Evening shawdows creep across the top of Mt. Roraima while the setting sun illuminates neighboring Kukenán-tepui

MT. RORAIMA, located on Venezuela's border with Brasil and Guiana, is the highest of the tepuis (flat-topped mountains) in the Gran Sabana, topping out at 2810 m. It was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World", which has made it the most famous of all the tepuis. Roraima has become a popular trek, completely non-technical, but moderately strenuous even with porters to carry most of your gear, and more than moderately strenuous if you are going without porters. The Venezuelan park service, INPARQUES, requires that you take a guide; we recommend that you hire porters, too, for not only will the use of porters make your trip easier, you will be helping the Pemón Indians earn cash income that is otherwise hard to come by.

The ascent normally requires two and one-half days of hiking from the Pemón village of Paraitepui; the downhill return hike can be done in two days. Hikers should spend a *minimum* of two nights on top of Roraima, in order to have at least one full day to explore its fascinating and other-worldly topside; two or more days on top would be even better.

Typical Roraima trek itinerary: The town of Santa Elena is the usual jumping off point for Roraima treks. Trekkers can reach Santa Elena by air (Rutaca Airlines has scheduled flights --in Cessna 206s!-- several days --a week, originating in Ciudad Bolivar), or by car south across the Gran Sabana from Puerto Ordaz. A good way to see the country is to fly in and go by highway on the way out, or vice-versa. It is also possible to arrive Santa Elena from Brasil, a few kilometers by road to the south. In any case, it is advisable for trekkers to plan to spend a night in Santa Elena finalizing their Roraima plans, and getting off to an early start the following day. For comfortable overnighting, we recommend Yakoo Lodge a short distance outside the dusty town.

Trek day 1: It is about two hours drive to the Pemón village of Paraitepui, where the road ends and the trek proper begins; a 4WD vehicle is needed. Paraitepui is a check point where visitors register and where the porters pick up their loads, each of which is carefully weighed (maximum allowable load per porter: 15 kilos). The village sits on high ground, affording a splendid view of Mt. Roraima (right) and Kukenán-tepui (left) in the distance. Note: Trekkers are not permitted to begin hiking after 2 PM. Note also: National Park regulations do not permit the collection of souvenirs-- rocks, crystals, plants or animals-- and your packs may be subject to inspection upon your return to Paraitepui.

The first day's trek begins with a few warm-up hills with intervening wooded valleys. After several hills are crested the trail crosses a long stretch of open savanna, with Roraima on the skyline beckoning. Its neighbor, Kukenán-tepui is closer and also impressive, its scale revealed when clouds swirl around it.

After three or four hours of hiking the Río Tek campsite is reached, a short distance from the stream of that name. However, it is advisable to continue on another 45 minutes or an hour to the Río Kukenán campsite, crossing both streams before stopping for the night. Neither river is large, both are crossed by wading, but both can rise rapidly and unexpectedly if there are rains upstream, hence it is best to get across them at the first opportunity, both coming and going. [In the rainy season when these streams are swollen, guides sometimes have to tie a line from bank to bank to get trekkers across safely; and the streams can be uncrossable at times, forcing delays.]

The Río Kukenán campsite is by the river on the Roraima side, and a pleasant site, but it is not infrequently plagued with biting bugs called puri-puris, and mosquitos, too. Bug repellent is a must!

Trek day 2: The second day's hike is only about four hours. While not particularly steep, it is almost continuously uphill, from the Río Kukenán camp at about 1100 m to the "Base Camp" about 1900 m. Hiking is best done in the morning, as the mid-afternoon sun can bear down. Looming before you is Roraima, and you can see an irregular ledge, shrouded in jungle, sloping from right to left up the fortress-like tepui wall; this is next day's ascent route. This route, pioneered in 1884 by two Brits, Evard Im Thurn and Harry Perkins, remains the only practical route of ascent.

Base Camp is so-called because it is located more or less at the base of Mt. Roraima, depending, of course on how one defines the base of the mountain. The hike from the river has been up a long slope of outwash from the mountain, the result of eons of erosion. The camp is located just before the trail begins to ascend steeply, and is a good place to rest up before the final assault the next day. It has a good water supply and adequate flat areas for a number of tents. Looking out from Base Camp over the sabana towards Paraitepui, Roraima is behind you, and Kukenán-tepui is splendid in the twilight.

