The Falls of Auyantepui

After trekking the Lost World of Roraima, it was time to discover the magical waterfalls of Auyantepui, by Roddy Walsh.

Whilst Roraima is the tallest and most famous of the tepuis of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana, the majestic Auyantepui is the largest and the source of the world’s largest waterfall, Angel Falls. The Falls are one of the most iconic natural wonders on earth, yet the sheer remoteness of their location ensures they receive only a fraction of the visitors one would expect for a site of this stature. Auyantepui is even more inaccessible than Roraima and can only be reached by air, with a further long boat ride to get to Angel Falls. Its isolated location, the long journey required to get there and the magnificent tepui setting make a trip to Angel Falls all the more worthwhile however, and as we were to discover, there was also much more to the Falls of Auyantepui than its headline attraction.

Most visitors to Angels Falls fly into the settlement of Canaima to its northwest (usually from Caribbean beach resorts and ill prepared for the tepui conditions!) and take a one or two day return boat trip to the falls (or for the lazier an overhead flight). Taking an alternative route, we began our journey at the Indian village of Kamarata, to the southeast of Auyantepui. To reach there, we took a Cessna flight from Santa Elena across the vast expanses of the Gran Sabana, with striking views of scattered tepuis and their surroundings (below left). Approaching Auyantepui, we descended to land at “Kamarata Airport” – a dirt airstrip just outside the village (below right). No arrivals section or baggage reclaim, this was true frontier travel. Commencing our journey in Kamarata would allow us a more rewarding one-way trip to Canaima via the Falls, see more of the glorious Auyantepui and, in particular, experience the inimitable Kavac Gorge.

An hour’s drive from Kamarata lies the tourist settlement of Kavac, from where a short hike led us to the small Kavac River. From here we proceeded up the canyon towards Auyantepui itself, hiking, swimming, sliding and struggling along over the extremely slippery smooth rocks. As we ascended deeper into the gorge, it became ever higher and narrower until you could almost touch both sides simultaneously. At the end of the gorge is a small pool, into which plunges a small but very powerful waterfall that’s difficult to even approach. Kavac is a superb adventure and wonderful introduction to the magical Auyantepui.

The following day was the beginning of the river journey from Kamarata around the vast Auyantepui Massif to Angel Falls. After a short drive to the “port”, we boarded the motorised canoe, along with all our gear and four Pemon boatmen, and proceeded northwards on the Akanan River. In such cramped conditions and such a basic craft with hard wooden seats, the boat trip could never be described as comfortable. With constant water spray and the occasional deluge from the side of the canoe, there was also no chance of staying dry. Yet this was a small price to pay for such a spectacular voyage, let alone what was waiting for us at its destination. The cliffs and peaks of Auyantepui and neighbouring mountains would appear randomly through the riverbank trees, becoming more prominent as we joined the larger Carrao river which runs along the north of Auyantepui. On a couple of occasions we have to leave the canoe to allow the boatmen to haul it through some shallow rapids, a reminder of the precarious nature of this journey and why Angel Falls is completely inaccessible during the dry season.

After passing the twin tepui peaks of Weitepui, we arrived at Arenal campsite, where we would sleep in hammocks under a basic wooden shelter. Until now we’d had extraordinary luck with the wet season weather on the Gran Sabana, on both the Roraima trek and the boat ride. As soon as we made camp however, a torrential downpour began and lasted throughout the night. The effect of this was threefold – our trip upriver would be much quicker and more straightforward with the increased water level, swimming in the pool underneath Angel Falls was a non-option (due to almost certain drowning and death!), but to compensate the falls would be at their most powerful and spectacular. The next morning we sailed on, leaving our main luggage on the riverbank before turning into the Churun river and proceeding up the Devil’s Canyon towards Angel Falls. The tepui walls became ever more dramatic as we got closer to its heart until we finally reached the camp and caught a glimpse of the tallest waterfall on earth.

After settling into camp, we started on the final journey to Mirador Salto Angel – the viewpoint for Angel Falls, crossing the river again by boat and on foot before ascending through the forest for an hour’s hike. The noise of the Falls became ever louder as we closed in until it appeared before us – the world’s highest waterfall in all its glory. Angel Falls are often described as comprising a relative trickle of falling water, which transforms to a mist on before it reaches the bottom of the tepui. Not today – this was the Falls at their most magnificent and nature at its most powerful. A thunderous roar and all enveloping mist constantly emanated from it, making photo taking difficult but the experience unforgettable. Although the weather was overcast, we were lucky to have a full and clear view of over the entire tepui wall – a brief interlude which wouldn’t last long. The torrential flow of water through the “swimming pool” illustrated why this was a non-option, survival chances would have been slim. We spent thirty minutes absorbing the majesty of Angel Falls, fortunately in the absence of any other tourists, before heading back down to camp.

On the way down, the rains came back with force but at this point being soaked to the skin was an irrelevance. The group of Chinese tourists in their beachware just beginning the trek up were probably less fortunate however. The skies had cleared again the next day, allowing some final, beautiful vistas of the Falls from across the river and some stunning views of Auyantepui on the boat trip back to the Carrao River. The sheer cliff faces of the tepui, rising majestically beyond the tree tops on the riverbank, were like something from a fairy tale, some real world “cliffs of insanity”! We proceeded back towards Canaima, walking past one of the shallower sections of the river. But there was still time for one more adventure and a final reminder of the unique appeal of Venezuela’s Lost World.

Close to the Canaima lagoon lie a series of broad waterfalls on the Carrao River. Of these Sapo Falls is perhaps the most famous and unique in allowing people to walk behind its curtain of water and experience a Gran Sabana waterfall up close and personal. Sapo is a mere 20 metres in height, a fraction of Angel Falls, but is much wider and takes the full flow of the river over its edge. Now we were expecting to get wet while walking behind the waterfall (and did duly get soaked to the skin) – what we weren’t expecting was the absolute assault of the senses that transpired. The roar of the falls was almost deafening, the backspray and mist of the water blinding on the eyes (and the fairly superfluous sunglasses I was wearing), as we somehow managed to crawl and scramble from one side to the other. It was a testament to nature’s immense power and thrilling spectacle in the Lost World. And so much fun!

Angel Falls is one of the world’s most famous natural wonders, its status as the tallest waterfall on earth ensuring its appeal to many travellers. In truth, its scale and spectacle does pale when compared to South America’s other great cataract, the dazzling Iguazu Falls of Argentina and Brazil. However, the allure of Angel Falls and its mother mountain Auyantepui lie in other aspects – its remoteness from the developed world requiring a flight, boat trip and hike through the rainforest just to catch a glimpse, the relative lack of tourists willing to make this trip ensuring a more intimate encounter and its setting amongst the stunning, ancient Lost World of the Gran Sabana. Travelling around the magnificent table mountain of Auyantepui and experiencing the unique Kavac, Sapo and especially Angel Falls is one of the great journeys of adventure travel.

I travelled to Venezuela on Explore's 15 day The Lost World tour, which in addition to the trip around Ayuantepui to Angel Falls included a six day trek to the top of Mount Roraima to explore the Lost World.

The tourism infrastructure in Venezuela is not very well developed, which makes independent travel that includes exploration of Auyantepui quite difficult to organise. Group tours to the Lost World and Angel Falls offer very well organised trips that allow you to make the most of this spectacular region in a limited time. To browse the available tours from the world's leading adventure travel companies, see our Lost World listings.

For more information on travel to Venezuela including details of other travel highlights, guidebooks, currency, etc. see our country guide.

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