Salto Angel (Angel Falls)

Salto Angel (Angel Falls)Our first view of Salto, in the late afternoon, was from a rocky beach next to the campsite.

We stretched our legs after the long trip, gathered our bags, turned around to take in the view, and then stood with our mouths open till it got too dark to photograph the waterfall.

In the camp, we staked out our sleeping spots, showered, changed, and then had a marvelous dinner of chicken grilled over a wood fire, with the best rice I’ve had in Venezuela, so far, and freshly made, golden arepas (cornflour pancakes). Good coffee was ever-available from two huge flasks, and after dinner we hung around the long trestle tables, getting to know each other better, exchanging stories, and quizzing our guide, Francesco, about the itinerary, what we would need, and about the history of the falls, the tepuys, Pemon culture.

Salto Angel (Angel Falls)I’d had too much coffee, and stayed up a few hours after the rest of the group had gone to sleep, sharing cigarettes with Francesco, and answering his wide-eyed, amazed questions about life on a boat and traveling over the sea. He was quite a reserved young man, always gentle and friendly, with a faint smile about the lips, but when I told him about whales, dolphins, sailing with just a compass and a sextant, and how we spent the time it took for us to get to Brazil from South Africa, he had the biggest, craziest smile I ever saw on him…it delighted him so much. We also discussed environmentally-enlightened architecture, because he was studying architecture at the university in Ciudad Bolivar, and wanted to end up designing better campsites and facilities for his people in Canaima. Buildings and homes that would blend in and work with nature, rather than against it.
Francesco, PemonWe were so lucky to end up with this alternative tour group, Excursiones Kavac; the group offers less ‘modern’ conveniences, which means that instead of a rickety bed in a concrete box called a “cottage”, we all slept together in locally woven, super-comfy hammocks, underneath a huge shelter made of bamboo, wood, and moriche palm thatch…so much better than the cheaply-constructed campground facilities of bigger companies!

Excursiones Kavac is an indigenous Pemon-managed company and half of the entire experience was discovering how nice, quiet, intelligent, honest, dignified, hardworking, unaffected, proud, and generous these people are. Yes, they are Venezuelans, too…but they are Pemon, first, foremost, and deep-down…it sometimes seemed like they were from another planet

Modern life was something they functioned well in, but they could also slough it off as easily as shucking off a raincoat. They weren’t attached to things, and didn’t seem the least bit impressed, or even curious, about any of the fancy gadgets that we cityslickers had brought. They refused all gifts, weren’t ingratiatingly chummy, didn’t waste their words, certainly didn’t play native clowns or go out of their way simply to amuse us. But they watched everything, and often knew what you needed, and had it ready for you, before you had realised it, yourself.

Salto Angel (Angel Falls)The next morning, I awoke completely refreshed, at five. It was still dark. I dressed, grabbed my camera, went for a walk in the selva behind the campsite, and then down to the beach, but Salto Angel was completely hidden in the fog. On the way back to the campsite I ran into the Mexicans, who had thought they were up before everyone else, and screamed when I walked out of the trees. We all had a good laugh, and then I sat around the campsite tossing small, strong cups of coffee back, until the others were up and breakfast was ready.

At 7 we set off for the View Point, Mirador Laime…named after the Latvian explorer, Aleksander Laime, who was part of the first team to reach Auyan-tepuy on foot, in 1949. In 1955, he climbed to the summit of Auyan-tepuy, and was the first man to reach Jimmie Angel’s plane, El Rio Caroni. The path, the same one Laime used to get to the foot of the falls, was a good hour’s scramble up boulders and over tree roots, grabbing at tree trunks to hoist ourselves up. My knees, damaged many years ago by volleyball and cycling, as well as by being overweight for most of my life, were killing me.

Salto Angel (Angel Falls)At last, the Mirador (View Point), where we all collapsed like lizards on the boulders. You can really appreciate the falls from here… I didn’t think I could go one step further, my knees were in such pain, I was hot and exhausted.

Déjame aquí! Déjame morir en paz!” (Leave me here! Leave me to die in peace!)

Francesco just smiled and replied gently “Ah, bueno, vamos a seguir sin Usted, entonces…” (Oh, well, then we’ll go on without you…)

I groaned and got up. “¿Cuántas gorditas han muerto aquí?” (How many fatsos have died here?)

He laughed. “Ah, tantos! Enterramos los cuerpos detrás de la colina.” (Oh, so many! We buried the bodies behind the hill.)

