, also making my way on another trip atop Sapo Falls for the amazing views. Wow.

Not after long did I come to think of the locals as the Canaima mafia, however. It quickly became obvious that, in general, the overwhelming local desire was to have you in and out in a few (or less!) days, either doing the overflight or boat tour. This was their money-making racket. But with the boat tours taking longer than usual due to shallow water (and pushing) - and my having just done three tours in the country practically in succession - I'd opt for the overflight version of Angel Falls. The locals were pleased, of course.

The overflight was certainly pleasant, too, as once again I found myself in a six-seater that slid around as it was buffeted by clouds. There were astounding views of the tepuis and Devil's Canyon, the tepuis both larger and more heavily vegetated than Roraima. As for Angel Falls itself, that was found in a beautifully secluded spot. But it was nevertheless no more or less spectacular from the air than some other falls I had spotted while hiking Roraima.

The overflight being done on the second day, I spent all of my remaining time on the island. There wasn't much to otherwise do in Canaima, so I opted to just focus on "my" lagoon. The various visitors for the nights were nice, and of course I ended up playing a little horn here and there as well. This included going at it full bore in the lagoon, where the falls could be counted on to drown it out in some directions.

One night was worthy of note, however: A Bavarian drinking crew, five guys on a tear through Venezuela for three weeks, came in and a party began right away. They apparently already had a reputation in Ciudad Bolivar, not surprising with their modus operandi being to each kill a bottle of rum a night. Yikes! Still - it got me talking German again. And I knew that no one would ever remember how poorly! Or perhaps well, as the case is sometimes offered by libations.

As for the camp itself, I quickly managed to avoid the hammocks which I still hadn't figured out how to use comfortably. I managed to secure a room to myself in an outbuilding, which was nice. All visiting tourists generally only had the choice of hammocks in one large open building with a frond roof, but my longer stay (and trumpet) afforded me a bit more clout. Fortunately the weather was fine throughout, too, and for the most part the bugs were well-behaved: Though we were still in the Gran Sabana, the puri-puri here only came out at dusk, and then only at the beach. This was much better, even if the insects still abounded and I got some pictures of various ones while avoiding others.

One insect did manage to get the best of me, though. Coming out of the bathroom once, I yelped as a scorpion had apparently made its way into my shorts. What a bite! I jumped into the sky, swatting my behind, and ultimately killed it. When I dropped my drawers and it fell out, I naturally enough took its picture. All hail the Great White Trophy Hunter of the 20th - oops, 21st - century!

As for the pain, that mostly only lingered for about an hour. A little paralysis temporarily made itself present in my leg for about half an hour, too. But that was about it, fortunately, no doubt due to the salve the grandma of the family applied to my bare behind within minutes of the sting. Otherwise it was a fine five days of being a beach bum in perhaps one of the most beautiful areas I'd ever behold, and with such great swimming water. The eventual flight back to Ciudad Bolivar was uneventful, even if I was glad to finally be out of the air and the growing claustrophobia of such a small vehicle. I'd also come to a new decision: It was time to get to the beach and leave the jungle behind!
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