Official name: Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Area: 912,050 square kilometers (352,144 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Bolívar Peak (5,007 meters/16,427 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Northern and Western
Time zone: 8 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 1,487 kilometers (924 miles) from west-northwest to east-southeast; 1,175 kilometers (730 miles) from north-northeast to south-southwest
Land boundaries: 4,993 kilometers (3,103 miles) total boundary length; Brazil 2,200 kilometers (1,367 miles); Colombia 2,050 kilometers (1,274 miles); Guyana 743 kilometers (462 miles)
Coastline: 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Venezuela is located on the Caribbean Sea on the northern coast of South America, sharing borders with Guyana, Brazil, and Colombia. With a total area of about 912,050 square kilometers (352,144 square miles), the country is slightly more than twice the size of California. Venezuela is administratively divided into twenty-three states, one federal district, and one federal dependency.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Eleven offshore island groups containing a total of seventy-two islands are considered to be part of Venezuela.
With a tropical climate, Venezuela has little seasonal variation in temperature; there is considerable variation based on altitude, however, with much cooler weather in the Andean heights of the northwest than on the plains. Temperatures average 26°C to 28°C (79°F to 83°F) in the lowlands and plains that are below 800 meters (2,625 feet). On terrain that has elevations between 800 and 2,000 meters (2,625 to 6,560 feet), temperatures average 12°C to 25°C (54°F to 77°F). At elevations between 2,000 and 3,000 meters (6,560 and 9,840 feet), temperatures average 9°C to 11°C (48°F to 52°F). Finally, in the high mountains above 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), there are permanent snowfields and annual temperatures average below 8°C (46°F).
Two basic seasons occur in Venezuela: a wet season from May through November, which is commonly referred to as winter; and a dry season, or summer, from December through April. The average annual rainfall in Venezuela is 81 centimeters (32 inches), with more rain falling in the mountains and less on the Caribbean coast and islands. Humidity averages 50 to 60 percent. Heavy rains cause periodic flooding; for example, in December 1999, floods caused mudslides that destroyed settlements on the deforested river banks and hillsides in northern Venezuela, killing thirty thousand people.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Venezuela occupies a large and varied region of northern South America, with a Caribbean coast, extensions of the Andes Mountains, rainforests, and grassy plains. Geographers divide Venezuela into four regions: the Maracaibo Lowlands, the Northern Mountains, the Orinoco Lowlands, and the Guiana Highlands.
Venezuela is situated on the South American Tectonic Plate. The northern shoreline, however, sits on the border between this plate and the Caribbean Plate. The South American Tectonic Plate is slowly sliding westward while the Caribbean Plate is sliding eastward. Over millions of years, the action of these plates has caused the formation of rocky cliffs on the Caribbean Coast as well as myriad fault lines running through north-central Venezuela. The major fault line, the San Sebastian Fault, runs along the border between the two plates. Earthquakes and landslides often occur here.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
Venezuela's northern shore meets the Caribbean Sea, which is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. The coral reefs off the coast have been damaged by silt buildups and tourist development.
Sea Inlets and Straits
The Gulf of Venezuela, an inlet of the Caribbean, lies at the far northwestern coastline of the country. This Gulf spills into Lake Maracaibo. On the eastern coast, the Gulf of Paria is partially enclosed by the neighboring island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. The Dragon's Mouth Strait links the Gulf of Paria to the Caribbean and separates northern Trinidad from the tip of the Paria Peninsula. The Serpent's Mouth Strait connects the Paria to the Atlantic Ocean and separates southern Trinidad from Venezuela. Near the Guyana border, the delta of the Orinoco River includes many small inlets.
Islands and Archipelagos
Seventy-two islands belong to Venezuela. The most important by far is Margarita Island (Isla Margarita), which has an area of about 1,067 square kilometers (412 square miles). Though rocky and receiving little rainfall, it is nevertheless heavily populated and intensively farmed. The other islands vary from coral atolls to sand-bars to rocks. The 220-square-kilometer (85-square-mile) La Tortuga Island is located 88 kilometers (55 miles) west of Margarita. The most distant island, the tiny islet of Aves, is situated 483 kilometers (300 miles) north of Margarita. Morrocoy National Park, a wildlife preserve, is a small archipelago off the eastern coast.
Venezuela boasts the Caribbean's longest coastline. Nature refuges and tourist resort areas are interspersed along the rocky coast. The Guajira Peninsula at the far northwest coast is shared with Colombia. The Paraguaná Peninsula helps define the Gulf of Venezuela. The central coast has sandy beaches and rocky cliffs as it undulates gently around to the Paria Peninsula, which juts out toward Trinidad.
Along the coast, Venezuela has five sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Los Roques Archipelago is a group of forty-five small islands surrounding a lagoon, with coral reefs and mangroves. Ciénaga de Los Olivitos is a coastal salt marsh area and a significant bird habitat that is threatened by salt mining. Cuare, Restinga Lagoon, and Tacarigua Lagoon are also coastal wetlands, with mangroves, birds, and turtles. Other wetlands include the mudflats of the Orinoco Delta, with more than seventy outlets spread out over 23,300 square kilometers (9,000 square miles).
