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The Two Captains


5 August 2000 Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela (10.12N; 64.39W)

Our big adventure to Angel Falls has come and gone. It's hard to imagine that it all took place in just 2 1/2 days. Getting there was something of a travel triathalon. Our guide Rangel collected us from Bahia Redonda Marina in the dark at 0500 in a Ford Fairlaine taxi of late 60s vintage. The three-hour ride from Puerto La Cruz to Ciudad Bolívar was on a fairly straight, fairly level, fairly good, mostly two-lane highway on which our taxi zoomed at least 70mph, passing constantly. Venezuelan drivers use that same make-a-third-lane-out-of-the-middle system as the Trinis. I asked Don, "How fast are we going, or is this like the Trinidad taxis with the speedometer disconnected?" He peered forward and replied, "There's no speedometer!" Or any other gauges, …just empty black holes!!

In Ciudad Bolívar we changed to an airplane - a 6-place Cessna 210 with retractable gear. Now this part was fun! While Don explained all the functions of the instruments, etc. (he was most entertained by the Garmin C-map GPS the pilot was using), I was entranced by the landscape below as we flew south. Civilization peters out pretty quickly. Low rolling hills rise from the savannah and except for scattered mining operations (diamonds, steel, bauxite) and their associated towns, there is little sign of man. Next unfolded the country's second largest lake, man-made about 100 miles long 54 miles wide with hundreds of hilltop (and treetop!) islands poking up! The first sign of the tepuys was a ridgeline rising in a fat wedge out of the hills, with a sheer drop on the other side. From this rise the tepuys themselves, table-top mountains, bluff and square, the way I imagine Arizona is, only this land is mostly green. Then there are tepuys upon tepuys, their craggy and jagged rims making startling canyons.

Rangel, our guide, was himself a former bush pilot, and he and our pilot were old buddies. We assume because of this old friendship...and perhaps a little showing off for the American pilot in the backseat...we made three loop-de-loop fly-bys in the dramatic Ayantepui canyon, actually below the tops of the cliffs, trying to get a good look at the falls from the air. (Angels Falls is named for the American bush pilot Jimmy Angel who crash-landed his plane on the top of Ayantepui in his effort to document it. His plane was "recovered" and sits in front of the Ciudad Bolívar Airport.) Although the day was mostly fair, a stubborn cloud persisted in shrouding the upper two-thirds of the falls itself. Many people make only the air trip to Angel Falls (there were other planes lining up to make the pass even as we looped around!); our experience just proved that you could pay your $$ but still be disappointed. Fortunately, we were destined for better things.

Landing at Canaima Falls, a base-camp Indian village dedicated to this particular tourist industry, we transferred to dugout canoe for the trip upriver. We had a captain, his wife/mate and a bowman (all three Pémon Indians) for the three of us plus Rangel. Normally this 36'-long (4' beam) craft, powered by a 50hp Yamaha, might carry 8-10 passengers! Not only was our group small, but tourist traffic on the river was way down, due, we were told, to the uncertainties surrounding the Presidential elections the day before. This gave us the vivid illusion of being solitary adventurers.

The four-hour trip upriver (hard plank seats, no seat backs!) wound through incredible scenery, turn after turn. The river was high, its water flooding well into the trees lining the banks. The tepuys rise as high as 2500 meters in straight cliff sides, each like some sort of layered trifle: a layer for trees, a layer of red rock, a layer of yellow rock, and a top layer of fractured rim through which leak dozens and dozens of waterfalls.

The farther upriver we went, the more frequent became sections of rapids. It also got sharply cooler, and just before out arrival at the camp near dusk we got caught by a swirl of rain and mist just as we had to negotiate giant boulders in the roiling water! Pretty exciting stuff. By the way, the water is the color of Cherry Coke syrup, right from the falls on down! The rivers we were on empty eventually into the Orinoco, which empties eventually into Paria Sound. No wonder Trinidad's water is the color it is!

Rangel hustled us up at 0530, and we were fed, clothed and on the trail before 0630! The hike itself was moderately easy, the biggest challenge being the network of tree roots threading the path. This is primary growth rainforest! Never been cut! We admit, the big Trinidad hiking duo was not quite in the shape we'd been before a month of floating sloth so that keeping up with Rangel who moved like a gazelle with a fire on his butt was a bit of a struggle. His goal, of course, was to get us up there before the clouds rolled in, ...and it was worth it!

