A few weeks ago, Marianela Camacho, a friend and colleague on the Board of Directors of the Jimmie Angel Historical Project, sent me the link to the 2023 TV3-PeMón Films documentary, “On the Trail of Captain Cardona.” It narrates the life of the Catalonian-Venezuelan Félix Cardona i Puig (1903-1982). It claims that he was the first non-native to see Angel Falls.
A few days later, my friend Dorothy Withenbury, my brothers, and relatives sent me a Tik Tok video, whose narrator mentions that Cardona and Joan María Mundó i Freixas (1877-1932), also a Catalonian, saw Angel Falls in the late 1920s, but it was Ernesto Sánchez La Cruz (1899-1956) who was the first to face that waterfall.
Sánchez, Mundó, and Cardona were undoubtedly important explorers of the Venezuelan Guayana. However, the available evidence allows us to ensure that certain statements in both videos are largely incorrect.
The first successful ground expedition to Angel Falls was led by the American photojournalist Ruth Robertson (1905-1998) in 1949. Her guide and “right hand” was the Latvian-Venezuelan engineer Aleksandrs “Alejandro” Laime (1911-1994), a great connoisseur of the Auyantepui. A year before Robertson, Laime arrived at the waterfall, explaining the details and his idea of opening a tourist route, to journalists from Ciudad Bolívar and Caracas (“Octava maravilla del mundo. El Salto Angel”). Robertson, once in Venezuela, had decided to photograph from its base and measure the height of the enormous waterfall, whose existence was revealed by the American aviator and explorer Jimmie Angel (1899-1956).
The waterfall, after being officially known as Angel (not “del Angel” as some mistakenly call it), Sánchez La Cruz’s family sought recognition for him. Sánchez commented that he had made a sketch of the route to the waterfall, depositing it in Blohm’s commercial house in Ciudad Bolivar, in 1910. The Tik Tok’s young man affirms that it was in 1909, showing a newspaper article, possibly made with one of Sánchez's descendants.
I met the daughter of Mrs. Francis Aranguren, Sánchez's niece, in Maracay, while I was studying Agronomy. I remember one day she told Francisco Fernández Yépez (1923-1986) and a few students, the story of her ancestor, showing his notes mentioning they were deposited in that commercial house. Unfortunately, such an important document could not be found.
Before her expedition, Robertson interviewed Sánchez La Cruz. Said interview (“Who discovered Angel Falls?”) was published on May 23, 1949, in “The Caracas Journal” (later “The Daily Journal”, no longer published). Sánchez, a native of Jajó, Trujillo state, explains details of his life, including exploring various places while looking for rubber and “other products of the jungle” that could provide him with some profit. He claims that:
It was on one of these journeys … in the Alto Paragua region … that I discovered the mistakenly-named ‘Angel’ Falls, of which the tremendous height made an unforgettable impression on me. Before the astounding cataract situated on the Sierra Pacaraima, I made a sketch which I turned over months later to Casa Blohm in Ciudad Bolivar, … With the imposing vision of the great ‘Pacaraima Falls’ vivid in my mind, I had to go back to La Paragua.
This description made by Sánchez La Cruz himself is the best evidence that he was not in front of Angel Falls. The latter falls from Auyantepui, while the waterfall described by Sánchez La Cruz is in the Alto Paragua, in the Sierra Pacaraima. Since 1958, we know it as Salto Montoya.
According to the videos sent to me, Cardona and Mundó reached Angel Falls in 1927. In the TV3-PeMón video, one of Cardona's sons reads a section of his father's diary where he mentions reaching “El Gran Salto.” A frame shows that page and we hear (in Spanish):
We follow a hellish path; we arrive at the head of El Gran Salto. From next to our rancheria [shacks] one of the most beautiful and impressive spectacles of nature can be discovered. An immense mass of water falling perpendicularly to a depth of a hundred meters ...
The mention that the “mass of water” that "falls “a hundred meters” is surprising. But Angel Falls is about 979 meters high, with 807 meters of free fall!
