According to Amerindian legends, the savage Caribs frequently raided the peaceful Patamona tribe. To appease the Great Spirit Makonaima and ask for protection, the distinguished Patamona chieftain, Chief Kaie, paddled his canoe over the Falls.
Folklore has it that Kaie and his ‘wood skin’ canoe turned to stone and now form part of the rocks of the falls. Perhaps his self-sacrifice worked and he won appeasement, for the magical falls is named after him: Kaieteur. (‘Teur’ translates as ‘falls’; Kaieteur - Kaie’s Falls.)
Kaieteur Falls is probably Guyana’s most well-known, celebrated and highly-touted attraction. You’ll see it on any Guyana-related magazines, brochures and tourism board advertisements. And rightly so.
There are many ways to calculate a waterfall’s height, but most agree that Kaieteur Falls is ‘the world’s largest single drop waterfall’.
Kaieteur Falls at a glance:
It may not be wider and more powerful than the Big 3 (Iguazu, Niagara, Victoria) nor taller than some (Angel, Gocta), but when put together; it is still taller, wider and more powerful than most of the world’s waterfalls.
The waterfall lover in me happened to be visiting all countries in South America and knew I had to check out this impressive fall.
Kaieteur Falls sits on the Potaro River in the Kaieteur National Park, which in turn, is fed by the Pakaraima Mountains to the south.
This mammoth waterfall lies on the plateau known as the Guiana Shield, one of the oldest geological formation on Earth at over 2 billion years. This rock was found on the sea bed which meant that Kaieteur Falls was once under the sea.
We were literally walking on the seabed as we roamed through the park.
In 1929, the British Colonial Administration designated an area of 116.6 square kilometres around the Potaro River as a national park, with the original goal to ‘preserve the natural scenery, fauna and flora’ of the area.
Some rare wildlife here are the tiny golden frog and carnivorous plants; amongst the jaguars, bullet ants and wild snakes.
It seemed like economic priorities took over in 1973 when the size of the park was reduced to 19.4 square kilometres to allow mining in the area.
Yet again, perhaps embarrassingly, the park expanded its boundaries to 630 square kilometres in 1999. The administration must’ve realized the importance of preserving the nature.
Kaieteur Falls – deep inside the national park – gives a feeling of exclusiveness. Most large waterfalls throughout the world are surrounded by throngs of tourists, but Kaieteur is comparatively desolate.
Why? Because it is expensive and not easy to get there.
Getting to Kaieteur Falls is either:
The flight from Georgetown costs around USD $175- $250 (depending on companies and packages). It isn’t cheap, but compared to the overland journey, it saves you time AND money. This is also the only place where I see a flight costing less than an overland trek.
Here, we’ll talk about the day tour because that’s what I went for and to be honest, almost no one goes for the overland trek.
There are a dozen tour companies offering the trip but - due to rising fuel prices - they only leave when the small plane is filled up (~12 pax). This often results in companies combining trips or flat-out cancel the trip. It happened to me as I made a reservation only to have insufficient people and having to wait a few more days in Georgetown.
My suggestion is to book a tour to Kaieteur Falls on your very first day in Guyana. If it cancels, you still have some ‘leeway’ to book another day.
Kaieteur National Park is served by Kaieteur International Airport, a short 15min walk from the top of the Kaieteur Falls. Although named an ‘international airport’, I highly doubt it serves any international flights.
Instead, it operates frequent flights to and from Ogle Airport in Georgetown.
After the usual travel routines (checking in, security and waiting) at Ogle Airport, we were brought to a small twin propeller plane with 12 seats (+2 for pilots). I knew from flying in a similar plane above the Nazca lines that we would noticeably feel any turbulence.
A small plane is necessary because the airstrip at Kaieteur International Airport couldn’t support any larger kind of aircraft. It is literally just a small strip at the ‘airport’, and the first taste of the development at the area (or lack thereof!).
The flight from Guyana to Kaieteur is a scenic one-hour flight.
First, you slowly glide in circles over Georgetown and the Carribean sea, and notice the perfect grids the houses were built into.
Appreciate the fine urban planning one last time as the plane leaves civilisation and onwards over a blanket of green covering 71% of the country - one of the highest proportions of forest cover of any country in the world.
Then, you’ll notice the trees get closer and you realise the jungle is literally rising. The Potaro Plateau – where Kaieteur Falls is located – is an elevated body of ancient rock.
Finally, you catch a view of the spectacular waterfall in all its glory from above. Your pilot – hopefully – flies in both direction to allow passengers from both sides the perfect angle. Still, I thought that sitting on the right side gave a better view.
The Kaieteur Falls tour is a short 90min hike in the national park to three different viewpoints while park rangers explain about the flora and fauna along the way.
The first stop is the Boy Scout’s View where we got our first frontal view of the falls on land. It is named so because local boy scout troops were initiated only after hiking to this point from the bottom of the gorge.
We heard the thunderous crashing of the waterfall before seeing it. All of us let out a gasp of wonder as we climbed up the rock to the viewpoint.
This is supposedly the furthest viewpoint but the fall is already so impressive from here, I couldn’t imagine how it would feel like going up close.
We spent some time here taking photos and admiring the view, then made our way to the second viewpoint.
The hike is a simple walk through the rainforest with nothing technical. Still, I’d recommend proper hiking shoes as it could get slippery in the rainy season.
One thing I’d expect in the rainforest is the mosquitos or other biting insects but I was amazed there were none here. The park rangers explained that this was due to the carnivorous plants all around the park!
The second viewpoint is called the Bicycle View because some hardcore bikers rode their way to this isolated park. The plants and scents change as I noticed the bromeliads surrounding the area.
The beauty of the waterfall is in its sheer size and power, but also in its raw state. Due to the isolated location, there is not much development in the area; no guard rails, no boardwalk, hardly any infrastructure.
Unlike most famous waterfalls, we were the only group of tourists that day!
Finally, we came to the Rainbow View and we could clearly see why. There is a rainbow that seemed to be permanently in the wafting mist.
And since we were so close to the top of the waterfall, the viewing angle is less direct than the first two. We were very careful about getting close to the rail-less ledge for a better angle.
From here, we could really appreciate the grandiosity of Kaieteur Falls. The reddish-brown of the jungle water flowing down the precipice, turning into white foam as it hits the roaring basin, finally disappearing into the cloud of mist. All with a colourful rainbow overlooking it.
When time was up, we reluctantly tore our gaze from this mesmerising view, turned back for one final goodbye, and walked towards the airstrip.
When people visited Kaieteur Falls in the past, they were able to get up close – literally to the top of the falls – but I believe rules have changed since then. The closest we could get was the Rainbow Viewpoint.
The Kaieteur Falls is - to date - one of the Top 3 Waterfalls I’ve seen throughout my travels.