Water and earth explode to life on the RĂo Coroni, which carves its way through Parque Nacional Canaima towards the jungle settlement of Canaima, Venezuela. As I splashed into a fresh water pool formed from a cave waterfall upstream, water crashed down from a high plateau above, pummeling my ears.
Red and gold shimmers of light bounced off the water and danced across my skin. Feeling astonishingly awake and wonderfully alive, I clambered back onto dry land, using tree roots to scale the wet rocks. With a firm grasp of the person in front of meâa great way to make friends quickly if traveling aloneâI dogged my way up the trail, lagging behind my guide who seemed as sure-footed without shoes as I was clumsy in them.
In 1983, charmed by the immense beauty of this park, the unflappable young Peruvian, TomĂĄs Bernal, turned his back on civilization and ventured into the Venezuelan jungle to carve out his own existence. With the same spirit and force of the RĂo Coroni, Bernal spent the next 10 years exploring his new home, living off of the land, and sleeping in a simple hammock beneath an open air cave overlooking the runoff of two waterfalls. The pathway that TomĂĄs constructed behind Sapito Falls has become well-trafficked by tour groups out of Canaima. It is now the main one-day trek from Canaima Waku Lodge. Even the briefest of excursions to this remarkable area inspire a Bernal-like urge to cut ties with civilization and set up shop in the jungle.
Canaima National Park is about as far away from the hustle and bustle of Caracas as you can imagine. Roads donât even go to the Gran Sabana, the remote plain of imperious plateaus called Tepuys. At almost two billion years old, these scattered rock formations resembling giant table mountains add wonder to the ancient landscape. No wonder they are revered as sacred by the local PemĂłn Indians. Traditionally the Tepuys were âguardians of the savannahâ where soul-stealing spirits lived at the top; as such they had never climbed them until recently encouraged by tourism to do so. Itâs almost the last remaining zone where dinosaurs might have once laid eggs or gone foraging for food.
The only way to get to Canaima is by a tiny 12-seater plane that flies over the dull reddish-brown Orinoco, one of the longest rivers in South America at 2,410 km (1,498 miles). The plane veered 45 degrees to the left and right, causing my stomach to jump as I gasped at the magnificent waterfall below, falling over a mile downwards deep into the jungle. This is El Salto Ăngel, the Angel Fallsâthatâs Parecupa-vena to the local tribesâand it is 17 times the height of Niagara Falls.
The plane lands in Canaima on a tiny field. The Waku Lodge is made up of basic wooden chalets, but the setting is glorious with small huts on the lagoonâs beach side although the humming of its generator tends to kill the sound of the macaws and other exotic birds. Steam clouds caused by the falls are emitted from the luscious mineral-rich earth, as shocking colors fall onto a pinkish sand. Even the soil seems to be alive and breathing, so it is not surprising that the entire region has been designated a national park. I donât think there can be many places in the world that boast as magical a landscape as Canaima.