The Real Jurassic Park – Roraima

18 Jan

Welcome to Mount Roraima. A mystical table mountain cut off from civilisation with seemingly impenetrable four hundred metre sheer cliff faces from which tumble cascades of water. It looks like a floating island of rock ascending into the clouds. The mountain’s base is embraced by dense Amazonian jungle and beyond that golden savannah rolls into the distance. Its flat summit is a maze of unusual stone formations, caves, sandy beaches, coloured pools and valleys scattered with crystals. It’s a land that time forgot. A dream-like landscape with shifting mists and home to species of flora and animals found nowhere else on the planet. Thought to be the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel “The Lost World” in which dinosaurs, cannibalistic plants and ape men still lived, this perfectly preserved ancient world remains to this day a real life ‘Jurassic Park’.

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These table mountains are known locally as tepuis. The indigenous Pemon people who inhabit the Gran Sabana have always respected and feared the mountains believing they’re home to ancestor’s spirits. Known as “house of the gods”, local legends told of strange creatures and ghostly shapes roaming the tepuis’ flat plateaus and for many hundreds of years the summits evolved untouched by humankind.

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However, in 1884 an expedition team led by Sir Everard im Thurn discovered a rocky path, now known as the ‘Ramp’, leading up to Roraima’s summit passing through thick jungle and underneath a waterfall. They entered into a unique, unmapped land and they paved the way for exploration of a landscape that is undoubtedly stranger than fiction.

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Arranging your trek

Roraima sits on the border of Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil but can only be accessed from the Venezuelan side. The mountain cannot be hiked independently.  Only a limited number of people are allowed on the tepui at one time and you are required to join a tour group or go solo with a local guide. The only route to the summit is a gruelling six-day return trek from the Venezuelan side so many people also enlist the assistance of porters to carry the required supplies and equipment.

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It’s advisable to spend two nights on top of Roraima in order to have at least one full day exploring.

As a ball park figure, expect to pay $150-$200 per person (using the excellent black market rate Venezuela has for USD) but prices can vary hugely so shop around and barter hard.

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The small town of Santa Elena de Uairén is the best place to organise a guided tour and a good base to spend a few days before and after your trek getting prepared and relaxing. Fly or catch a bus to the border town from Caracas, or Cuidad Bolivar in Venezuela or Boa Vista in Brazil. There are numerous tour agencies in the town. The Venezuelan/German run Backpacker Tours – has a great reputation and is probably the most polished outfit in Santa Elena but their professionalism is reflected in higher prices and usually bigger groups of trekkers (up to twenty people). We opted for the smaller, locally run Turistico Alvares and we were delighted with our choice.

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There were only four of us in our group so a great size to get up close and personal with the mountain.

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The friendly and helpful manager Francisco organised a guide, transport to and from the trailhead, good quality camping equipment (although we used our own) and all food and drink. A good tour company will spend time with you prior to the trek explaining the route, the demands you’ll face and advising what to take. Francisco even threw in free dinner and beer for our group on our return – a really nice touch! The company has an office at Hotel Michelle and the bus station.

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Accommodation

This trek is totally self-supported and for us that added to our enjoyment. There are no hotels or camps already set up along the way so you are literally immersed in nature. It’s necessary to carry everything you’ll need for six days of trekking with you – clothes, camping gear, cooking equipment and food – and to carry all rubbish off the mountain.

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Each night is spent in a tent so a comfortable roll mat and a decent sleeping bag are essential. Even though temperatures on the savannah can reach the mid-twenty’s, once you reach the top of the tepuis it can plummet to around zero degrees at night so pack some thermals.

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At camps one and two there are basic wooden structures (that could be mistaken for cow sheds!) to offer some protection if it’s raining, and with wooden benches for dining.  Once on top of Roraima, shelter from the elements is found amongst the mountain’s weird and wonderful rock formations where you sleep in “hotels” – a ledge tucked under rocky overhangs with room for three or four tents pitched close together.

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Weather

Remarkably unreliable even in the dry season so make sure your tent is waterproof and you have decent rain wear – gortex jacket, trousers and shoes. The day before we departed, we met a returning group who’d been rained on for five of the six days of their trek. By the end nothing was dry and they had to walk and sleep in damp clothes.

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A useful tip is to carry plenty of plastic bags to wrap clothes inside your backpack and also to invest in a rain cover. The following day we set off and only had one day of rain out of six – the luck of the draw! When the sun shines it’s strong and there’s little wind so remember to pack a hat and sunscreen.

