Today started at 3am, when my phone jangled with the hotel’s wake-up call. I hadn’t slept really well at all, tossing and turning all night. Part of the problem was that the air conditioner was really loud. The other part of the problem was that I was really wanted to be in my van. We’re all missing our homes away from home.
At 4am we all met in the lobby, and grabbed a cab to Simon Bolivar airport for our flight to Canaima. We carefully made sure we determined the price before we got into the taxi, 16,000 Bolivares. (Never, never, never get into a taxi without determining the price.) A cold 30-minute drive later we arrived at the airport. Aside from one small sad-looking family, we were the only people there.
Finally, a maintenance person showed up. “When does the Servivensa ticket counter open?” “7pm.” But our flight was at 6am! Something was wrong, but we weren’t sure what. Jeanne went out for a smoke, and I noted that there were no flights to Canaima on the departing flights board. Finally, at around 5am, a Servivensa ticket agent wandered by and we asked her about our flight to Canaima. She looked alarmed and told us that the Canaima flights left from Aeropuerto Caracas Charallave, not Aeropuerto Simon Bolivar.
Oh-oh. How far away is the Aeropuerto Caracas Charallave? 45 minutes. Damn. We started looking for a taxi. The first one that came by was a huge blue rumbling thing. The ticket agent, who was helping us, told us to wait for a white one, but then negotiated a price of 25,000 Bs. for the trip, and we all climbed on board.
By this time I was feeling pretty grumpy. It was 5am, I hadn’t slept well, and we’d screwed up AGAIN. Couldn’t we do anything right?
So I’m sitting in the passenger seat fuming, and then I start to notice that I’m sitting in a Ford Fairlane 1300 next to The Worst Driver In The World. He’s driving evenly between the two lanes of the highway, pausing only to suddenly swerve in one direction or another. He leaves his turn signals on for no reason. He’ll be driving along (not fast, ever) and suddenly hit the brakes for no reason. He appears to be half-asleep. No one in the car is saying anything.
Now I’m a back seat, anal-retentive driver in the best of moods. I just didn’t want to deal with this guy. I fumed even more. After about 45 minutes of driving we pulled off the highway into a poor neighborhood and started making random turns in small alleys. Jeanne exploded. [In Spanish] “How much further to the airport?” “One hour.” “WHAT? It’s supposed to be 45 minutes! If you can’t drive this cab, find us someone who can!”
So this guy pulls into a bus terminal, where there are lots of taxis. He calls one over, and we move into it. He asks us for 15,000 Bs. Jeanne gives him 10,000 and tells him he deserves much less. Then we ask the next taxi driver how much it will cost to the airport. He tells us 30,000! That makes it 40,000 for a trip we originally were told (by the ticket agent) would cost 25,000. We need to get to the airport. We agree, and we’re off.
I fume some more, and finally explode at the taxi driver about a half hour later. [In spanish.] “The other driver told us he would drive us to the airport for 25,000 Bolivares, then he took us to the bus terminal instead. He charged us 10,000 and now you want to charge us 30,000. I think that’s wrong. I think he is a thief, and I don’t know about you.” The driver looked genuinely sorry and agreed that the other driver was a thief, but told me he worked for a different taxi company. I wasn’t arguing the fare, I just wanted the taxi driver to acknowledge that we’d been wronged. He did, and I felt better. “It’s bad for you, and bad for Venezuela, when you allow drivers like this to exist. You should report bad drivers to the police!” I knew that this was hopelessly optimistic, but I had to get it off my chest.
The rest of the ride continued in silence. The Aeropuerto Caracas Charallave turned out to be way out in the sticks on the other side of town. It was 6am when we pulled up to the gate, where a soldier blocked our way. “Passports, por favor.” Argh! While we waited, he carefully wrote down each of our passport numbers in a log book. It took forever, but finally we were allowed to enter the airport.
Then we found out that our driver had never been to Aeropuerto Caracas Charallave before. When he turned left at a sign reading “Terminals” with an arrow pointing right, I tried to tell him to turn around, but he insisted he was heading in the right direction. We eventually turned around and found the terminal, where a smiling Servivensa attendant was waiting for us.
He led us upstairs to the Servivensa ticket counter. This consisted of a harried-looking elderly lady sitting behind a card table. She hand-wrote each ticket, and it was 6:30 before she finally got to ours. When we tried to pay with credit cards, she sighed deeply and looked as if we were crucifying her.
We could see our plane out on the tarmac, and I pointed at the nose cone. Today we were flying a DC-3 tail-dragger left over from World War II. As the fog rolled in, Tyler mentioned that it looked like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie. It did.
At around 7am, the ticket agent went out to the door of the terminal and shouted “Armando! Turn on your damn radio!” Her voice echoed off of hangers and hung in the fog. Captain Armando turned on his radio, and she confirmed that the plane was ready to receive passengers. Our stewardess led us out to the plane, we climbed in from a door in the rear, and took seats. The door was closed, and the stewardess did her safety dance as the plane bounced down the runway.
