CANAIMA NATIONAL PARK, Venezuela — In 1937, American adventurer Jimmie Angel's plane sank in the soft mud of the towering tropical mesa that hosts Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall.
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It took his party 11 days to hike back to civilization.
Nowadays, those visiting Canaima National Park in Venezuela's southeast can fly in and out with bush pilots who usually carry cargo in their single- and twin-engine airplanes.
Our recent trip promised plenty of adventure. As we flew bumpily into the park, "El Condor," as our pilot called himself, assured us he'd only lost a few hairs on his head while surviving nine plane crashes.
We planned to hike up the mesa, or tepuy, known as Roraima, then visit Angel Falls, locally known as Parekupa-meru.
Aside from hiring a private airplane to reach several hostels, or posadas, in the park, many visitors must use a local cargo airline that services widely scattered mining towns.
The Gran Sabana, or Great Savannah, occupies about half of Canaima National Park, the world's sixth-largest nature reserve.
On the second stop, a missionary handed me a baby as she got into the back seat. I smiled as my husband took a picture - then told me not to breathe. "She just said that the baby has tuberculosis," he whispered.
Little by little, a vast landscape of valleys and plateaus swallowed us as we walked to the base of Roraima, a sandstone mesa 9,094 feet high.
Our guide pointed out a lobster-size grasshopper and a white frog resting in the shade of a single blade of grass.
Clouds shrouded the tepuy during the three days it took us to hike to its summit. It was a journey through time and space, where we were greeted by a dazzling maze of rock formations and shallow pools of water lit by a smokey gray light.
A tiny black frog that rolls instead of jumps and a carnivorous plant are some of the species that thrive atop Roraima. The surrounding mesas inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, "The Lost World," in which dinosaurs live on an isolated plateau in the Amazon.
Six days later, feet swollen and blistered, I was back inside El Condor's Cessna for a 115-mile flight to a base camp near Angel Falls.
Along the way, El Condor offered to give us a close look at the falls for $60 in bolivars, the local currency. He accepted the only bolivars I had, $13 worth, as we approached the falls, 15 times taller than Niagara Falls at 3,212 feet.
El Condor jerked his craft left toward Angel Falls. I snapped a few pictures before he jerked the plane right just as it seemed we were about to hit, slamming me to the other side of the plane.
El Condor lived up to his nickname that day.
Our Angel Falls guide, Ladimir Gonzalez, whisked us off in a boat to a tiny island across a lagoon to our lodging.
Waterfalls pounded into the lagoon and foam floated on the surface. We climbed and walked along a small path tucked behind the falling water, where we watched the water roar onto the rocks below.
Those precious nights were full of the sound of crashing water as we fell asleep in hammocks strung from the posada's rooftop.
If you go:
VENEZUELA: The country's dry season, from December to May, is a good time to visit. For information on Canaima National Park, go to www.thelostworld.org/canaimanp/canaima.htm. New Frontiers Adventure is one of several companies that arrange tours to the area; visit www.newfrontiersadventures.com or call (58) 289-995-1584 for details. The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., is at (202) 342-2214. The Venezuelan Tourism Association is at (415) 331-0100.
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