Salto Angel (Angel Falls)I’m glad I pushed myself over that last bit of hill and down again…we emerged at a beautiful pool at the bottom of the falls, flowing over huge boulders and on down the slope. Kris and I sat spellbound for an hour, gazing at the cascade, but also turning around to gasp at the panorama opposite…

Looking out from Salto AngelGoing back to camp, Francesco came up and handed me with a walking stick he’d made, and it worked so well that I was much more chirpy going down…at least until we met a Japanese woman, part of another tour group, who looked like she was in her 80s, coming up. I felt 150 years old and fat as a walrus, then. LOL

Back at camp we had lunch, packed up, and got into the canoes for the 4 hour (faster going with the current) ride back to main campsite in Canaima. I kept twisting my head back to gaze at the tepuy as it receded into the distance, and felt the first twinges of sadness when it finally disappeared from view.

El Rio Churun

Rio ChurunArriving at Canaima’s main campsite, we were given a quick briefing of the trip to Auyan-tepui, bundled into a dugout canoe (made from a single, huge tree) with an outboard engine, and started the five hour journey up Churun River. There were ten tourists—a family of 4 Mexicans, a French couple, an English couple, and us—plus three Pemon indians: the boatman, the pilot, and our guide, Francesco.
Rio ChurunAbout an hour and half from Canaima, we disembarked and walked across a stretch of grassland to the other side, while the boatman and pilot navigated a tricky part of the river, with violent rapids and massive boulders, too dangerous and difficult to take us all through. We walked about half an hour, through wildflowers and scrubby plants, the tepuis all blue and mysterious in the distance.
Rio ChurunBack in the canoe, the next three and a half hours were spent slicing through the deep red water of the river. The water is red in these parts from centuries of leaf tannin seeping out of the dense selvas (forests), and no other pollutants, industries, communities, people or mines are to be found along the riverbanks, so there’s nothing to silt or darken the water with added clay, rubbish, chemicals. That’s how clean it is. It’s like canoeing through freshly steeped black tea.
rio rojo
Rio ChurunAs we approached the tepuis, Francesco made it very clear that, from thereon, every tepui we saw around us was just one tepui: Auyán-tepui. It’s one of the most expansive tepuis in the Guiana Highlands.

So the hulking citadels in the foreground, and crenelated towers in the background, are part of the same massive sandstone plateau:
Rio Churun
Rio Churun
Rio Churun

Volando (flying)

Jimmi Angel's planeAt the small airport in Ciudad Bolívar, Jimmie Angel’s plane, El Rio Caroni, still stands…in memory of the aviator’s unfortunate landing atop Auyantepuy (no one was harmed, but the plane couldn’t take off, and he, his wife, and two other people, had to trek across very difficult country on foot).

Salto Angel, or Angel Falls, is named after him.
Jimmi Angel's planeWhen we flew to Canaima we took a much smaller plane…a six-seater that held us, a young English couple, and two pilots. We flew over small lakes in the middle of nowhere…the morning sunlight, reflected by serpentine rivers, raced minnow-skittish and mercurial, as we passed. Great green expanses of La Gran Sabana (The Great Plains)…


…the Hadean landscapes of gold mine dredges…




and, finally, land where we see very few roads…



…impassable marshy country criss-crossed by rivers gave way to land dominated by majestic tepuis (tepuis, or tepuys, are table mountains or mesas; the word means “the home of the gods” in Pemon).



From a distance we saw Canaima Lagoon, beckoning like some kind of paradise in a movie about explorers…Saltos Golondrina and Ucaima empty huge amounts of water into the lagoon, and also generate hydroelectric power for the entire national park.



Canaima National Park was established in 1962. It is the sixth biggest national park in the world.

About 65% of the park is occupied by plateaus of rock called tepuis. Their sheer cliffs and waterfalls (including Angel Falls, which is the highest waterfall in the world, at 1,002 metres (3,287 ft)) create spectacular landscapes.

The park is home to indigenous Pemon Indians, part of the Carib linguistic group. President Chavez ensured the survival and the safety of both the Pemon and their ancestral land by giving the Pemon exclusive ownership of the park, which they maintain and manage to a remarkable standard. Canaima is relatively remote, with only a few roads connecting towns. Most transport within the park is done by light plane, or by foot and canoe. The Pemon have developed some basic and luxurious camps, which are visited by tourists from around the world. All supplies are flown in by plane or helicopter.

