It is the tallest waterfall in the world. But to me, it wasn’t the soaring heights it descended from that was the most memorable but the meandering journey you need to take to see the gentle giant in the remoteness.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
There are alternative ways to get there. By air, land or water. Air is the only practical option for most tourists.
The nearest city to Salto Angel is Ciudad Bolívar in the south east of Venezuela. For many tourists this will be their starting point.
You have 2 main options from Ciudad Bolívar.
You either take a plane tour (usually in a 6 seater), see the whole thing from the air and be done by lunch time, or you take a plane that will plant you in a remote village called Roraima about 1 hour 20 minutes away.
Roraima sits by a beautiful laguna and has some tourist accommodation and facilities.
Once you are in Roraima, you have 2 main options to see Salto Angel.
- Option 1: You take a plane tour of Salto Angel; then you either fly back to Ciudad Bolívar or stay the night in Roraima and fly back to Ciudad Bolívar the day after.
- Option 2: You stay the night in Roraima and travel up the river to Salto Angel the following day.
You can do this as a day trip or an overnight camping trip staying the night in a jungle camp.
I took Option 2 (overnight camping trip) and it is far more engaging and memorable than the Option 1. I tell you that because I took the plane tour as well after the ground tour. Of course the plane tour offers views and convenience that the ground tour does not but if you had to choose between the two I would recommend the ground tour.
Purchasing a Tour Package
You can purchase tour packages that offer a variety of options in Ciudad Bolívar and let me offer you some advice.
1. Tour agencies were charging USD100 for a return flight to Roraima. At the airport I found out that you could buy the same ticket yourself for USD60 and there were plenty of flghts.
2. Tour agencies are just a part of a jigsaw puzzle of tourism industry in the city. There are a number of companies/individuals (ie. tour agencies, flight companies, accommodation providers, tour guides, boat hire, tour camps, etc.) entering ad hoc deals to put together a tour package. Each tries to maximise their own commission/profit from the deal.
Beware. If something goes wrong, they will try to pass the buck to someone else and it will be difficult to find one company who will take responsibility for your tour.
Bargain hard. I have seen plenty of examples of agencies lying to tourists (like in the plane ticket example above). Always check and double check what they tell you by asking around and comparing different agencies.
In general, most ground tour packages will include a pick up from your accommodation in Ciudad Bolívar to the airport, return flight to Roraima, accommodation and meals in Roraima and jungle camp (for overnight tours), guided boat and land tour to Salto Angel and around La Laguna in Roraima.
Without a Tour Package
Buying your own plane ticket at the airport should be easy even if you just turned up in the morning. Finding accommodation in Roraima on your own would not be difficult. And from what I have seen and heard if you were resourceful enough it would not be too difficult to join one of daily tours to Salto Angel on your arrival at Roraima airport. You could miss out on the afternoon tour around La Laguna in Roraima if you do not find yourself a tour group to join by around lunch time. The tour is interesting enough. It would be possible to look for another tour group to join for La Laguna tour after you come back from Salto Angel tour. It depends mostly on your bargaining skills.
If you require more information or have questions you are welcome to leave a message and I will try to respond with more specifics.
DAY 1: FLIGHT TO RORAIMA
They came to pick me up at my accommodation, I was given an empanada for breakfast, and was off to Roraima in a 6 seater with some of my tour group.
My expectation of the tour went up a couple of notches with a surreal view of Auyantepuy (a table-top mountain) sticking above the thick cloud blanket just below us. At first you think it’s an optical illusion but as the lone figure solidifies in your vision as you get closer to it, you realise this is where you’re headed towards and this is where the gentle giant sleeps.
On arrival at the small but busy Roraima airport where many other tour groups were arriving, I paid 8000 Bolivares for the entry fee to Canaima Laguna National Park and was given a lift to my simple but clean accommodation. All inclusive tour package making my life easier but at a price.
At the accommodation tour guides shuffled me into a totally different group. This is just one example of how the tourism industry operates there. For those independent travel minded, there are many possiblities.
It’s a short walk to La Laguna where a postcard view of the laguna, waterfalls and a tepuy in the background completes a spectacular setting. Soft white sand beach is a nice surprise. It does feel like you’re in some kind of a dreamland.
You are reminded of the isolation from civilisation, which was in fact only an easy short flight away, when you see some Pemon Indian women doing their washing by the water’s edge as you would normally find women do in villages by the water.
Despite the short plane ride, I was indeed in a far-away, forgotten-even-by-time kind of place. And if not for the plane-loads of tourists arriving everyday the place would have remained so. I do worry about the impact tourism is having on the indigenous culture and their lifestyle.
