Years ago I had a poster on my wall showing Angel Falls in Venezuela, the highest waterfall in the world at 3,212 feet. To give a sense of scale, the photo included what appeared to be a teeny tiny airplane flying in front of the falls. Looking at that poster, it made sense that Angel Falls is one of the top tourist attractions in Venezuela, even if access was limited by the location.
Angel Falls is located in what is now Canaima National Park. The falls begin near the summit of Auyantepui, one of the many table top mountains (tepui) scattered around the area, so-called because of their flat tops and vertical sides. There is a wet season and dry season, which affect not only the volume of water in the falls, but also how easy it is for tourists to access the site by boat.
According to recent legend, Angel Falls was “discovered” by American pilot Jimmie Angel in the 1930s. Of course, as a piece of nature that has existed since long before the 1930s, it was actually made public rather than discovered by Angel.
James Crawford Angel (1899-1956) was one of those oddities that can make historians crazy. There are many stories about his life and adventures, but almost nothing that can be independently corroborated. Jimmie was a storyteller and a salesman, and what he told people about his life was not always entirely accurate, and varied depending upon the audience. Basically, it’s easy to find information about Jimmie Angel in books and all over the internet, but it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.
What is true is that he was a pilot. He was an adventurer and spent much of his life in Central and South America. He died in Panama in 1956 due to complications from injuries suffered while landing his plane. His ashes were spread over Angel Falls by his sons in 1960. His death certificate listed his occupation as “Explorer”.
Because Angel lived in the early twentieth century, you would think that we would have access to adequate resources to enable us to either verify or disprove all (or at least most) of the stories. Angel’s life is basically an oral history, consisting of stories that he told and stories that others told about him. It’s like talking to ten different eye witnesses to a crime and getting ten different statements.
And sometimes people try to change the legend. In 2009 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez changed the name of Angel Falls to Kerepakupai-meru, an indigenous name for Venezuela’s most famous landmark. I imagine most people still call it Angel Falls.