In 1994, the Canaima National Park was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, for its unique tepuis.

(some of this information was adopted from Wikipedia’s page on Canaima National Park)

Posada Don Carlos

Posada Don Carlos“The Posada Don Carlos guesthouse is a colonial mansion, built in 1876, carefully restored by its owners. Located in the heart of the historic quarter in Ciudad Bolivar, it is only steps away from Bolivar square and 200 meters from the Orinoco River. Combining traditional atmosphere with modern conveniences, the options range from sleeping in a hammock to staying in very elegant rooms.” (quoted from the website)

Having booked our tour to Canaima, Kris and I took a taxi straight to Posada Don Carlos, situated on the corner of Calle Boyacá and Calle Amor Patrio, in the casco histórico (historical part) of town. We stepped up to a large heavy door with an ornate brass door knocker (and a modern doorbell) set into a discreet terracotta-coloured wall. A friendly face appeared at one of the wrought iron windows for a second, disappeared, and then the same smiling lady was at the door.

Posada Don CarlosStepping into the mansion from the hot streets of the town was like moving into another world. A shadowy hallway opened up onto a dappled central courtyard, with cool green light filtering through the delicate leaves of a tree with outspread branches.
Posada Don CarlosTwo big, serene dogs lolled on the cool tiled floor. In places, the ancient red brick walls have been tastefully exposed, and all the doors are tall enough to accommodate the colonial men and woman of old as they entered their home astride their horses (I guess horses were watered and stabled within the walls of the house, in the courtyards).

Posada Don CarlosThe owners have put a lot of work into filling the mansion with Venezuelan antiques: not only large pieces of furniture, but little curios like old irons, typewriters, cameras and kitchen utensils pepper the corners of the house the way they must have, back in the day.

Posada Don CarlosAlso, many really beautiful old pieces of Pemon basketwork and weaving, together with cow and deer skulls, and a few rustic objets d’art, hang from the walls, or swing gently in mid-air, suspended from the high ceilings.
La cocina en Posada Don CarlosI love the high, open ceilings of colonial homes…in the tropics, it’s a great way to deal with the incredible heat. The extra wall space means that windows and doors were made much taller than their modern counterparts, letting in more wind and a really marvelous ambient light.

Posada Don CarlosA room with a double bed, our own shower and toilet, and an electric fan (because we don’t like air-conditioning), was $3.00 per night (at the time of writing…prices change very fast, here…it is even cheaper now…$2.85 or something) Incredible.

Breakfast can be requested, but we preferred to eat outside, so I don’t know how good it is. No lunch or dinner, although you can use the kitchen to cook your own food (you may or may not need to have your own dishes, pots, pans…they haven’t got a lot of kitchen gear). There’s always coffee in the morning, two big flasks of it, and it’s good, strong coffee. The atmosphere is very “relaxed” and a bit “rustic”…meaning the staff sit around a lot, and don’t seem particularly eager to get to their feet when you ask them for something. It can be noisy, too…what with the dogs barking at pedestrians from the windows, the car alarms in the street going off now and then, and the owner’s wife spontaneously picking up a cuadro (a small guitar) and, together with some of the staff, bursting into the loud ballads typical of Los Llanos (The Plains). Out of tune. At seven in the morning. Outside your bedroom window.

But, for the excellent price and the beauty of the place, it’s totally worth putting up with the desperate, unrefined singing of The Lady of The House!

Ciudad Bolívar

Casco Historico

After much trouble trying to rent a car and make various other complicated travel arrangements, to no avail, Kris and I just packed a couple of backpacks last Monday the 21st, and went to the central bus terminal in Puerto La Cruz at 7 a.m. We’d decided to catch the first available bus (that didn’t have huge queues) to any of the states in Venezuela that were on our wish list.

There were no buses, except to Venezuela’s capital, Caracas (definitely didn’t want to go there!) but, as luck would have it, a por puesto taxi (literally ‘per position’: one seat in a regular air-conditioned car that takes four passengers, $3.00 each) was leaving for Ciudad Bolívar. We were thrilled, as this destination is at the top of our Venezuela list, so off we went.

Casco Historico

Ciudad Bolívar is the gateway city to Canaima National Park, which is the place to experience, among many other stunning natural wonders, the famous Salto Angel, the world’s longest waterfall, as it plummets silently for nearly a kilometre, down the sandstone rocks of Auyantepui in the Gran Sabana region of Bolivar State.