The best time to soak up the sense of the place is before lunch while tourists are still arriving at their accommodation and haven’t ventured out yet, and you can find yourself alone on the quiet beach with the local women going about their daily business of washing clothes completely oblivious to the spectacular surrounding they are part of.
I’d always imagined Salto Angel to be in some remote, inaccessible end of the world where you had to trek for many days through a thick jungle to get to, and that had added to the mystique and legend surrounding it. Now having reached this far already fairly easily – all before midday – it took away some sense of adventure and accomplishment of reaching the final destination.
Apparently someone had travelled to Salto Angel all the way by land from Ciudad Bolívar. It would not have been an easy trip considering all the patches of water and rivers I saw from the air on the way here. But the adventure, challenge, and the reward at the end easily would have amounted to a trip of a lifetime.
After a simple lunch, tourist groups set off on a guided tour around La Laguna. It is a very interesting introduction to the landscape of the area. You get to ride in a long wooden boat the locals use, learn about local flora and fauna, go for a swim, and walk behind waterfalls like the one you see in the picture below.
DAY 2: RIVER RIDE TO SALTO ANGEL
It’s the beginning of the dry season and we are having to get on and off the long wooden boat a couple of times and walk along the river while the guides manoeuvre the lightened boat through deeper pockets of water to get it upstream.
Eventually we reach a section where the river runs deep and wide. Despite the big volume it is carrying it is as gentle as can be and doesn’t seemed to be bothered by us being there. The surface is surprisingly very calm. It is like staring at a blackened antique mirror with oily streaks that blur parts of an otherwise perfect reflection in it.
We then take a smaller tributary of the river. Colour of a clear but very dark brown tea. We had lunch on a small beach.
The excitement builds up as we get closer upstream. Spectacular rocky vertical cliffs in front of you have you riveted and in awe. We enter a big opening in the tepuy. Everyone tries to be the first one to spot ‘The One’ among many, already easily the tallest waterfalls we have ever seen in our lives. “Todavia no” our guide tells us.
We navigate further upstream through some small rapids and shallow passages due to small water flow. In dry season, everyone has to get off the boat and push through this section. We spot some exotic birds like a pair of colourful, long tailed guacamaya, that add to our elated sensation of being in another world.
Then there it was, on the next cliff, we get a glimpse of ‘The One’. I have to admit it didn’t quite stand out from the crowd of other tall waterfalls of Auyantepuy (meaning ‘Devil’s Mountain’ in Pemon language. Also spelt Auyantepui).
At around 3:30 p.m., we got off our boat and started following the trail up the hill through the jungle. Not one animal to seen during the one hour walk.
Then we arrived at a lookout point where we stood in full view of Salto Angel. I felt a slight anti-climax, mostly because it acted rather differently from what I had expected ‘big’ waterfalls should. I had not realised that it being so ‘tall’, it was to be a different breed of waterfall that set it apart from the usual ‘big’ waterfalls. It was difficult to feel the exhilaration without the crashing roar of the water. In fact, there was no sound of water whatsoever, especially from this distance and reduced water flow.
There was a lack of enthusiasm in the group to go down the hill a bit to get closer to the bottom of the waterfall. So I set off alone, agreeing with the guide that I would catch up with the group where we left the boat.
Now I started feeling exhilaration as I hurried down the hill towards Salto Angel, of being alone with the gentle giant in the remote end of the world where I had always imagined I would find him.
I strained my neck to take in the entirety of the waterfall, a view that takes several visions to fill. Usually it’s difficult to truly appreciate height looking up from the bottom and I imagined what it would be like to stand on top and look vertically down the semi-circular shaft the 1 km of free falling water has carved out over time. I would have loved to have climbed to the top that day.
As the water was falling, it separated into tiny spray and floated away, some of it suspending in mid-air not understanding it was meant to fall. The wind would catch its tail now and then and sway it sideways. The rest gently landed and moistened the rocky bottom not with the usual force and determination of a waterfall but solely for the intention of completing its journey that began nearly 1000m above. Its name suited it perfectly. It was indeed an angel with sparkling white wings floating down from the clouds of heaven above.
As I hurried down the hill to catch up with the others I was quietly brimming with contentment inside having had a moment with the gentle giant alone, seeing him standing there proud and standing the test of time. Something the others didn’t get to savour.
If you take an air tour, they will fly you into the interior of Auyantepuy and fly below the level of summit. The setting’s quite dramatic and you feel like you’re in a scene from a ‘jungle plane crash and survival’ movie.
Related post: Iguazu Falls, Argentina / Brazil