6 INLAND LAKES
Lake Maracaibo, covering about 16,316 square kilometers (6,300 square miles), is the largest inland body of water in Latin America. In the north, it is directly connected to the Gulf of Venezuela by an island-dotted channel some 40 kilometers (25 miles) in length. The lake has an average depth of 9 meters (30 feet) and is navigable to its southern end. The connection with the sea makes the lake brackish (a mixture of salt water and fresh water).
Second in importance among Venezuela's hundreds of lakes is Lake Valencia (369 square kilometers/142 square miles), located southwest of Caracas in the heart of the country's best agricultural lands. Originally, this lake drained southward toward the Orinoco, but forest clearing on surrounding mountain slopes and over-planting of adjacent level ground caused its waters to subside until it was left without a surface outlet. Lake Valencia and Lake Maracaibo are both badly polluted by sewage and industrial waste.
Other lakes include the large, mercury-contaminated Guri Reservoir on the Canaima River and other reservoirs formed by hydroelectric dams, as well as numerous small mountain lakes in the Cordillera de Mérida. The coastal lowlands are also scattered with lagoons.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
Although there are more than one thousand rivers in Venezuela, the river systems are dominated by the Orinoco River. The Orinoco flows west, then north, and then east for 2,574 kilometers (1,600 miles) to the Atlantic Ocean from its source in the Guiana Highlands at the Brazilian border. This river carries an enormous amount of water, and it is among the greatest rivers in the world in terms of volume. It is as wide as 8 kilometers (5 miles) in some areas. Its flow varies substantially by season. When the river is low, Atlantic tidal effects can reach Ciudad Bolívar, 418 kilometers (260 miles) upstream.
The Orinoco River system includes 436 tributaries. A few of the longest of these are the Arauca, Apure, Meta, Guaviare, and Ventuari. The Orinoco system provides drainage for about four-fifths of the country. It gathers the interior runoff from the Northern Mountains, most of the water from the Guiana Highlands, and the seasonal waters of the extensive great plains ( llanos ). As the Orinoco passes through the central part of southern Venezuela, it divides its waters. Through the Casiquiare Channel, it sends one-third of its volume through the Negro River to the Amazon River along navigable waterways.
DID YOU KNOW?
Angel Falls—the highest waterfall in the world at 979 meters (3,212 feet), including a straight drop of 807 meters (2,647 feet)—is a spectacular sight in Venezuela's Guiana Highlands. Its waters plunge from the 600-square-kilometer (232-square-mile) mesa, Auyán Tepuy, considered the abode of spirits by local Pemon Indians. The waterfall is named after American bush pilot Jimmie Angel, who revealed its existence to the world in 1935.
Most of the rivers rising in Venezuela's Cordillera de Mérida flow southeastward to the Apure River, a tributary of the Orinoco. From its headwaters in the Cordillera de Mérida, the Apure crosses the llanos in a generally eastward direction. There are also rivers that flow north from the Cordillera de Mérida into Lake Maracaibo and the Caribbean, including the Tuy River, which drains the country's most prosperous agricultural lands.
The country's other major river is the fast-flowing Caroni, which originates in the Gran Sabana and flows northward to join the Orinoco at Ciudad Guayana. Major hydroelectric projects have been established on its course.
There are no desert regions in Venezuela.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
North of the Orinoco, the llanos (grasslands) cover about 300,000 square kilometers (115,800 square miles). These plains, broken by low mesas, are used for cattle grazing. The rivers and streams winding through the llanos seasonally overflow their banks, turning the grasslands into wetlands, which then gradually dry out. These alternately wet and dry grasslands form an extraordinary wild-life habitat with many species of birds (such as ibis, herons, storks), mammals (such as capybaras and pumas), and reptiles (such as anacondas and caimans).
In the Gran Sabana, south of the Orinoco in the Guiana Highlands along the Brazilian frontier, grasslands surround the forested tepui (tabletop mountains).
Venezuela suffered the loss of over 8 percent of its forests during the 1980s. The deforestation resulted mainly from agricultural and ranching expansion and also from urbanization, pollution, and logging. About 60 percent of the natural forest north of the Orinoco River was destroyed.
At present, 48 percent of Venezuela still has forest cover, which survives mostly in the northeast around the Orinoco Delta, the southeast, and the south. Mining and logging operations, both legal and illegal, continue to deforest the Guiana Highlands, however, where much of the remaining natural forest is found.
Efforts are being made to protect the remaining forests, with 35 percent of Venezuela's land use officially regulated and 29 percent of Venezuela's terrain designated as national park land. Huge forest parks include the Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Orinoco-Casiquiare (83,000 square kilometers/32,046 square miles) in the south, which is the world's largest protected tropical rainforest, and Canaima National Park (30,000 square kilometers/11,583 square miles) in the Guiana Highlands.