Casco Historico

We arrived from Puerto La Cruz three hours later, then spent most of Monday at the city’s small airport—where all the tour agencies for the remote Canaima are located, and little four-seater planes take off throughout the day, carrying people across the vast wetlands and the Gran Sabana, through which there are no roads—haggling and pitting one agency against the others in order to crank the prices down as low as possible. Finally we made our choice, pushed one agent against the wall (metaphorically!) and booked with a small agency run by a family of Peruvian immigrants ($200/pax)

Casco Historico

We had to spend a night in Ciudad Bolivar, and would leave the following morning. We took a taxi to the casco historico, the old colonial part of the town, built on hills overlooking the Orinoco River, and booked at Posada Don Carlos, a really lovely bed & breakfast located inside a meticulously restored colonial house on a quiet street.

Casco Historico

We deposited our bags, had a shower, changed, and then went out to wander the streets of the old town, with camera. Also, we were looking for dinner of some sort, as the Posada doesn’t do lunch or dinner. The rest of these photos are pretty much more colonial streets and houses…

Casco Historico

Casco Historico

Casco Historico

…except for this last one, where we turned a corner at the top of a hill, and I managed to snap a bit of the state’s beautiful bridge, Puente Angostura, before night fell. The great river it spans is The Orinoco, river of legends, songs, explorers, and dreams of centuries.

Casco Historico

blue glass

blue beer bottleA blue beer bottle from the fisherman’s restaurant on the beach along Paseo Colon. Picked some flowering shrubs along the way, but decided not to paint them in all their lilac-coloured glory, so that the blue of the bottle could dominate this sketch. beer bottles
If beer weren’t so scarce around here, I would start a series about beer bottles. Love painting glass.

Hay que vivir

colonial house VenezuelaSix weeks in Venezuela. I haven’t painted anything but this door and window…the ubiquitous pink-walled colonial house. Still charming. I haven’t been game enough to walk the streets with my camera, the economy is so bad at the moment, anything remotely valuable is like a red flag to a lot of desperate, angry bulls. I hope to start drawing on the streets more, though, so maybe there will be more to post here, soon (I hope!)

We went from being completely lost and bewildered (it was a struggle just to find a bit of food everyday), to functioning fairly well as visitors (we can honestly say we speak Spanish, now) and we’ve finally arrived at a stage where we’re actually looking around for things to do, and re-introducing little routines of a “normal” life.

After weeks of being intimidated by the new environment, mooching around on the boat or ordering a string of coffees at the marina’s restaurant, of eating way too much, napping too much, not going anywhere because of the heat and the difficulty, of getting soft, fat and feeling awful about myself…I went out and bought two pairs of dumbbells (1kg. and 3kgs.) and I am back to working out every day (there’s a long bench in the little-used ladies’ bathroom that’s just perfect, and it’s so convenient to be able to duck straight into the showers afterwards!) It’s become my daily ritual.

The regular exercise has given me back my energy, as well as lifted my mood, so that I am more likely to pull my running shoes on and go for a brisk walk around the neighbourhood, just for the heck of it. The “aches and pains” that I thought were the early onset of old age have vanished, and I feel great. I’ve been to the flea market, these past two Sundays, and the days when I used to be a shy spectator—looking at the stuff from a safe and uncrowded distance—are well and truly over…I’ve learned to deal with the incredible heat, push in with all the other people, to rummage patiently through all the second-hand clothing for sale, to haggle (just a little bit, for propriety’s sake, though really most stuff is under $2), try stuff on (you pull the clothes on over whatever you’re wearing) and fill my shopping bag with half a dozen articles of clothing in an hour’s time. Then i walk the kilometer back to the marina, stopping halfway to buy a cocada (a coconut smoothie…it is to die for!) My Sunday ritual. Crazy as it sounds, these rituals have kept my life from sinking into a meaningless swamp of lazy days. The greatest responsibility you can give a person is free time…what you do with it can make you happy, or make you miserable. This trip around South America for a few years feels a bit like I have been given Free Time as a job. The problem is not finding time, but figuring out what to do with what sometimes feels like a glut, a surfeit of free time.

