This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture
Deep in the jungle of Venezuela, an enormous column of water gushes mightily over a mountaintop. Its roar is deafening, as it plunges hundreds of feet before dissolving into a thick mist.
A Hidden Wonder
The waterfall is Angel Falls in Canaima National Park. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, it’s the tallest waterfall in the world.
From above, Canaima National Park’s sprawling 11,583 square miles looks like a green sea. The park is located in southeastern Venezuela along the border between Guyana and Brazil.
Besides several waterfalls, including world-famous Angel Falls, the park is full of lakes, rivers, forests, and more than one hundred tepuis, or high table top mountains. Canaima is also famous for its diversity of plants and animals, some of which are unique to the area.
The park has been under the protection of the Venezuelan government since 1962.
By Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection
Angel Falls pours off a flat-topped plateau—locally named Auyán-Tepuí—one of the largest of the many tepuis in Canaima. These massive exposed rocks are among the continent’s oldest, having been formed more than 130 million years ago.
Ranging from 3,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation, they are so tall that they are often shrouded in clouds, and their slopes are so steep, they seem like nearly vertical drops.
Who Discovered Angel Falls?
Looking at the rock formations, there is no denying that Angel Falls is older than humankind. People can’t agree, however, on who first “discovered” the landmark.
People can’t agree, however, on who first “discovered” the landmark.
Experts have found 10,000 year old evidence of an indigenous population in the surrounding forests and savannahs, including 9,000-year-old stone tools. Members of the Pemón tribe have inhabited the land for about 300 years.
Explorers hunting for gold came to the area in much more recent times. Angel Falls, however, did not rise to fame until an American stumbled upon it during the 1930s.
The Pemón Indians call Angel Falls by the name Kerepakupai Merú, which means "leap from the deepest place." Today the Pemón Indians often act as tour guides to the waterfall. In the past, however, they would not climb the mountain.
The tepuis are sacred to them, home to spirits and guardians of the land. Auyán-Tepuí, in particular, is known as “Devil’s Mountain” and is regarded with fear: an evil spirit is believed to be angrily thrusting the water over the edge of the high cliff.
In 2009, the President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez declared that the falls should only be referred to as Kerepakupai Merú in respect to the Pemón people.
Historically, Ernesto Sanchez La Cruz was the first non-indigenous person to make an official report about the existence of the great falls. In 1910, Sanchez La Cruz was on a mission for the Venezuelan government to determine the boundaries of Canaima.
The Pemón Indians were assisting the mission. One day, they took Sanchez La Cruz on a side outing to look for diamonds and to see the waterfall. When the government expedition ended, Sanchez La Cruz gave a report and sketch of the waterfall to a local citizen for safekeeping.
Aside from telling friends and family, he did not share this discovery with anyone else. Therefore, it was not until the government again requested information about the area in 1955 that Sanchez La Cruz’s sketches reemerged.
So why then do most people refer to the falls as Angel Falls? In 1933, an adventurous U.S. pilot went searching for a legendary city of gold. During this exploration, James Crawford Angel (Jimmy Angel) flew by the waterfall for the first time.
Four years later, Angel made another flight to the falls. Angel managed to land his plane on top of the tepui—a daring feat that gave him the distinction of being the first known person to set foot on the Auyán-Tepuí. But the plane got stuck in the mud on the mountaintop.
So Angel and his three companions, one of whom was his wife, had to walk down the mountain and through the jungle to safety, a difficult journey that took them 11 days. News of Angel’s adventure spread far and wide, and the waterfall soon became known as “Angel Falls.”
(Angel’s aircraft remained on top of Auyán-Tepuí for 33 years.Finally, it was removed by helicopter and brought it to the Aviation Museum in Maracay. You can find a replica of Angel’s plane on top of Auyán-Tepuí.)
A Veil of Fog
According to local lore, it was the devil himself who made the water rage and fall from the mountaintop. Scientists have a different explanation: isolated and heavy tropical rains over the tepui. The top of Auyán-Tepuí is frequently rainy, always humid, and often shrouded in fog.
Standing at the foot of Angel Falls, you can feel small water drops as they land on your skin. They are from the summit, which gets from 80 to 160 inches of rain a year. Most of that rain falls during the rainy season between June and September.
With the humidity hovering around 80 per cent, the summit is almost always covered in cloud. There is a weak dry season between December and April. During this time, most of the water falling off the summit evaporates before reaching the ground.
You’ve been hiking through dense jungle for quite some time. You’re wet from a quick rainfall, which has made the soil pungent. It’s been amazing spotting brightly feathered birds and quick-footed lizards. And then you hear it: the deafening roar of the falls.
You look up and up and up. There is Angel Falls, plunging about 3,000 feet from the tepui’s summit—a height 15 times taller than Niagara Falls. As you marvel at the wonder of it all, you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to a lost and magical place.
By Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection
Let us assume you were able to fly and land at the top of Auyán-Tepuí. Looking over the side of the cliff, you would see the falls funnel into a sinkhole at the edge of the mountain and then burst out about 100 feet from the top.
If you can drag your attention away from the water plunging to the canyon far below, then more wonders await you. Some of the most rare and hardy flora and fauna in the world exist only here, despite the fact that the soil is not very rich because of the constant wind and rain.
Angel Falls actually drops two times from Auyán-Tepuí. There is the initial thrust off the summit, and then, nearly 3,000 feet from the base of that main fall, there’s a second drop of perhaps 100 vertical feet.
Here the water flows down a rocky terrace into a large pool, surrounded by ferns and tall trees. The total drop combined is 3,212 feet, which is the basis of Angel Falls’ qualifying as the tallest waterfall on the planet.
This measurement was recorded in 1949, when Ruth Robertson, a journalist from the United States, led an expedition to the falls for National Geographic.
The mist and streams of the waterfall cascade through the rocky hillside. When they reach the base of Auyán-Tepuí, they join with other streams and become the Orinoco River. Here, in the lower valley, the soil is richer, and there are many more species of flora.
For example, you might see bamboo, orchids, or insect-eating plants. With more vegetation, there are also more types of animals. Up in the trees, for example, you might see a howler monkey, an opossum, or a climbing rat! Or a jaguar or a puma might see you.
Certainly you might spy some of the 628 species of birds—41 of which are indigenous—flying through the humid air.
How to Visit
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see Angel Falls each year. The government supports tourism, providing a visiting center and other services. But travel to Angel Falls can be tricky. To begin with, the government restricts where you can go in certain areas.
Those few places are not easily accessible. On top of all that, there’s the rain with which to contend. Visit during the rainy season? The falls will be roaring and spectacular . . . if clouds don’t cover the mountaintop. Visit during the dry season?
Cloud coverage will be less likely but the falls will evaporate into mist before they hit the valley floor. Although it’s hard to imagine that the wonder of Angel Falls could really disappoint any time of the year.
Access to Angel Falls is an adventure. Your first step is to get a plane from a big city in Venezuela, such as Caracas, the capital, to the village of Canaima. Once you’ve arrived in Canaima, you have a few choices.
You can hire a pilot to take you on a short trip over Auyán-Tepuí. Or you can rent a canoe and paddle upstream to a trailhead within the national park. Then you hike for about an hour to the base of the falls.