For a long time, Cardona and his descendants have claimed that he was the first to face “El Gran Salto” (“the tall waterfall”) many times, leaving aside the experienced Mundo i Freixas who promoted and directed that expedition in which they saw “El Gran Salto del Caroní.”
As a product of said expedition, Mundó drew a map, which was later self-attributed by his apprentice Cardona, delimiting the contour of Auyantepui and a section of the entrance to the Devil's Canyon. Said map, which curiously shows neither the position nor the name of any “Gran Salto”, would be used in 1937 by William H. Phelps Sr. (1875-1965) for his expedition with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).
As seen and heard in the TV3-PeMón video, Cardona does not provide details of the route followed to “El Gran Salto.” However, Mundó, a keen explorer and writer, who would coin the name “Gran Sabana” to define that enormous region south of the Orinoco, would write several articles (“Una fiesta entre los Indios de Cura-Tabaga-Pa,” “Como llegué hasta el Gran Salto del Caroní” and “Viaje al Caroní”) in which he details and mentions the route they followed to the enormous waterfall that both called El Gran Salto.” In one of the articles, we read (in Spanish):
Once the exploration of the Yau-Yante-Puy was finished, … we decided to continue our journey up the Caroní. ... we arrived at the Cura-tabaga-pa tribe [a Pemón community], ... we spent a day ... we left ... to join the rest of our people and march in search of the famous Gran Salto del Caroní, never contemplated by white men and barely known to some Indians who feel a legendary fear for it.
In another article, Mundó gives us more details:
Our trip to the Gran Salto was extremely bumpy… [but] more than compensated by the magnificent spectacle of the colossal Caroní Waterfall. ... As we advanced, the noise grew in intensity and as we got closer, ... to Caroní, we saw that it was running for a distance of four kilometers, to fall from an imposing height; … we understood … that we were before El Gran Salto.
Mundo’s articles and the note in Cardona's diary clearly indicate that both explorers were not in front of Angel Falls during that expedition. Angel Falls, which is 979 meters high, falls from Auyantepui, quite far from the Caroní River.
After analyzing those writings, my friend Charles Brewer-Carías, a renowned Venezuelan naturalist and explorer, knowledgeable about the regions visited by the Catalonian explorers, concluded that “El Gran Salto” they mention is Eutowarimá, also called Otoando, Tobarimá or Salto Avispa. It is an impressive waterfall, without a doubt, which emerges from the Caroní River, quite far from Auyantepui.
The young man from Tik Tok makes another mistake, common among little-informed reporters. He mentions that Jimmie Angel (1899-1956) would see the waterfall that would later bear his name, guided by Cardona, in 1937. That is quite wrong.
Jimmie Angel, who worked as an aviator on his own, hired by a private company, or the Venezuelan government, would frequently fly the Gran Sabana region. Flying alone, he would see Angel Falls for the first time on November 16, 1933. In his flight log, he would record:
Found myself a waterfall.
Since then, Jimmie “adopted” the enormous waterfall as his own and to whomever he met, he would mention about this geographical wonder. A couple of years later he would fly with Leonidas R. Denison (1885-1953), showing him “his” waterfall. Dennison would write about it in his book “Devil Mountain,” which is part truth, and part fiction.
The name “Angel Falls” originated in 1937 during a meeting between Jimmie, United States engineer Francis Ivan “Shorty” Martin (1896-1952), and Venezuelan engineer and explorer Gustavo “Cabuya” Heny (1903-1982). The latter, upon hearing Jimmie speak of the “mile-high” waterfall, asked for its name. Jimmie did not know how to answer, the maps of the time were very incomplete and that waterfall was unknown. Heny suggested calling it “Salto Angel (Angel Falls)” because Angel commented on its existence frequently.
With the eventual help of Cardona, they planned an expedition to search for gold in the Auyantepui. That adventure would culminate with Jimmie, his wife Marie (Sanders) Angel (1906-1987), Henry, and his assistant, Miguel Angel Delgado, landing on the Tepui and then being unable to depart. It would take several days for them to reach the camp from which they left.
