La Gran Sabana
- Santa Elena de Uairén, the largest town in the region, is 8 km from the Brazilian border. It is in the southeast of the area just outside Canaima National Park and has a population of about 25,000. It was established in the 1930s and is today the main supply town for the region's population, tourist industry and mining industry. It's a bit rough at the edges, but has a 'frontier' feel which is interesting, and often fun. There are plenty of tour operators who organize trips around the Gran Sabana and to Mount Roraima.
- Canaima is a small town in the northwest corner of Canaima National Park. It's the main jumping off point for trip to Angel Falls. It is located around a beautiful lagoon fed by five waterfalls, and is worth spending a day or two enjoying.
- El Dorado is a town on a main road into Gran Sabana and Brazil. Like several towns in the area, it was established as a mining town but has fallen on hard times. Still, it's worth having your photo taken by the sign which reads 'Bienvenidos a El Dorado' at the town's entrance.
- Other villages in the region include San Francisco de Yuruani (close to the turn-off to Roraima Tepuy), Kavanayen, El Pauji, and Icabaru.
- All of the area known as the Gran Sabana is protected by Canaima National Park. Canaima is huge - roughly the size of Belgium or Maryland State. It ranks among the world's largest protected areas and has been a World Heritage Site for over 10 years. The 'Gran Sabana' is a direct translation of 'tei pun' in the Pemon Indian tongue, and roughly extends over the southeastern section of the park, where most Pemon are concentrated in various villages that were established in the 1940s and 50s by Capuchin missionaries.
The Gran Sabana sits atop the Guyana (or Guiana) Shield, one of the world's oldest geological formations. It dates back to the Pre-Cambric era, over two billion years ago. The sedimentary rock is full of gold and diamonds and mining in the area has caused severe environmental damage over the last century. Although mining is prohibited inside the park, it takes place all around its borders. The sedimentary rock of the Shield here has eroded in such a way to create huge massifs with vertical cliffs which rise out of the plains and forests into the skies. These are known as 'tepuys' in Pemon, mountains.
The highest of these is Roraima ('Roroi-ma' in Pemon means 'big blue-green') at around 2,800 m (9,100 ft) tall. Its discovery by British explorers (who entered the region from ex-British Guyana to the northeast and east) and subsequent 'conquering' in 1884 is thought to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write 'The Lost World', published in 1912. He envisioned cavemen and prehistoric animals running amok atop the summit. Although far-fetched, the idea is a valid one: the tepuys are regarded as 'islands in time' by scientists since species have developed in complete isolation on top of them over millennia.
The largest tepuy is Auyan, located to the northwest of the park. From its vertical flanks leaps the amazing Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall. Although impressive, in fact, after the rains all the region's tepuys are threaded with waterfalls - a beautiful sight for any visitor. Many of the tepuys are studded with enormous sink-holes, up to 304 m (1000 ft) wide and 304 m (1000 ft) deep, which are unique to the region. Like the tepuys themselves, each of these sink-holes are "islands" and have evolved species of amphibians and insects that are not found anywhere else.
A world apart from anywhere else in Venezuela, can be easily entered along the main highway (BR-174) which connects the Orinoco towns of Ciudad Bolivar and Ciudad Guayana (or Puerto Ordaz) (Bolivar State) to Brazil. Buses run this route regularly. From these two towns (Ciudad Bolivar is more geared to tourism and so probably easier to arrange transportation) one can also fly into the Gran Sabana and Canaima National Park: in large planes to Canaima and Santa Elena de Uairen, and in six-seater small planes to the towns and missionary settlements: Canaima, Kamarata, Kavanayen, Wonken, El Pauji, Ikabaru and Santa Elena.
You can fly to the Orinoco towns from Caracas. At the time of writing, there were no direct flights from Caracas to Santa Elena, you have to change. There are flights from Caracas and Margarita direct to Canaima, with Avior and LTA.
The airport in Ciudad Bolivar hosts the salvaged plane of Jimmie Angel, the maverick American pilot who 'discovered' Angel Falls in 1933.
There is an overland route from the Orinoco to Canaima village, but it's very much a 4-wheel drive affair and not often organized.
It is recommended you get supplies at the Orinoco, as some things may be difficult to get in La Gran Sabana - or more expensive.
The main road from Venezuela to Brazil cuts through the eastern sector of the park, giving access to various waterfalls, beauty spots and to Roraima Tepuy. From the town of Santa Elena de Uairen, 8 km from the Brazilian border, you can organize most tours of the region, or stock up on supplies. One can also rent cars (preferably high clearance) in Puerto Ordaz (Ciudad Guayana) or Ciudad Bolivar on the Orinoco and drive south along the highway. Some areas, such as Roraima Tepuy, are controlled by various indigenous groups and require travelers to hire a native guide in order to pass through them. These guides can be expensive but prices vary.
Two roads split from the main north-south highway, allowing one to penetrate other parts of the region. One heads to the mission of Kavanayen, via the lovely waterfalls of Chinak Meru. Another heads west from Santa Elena to the small and interesting village of El Pauji and on to the mining town of Icabaru.
Transport can be organized in Santa Elena to these places, or you can try hitch-hiking. You can also fly to many parts of the region by small, 6-seater planes. These flights are less than you might expect, about $50-60 per leg, and offer an incredible way to see the Sabana. There are small airstrips at Santa Elena, El Pauji, Ikabaru, Wonken, Kavanayen, Kamarata and Canaima.
- There are countless spectacular waterfalls everywhere in this region, including the world famous Angel Falls.
Exploring the Gran Sabana requires time, patience, decent walking boots and good waterproofs.
- Hotel Gran Sabana (Gran Sabana Hotel), Carretera Nacional vía Brasil, Santa Elena de Uairén, Estado Bolívar, Venezuela (A couple miles outside the center of Santa Elena, heading towards the Brazilian border.), ☎ (58) 289-995-1810. By far the largest and best hotel in Santa Elena de Uairén, the Hotel Gran Sabana is located outside the city center on the National Highway towards the Brazilian border. The brightly-colored hotel has air conditioning and hot water, two features that are not universal in other lodging offerings in the area. It also has an outdoor pool, in-room televisions and refrigerators, and a bar. About $174/night.