RORAIMA TEPUI: The Most Fantabulous Place on the Planet
Jan 30, 2004
David Rich 1400 Words
RORAIMA TEPUI: The Most Fantabulous Place on the Planet
What place would you nominate as the world's most exotic location? North Americans might suggest Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon; South Americans the Galapagos, Antarctica or Iguazu Falls; Australians Ayer's Rock or the Bungle Bungles; Europeans the Alps, Picos de Europa or Dalmatian Coast and so on around the world. But one place beats them all with 70% of its flora found nowhere else on the planet, a location far more exotic than the Galapagos Islands. Plus this place is knockout gorgeous, inspiring Arthur Canon Doyle's "Lost World". Take the National Parks of Bryce and Arches, shake briskly with Ayer's Rock, the Bungle Bungles and the lava fields of Hawaii to form the most exotic mountains of all, sprinkle liberally with gold, diamonds, crystal, sparkling waters, cherry-pink sands and presto you're there.
The most accessible, largest at twenty-five square miles and highest of the approximately one hundred mostly unexplored Venezuelan tepuis (local Indian name for mountains) requires a $400 helicopter ride or six days hiking steeply up, around and back down. Either choice is a no-brainer compared to the cost and accessibility of Antarctica or the Galapagos Islands. Go where Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana intersect and the mighty Roraima Tepui rears its incredibly beautiful head 9000 feet into an almost always-turbulent sky.
Indian-guide Jaime, medicine man extraordinaire, led me up Roraima, the single kind of mountain on the planet where you stay on top instead of saying, 'did that', checking out the view and clambering back down. Once up Roraima you need a minimum of two full days to explore the Grande dame so spend three nights at whichever you prefer of its six excellently situated hotels. You won't exactly loll in luxury because a Roraima hotel is nothing more than a rock overhang to protect your hastily erected tent from the expected daily drenching whether you go in the dry season (December to May) or the wet. But don't go in the wet because you'll have to wade mud to your knees and fjord two raging rivers roped to your guide and fellow hikers plus climb one of the steepest and slipperiest end-clines in the world. After an hour's 4WD to the trailhead village the first thirteen miles is a relative breeze of rolling ups and downs across various rivers. This compares to the last two miles that seem straight up, views to leave you gasping for more reasons than one.
After two days hiking in and up, up, up, oh what you'll see on the top of Roraima. Right next door, a few hundred meters away, is Kukenan Tepui with the second highest waterfall in the world, eclipsed only by Angel Falls several tepuis away. Roraima's top is crammed with fantastically shaped rocks you'll spend days arguing about, whether it's two wolves kissing or more like two anteaters rubbing grotesquely long noses. Every rock hearkens back to a Presley-era high school prom decked out in cherry pink and charcoal gray, from gigantic sombreros to towering mushrooms, a pregnant lady situated next to the straight-up monolith that obviously done her in, the monkey licking an ice-cream cone I swore looked like a darkly pink orangatang and a hundred trillion more. Between the plethora of other-worldly gargoyles winds a cherry pink path of sculpted sand dotted with lakes, ponds and puddles pocked with plants found nowhere else: lavender clover, white-tipped blue-red bullets, medieval yellow maces, brilliant red tubes peppered with tiny white flowers, carnivorous sticky reds and tubular Venus flytraps, perfectly symmetrical cacti in a pointy rainbow of colors, lacy white mistletoe and much more, picture perfect miniature gardens jammed onto islands in perfectly reflecting lagoons. This is the Garden of Eden pre-serpent, St. Patrick having swept the tepui clean and nary a snake to be seen.