Hill regions of Venezuela include Tachira (a coffee-growing area in the west), the Sierra de San Luis in the northwest, Margarita Island, and the Paria Peninsula, as well as parts of the south. The capital, Caracas, is surrounded by urbanized, deforested hillsides that are vulnerable to landslides.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
The Northern Mountains and their spur ranges extend from the Colombian border on the west to the coastal Paria Peninsula on the east. The Andes Mountains rise in Venezuela as the Cordillera de Mérida, containing permanently snow-capped peaks. The highest mountain in Venezuela, Bolívar Peak, at over 5,007 meters (16,427 feet), is located in this chain. The Cordillera de Mérida extends nearly to the Caribbean coast. The Cordillera de Venezuela runs eastward along the coast. This range, where altitudes average over 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) and individual peaks reach from 2,133 to 2,743 meters (7,000 to 9,000 feet), is flanked on the north by narrow coastal plains, except where the mountain slopes descend directly to the Caribbean. Part of the Cordillera de Venezuela terminates at Cape Codera on the Caribbean, but remnants of a parallel range continue eastward, ending near the Unare River.
Farther eastward the Cumana Highlands (also called the Eastern Highlands) rise in a broad block and extend to the east, terminating near the Gulf of Paria. At the core of the Cumana Highlands, some peaks reach 2,438 meters (8,000 feet), but most of the system is made up of relatively low, dissected uplands.
In the south, the Guiana Highlands contain many mountain ranges. The Sierra Parima and Pacaraima Mountains form the southeastern borders with Brazil, extending south and east, respectively, from a common point of origin. The Sierra Parima reach heights of 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) while Mount Roraina in the Pacaraima Mountains towers to 2,810 meters (9,218 feet). The Sierra Maigualida form an arc in the center of southern Venezuela.
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Dramatic river canyons cut through the Canaima region of the Guiana Highlands. Devil's Canyon lies at the foot of Angel Falls in southeastern Venezuela. Kavac Canyon is one of the world's narrowest, with a depth of 122 meters (400 feet) but a width of only 1.2 meters (4 feet). Hacha Canyon is also located in the Canaima region. The Cordillera de Mérida contains several river canyons, such as Santa Catalina Canyon near Merída.
Oil Bird Cave (La Cueva del Guácharo), located near the town of Caripe, is the largest cavern in the country. The cave is named for the bird species that has inhabited the cave for several generations. The birds are considered to be one of the largest colonies of this unique species, a nocturnal, fruit-eating bird that can grow to a size of 33 centimeters (13 inches) with a wingspan of 91 centimeters (36 inches). Though native inhabitants had explored the entry to the cave in order to hunt the birds, Alexander von Humboldt conducted the first scientific exploration of the cave during his famous expedition to South America (1799-1804).
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
In the northwest, the Cordillera de Mérida chain broadens northward to form the Segovia Highlands, which consists of heavily dissected plateaus decreasing in altitudes from 1,828 meters (6,000 feet) at their southern extremity to 183 meters (600 feet) in the north.
DID YOU KNOW?
The term "Latin America" is more of a cultural and political designation than a geographic description. It generally refers to the countries of the Western Hemisphere, south of the United States, where the native language is Spanish, Portuguese, or French. These three languages are Romance languages, which means that they were all derived from Latin, the language spoken by the ancient Romans.
The Guiana Highlands, rising almost immediately south of the Orinoco River, are considered to be the oldest land areas of the country; erosion over the centuries has caused unusual formations. Comprising about 57 percent of the national territory, the 517,988-square-kilometer (200,000-square-mile) highlands consist principally of plateau areas scored by swiftly running tributaries of the Orinoco. The most conspicuous topographical feature of the region is the Gran Sabana, a deeply eroded high plateau some 36,260 square kilometers (14,000 square miles) high, that rises deep in the interior in abrupt cliffs reaching elevations up to 762 meters (2,500 feet). From its rolling surface emerge massive perpendicular, flat-topped bluffs, called tepuis. The loftiest tepui, Mount Roraima (at the intersection of Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana), exceeds 2,743 meters (9,000 feet).
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
The enormous Guri hydroelectric project on the Caroni River, the second-largest hydro-electric plant in the world, contains one of the world's largest dams. Completed in 1986, the damming of this river caused the flooding of large forest areas. This massive flooding resulted in environmental protests, including vigorous opposition to a plan to run power cables from the Guri project through the Cainama National Park to Brazil. A megadam project to generate electricity for export has been proposed for the Caura River in the central Guiana Highlands. This proposal is also causing a great deal of controversy among environmentalists.
14 FURTHER READING
Fox, Geoffrey. The Land and People of Venezuela . New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Heinrichs, Ann. Venezuela . New York: Children's Press, 1997.
Jordan, Tanis, and Martin Jordan. Angel Falls: A South American Journey . New York: Kingfisher Books, 1995.
Murphy, Alan, and Mick Day. Venezuela Handbook . Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 2001.
George, Uwe. "Venezuela's Islands in Time." National Geographic , May 1989, 526-562.
Venezuela Yours. http://www.venezuelatuya.com/eng.htm (accessed June 19, 2003).