A world of unexpected adventures awaits those who dare to delve into the less-explored corners of South America, says Russell Maddicks
Angel Falls, Venezuela
“It was all sunshine two weeks ago, when your countryman Ray was here for filming,” says Demetrio, my diminutive Pemon guide. “They jumped from the top; you should have seen it!”
Staring up through the rain at the dark clouds where the highest waterfall in the world should be and praying for a break in the weather, the surreal thought of Cockney hardman Ray Winstone base-jumping 3,212ft into the jungle helps to lift the mood.
It turns out not to have been Ray but a stuntman who actually jumped, though the actor was in Venezuela to shoot scenes for a remake of the classic adventure movie Point Break.
Suddenly the rain stops, the clouds part and we’re treated to Angel Falls in all its glory; three waterfalls merging into one thin cascade that turns to mist before reaching the bottom.
“The Mawari spirits must like you,” Demetrio says, explaining that Auyan-tepui, the name of the vast tabletop mountain in front of us, means ‘House of the Devil’ in Pemon.
After five hours of buttock-numbing travel upriver in a wooden canoe, powered by an outboard motor, and an hour climbing a wet, muddy path over slippery tangles of tree roots, I’m just glad to see the view. As we sit and stare, a collective rapture comes over the group.
The name comes from bush pilot Jimmie Angel, who got his plane stuck atop Auyan-tepui in 1937 while looking for a ‘river of gold’. The Pemon term Kerepakupai Vena (Waterfall of the Deepest Place) is now preferred, although Demetrio adds, “I don’t mind what the tourists call it as long as they come!”
Fifteen times higher than Niagara, the Angel Falls’ thin ribbon of cascading water presents a truly inspiring sight. There are no roads to the camp at Canaima National Park, from where trips to the falls set off.
Instead, visitors can catch a flight from Ciudad Bolivar in a five-seat Cessna — an experience in itself. From the tea-coloured lagoon and foaming falls at Canaima, the only way to the base of Angel Falls is by canoe, unless a helicopter is going spare, while nights are spent in hammocks at Isla Raton, a camp set up by the survey team in 1948.
How to do it: Geodyssey’s 18-night Venezuela itinerary includes Choroni’s Caribbean beach, the city of Merida, the Llanos Plains, the Orinoco Delta and the trip to Angel Falls, from $3,783 excluding international flights. geodyssey.co.uk
Jesuit Missions, Paraguay
An ambitious attempt to create a paradise on earth in the wild southern forests of Paraguay, the Jesuit Missions of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue are among the country’s top tourist attractions. Impressive in scale and featuring intricate baroque carvings, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites were built in the 17th and 18th centuries to bring the word of Christ to the indigenous Guarani, and to protect them from marauding Portuguese slavers. The battles that led to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 became the subject of the classic 1986 movie The Mission.
More info: whc.unesco.org/en/list/648
Stroll through the historic inner city of the Surinamese capital Paramaribo, past mansions, a Hindu temple, synagogue and mosque to the St Peter & Paul Cathedral, the continent’s largest wooden building. Listen for Sranan Tongo, a creole blend of English, Dutch, Portuguese and West African, and watch Maroons trade rainforest potions at the Witches’ Market. To eat, head for Blauwgrond, where Javanese restaurants serve saoto (chicken and beansprout soup).
How to do it: Wilderness Explorers offers the15-day Three Guianas Experience tour that takes in Suriname, starting at $4,605, plus flights. wilderness-explorers.com
Catatumbo Lightening, Venezuela
A magnet for storm chasers and nature lovers, the remote southern shore of Lake Maracaibo, near the border of Colombia, is home to the highest concentration of lightning in the world, according to Guinness World Records. Up to 160 nights a year, cloud-to-cloud electrical storms produce a natural light show of forked bolts that can last up to 10 hours for those lucky enough to be staying at the stilt villages of Ologa or Congo.
How to do it: The lightning season runs from May to November. Catatumbo expert Alan Highton offers two-night tours from the city of Merida for $151. catatumbotour.com
Iles du Salut, French Guiana
This French territory is home to the infamous penal colony Iles du Salut (Salvation Islands), although most visitors are taken to the palm-covered Ile St Joseph, where lianas are slowly reclaiming the solitary confinement cells. The islands’ raw natural beauty makes a striking juxtaposition with the somber buildings. On Ile Royale, a museum documents the grim lives of the prisoners. The most famous inmate here was Henri Charriere, whose 1969 bestseller Papillon recounts his escape from the islands and became an iconic movie starring Steve McQueen.
How to do it: Boat trips from Kourou to French Guiana’s Iles du Salut are priced from $48 with La Hulotte. lahulotte-guyane.fr
Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo, Uruguay
Uruguayans are the world’s biggest beef eaters and one of the best places for parrilla (barbecue) is the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market). Slabs of colita de cuadril (rump steak) sizzle over embers at Roldos, which has been satisfying carnivores since 1886. The two-person brasero is a gut-busting barbecue of morcilla (blood sausage), mollejones (sweetbreads) and crispy chotos (goat intestines). Wash it down with a glass of medio y medio (sparkling wine mixed with a sweet white) or a Uruguayan tannat.
How to do it: Lunch for two at Roldos costs from $22 (a brasero and two glasses of medio y medio). roldos.com.uy
Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, Guyana
Visitors can get a toucan’s-eye view of howler monkeys, spider monkeys, three-toed sloths and bird life from aluminum walkways hanging a dizzying 100ft above the forest floor.
How to do it: Accommodation at Atta Rainforest Lodge starts from $180 per person with guided Canopy Walk trips, but not transport from Georgetown. iwokramacanopywalkway.com
*This piece first appeared in National Geographic Traveller (UK) – South America (October 2015)