How the Angel Falls of Venezuela were Discovered and Named

Angel Falls, located in the eastern or Kamarata Valley region of Venezuela, is the tallest waterfall in the world by far. The falls tumble 3,212 feet into the valley from the great rift mountain, Auyántepui, with an unimpeded drop of 2,663 feet. Mountain and valley are now both preserved in Canaima National Park, one of the largest and most remote, and at the same time pristine, national parks in the world.

There is no doubt that the name most commonly associated with the falls today, Angel Falls, derives from the surname of Jimmy Angel, the bush pilot and prospector who sighted the falls in 1933, 1935 or 1937, depending on which source is referenced. Certainly it was 1937 when Angel, his wife and a team of gold hunters suffered a rough landing atop Auyántepui and were forced to walk out, a process which occupied some 12 days.

The subsequent publicity made Angel Falls known to the broader world.

The falls are also known as Churún-Vená, Kerepacupai-meru and Salto Angel, depending on who it is that you are speaking to. In December of 2009 then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced that the falls would henceforth be known as Kerepacupai-meru, its name in the indigenous Pemon language. The phrase means “waterfall of the deepest place” in Pemon.

Chavez later walked that stance back a bit, stating that he only wished to recognize the prior discovery of the falls by the indigenous peoples. In any event the name change has been almost universally ignored on the world stage.

In any event, there can be little doubt that the Pemon peoples did discover the falls long before anyone else, certainly long before any European could have. Not making the discovery more broadly known in a sense militates against the import of that discovery; had the Pemon peoples mysteriously vanished in the 1920s, Angel Falls would be unknown to this day, barring Jimmy Angel’s fly-by, or some similar happenstance.

Others have a claim, generally a tenuous one, to a prior discovery. Even Sir Walter Raleigh, exploring eastern Venezuela in 1594 in search of gold, is often credited with the discovery. This seems unlikely; Raleigh notes spotting several large waterfalls, but there are many in that region and he is unlikely to have penetrated the Kamarata Valley, which remains difficult to access to this day.

With Ernesto Sanchez La Cruz one is on safer ground. In 1910 he almost certainly did view the falls at a distance, and notified the Venezuelan government of his find. However, he did not publish an account, nor did the government make the discovery known, so the discovery, while real, falls into that “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it fall, does it make a sound” category.

The falls may be viewed today much more easily by interested tourists. “Easily” is, in fact, a relative term as the trip involves considerable time in riverboats, light planes and overland hiking, but the view, as they say, is worth it.

It seems that, at least for the foreseeable future, the origin of the name and the credit for the discovery of Angel falls will be linked to the man who crash-landed nearly on top of them in 1937, adventurer, gold hunter and bush pilot James “Jimmy” Angel.