Canaima: The Land of Tepuis
Some places amaze you with their natural beauty.
Complete works of art from Mother Nature, and the Canaima National Park is the perfect example of it
Canaima National Park
Located in the state of Bolívar, in the southeast of my home country (Venezuela), the Canaima National Park is simply immense.
Covering an area of 30,000 square kilometres, The Canaima National Park is about the same size as Belgium!
Crazy enough, Canaima is only the second-largest national park in Venezuela, after Parima-Tapirapecó, and the sixth biggest in the world.
World Heritage Site
Canaima was declared a national park on June 12, 1962, and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994.
This park is one of the homes of the famous tepuis, massive mountains with flat peaks, which appear majestically on the horizon.
The things that stand out the most in this park are its rivers and waterfalls. Having the highest waterfall in the world, the Angel Falls makes it the most visited and well-known natural park in Venezuela.
Although the Canaima National Park is huge, only relatively small parts are designated for tourism. The town of Canaima tends to be the most important place with the advantage of having an airport with regular flights from other parts of the country and river access for excursions to Angel Falls.
The Tepuis of Canaima
A tepui is an incredibly steep plateau, with flat tops (for the most part) and vertical walls.
The tepuis are representative ecosystems of the Guyanese Shield in South America, which covers parts of countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and mainly the Guianas.
65% of the Canaima National Park is occupied by huge plateaus of solid rock known by the Pemon as tepuy, literally “mountain”.
Erected on walls between 1,000 and 2,900 meters high, they resemble a stone fortress, a gigantic natural laboratory where, due to their difficult accessibility, different and unique ecosystems have evolved in isolation.
The tepuis are made up mainly of quartzite, a metamorphic rock with a high content of quartz which is very slightly soluble. Quite the opposite of what happens in karstic systems, so moldable by the action of water.
Innumerable layers of sandstone have been deposited, one on top of the other, until they have become a gigantic rocky mass up to 6 km or thicker. These sandstones are generally pinkish to whitish in colour, crumble easily and tend to break into blocks at right angles, hence the almost geometric shape of imposing tables with vertical walls.
The Pemón people believed that the gods of the jungle lived in the mysterious plains at the top of these mountains. When one contemplates the tepuis from below, it is not difficult to think of wonderful worlds on their flat peaks.
Centuries after the Pemons, the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle also imagined fantastic stories, locating the habitat of enormous dinosaurs on the top of the tepui for his novel The Lost World.
In the summits of these mountains, the climate is much colder and much more humid due to the fact that the clouds accumulate on them and produce a special microclimate, relatively cool when covered but with strong insolation when they are exposed to the sun. This makes it comparable to the climate of the Andean paramo.
“Scientists think of these mountains as islands in time, separated from the surrounding lowlands for tens of millions of years,” explains geologist Francesco Sauro for National Geographic.
How old are tepuis?
These formations are the oldest on the planet, originating from the Precambrian era, with more than 1,500 million years old.
The tepuis tend to be individually isolated instead of being part of a common chain and this quality is what fosters an environment in which unique evolutionary forms, both animal and plant, develop.
Jimmie Angel meets Auyán-tepui!
Auyán-tepui is home to Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world. It is the most visited and one of the largest (but not the highest) tepuis in the Guiana Highlands, with a summit area of 666.9 km2.
Auyán-tepui means “Devil’s House” in the local Pemón language
Auyán-tepui was introduced to the world in 1933 when Kerepakupai Merú (Angel Falls) was accidentally discovered by James “Jimmie” Crawford Angel, an American aviator who flew over it on November 16, 1933, while searching for a valuable ore bed.
On October 9, 1937, he returned to the falls with the intention of landing. An unsuccessful attempt at landing, since his aircraft nose-dived when it hit the soft ground at the end of its landing run. The wheels sank in the mud, making take-off impossible.
He and his passengers were unharmed but had to trek across difficult terrain and with low food supplies for 11 days to make their way off the tepui and down to the nearest settlement at Kamarata.
His aircraft remained atop Auyantepui until 1970 when it was disassembled and brought down.
The common Spanish name Salto Ángel (Angel Falls) derives from his last name.
The highest waterfall in the world, with a drop of 979 meters, is known in the western world as The Angel Falls.
This is one of the many waterfalls that fall down the walls of the Auyán-tepui in Canaima. But due to its height record and its spectacular nature, it has become one of the most famous symbols of Venezuela.
The water that falls from the top of the tepui seems to disappear into a green sea of trees and foliage. From the sky it looks like an extensive blanket that covers the earth, it seems
The Pemón people have been inhabiting these lands for hundreds of years. At present and after the conscientious work of the missionaries, they profess a combination of indigenous and Christian beliefs.
It is estimated that about 300,000 Pemón live in Venezuela. They are divided into three main groups: The Taurepan, the Arekuna and the Kamarakoto. They all speak the Pemon language, from the Caribbean family of languages, and live in circular adobe houses with thatched roofs.
The first westerner to study the Pemon was the German Theodor Koch-Grünberg. He was an ethnologist who in 1912 documented the traditions and myths of the tribes near Mount Roraima and took the first photographs of the indigenous people. Koch-Grünberg died of malaria, a disease against which tourists who want to explore this area are now vaccinated. The term Pemón, which means “person” or “people”, is used to name its members and therefore differentiate them from whites and other ethnic groups.
The Pemón economy in Canaima is based on agriculture, tourism, hunting and fishing. The main crop is yuca, both bitter and sweet. However, they also have small plantations of sweet potatoes, ocumo, yams, bananas, and some fruits and vegetables. Cotton cultivation is of great importance to the ethnic group, mostly for making hammocks.
On the other hand, the elaboration of ceramics, clay pots and vegetable fibre baskets by Pemón women constitute a significant source of income. Hunting and fishing are carried out on a small scale, only for the consumption of the community by using ancestral traps and shotguns, bows and hooks.
The Pemon people have been living according to their laws and customs for centuries. In this land that has wonders such as the Angel Falls, one of the most recognizable postcards in Venezuela, and great mineral wealth.
Unfortunately, due to the situation in Venezuela and the pandemic, the Pemon have further exploited the mineral wealth of the region to offer it to the highest bidder. This saddens us all since it is their ancestral beliefs that force them to take care of the unique environment they inhabit.
Please never take lightly when we say that sustainable tourism can radically change the situation of a place.
Imagine if all the Pemón who work in mining today would dedicate themselves to receivie travellers from all over the world. To show the beauties of this magnificent place and thus protecting it for future generations.
You have the power to change the fate of the sites you visit.
By travelling to Canaima, you would be supporting these communities that so much need it.