Aeropuerto Caracas Charallave is built on a flat-topped mountain barely large enough to hold it. There is one runway. As we accelerated towards takeoff, we could see the wing hitting trees, and a nearly vertical drop beyond. The runway also ends at a vertical drop. If the plane isn’t airborne before the end of the runway, it is afterwards. We became airborne.
The plane ride was turbulent. The plane would slide sideways, then suddenly drop vertically for a few seconds, before tipping repeatedly from side to side. There would be a few moments of calm and your stomach would begin to settle, and then the entire process would start again. At one point I looked around the seat in front of me to see if Shay was needing his air sickness bag, and the change in the angle of my head made me realize that I might need mine.
After a few hours of this, we finally landed (smoothly) in Canaima. The runway is dirt, and we pulled up to a thatched-roof terminal. The terminal contained a ticket counter, a bar, and a trinket stand. It was filled with soldiers who seemed to have no other job other than to make this airport look even more like a banana republic.
Our guide from Campamento Bernal met us at the terminal, we got our bags, and off we went. We went down to the beach on the lagoon, where a dugout canoe was approaching. He loaded us up into the canoe, and we motored across Laguna Canaima, by the falls, to Isla Anatoli. Campamento Bernal is the only tourist camp not located in Canaima proper. Campamento Bernal is located on an island in the lagoon. The camp is nothing more than a thatched hut with eating tables and a half-dozen hammocks strung at one end. There are no rooms walls, or closets. You throw your bags on the ground, grab a hammock, and you’re home.
There are flush toilets, however, and a couple of showers. Showers, that is, in the most primitive sense. There is a spigot which leads to a pipe at about head level. No shower head, no hot water. At night the camp fires up a generator which provides electricity. (There is a hydroelectric station in Canaima, but the wires don’t run to the island.) The operative word here is ‘rustic.’
But this is also a tropical paradise. There is an amazon parrot playing in the beams of the camp hut. The waterfalls are a constant background noise, and the beach really does have pink sand. The foliage is lush and green, and this place looks so cliche that parts of the film ‘Jurassic Park’ were filmed here.
After arriving, we all immediately took a hammock and crashed for an hour until our native guide Vladmir came and woke us for a walk to the Salto Sapo. Thomas Bernal, who founded this camp and recently died at age 85 of a drunken rapids-running incident, built a trail running under the edge of this huge waterfall. On the opposite side, he built his open-air home, a collection of carved wooden furniture located under a large overhang.
You enter the trail under Salto Sapo on a broad walkway with a picturesque wall of water falling about 10′ away. As you continue crossing along the trail, however, the water gets closer and closer to the trail, and there is more and more of it. Soon, it’s impossible to hear anything but falling water. Soon after that, the trail under the waterfall becomes a trail through the waterfall.
The water beats down on you, and it’s almost impossible to see anything. You hold onto a rope at the edge of the trail, and use it to guide you forward. You come out briefly into a relatively dry pocket before passing into the water again, and then out into the sun. You can stand on a rock and look back across the torrent to where you started, about 300′ away.
It was an amazing experience. During the summer, the entire torrent dries up to a trickle. I think we are here at the perfect time… the weather is fairly nice, but the water is still flowing strongly.
That night, back at camp, I showed the staff (all native indians from the area) the digital pictures I had taken. They loved them. One little boy, Steven, was especially fascinated with the computer. I copied his head and put it onto his mother’s body, and he pretty much died laughing.
After a short conference, Steven’s mom said that he wanted to take me to a special waterfall. How could I say no? So the two of us went off, with him stopping occasionally to explain something to me in Spanish, most of which I understood. One of the things he showed me was a tiny tree frog, called a ‘sapito minero’. There are a lot of frogs here.
We took a tiny trail off of the main trail which led into the woods. When we crossed a small stream, he explained that it was important to wash our hands, so we did. Then we came to a really nice little waterfall about 10′ high and 1′ wide. It was nothing next to the big ones in Laguna Canaima. But it was really special, and I felt like it was a gift from my new friend.
When we got back to camp, I sat Steven in front of my computer and showed him Diablo II. I think computer games must be universal. Steven started using the mouse, killing ‘los hombres mal’ and applauding every time a zombie fell. Jeanne was enjoying just watching his face from across the table.
Just before dinner tonight, at sunset, we took a boat ride to the same falls we walked under earlier. We went with Irma Bernal, Argenis Perez, and Steven.
To avoid rapids, we followed a canal through the jungle barely wider than the boat. Irma sat in front, turning the boat when necessary, and Argenis steered from the rear. Then we were out into the lagoon again, and we picked up speed. After sitting at the base of the falls for a few minutes, we headed back to camp. The sun had barely set, and clouds on the horizon flashed with lightning, making for a very dramatic sky. On the banks flashed the brightest fireflies I’ve ever seen. They looked like flashbulbs.
On our way back through the jungle passage, it was too dark to see. Steven guided us with a flashlight, and I asked about snakes in the trees overhead. Jeanne remarked that this ride was better than Disney’s version.
Back at camp we ate a nice meal of chicken, carrots, and mashed potatoes. It’s quarter to ten, and I’m the only person still awake. A bat just flew through the hut. Tomorrow we head upriver to Salto Angel, and I won’t be taking my computer. I’ll try to fill you in when I return in a few days.