image: View of Cuquenan Falls in Venezuela's tepui country.
View of Cuquenan Falls in Venezuela's tepui country.

Photograph © Adam Woolfitt/CORBIS

Venezuela's Tepuis
By Tom Melham

"The unearthly vegetation was...fleshy and lurid, so green the air was green." —David Nott

It's often called the lost world, after Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 fantasy novel. By any name, eastern Venezuela's tepui country is indeed rich in fantasy and adventure, in strange and spectacular scenery, in legend and legendary treasure. There's a primeval, other-worldly feel to tepuis—huge, flat-topped, sheer-walled table mountains that tower over a 500-mile area of rumpled green savanna and forest. Imagine mesas of the American Southwest ballooned to mile-high size and gone to bush: wrapped in spun-sugar clouds, fringed with the exotic foliage of the tropics, and fractured by hundreds of waterfalls. Some have yet to feel the tread of human feet.

In Conan Doyle's novel, adventure-scientists discover a tepui inhabited by dinosaurs, apelike "missing links," and other evolutionary leftovers. Fiction, obviously, but possessing a certain logic. To Conan Doyle, these table mountains were islands in time, so walled off from the world that, like the Galápagos, life evolved here on its own terms, immune to evolutionary battles that raged elsewhere. In fact, tepuis do harbor unique species: tiny toads that neither swim nor hop, insectivorous pitcher plants, and other flora and fauna that occur nowhere else.

The area's exotic topography has also nourished enduring tales of fist-sized gold nuggets and diamonds waiting to be plucked. Conquistadors searched here for such treasure over four centuries ago, as did Sir Walter Raleigh. In the 1920s, American bush pilot Jimmy Angel claimed to have gathered 75 pounds of nuggets from a single tepui-top stream in a few days; he spent the rest of his life vainly trying to relocate that river. In the process, he came across the waterfall that bears the name—the worlds highest, at 3,212 feet—and got his single-engine plane mired in muck after landing above it on the tundralike top of Auyan-tepui.

Though flat, the tops of Auyan-tepui are sometimes corrugated into sandstone mazes so intricate that you could get lost in them. Some boast sculpture gardens: balanced slabs in gravity-defying arrays and multi-ton monoliths named for their shapes—the Nun, Crocodile, the Shaman. Pools, caves, and enormous sink-holes draw climbers and spelunkers bold enough to take them on; hikers can challenge sharp and abrasive rock, shin-bashing bromeliads, numbingly cold sloughs. Little wonder that, today, many tepui visitors come and go by helicopter.

I've stood atop Auyan-tepui—Roaring Mountain, in the language of the local Pemón Indians—and straddled the stream that feeds Angel Falls, watching it break free from its rocky girdle to plunge more than half a mile, straight down. I've seen clouds race up Auyan's awesomely sheer sides while the water streams down. Even thought I've been the first to stand there, I sensed the area's Edenic feel, its primeval allure.

And at the talus-lined base of Auyan-tepui, I walked to the very bottom of Angel Falls, looked up...and barely felt a mist. The drop is so great that all that falling water basically vaporizes on the way down. And so, a metaphor for tepui country: Stony reality or gossamer fable? Like its surroundings, Angel Falls evaporates into sheer magic.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



Click here to go to National Geographic Traveler Online Click here to subscribe to National Geographic Traveler