Shortly after, Phelps Sr. gave a talk at the Venezuelan Society of Natural Sciences about his expedition with the AMNH, 1937-1938. These events would motivate the Venezuelan government to commission an intensive study and exploration of the Gran Sabana to learn about its resources. The details of that investigation would be reported (“Exploración de la Gran Sabana”) in 1939. It would include a detailed map of the region (“Mapa-Croquis Geológico de la Gran Sabana y regiones adyacentes”). There the name “Salto Angel” appears for the first time to identify the one that emerges from Auyantepui, making the moniker official. In 1953, the Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons would reprint the report and at the bottom of the photograph of Angel Falls taken by the expedition co-leader Carlos A. Freeman (1898-1973) we read: “Salto Angel, bautizado en honor a su descubridor James Angel (Angel Falls, named after its discoverer James Angel).”
For some years now, Canaima's tourist agencies have been using the name “Kerepacupai” (time before they used to call it Churún merú!) or similar (in Tik Tok it is spelled Körepa 'Kupayi Vená), as the native name for the waterfall. The map made by Mundó, finalized by Cardona, shows the name “Kerepacupai” applied to the northwest “block” of Auyantepui, far from the area where Angel Falls is located.
Regarding the native name of Angel Falls, let's remember that the Pemón did not enter the Devil's Canyon. According to the Kamarata elders, only select high-ranking “Piaches” (healers/witches with access to and influence in the spirit world) came to the canyon to perform some rituals. The natives that accompanied Roberson and Laime to the foot of Angel Falls covered their bodies with a red pigment so as not to be seen by the Mawariton (spirits) that populate the Tepui. Seeing the rapids in front of the waterfall (the first thing you see when leaving the forest, just before observing the waterfall) they began to repeatedly shout “Churún-merú” (“merú” in Pemón means rapids, “vená” means waterfall). Since then, the inhabitants of Kamarata, descendants of those natives, have been calling Angel Falls Churún-Vená.
Aguerrevere, S., López, V.M., Delgado O., C. y Freeman, C. (1939). Exploración de la Gran Sabana. Revista de Fomento. 3(19): 501-735.
Aguerrevere, S., López, V.M., Delgado O., C. y Freeman, C. (1953). Exploración de la Gran Sabana. Revista de Hidrocarburos y Minas. 2(9): 1-192.
Angel, K. (2012). Why the world’s tallest waterfall is named Angel Falls. Terrae Incognita. 44(1): 16-42.
Angel, K. (2019). Angel’s Flight. The life of Jimmie Angel, American Aviator-Explorer, Discoverer of Angel Falls. Eureka, California: Jimmie Angel Historical Project, 415 pp.
Brewer-Carías, C. (2010). Tras la Huella del Salto Ángel. Rio Verde. 2: 61-77.
González, J. M. (2019). Ruth Robertson: Grande Dame of Angel Falls. En: Angel, K. 2019. Angel’s Flight. The life of Jimmie Angel, American Aviator-Explorer, Discoverer of Angel Falls. Eureka, California: Jimmie Angel Historical Project. pp. 350-357, 410-414.
Mundo Freixas, J. (1928). Venezuela Adentro. Una Fiesta entre los Indios de Cura-Tabaga-Pa. El Universal. Septiembre.
Mundo Freixas, J. (1928).Venezuela Adentro. Como llegué hasta el Gran Salto del Caroní. El Universal. Septiembre, 21.
Mundo Freixas, J. (1929). Viaje al Alto Caroní. Cultura Venezolana. 40(97): 91-97.
Robertson, R. (1949). Who discovered Angel Falls? The Caracas Journal. Mayo, 23, pp. 15.
Robertson, R. (1975). Churun Meru. The tallest Angel of jungles and other journeys. Ardmore, Pennsylvania: Whitmore Publishing Company. 345 pp.
Socorro, A. (1948). Octava maravilla del mundo. El Salto Ángel. El Gráfico. Diciembre, 7.