So follow the cherry-pink paths to the fantastic valleys and canyons awaiting exploration. Gaze over the jungle stretching far below into the wilds of Guyana veined by virgin rivers, over the miniature mountains of Brazil and the sweeping savannah of Venezuela stretching toward another ninety odd tepuis in the hazy distance. Below you drops an abyss linking Roraima with Kukenan Tepui, the chasm almost always filled with fluffy white clouds billowing in from the Atlantic where the tepuis separated from Africa two billions years ago. When the clouds fill the abyss and spill over Roraima the fog tends to a downpour of drenching proportions. As the deluge descends Roraima becomes an eerie apparition coursed by newly spawned rivers where pink paths once were. You wade an hour to the nearest hotel.
A tall white obelisk marks the location where three countries intersect, at the heart of Roraima. A few hundred meters away is one of several valleys filled with crystal, flawless pentagonals next to depleted diamond fields left with only gold and jasper. Crystals litter the cherry pink sands, cover the bottoms of tiny lagoons and extend in veins as far as the eye can see, bordered by red sandstone wafered with artistic pink sine waves. A mile north lays the largely unexplored labyrinth of stone canyons unknown to all but a few Indian guides, incredible and navigationally undecipherable in its precipitous meanderings. If you have an extra day you can visit the pointy prow of Roraima, an overhang of far more than battleship proportions on the border between Guyana and Brazil.
If you instead head back toward your hotel you'll stop at The Well, one of several sinkholes on the tepui and the most spectacular one. The Well is 30 meters across and 10 meters straight down to the water's surface under which your sadist guide suggests all but the most chicken tourists will immerse their unbathed bodies. To enter The Well requires climbing a rock wall, descending a tall tree and sliding down a huge green boulder to the usual cherry-pink sands that lead through a tunnel into the Well's golden bottom, which is ringed by columns of fantastically carved stone. Humoring your guide you take the plunge to immediately scream up and out of water nine degrees Centigrade, about forty eight degrees Fahrenheit. Such tourist antics prove hysterically funny to the average Indian guide but you feel much cleaner and suddenly better to have escaped death by quick freeze.
Later the guide will introduce you to the more civilized Baths, which is to say warmer. The Baths are a lengthy series of pools carved from layers of pink and orange sandstone, imaginatively contoured and up to three meters deep with water so translucent it's more akin to air. Charcoal gray and cherry pink stone mushrooms tower over the Baths lending an atmosphere of ethereal fantasy as if you'd stumbled onto a set for Alice in Wonderland.
Roraima offers more than massive cathedrals, stone windows and waterfalls cascading over strangely shaped stone pillars. One thing stands out, a commodity largely unavailable in civilization: Roraima's deafening silence. During three days on top I saw no one other than my often trusty Indian guide and heard nothing except fat little birds in the early morning swooping our hotel looking for crumbs. Otherwise the silence was absolute, ignoring the hysterical laughter of my guide at The Well. On the hike out we met a joint force of twenty-eight Brazilian and Venezuelan soldiers on their annual expedition to clean-up Roraima, leaving more trash than they gathered, plus three groups of tourists shattering the former peace and quiet of Roraima. Lucky lucky us.
When you go to the most fantabulous place on the planet: A $400 helicopter ride will allow you less than half an hour on top Roraima or Kukenan tepuis so hike up if you can. The only town of any size in southern Venezuela is Santa Elena with 15,000 people, 2 hours and 50 miles from the Roraima trailhead. Almost a dozen tour companies wait in Santa Elena to take you up Roraima, from $140 to $180 per person (depending on the number in your group) including all food, tents, porters and guide for six days. I recommend Roberto's Mystic Tours though I independently hired a guide and porter. Insist on an extra thick sleeping pad and take good insect repellent for the biting flies buzzing the grassy savannah on the way up; there are almost no insects on top of Roraima. Santa Elena is easily reached by bus or plane from Brazil or Caracas. There are numerous comfortable hotels in Santa Elena ranging from $7 to $30. For more information see www.amazonadventures.com/venezuela.htm, www.arassari.com/1-rorai.html, www.salto-angel.com/roraima.htm, www.lagransabana.com/santaelena.htm and www.virtualtourist.com/vt/92b/2.