Venezuela’s interior is quite beautiful, and a nice change from the chaos of Caracas, a capital city that sadly doesn’t rate very high on my list of South American capitals. Given that Venezuela has a marked lack of infrastructure to serve tourists, getting anywhere means taking over-crowded and unreliable local buses, nicer “luxury” overnight buses, or renting/sharing a car and driver.
One of my favorite parts of taking the overnight bus from city to city was the local preference to watch uber-violent Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal films, one after the other, one decapitation after another, as the bus made its way down the highway. Unbeknownst to me, taking an overnight bus in Venezuela means dressing for the dead of winter even when you are in the height of summer. Since air conditioning is rare and quite a luxury, the busses are kept at sub-zero temperatures. The Venezuelans react to the air conditioning like a Midwestern American tourist at a Las Vegas buffet – they wanted as much as they could get their hands on. Frozen body parts notwithstanding, I did arrive at my destination on time.
There are many parts of the interior of the country that are inaccessible by any land vehicle, but well worth the effort. The interior is famously known to have inspired the 1912 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World, which in turn begat films and television series.
In the state of Bolivar, in the southeast part of Venezuela along the Brazil border is the Gran Sabana, a plateau located one thousand meters above sea level with a striking and unique feature: the tepuis. Tepuis, also called “table-top mountains” or mesas, rise in the surrounding plateau like mountains that had their peaks sliced off by a giant hacksaw.
The tepuis are made of sandstone and are estimated to be as much as two billion years old, to a time in the Precambrian when South America and Africa were part of one super-continent. The most famous of the tepuis, Mount Roraima [more than 2800 meters high] marks the border convergence of the three nations of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana.
Tepuis do not form in ranges, but rather they are isolated outcroppings. As such, each became its own eco-system with unique plants and animals. One tepui, Auyantepui, is the source of Angel Falls, the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, with a height of 979 meters [3,212 ft.] and a plunge of 807 meters [2,648 ft.]. Angel Falls and its tepui source is found in Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Gran Sabana.
One of the highlights of seeing these unique formations was taking a prop plane over the Gran Sabana. As I approached the small prop plane at a local airport I emptied my mind of all of the typical concerns one might have getting into a small flying transport vehicle in the middle of the jungle. Given my height and weight, I was seated in the “co-pilot” seat, while four other adventurers were put in the two rows of two seats behind me. The plane was so small that my chest was almost on the front dashboard. This seat was not for the faint of heart, especially when some of the actions of the pilot looked like they were being executed out of some kind of panic.
As we took off, I noticed another plane of the same size that would eventually be flying in parallel with ours. As we flew over the Gran Sabana, the pilot, a young Venezuelan in his twenties, took us for an amusement-like ride over tepuis, in valleys and at one point followed the path of a river very close to the ground until it opened up into a huge waterfall.
The scenery made me forget the inherent dangers involved in taking an old rickety and probably ill-maintained prop plane over the jungles of Venezuela, with a young and inexperienced pilot at the helm. What a glorious view it was.
This really was the lost world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I haven’t seen anything like it before or since. The only elements missing from the picture were the dinosaurs, although I was sure if I looked closely enough they could be found somewhere in the jungles below.