Angel Falls makes a nearly 1000 meter drop! About six streams burst from the crevices at the top of Auyantepui, one or two dropping into midway pools, the others free falling the whole way. The mist, the wind, the roar are awesome. We actually clambered down to the pool at the base, where ,to our amazement, Rangel went swimming! (Air and water were both pretty chilly!) "It is a superstition," he says. (Rangel leans toward the poetic.) At his urging we each edged out through the bracing roil (behind some rocks just at the top of the next furious drop..."don't worry, it's perfectly safe…, but only if you want to.") in order to experience the pure full-length view of the falls. Let me tell you, you don't get the same effect from the airplane! (Nor do you get digital photos!) Back at the base of the trail we encountered another group of about sixteen German tourists, just starting up. They and their guides were astounded that we had already come and gone. We gave profound thanks after we'd passed them for Rangel's determined timing. It just wouldn't have been the same with a crowd.

At the camp our Indian crew had roasted a whole flock of chickens over an open fire, which meant we sorely overate before our downstream canoe trip, which, thankfully, took about half the time as the upstream trip had taken. We got a shower and change of clothes at the base camp, hustled back onto our plane, and in no time found ourselves back in the hot steamy urbanity of Ciudad Bolívar.

We probably could have come directly home as well as not, but Rangel takes doling out tourism seriously and he felt we should see something of this historic city on the Orinoco. Looking back on such things, I am usually glad of the historical tidbits I absorb from these tours, but at the time we were skeptical. Our hotel, overlooking the Orinoco plus a Times-Squarish whirl of noisy hustle-bustle, was a doubtful facility, which we only came to appreciate after seeing some of the options. We did manage to get the AC working and to find some ice, and we all collapsed for a delicious nap on an acceptably comfortable (flat!) bed. Rangel practically had to force us out for dinner. Surprisingly we learned that Venezuelans normally eat quite early, and restaurants were closing around 8pm.

Although we slept well, I awoke feeling...off. But Rangel hustled us forth (this time we were late) for a traditional Venezuelan breakfast of cantaloupe, fried catfish, fried plantains with cheese, salad (!) and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Coffee comes in medicine-sized plastic Dixie cups, and they had to make a special pot so that Don could have it without sugar! As for me, Venezuelan cafe con léche (frothy steamed milk) suits me just fine! From breakfast we strolled the local fisherman's market, then bussed to the "old city", which was built on a big rock outcrop. Most of the old buildings lining the street surrounding the square are now restored and open for public viewing. An official function honoring an anniversary of the Guarda National was getting underway, and military types were everywhere including the very beautiful cathedral. The Spanish churches we've seen so far are light and airy inside and colorful outside. In the cathedral was a glorious nave of what looked like gold-leafed woven palms and the choir was in full voice. On the outside, however, was a plaque commemorating the execution site of another of Bolívar's "beloved" generals, General Píar, who, when ordered to retreat to the other side of the Orinoco to escape slaughter by the Spanish, instead stayed and wrested a spectacular victory. He was tried and executed for disobeying orders.

At this point my malaise asserted itself, and we hustled back to the hotel. Missing the air-conditioned bus back to Puerto La Cruz, we piled again into an antiquated land yacht (this time a Chevrolet Caprice Classic (maybe early 70s)) with no window handles, changing into a different one halfway home. Evidently Chevrolet sold a lot of cars here, and here, where gas is about 20 cents a gallon, is the only place they could live on this way. These "fast taxis" line up at the bus stations and do the same routes. Each three-hour trip cost Rangel a mere $50. Our final Chevrolet classic had electric windows (that worked!) and a speedometer. At one glimpse it showed 140 kilometers/hour!

We stopped looking. Upon arrival home I went down for the count for two days. Don and Adam sipped cold Polars around the pool and dined out at the newly reopened marina restaurant. Adam flew out Friday morning. I came back to life late that afternoon, and now, guess who's out flat in the aft cabin? Guess it was a flu bug and not the tourista.

Puerto La Cruz, oft mentioned in the same voice as Trinidad as a hurricane haul-out facility, doesn't come close in our book. It would be inexpensive and adequate for haul out, painting or marina storage, but basic parts are hard to scare up, the language is a struggle, and the anxiety about personal safely not endearing. I'm sure we haven't given it a fair shake, but we hope to be out of here ASAP -- Monday or Tuesday, depending in part on Don's recovery time.

BTW--Anyone interested in doing Angel Falls or any of a number of such trips in Venezuela with our guide Rangel Zabala can contact him by email at ecoaventura33@hotmail.com, telephone (014) 395.44.51 or fax 095-642529. Rangel intends to make his business catering to cruisers and their friends.

BTW #2-Any cruisers considering coming this way should purchase Kathy Parson's Spanish for Cruisers: Boat Repairs and Maintenance Phrase Book. It is much more than that. It's a mini-Spanish course (or refresher). But most of those all-important those "boat-words" don't even appear in regular dictionaries. You can order Spanish for Cruisers from Amazon.com (see my review there!).



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