What is the terrain and geography like in Venezuela?
The Orinoco River and various mountain ranges, all branches of the Andes chain, divide the country into a number of distinct regions.
South of the Orinoco, which is the third longest river in South America, are located the wild and largely unexplored Guayana highlands. This area comprises over half of the area of the country and is rich in mineral resources and in developed and undeveloped hydroelectric power. In the Gran Sabana area, erosion has caused unusual formations characterized by rugged relief and flat-topped, cliff-edged mountains called "tepuis," the Pemon Indian word for mountain. These sandstone mesas form part of one of the oldest geologic regions in the world, and they have the highest percentage of endemic flora of any formations on earth. Roraima, one of the most famous of the tepuis, was the setting for "Lost Worlds." Arthur Conan Doyle never actually visited the area, so the reader cannot expect realism in his adventure story, but his characterization of the "tepuis" reflects widely-held beliefs, and the "tepuis" continue to be endlessly fascinating.
Another section of the Guayana highlands is the mysterious and remote Amazonas region, home to various indigenous groups such as the Yekuana, Yanomami, and Piaroa. Although carrying the name of the great river to the south, most of this area lies in the Orinoco drainage basin. The remaining portion of the Orinoco waters go to the Amazon, marking one of the great anomalies of nature—a river called the Casiquiare that crosses the watershed between the Orinoco and Rio Negro (which connects to the Amazon) and joins two of the great rivers of the world. It is possible to travel by water from the Orinoco through the Casiquiare and Rio Negro and to the Amazon. Legends of this route were the basis for many famous explorations by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries.
North of the Orinoco is a great expanse of lowlands that occupies approximately one third of the national territory, known as the "llanos" or plains. During the dry season the entire area is almost desert-like. But during the rainy season, flooding rivers make the area a maze of water. Alexander von Humboldt, visiting the area in the early 1800s, referred to it as an ocean covered with seaweed. This area contains "hatos" or working ranches, some of which have turned to ecotourism. Visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing from boats or vehicles, sighting capybaras, ocelots, monkeys, tapirs, caimans, and exotic and extensive bird life—more than 350 species have been recorded in the region, including scarlet ibis, or corocoros, with their spectacular plumage. Visitors can also fish for piranha which, despite the dictionary definition, do not usually attack humans.
Spurs of the Andes Mountains run along each side of the Maracaibo basin and part of the seacoast. The bulk of Venezuela’s population traditionally has lived in these northern highlands, attracted by the temperate weather and fertile soil. The city of Mérida is very near Pico Bolivar, Venezuela’s highest mountain and a popular spot for climbing. The longest cable car (teleférico) in the world runs from Merida to Pico Espejo high in the clouds above. It can be warm and sunny in Merida and snowing on Pico Espejo, some 3,100 meters (10,170 feet) higher.
A tropical coastal plain stretches along most of Venezuela’s 1,750-mile coastline. This narrow strip of land between mountains and sea widens in the west to form the Maracaibo basin. The climate is uniformly hot and humid. The area around Maracaibo is inhabited by the Guajiro and Yukpa indigenous groups, and you can still see them in their native dress. At the Laguna de Sinamaica, there are traditional houses made of papyrus and thatch, and built on stilts in the water. When Amerigo Vespucci arrived in 1499, he came ashore at this point and named it Venezuela, or little Venice.
The Orinoco defines much of Venezuela, rising from its headwaters deep in Amazonas, and traveling 2,150 kilometers (1,335 miles) to the Atlantic in the Orinoco Delta region. As it travels east and north, the Orinoco widens, splits and reforms. The Delta is a vast region marked by islands and large rivers (small in comparison to the Orinoco), and is home to a large number of birds, making it a birding paradise. The Warao Indians inhabit this area, still using their native language and existing in a manner that has not changed greatly over the centuries.