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Guide

Our guide Angelo was by far the youngest on the mountain at a fresh-faced eighteen (he turned nineteen two days after our trek finished). He’d started guiding at fifteen to earn extra money for his studies and fell in love with the area and in particular with Roraima. He’d climbed the mountain over 100 times but never grew board of its beauty and variety.

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Like a typical young lad he was very image conscious, so much so that he sometimes wore a diamanté stud earring, skinny jeans and flip-flops whilst trekking. The sad thing was he was stronger and more nimble than any of us! He was also an excellent cook!

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Six day itinerary

There are different lengths of trek that can be arranged depending on time constraints and what you want to see but the standard itinerary is a six-day trek – 2.5 days trek to the summit, 1.5 days on top of Roraima and 2 days to descend.

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On day one, groups depart from Santa Elena between 8.30am and 9.30am so the drive and first day trek can be completed by late afternoon. It’s a two-hour drive from Santa Elena across the savannah to the village of Paraitepui where the trail starts. After a section of highway, a four-wheel drive vehicle is required to navigate through farmland and along unsealed bumpy roads.

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From the trailhead it’s roughly eight kilometres to the first camp. The route is across undulating hills with some flat sections and forested areas taking four to five hours.  Roraima and Kukenan Tepuis (on the left) dominate the skyline and grow in size as you slowly move towards them.

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There is no bridge to cross Rio Tek so wading knee-deep whilst still wearing socks to avoid falling on moss-covered rocks offers a refreshing interlude on day one. The river can swell during rainy periods and at this time guides will fix a rope across the water for added security.

The first night is spent at camp Rio Kukenan.

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Day two is the shortest trekking day with walking time of around four hours.  It’s a steady climb, almost all uphill from 1100m to 1900m through colourful bushland and spiky grass to base camp and with rain or shine this can feel pretty gruelling.

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The reward when you reach base camp is wrap-around views of the tepuis in front and either side of you, plus stunning sunsets across endless savannah.

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From here observe the narrow strip of green stretching diagonally upwards across the sheer grey cliff face known as the ‘Ramp’ which leads to the plateau.

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Day three is spent summiting Roraima and is undoubtedly the most physically challenging day with some very steep sections. Traversing through thick jungle filled with rare orchids and creeping plants that twist themselves around branches like fingers. You pass small waterfalls and balance on stepping-stones to cross rivers until you hit the solid wall rock stretching high above and either side of you like an iron curtain.

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Here the adventure really begins as you ascend the ‘Ramp’ on loose scree and stone passing directly under a waterfall and make the final push to the summit clambering between increasingly large rocks. The afternoon is spent relaxing and exploring the plateau.

Day four is a full day on top of the tepui. Roraima is the highest of the Pakaraima mountains at 2,810 metres and its summit of thirty one square kilometres. There are different options for exploring the summit and guides will usually ask the group for preferences.

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A popular trip goes to Triple Point where the boundaries of Venezuela, Guiana and Brazil come together on top of Roraima but it makes for a long day with an eight-hour round trek. There’s lots to see within a one hour radius of your rock hotel and many find this the most enjoyable way to experience the otherworldly plateau. Don’t miss the sunset from Roraima’s highest point as this will send shivers down your spine!!

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Days five and six take you back down and are two tough days of walking, initially to Rio Tek where you spent the first night, and then out of the park.

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You’ll need to dig deep in your reserves as legs wobble and knees buckle with the adrenaline from the ascent all but gone. Every time you glance over your shoulder you are astounded with what an incredible place you’ve just visited.

Stepping into another world

The rewards for the hard slog are some of the most memorable views you’ll see in a lifetime. The level of the sun, the clouds, the swirling mists and location during the trek mean that views are ever-changing. There aren’t hoards of other trekkers getting in your photograph, in fact a handful of small groups are the only people for miles around and you are connected with nature at its most pristine level.

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On top of the plateau the views just keep getting better. On sections of the Plateau rim cracks several metres deep exist and it’s necessary to stride or jump across to reach the precipice. To stand on the edge of the plateau is both exhilarating and terrifying.

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At the ‘Window of Guyana’ catch glimpses of jaw dropping views through the mist. Swirling clouds fill the gulf between the tepuis and along the length of Kukenan Tepui rows of waterfalls tumble from the summit.

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Edge yourself out onto small platforms to take the ultimate photographs whilst trying not to think about the four hundred metre vertical drop below you.

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Visit the Valle de los Cristales where large white and clear quartz crystals litter the ground and are a sharp, beautiful contrast gleaming against Roraima’s dark black rocks.