Learning the language has, of course, helped me to live a normal, everyday life. Hours of study—I did all 5 phases of the Pimsleur Spanish language course on our way from Brazil—supplemented by books on grammar, making lists of words with a dictionary, reading everything—from newspapers and children’s books to short novels and books about Santeria—plus hours spent talking to friendly people…one Venezuelan lady, in particular, also living on a boat in this marina and the same age as I, has become a close friend. She speaks not a word of English, but we have coffee together, show each other slideshows on our laptops, and talk about all sorts of things, so I guess I can fairly claim to speak “conversational” Spanish.

I’m really proud of this. It’s the first language that I set out to learn from scratch, and I really did give so much of my time and energy to studying it. It has all paid off, because even though I still speak slowly, and I often have to ask rapid speakers to slow down or repeat things, I can read pretty much anything, now.
Neruda Anthology//
Kris brought home a fabulous anthology of Neruda’s poems for me…my prize, he said, for doing so well in such a short time. I had been looking for Neruda at all the bookstores, without luck, but he found this at a newspaper kiosk in Lecheria.

Echoes of the Mazaruni…

Remember my post Shipwrecks and Sand Shoals? A couple of months after the post went up I got an exciting e-mail from 7-year-old Thom (and his mum, Noemie). Based on the sketches and photos in my post, Thom (who tells me he is “really into wrecks”) made a gorgeous drawing of the wreck.

Thom's drawingAnd then he went into 3D and built a Lego version of the shipwreck.

Thom's Lego wreckThom’s a charming young man, one of maybe three people who immediately recognised that the name of our boat, Kehaar, was taken from the book Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Note: In the book, about rabbits, Kehaar is a blunt old seagull who speaks with an Eastern European accent. He is very knowledgeable about the world, and he often confuses the rabbits by talking about things that they do not understand or cannot comprehend, such as bullets and oceans. Kehaar is the reason our boat is painted black and white (or was, at any rate…right now it’s a patchwork of cheap paints found in South Africa, Brazil and, soon, Venezuela).

This is the most rewarding part of blogging, for me…when something I’ve posted resonates with someone else, spurs them to create a reciprocal work, or to look into the matter further. A lot of the time my posts are just the bare bones…I don’t do as much research as I should, or don’t include everything I’ve gathered about the topic because I worry that it will bore readers.

And then someone like Thom comes along, digests what I’ve published, gets busy (at his beautiful table covered in drawings—Love! We should all draw as freely on our tables…) and hands the idea back to me, imbued with a seven-year-old’s magical enthusiasm…fleshed-out, and given dimension. Thom and Noemie even did an internet search of the shipwreck, looking for more information…but found nothing (neither did Kris, who hunted obsessively for any stories about the Mazaruni and what happened to her). And it thrills me so much that I, schmaltzy sponge cake that I am, get teary-eyed.

Thanks for the photos, Thom! I’ll keep my eye out for more wrecks as we go, and be sure to send you whatever I find!

Santería sparklies

Santería braceletsA few days ago, I bought some beaded bracelets from one of the many Santería shops in town. I chose two bracelets, each, in the colours of three of the Orishas:

Yemayá (blues and crystal clear beads) is the mother of all Orishas. Her name means “Mother whose children are like the fish”, (referring to her fecundity as the source of all living things.) She is queen of the ocean, patroness of seafarers and fishermen, of pregnant women, and is the spirit of moonlight. Often depicted as a mermaid, I bought these bracelets for my friend, who is a real mermaid

Changó (or Shangó) is the most ‘popular’ of the orishas. He rules over lightning, thunder, fire, the drums and dance. He is a strong-willed and fiery Orisha, red and white, and loves all the good things of life: dancing, drumming, women, food and wine. He is ocanani with Elegba, meaning they are of one heart. I bought these bracelets for a fiery artist friend of mine, a Leo, a maven of good food, wine, music, books, and art.

Elegba (also Eleggua or Elegguá) is the owner of the roads and doors in this world. The colors red, black, and white are his. In particular, Elegba stands at the crossroads of the human and the divine, as messenger between the two worlds. Nothing can be done in either world without his permission. Elegba is always propitiated before calling any other orisha, as he opens the door between the worlds and opens our roads in life. He is my personal favourite, a trickster god and a child, and I bought his bracelets for myself.

Santería braceletsSome of you may remember that I made a new journal for myself last year, when the previous one had filled up, and that I chose to decorate its covers with the colours, symbols, sigils, and incantations of Elegba, because I was about to set off on a huge journey around South America for a few years (we are here, currently) and wanted to honour the Spirit of The Roads, the Opener of Ways.

Elegba journal