Angel Falls, Ciudad Bolivar, and Caracas; December 27-31, 2014

After the Roraima trek, and some superbly executed logistics by which our non-trekking luggage met up with us at the trailhead (good job again, Tino!), we had another eight-hour drive to position ourselves in the city of Ciudad Bolivar for the start of our Angel Falls expedition. Although Canaima -- the boat launching point for Angel Falls -- is quite close to Roraima as the crow flies, getting from one to the other generally requires going all the way back to one of the main cities. We arrived in Ciudad Bolivar fairly late, but early the next morning we enjoyed a view over the Orinoco river from the rooftop of the interesting Casa Grande guesthouse. At that time of day, the city's steep streets, many-colored houses (photo 1), and suspension bridge over the river made for an attractive look somewhat reminiscent of San Francisco.

Every journey to Angel Falls begins by flying to the small town of Canaima and staying overnight at one of its many lodges. A variety of planes make the trip and we're not quite sure how assignment of passengers to planes takes place. We were fortunate on the way in to have our very own four-passenger Cessna (photo 2), from which we enjoyed views across the national park. In Canaima we stayed at Tapuy Lodge (an alternate spelling for the tepui tabletop mountains introduced in the previous travelogue). The lodge is situated on picturesque Canaima Lagoon, with many impressive cascades (e.g., photo 3). There was an afternoon boat and hiking excursion, including a fun, wet pathway behind one of the largest cascades. The Canaima area is isolated and safe, so Emily enjoyed her first run of the trip.

The next day we left for the two-day river trip to the base of world's highest free-falling waterfall. Angel Falls is Venezuela's #1 tourist attraction, so we were a little worried about overcrowding and a group experience, especially given the holiday season. Although many groups appeared to have 12 or more people, we were paired with a pleasant Venezuelan couple and their two college-age kids. Our guide, Jose, was also very pleasant, with passable English.

All of the boats are narrow, open, motorized canoes, either by tradition or because it's the only type of vessel that can navigate the river's rapids with lots of people aboard (photo 4). For the biggest rapids, we disembarked and walked upriver a bit. Four hours of river travel brought us to the trailhead for the falls. It took an hour or so to hike to the main viewpoint (photo 5), and wow! Angel Falls deserves its reputation; photo 6 hardly does it justice. After a long time admiring the falls, but only one family member having the gumption to take a dip at the base (photo 7), we headed down to our "camp" for the night.

We were wondering about spending a night in hammocks in the jungle, but it was remarkably comfortable and enjoyable. The open structure had dining tables, real toilets, and on a second level more than enough hammocks for the two families. After a barbeque dinner we slept well, then early the next morning headed back to Canaima. Downriver was significantly faster than up, but not any drier in the boat! Certainly dampness has been a theme of this trip.

Back in Canaima we said goodbye to our traveling companions, then had a few hours to kill before our flight back to Ciudad Bolivar. On a whim we decided to splurge on the one other way to visit Angel Falls: a fly-over. What a great decision! Once again we were in a small Cessna, this time complete with swashbuckling bush pilot. Emily took the copilot seat and had the time of her life -- she's now talking about getting a pilot's license. The plane flew among numerous tepuis (photo 8) before reaching the falls, where the pilot swooped back and forth, surprisingly close, for every possible view.
Tim had his camera at the ready and came away with some terrific shots; photo 9 is one example. The one-hour flight was certainly one of the highlights of the trip so far.

A far less exciting larger plane brought us back to Ciudad Bolivar, where we walked briefly around  the city center (photo 10) and then headed to Puerto Ordaz, spending our last night in the same airport hotel where we'd spent our first. The next day included an enormous buffer for changing planes in Caracas, given the unpredictability of domestic air travel. As luck had it, our flight from Puerto Ordaz was only an hour late, so Tino suggested we add a final excursion to our Venezuelan experience. From the suburb of Macuto near the Caracas airport, an extremely steep four-wheel-drive road heads up a whopping 7200 vertical feet to a ridge overlooking the main city (photo 11). There's a German-immigrant community up top, Galipan, known for its strawberries and cream, a favorite of our family.

As we enjoyed the delicious snack and excellent views before the drive down (photo 12), we all agreed that we're extremely happy we didn't get nervous and cancel our Venezuelan adventure. We hope the country can get itself back on its feet.

Next: Back to Panama City for New Year's Eve, on to the beach town of Santa Catalina, then a three-day scuba diving trip to rustic Coiba Island.

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