A country of contrasts.
That phrase aptly describes the hidden gem of Venezuela. While most American travelers look forward to following the well-trodden Costa Rica-Peru-Belize-Mexico circuit, Venezuela sits almost hidden from view among "norteamericanos," despite being the most accessible South American country, and despite offering an incredible natural environment that rivals any in the world. The notion of accessible remoteness appealed to my friend Sylvia and I, and we took advantage of a holiday weekend to launch an 11-day adventure.
We began our trip in Canaima National Park in the Gran Sabana, a huge region of freely flowing rivers, giant rainforest mesas (tepuis), and dense rainforest. Landing at the Canaima airstrip, we immediately knew we had left the crowds behind, since the "airport" was little more than a single thatched-roof shack (which we were to encounter again in Venezuela—more about that later).
We were whisked off to the brand-spanking-new Canaima Camp, strategically located on the banks of the spectacular Canaima lagoon. Across the lagoon thundered spectacular waterfalls, and in the distance, the stunning flat-topped tepuis loomed. Cotton-ball cumulus clouds rolled across the sky, and it almost appeared surreal—the entire scene seemed cut from a storybook. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for The Lost World was not so far off after all.
As one of the few guests at the lodge, we were free to make our own schedule and were always attended to promptly by the helpful and forthcoming staff (perhaps TOO forthcoming—upon arrival, the manager apologized for the commotion around camp, informing us that a Japanese tourist had recently drowned and his body had just been recovered!)
However, the real draw in Canaima is the spectacular natural landscape and its most famous feature: Angel Falls, which at over 3,000 feet is the highest in the world. The first day brought a boat trip along the Rio Carrao to Yuri Falls, where we plunged into the falls, tiptoed along the rocks, and swam in the tannin-dark (and therefore piranha-free) water. That was just a taste of what was to come, however, for the next morning saw us waking before dawn and setting off in glass-still waters for the long trip to Angel Falls. A meteor show lit up the sky as we began the four-hour boat trip up the river and into the heart of the park. As we approached Auyantepui, the giant table mesa which gives rise to the falls, huge blankets of clouds spilled down off the top into the forest below.
Although it was near the end of a wet season that had been drier than anyone could remember, our Pemon Indian guides expertly navigated the motorized dugout through rapids, around obstacles, and over the shallows. Each bend in the river brought a tantalizing glimpse of the giant mesa and its pink rock walls peeking through the mists.
Eventually (and after some serious sore butt issues), we reached the pullout for the 45-minute hike to the lookout point for the falls. The walk through the dense foliage and maze of roots was fascinating, and we played Tarzan and Jane as we swung from jungle vines. Then, up a few switchbacks, and there it was.
Angel Falls thundered down from an incomprehensibly high spot on the mesa—so high, in fact, that it was difficult to gain perspective, especially since the top was enshrouded in clouds. A second, smaller but beautiful waterfall poured over a ledge below into a small pool perfect for swimming. In every direction there was nothing but green—it truly felt as if we were the first people to ever gaze on the landscape. Then, as if on cue, the clouds parted and the top of the falls came into view—a cliche like "breathtaking" just wouldn't do it justice, so I will not try. All I can say is: see it for yourself.
The long ride back to camp was fairly uneventful, save for the occasional rain shower (complete with rainbow) and the enjoyable stop at Sapo Falls, where it is possible to walk behind the falls and take a natural show. Even in a dry period, the falls were gorgeous, and one could easily imagine the dunking you would get following lots of rain.
The next stage of our trip brought us to the Andean city of Merida, Venezuela's adventure sports capital. From Merida, it is possible to arrange trekking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, mountain biking and canyoneering trips, paragliding, and river rafting. On our first day, we explored the city, which is large enough to be cosmopolitan but small enough to get a handle on. Like most cities in Venezuela, the center of town is Plaza Bolivar, a pleasant and green respite from the hustle of the city. One outstanding feature of the town is that almost all taxis seem to be of the 1970s-era beater variety, and the fact that they still run belies their completely run-down appearance.
We spent an afternoon relaxing poolside at the pleasant Hotel Belansate (the grounds are MUCH nicer than the rooms) and then went paragliding about 40 minutes south of the city. With consistent thermals rising from the valley floor up the steep-sided peaks, Merida is one of the best places in the world to paraglide. Rather than being an adrenaline sport like skydiving, paragliding is really just a relaxing and beautiful way to see the region from the air.
Our final Andean adventure began with a ride up the teleferico (cable car) to Pico Espejo, which at 15,500 feet is the highest cable car in the world. From there, we rode back down to Loma Redonda station and began the seven-mile walk to Los Nevados. Crossing Alto de la Cruz Pass, we began a long descent through the famous Andean paramos. The paramos were in peak bloom, and pink and yellow wildflowers carpeted the hillsides in every direction, while sheer peaks rose into the clouds above. The hike was fairly straightforward, and after about 3 or 4 hours of walking downhill, we reached the charming village of Los Nevados, a mountain town perched over a pretty valley. With whitewashed homes, red tile roofs, and a small church, the place was the definition of picturesque.
We spent the night in the simple, but clean Posada Bella Vista, with a great view of the valley below, and set off the next morning for the four-hour bumpy jeep ride back to Merida. Until we approached the village of El Morro, the "road" was little more than a rutted dirt track through the mountains, but our Land Cruiser proved up to the task.
The final leg of our trip was spent relaxing on the beautiful islands of Los Roques, about 100 miles north of the coast in the Caribbean. Arriving in the Caracas airport for our flight, we found it was canceled but were booked onto another flight with a 1940s-era DC-3. Our initial trepidation at flying such an old plane (we had to walk UPHILL to get to our seats, which were covered in camouflage!) was soon muted, as the flight was smooth and uneventful.
As we approached the islands, mangrove cays, coral atolls, and turquoise water came into view below. Soon were disembarking on a runway at an "airport" with another thatched-roof shack for a waiting lounge, right on the beach, no less.
The Posada Acuarela is one of the finest places to lodge on the island of Gran Roque (the only island with any real permanent population)—the Italian expat Angelo Belvedere has made full use of his considerable artistic and architectural skills to craft a place that is stunning in its attention to detail. Flowers of every color abound, set against whitewashed walls and cool background music.
We spent the days lounging on the fantastic white sand beaches found on some of the nearby islands (like Francisquises or Crasqui), snorkeling, and scuba diving. The further away from Gran Roque you go, the clearer the water becomes, and I found unparalleled visibility when diving some of the outer islands. We also charted a sailboat for an overnight trip around the islands. We highly recommend the services of Fernando and his boat, the 42-foot Sula Sula, for a combination of great food, access to private islands, beautiful sunsets, and good company.
Of course, while we managed an incredible variety of experiences in a short window of time, Venezuela has myriad other attractions, and I am sure I will return someday to climb Roraima or Auyantepui, go on safari in Los Llanos, and windsurf Isla Margarita while dancing to merengue.