Part 1: Driving, Hiking, Flying, And Paddling In The Venezuelan Jungle
Our plane bucked and yawed as rising thermals worked their ragged edges against the wing in an attempt to thwart our approach. Bush pilot Jos lowered the wing flaps, and our airborne aluminum coffin reared back in retort, the airspeed indicator dipping toward the no-fly zone. The Venezuelan jungle, which stretched as far as the eye could see, instantly consumed an increasing slice of the view from my rear window. We were six adult men with heaps of gear in an overburdened Cessna 206. The afternoon was hazy, humid, and hot, and we had capped the 1,380-pound cargo limit well before the last bag was tossed in. These were not exactly ideal flying conditions. My mind raced back to my days as a newbie pilot, and terms like "density altitude." Perspiration engorged every pore in an emotional concoction of excitement and fear. My focus returned to Jos, who quickly forced down on the stick and rolled on the throttle. The Cessna leveled out, clearing the verdal canopy below and gliding towards a muddy, postage-stamp-sized airstrip. There was nothing delicate about the landing: the tires and gear skipped and rattled down the rutted dirt strip like a rickety wooden cart on a boardwalk roller coaster. As the wheels came to a stop, we piled out and collected our gear under the wing.
Looking up, we could see a cluster of neatly painted white abodes on the edge of the clearing. We had landed at Las Bonitas, a small Pemon Indian village on the northwestern reaches of the Gran Sabana. This was Venezuela, and we were mid-stream on a morphing quest to reach Salto Angel (Angel Falls), the tallest waterfall on the planet. Things had not gone as planned in the previous days. We had lost time departing the capital city of Caracas, were delayed by high water and flooding, and had mechanical issues. But the falls were now within reach. We could smell it, and the torrid subtropical humidity pushed us on.
Caracas, The Gran Sabana & E-Ticket Road TripsIsolated geographically by near-impenetrable jungle and a web of rivers and tributaries, Angel Falls lacks direct access. There are two traditional ways to see the falls: by air or boat. Both depart from the inland island village of Canaima, which we were also told was only accessible by air or boat. But that was before we met brothers Felipe and Enso Campisi, our new amigos and central ARB distributors for Venezuela. Rather than booking a pre-arranged tourist package, we were taking the old route through the Gran Sabana: A trek that would take us over the muddy 4x4 two-tracks of Indian miners, up ancient rivers in Indian curiaras (dugout canoes) and on foot through torrid and dense jungle.
With Italian family roots, Venezuelan natives Felipe and Enso had grown up amidst governmental turmoil, revolutions, coups, and an omnipresent military. Frequenters of the falls and passionate in their beliefs to preserve the region, Salto Angel had always been their Mecca. Our destination was Canaima, a small Pemon Indian settlement and the jumping off point for the falls.
Five days earlier, we were navigating our way through a confusing maze of streets in the capital of Caracas. In the midst of a verbal slugfest between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and George W., we had flown into the heart of the clamor, and the political welcome mat for Americans was far from the door. Near downtown, zona centro, where machine-gun-wielding military personnel patrolled every corner, we passed a hand-painted billboard the size of a city block: a skull-faced Uncle Sam holding a bloody dagger emblazoned with the letters C.I.A. and "No Imperialismo." Not exactly a welcoming sign.
Clearing the barrio of ramshackle homes, adobe, plywood, and cardboard abodes stacked precariously on every hillside, roadside vendors dotted the single-lane highway selling everything from bananas and coconuts to live monkeys. Kicking caution to the curb, Venezuelans drive with an air of frantic insanity. Passing on blind corners and letting oncoming traffic squeeze by, three abreast, we learned the painted lines on the road are more of a suggestion than a directive.
The midday sun poured through the open window of the Jeep like a blast furnace. Bouncing off pavement's end in the pueblo of La Paragua, we hunted down a man to arrange to ferry our vehicles across the river. Typical of half-developed third-world settlements, an eclectic blend of modern amenities mixed it up with timeworn tradition: Weathered old men sipping cool Polar cerveza under a shade tree, chickens pecking the dirt yards of brightly painted homes, an iPod-clad kid shuffling by, a pale blue stucco shop with boom boxes for sale in the window. Overhead, a spaghetti-plate of exposed wire dangling in all directions from a power pole supplied electricity to those who could afford it.