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There are some incredibly beautiful spots to bathe along the trek. The tepuis’ plateaus are one of the wettest places on earth and waterfalls gushing from the summits flow into crystal clear rivers that sparkle like diamonds. On Roraima’s summit icy water gathers in rock pools ironically described by guides as jacuzzis.

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Rich minerals within the rocks makes the pools glow fabulous shades of orange and purple making the urge to swim in them almost unstoppable. The water takes your breath away but the sensation of floating in this strange new world is worth every gasp!

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Ape Men and Dinosaurs?

Roraima is part of the world’s oldest geological chain of mountains. Older than the Andes, geologists calculate this chain of flat-topped mountains were formed around twenty-five million years ago when South America and Africa were part of a super-continent. Uplifted from the ocean floor with the shifting of tectonic plates and eroded over millions of years, the towering tepuis were formed.

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To our surprise, the plateau was not a lush, over-grown wilderness but instead a stark, barren landscape with a warren of jet black rock.

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Rather than being completely flat as it appears from afar, there are unusual rock formations, caves and deep valleys.

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It’s hard to imagine that anything could survive up here but look a little closer and you’ll discover rare orchids, pitcher plants that devour insects alive and brightly coloured mosses like fluffy wool.

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For millions of years plant and animal life has evolved completely independently with no contact from human kind. Around 70% of life found on Venezuela’s Tepuis exists nowhere else in the world and around 35% of Roraima’s species are endemic to that mountain alone.

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Other species are like living relics, almost identical to plants and animals that are now extinct in the rest of the world. The endemic black frogs found on the plateau can neither hop or swim but they have evolved a cunning technique to fool their predators by turning into a ball and rolling off rocks.

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Graceful humming birds hover across the summit and blind birds navigate through deep canyons using sonar. At base camp look out for fireflies or “insectos de bomberos” (firemen insects) at dusk.

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Not every animal to be discovered on Roraima is quite so friendly so keep an eye out for scorpions and furry, fist sized spiders. An irritating companion on the savannah are invisible biting insects called ‘Puri-Puri’. They’ll try to eat you alive so wear long sleeves and trousers, take a strong insect repellent and when you get bitten, try not to scratch!!

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Inspired by his travels Conan Doyle wrote “South America is a place I love, it’s the grandest, richest, most powerful bit of earth upon this planet…the more you know of that country, the more you would understand that anythin’ was possible – anythin’” (The Lost World)

We may not have found Tyrannosaurus Rex or King Kong on Mount Roraima’s plateau but we did discover a unique and mystical mountain which remains to this day, one of the least explored places on the planet.

 

6 Responses to “The Real Jurassic Park – Roraima”

  1. exsprepod January 18, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    Fantastic landscapes, out of this world!

    • latinchattin January 18, 2015 at 7:34 pm #

      Thanks exsprepod! Stepping out onto Roraima’s plateau was a bit like arriving on the moon!

  2. infused exposures January 19, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    Phenomenal photography Kate! Wow! What a place guys!! Those fantastic images really capture the beauty of Roraima. You just increased our resolve to get there by tenfold! Although,the photo of ‘the ramp’ had me uneasily gulping and Laurent practically ran out of the room when he saw the size of that spider!!!

    • latinchattin January 21, 2015 at 9:54 am #

      Thanks Jo & Laurent. We know you’ve been waiting for this post for some time now so it’s great to read thst you enjoyed it and were inspired by the photos. Roraima is one of South America’s gems and we know you’ll love it when you do make it there, despite the knee buckling ramp and the hairy spiders!

  3. EVELYN July 25, 2015 at 2:47 am #

    Hola chicos!!!… me cruce con su blog!!los re felicito y admiro por haberse animado a hacer lo que màs desean!!!. Queremos viajar con unos amigos a Roraima en enero 2016!, me impacto sus fotos!!. que lugar me podrian recomendar para hospedarnos en Boa Vista ySanta Elena??. Gracias!!!

    • latinchattin July 30, 2015 at 8:44 am #

      Hola Evelyn! Thank you for your wonderful comments. Roraima was a highlight of our whole year in South America – it’s incredibly beautiful and with so few tourists you feel like you really have discovered a lost world. In Santa Elena we stayed in reasonably priced and centrally located Hotel Michelle. This is a good place to organise tours of the local area. Lots of travellers stay here so it’s a good place to meet people from around the world. Wishing you a fabulous trip to Venezuela in 2016!

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