Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tepui fever 

Simon Romero, the New York Times reporter assigned to Venezuela and the other Andean countries, took a break from politics long enough to do some exploring of Venezuela's huge and spectacular table top mountains called "tepuis". He published his finding in today's travel section:

THE wooden canoe, a curiara in the language of my Pemón Indian guides, winds through the rapids of the Carrao River in southeast Venezuela. A drizzle lets up as the sun rises, revealing the misty escarpments of Auyan-tepui. Then, abruptly, the tepui — a Pemón word for the majestic sandstone mountains in this wide swath of jungle and savanna — comes into magnificent relief. It is easily one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever encountered.

But the best part is yet to come: Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall at 3,212 feet (almost 20 times the height of Niagara Falls), named in honor of Jimmie Angel, the Missouri-born bush pilot who crash-landed his turboprop nearby in an ill-fated search for gold in the 1930’s. Though the Pemón Indians were surely among the first to contemplate the waterfall, the name Angel Falls stuck after word of the arduous 11-day trek of Angel’s traveling party reached the outside world. By 1949, the American photojournalist Ruth Robertson had measured Angel Falls for an expedition described in National Geographic, cementing the mystique of Venezuela’s tepui country.

Venezuela has done little to develop this corner of Bolívar State, and the flight from Puerto Ordaz, over thick jungle and sinewy rivers, to Canaima, an asphalt strip and collection of thatched huts that passes for an airport, attests to the region’s remoteness.

“I might have one of the most rewarding jobs in the world,” said Laszlo Miszlai, 36, the Venezuelan pilot of the Cessna Grand Caravan that swooped in for a dramatic view of Angel Falls before we landed. “I not only get to fly over the falls almost every day, but I get to see the awed expressions of our passengers.”

Beyond the polarizing political theater that defines Venezuela these days are places of intense beauty, from deserted Caribbean beaches to snow-capped peaks. Angel Falls, in the heart of Canaima National Park, a protected reserve about the size of Belgium, may top them all.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Indeed Angle Falls is spectacular. It is also relatively easy and inexpensive to get to. And not to inject too much politics into what should be a non-political post it also gave me my first glimpse into how the Venezuelan business class operates.

A good while back I was making my first trip ever to Angel Falls. I didn't quite know how to go about it. I had several guide books, such as Lonely Planet, which said that one should just go to the airport at Ciudad Bolivar (about a half day bus ride from Caracas) and book a trip with one of the tour operaters there.

I was a little nervous about just showing up at there and thinking I could get on a tour. So I went to several travel agencies in Caracas and inquired about tours to Angel Falls. They invariably tried to get me to purchase tours they were selling that would included flights from Caracas and would cost at least $2,000 per person. That was outside my budget and much more than what the guide books indicated I could get in Ciudad Bolivar. So I asked the travel agents about the agencies in Ciudad Bolivar, even showing them the pages in the books referring to them, and they invariably told me that those agencies didn't exist, or they had never heard of them, or that they had gone out of business.

Still given the extremely high prices they were quoting me and the bad experience of a Venezuelan travel agency having sold me a way over prices tour package once before, I decided to risk it, take a bus to Ciudad Bolivar, and see what happened.

When I got there I took a taxi to the airport and there, right in the terminal, where all the agencies running tours to Angel Falls that the people in Caracas had sworn didn't exist. I bought tour from Bernal Tours (which was actually founded by a Peruvian and is still there) for about $150, had a great trip to Angel Falls, and caught a bad case of Tepui fever. When I told the person selling me the tour that everyone in Caracas had told me his agency didn't exist he just smiled and told me that is the way people in Caracas are - there is no lie too big if it helps them make a quick buck.

So if you haven't already been I highly recommend that you get to Ciudad Bolivar and take a trip to Angel Falls. I can guarentee you, it may be the first time you will see a Tepui, but it won't be your last - as it seems it won't be for Romero:

Slowly, I ascended the tepui, grasping parts of tree trunks and branches to gain balance on the slippery mud and stones. Ahead, Mr. Jaramillo blissfully jogged up the path as if he were strolling on the savanna. Little by little, the thick trees above us began letting in more sunlight, raising the temperature to greenhouse levels. We glimpsed Auyan-tepui’s stone escarpment and, finally, the water falling more than 3,000 feet from the top of the soaring mesa.

But we still had about an hour to go before we arrived at Angel Falls. When we finally got there, the pool of cool water at the base of the falls was a welcome sight. I dove in, doing a backstroke as I gazed up at a cascade of water that doesn’t so much crash as separate into smaller falls and showers of mist as it descends in seemingly slow-motion. There were no souvenir stands or snack bars here, just a few boulders to sit on. All around us was dense green jungle, accentuating the isolation and benign neglect that has thus far prevented this place from turning into an easily accessible tourist destination.

A retired oil executive who made the trek to the base of Angel Falls with his wife and his teenage daughter were the only other Americans I encountered. A sprinkling of other nationalities was there, some Italians, Spaniards and a Serb. Some Venezuelans were there, too, lugging a bottle of Scotch whiskey and a bucket of ice.

Eventually, we hiked down the tepui back to the lookout point, where our guides prepared a lunch of chicken roasted on a spit over an open fire, accompanied by casabe, a hard bread made from manioc.

Later, in the canoe back to Ucaima, I stole a last glance at Angel Falls. I had gotten a taste of Venezuela’s legendary lost world and now I wanted more.

Clearly he has a bad case of "Tepui fever". This is an ailment that afflicts people who have seen these stunningly massive flat top mountains only from below. The main symptom is an irrepresable desire to see what is on top. There is only one cure known to man.

I look foward to Mr. Romeros report six months from now of what it was like to hike up Venezuela's Roraima Tepui. Then in a year or two we can get a further report when he hikes up the Auyan Tepui - the one Angel Falls is located on. He seems to have been impressed by being at the base of Angel Falls looking up. Actually the much more impressive view is at the rim of the Tepui right where the water takes its 3,000 foot plunge.


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