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South America: Off the tourist map

From a Witches’ Market in Suriname to storm chasing in Venezuela, a world of unexpected adventures await those who dare to delve into the less-explored corners of the continent

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Angel Falls, Venezuela, South America. Image: AWL

Angel Falls, Venezuela. Image: AWL

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 of the falls, you should have seen it!”

I’m 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, but the surreal thought of cockney hardman Ray Winstone base-jumping 3,212ft into the jungle lifts the mood.

It turns out it wasn’t Ray but a stuntman who actually jumped, though the actor was here 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; two or three waterfalls merging into one thin cascade that turns to mist before reaching the rocks at the bottom.

“The Mawari spirits must like you,” Demetrio says, explaining that Auyán-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 of the falls comes from bush pilot Jimmie Angel, who got his plane stuck in mud on top of Auyán-tepui in 1937 while looking for a ‘river of gold’. The Pemon term Kerepakupai Vená (Waterfall of the Deepest Place) is now preferred, although Demetrio adds, “Salto Angel, Angel Falls — I don’t mind what the tourists call it as long as they come!”

Fifteen times higher than Niagara, this thin ribbon of cascading water is a truly inspiring sight and the adventure of coming here has changed little since US photographer Ruth Robertson led the 1949 expedition that first measured it and put it in the record books. There are no roads to the camp at Canaima National Park, where trips to the falls set off from. Instead, catch a flight from Ciudad Bolívar in a five-person 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 you bring a helicopter, while nights are spent in hammocks at Isla Ratón, a camp set up by the survey team in 1949.

In November that year, when Robertson’s photos were published in National Geographic, the world’s enduring love affair with the falls began. The adventure continues.

How to do it: Geodyssey has a 14-night Venezuela tour that includes the Caribbean beach of Choroní, the Orinoco Delta, and the trip to Angel Falls from £1,650, excluding international flights.
Alternative: Trek to the top of Mount Roraima, the highest of the Pakaraima chain of tepui plateaus in Venezuela, to experience the ‘lost world’ atmosphere. The six-day trek starts in Santa Elena.

'Catatumbo lightning' in Zulia, Venezuela. Image: Corbis

‘Catatumbo lightning’ in Zulia, Venezuela. Image: Corbis

Catatumbo lightning, 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 the 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.

More info: Lightning season runs from May to November. Catatumbo expert Alan Highton offers two-night tours from Mérida for £100.

Jesuit Missions, Paraguay
An ambitious attempt to create a paradise on Earth in the wild southern forests of Paraguay, the Jesuit Missions of La Santísima Trinidad de Paraná and Jesús 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 Guaraní, and to protect them from marauding Portuguese slavers. The battles that led to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 are the subject of the 1986 film The Mission.

More info: whc.unesco.org/en/list/648

Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, Guyana. Image: Corbis

Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, Guyana. Image: Corbis

Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, Guyana
Up to 70% of life in a rainforest is found in the canopy and at the Iwokrama Forest Reserve you get a toucan’s-eye view of howler monkeys, spider monkeys, three-toed sloths and birdlife from aluminium walkways hanging a dizzying 100-feet above the forest floor. On the ground, anteaters and jaguars roam.

More info: Accommodation at the Atta Rainforest Lodge starts from $180 (£114) per person and includes guided Canopy Walk trips but not transport from Georgetown.

Paramaribo, Suriname
Stroll through the historic inner city of the Surinamese capital, past mansions, a Hindu temple, synagogue and mosque to the St Peter and 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).

More info: Wilderness Explorers has a 15-day Three Guianas Experience tour that takes in Suriname, starting from $4,605 (£2,950), minus flights.

Charcoal grill in Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo, Uruguay. Image: Alamy

Charcoal grill in Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo, Uruguay. Image: Alamy

Mercado del Puerto, Montevideo, Uruguay
Uruguayans are the world’s biggest beef eaters and one of the best places to pig out on parrilla (barbecue) is the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) in the old town. Here, slabs of colita de cuadril (rump steak) sizzle over wood embers at Roldós — 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.

More info: Lunch for two at Roldós from £15 (a brasero and two glasses of medio y medio).

Pointe des Cayes, Iles du Salut, French Guiana. Image: Superstock

Pointe des Cayes, Iles du Salut, French Guiana. Image: Superstock

Iles du Salut, French Guiana
This tiny French territory is home to the infamous penal colony Îles 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. On Ile Royale, a museum recounts the grim lives of the prisoners. The most famous inmate here was Henri Charrière, whose 1969 book Papillon recounts his escape from the islands. It became a global bestseller and later a film starring Steve McQueen.

More info: Boat trips from Kourou to the Iles du Salut start at €45 (£32) with La Hulotte.

Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)