Trek day 3: Before beginning the real climb up Roraima it's a good idea to inventory your surplus items, i.e., unnecessary weight. There is a locked hut at Base Camp and some of the guides have keys so you can leave items you have realized you can live without, and pick them up on the return.

From Base Camp the trail descends a short distance to cross a creek, then starts its long climb up to the top, some 800 m above. The first portion of the ascent is up jungle-covered rubble slopes below Roraima's great cliffs. After an hour or an hour and a half of climbing the trail reaches the base of the cliffs. Here the trail turns left to parallel the massive cliffs as it continues upwards through jungle. Opportunites for views are scarce in this section, but the jungle itself is beautiful, and when shrouded in clouds is especially mysterious and cool (but count on working up a good sweat whatever the weather).

Eventually, at higher elevations, the jungle begins to thin and views out and down to the sabana and Base Camp are possible, but these tend to be overwhelmed by views of the spectacular, 400 m high cliff of quartzite known simply as "The Wall", dwarfing all who tread below it. The trail below the wall has a couple of ups and downs, including one steep descent necessary to pass below a seasonal waterfall, which commonly necesitates rain gear to avoid a soaking. Between the two short down stretches is a sort of pinnacle which makes a good stopping point for a rest break and to enjoy the view.

Beyond the waterfall the trail heads up the final climb, a continuous, remarkably uniform slope known as The Ramp. The Ramp tops out on Roraima's black plateau at El Portal, around 2700 m. The landscape is fissured and eroded into weirdly shaped rocks such as the "Flying Turtle". If it has rained recently, small pools, lined with exotic vegetation dot the plateau surface. The quartzite forming the plateau is actually light-colored, commonly a soft pink, but is rendered an ominous black by algae living on and in the surface of the rock.

About 15 minutes hike from El Portal is the area known as Los Hoteles. Here small caves, really just hollows and overhangs, provide shelters for campsites. Note: As of late 2003 no adequate toilet facilities had been created in the area of the "hotels". Responsible campers must take care with human waste, digging holes and burying it; responsible guides insist that used paper be saved and carried out with other trash. (Another benefit of having porters: they carry out the trash!)

From the "hotels" numerous trails lead out to sights to see, including nearby sites such as the "Valley of the Crystals" (one of several areas littered with millions of quartz crystals eroded from veins cutting the quartzite bedrock), and a series of picturesque and clear (but rather chilly) bathing pools called the jacuzzis. Each pothole in the pink quartzite is floored with innumerable loose white quartz crystals. A longer hike is that which leads to a section of the plateau rim where deep fissures form impressive chasms. These great cracks are tens of meters deep and result from on-going erosion along ancient joints (geologic fractures in the quartzite); these joints are considered by some to be evidence of the break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea, tension cracks formed when South America drifted away from Africa. Recently it was discovered that guácharos, i.e., oil birds, inhabit some of these shadowy fissures.

A long hike --about eight hours round trip-- is that which leads to the Punta Triple, or "Triple Point", where the boundaries of Venezuela, Guiana and Brasil come together. Lots to see en route, but this hike is probably only recommendable for trekkers who have more than one full day on top of Roraima. Hikers with only one day topside would be better advised to do a variety of shorter hikes.

Whatever the hike, there's plenty to see in this strange environment. While there is much barren rock, there are also many exotic and bizarre but beautiful plants, including treeferns, ferns and mosses, orchids, a number of plants found only on the tepuis. A notable suite of carnivorous plants --an evolutionary trend reflecting the nutrient-poor nature of the thin soils that develop on the quartzite-- includes sundews, pitcher plants, and even carnivorous bromeliads whose leaves have evolved into tube-shaped water-filled death traps for unwary insects. Every pool is a showcase of fairy gardens.

The most visible animals --but scarcely the easiest to photograph-- are birds, including jewel-like hummingbirds. One special tepui critter that is easy to find and photograph is a small, black frog, (Oreophrynella quelchii), so primitive that it neither hops nor swims. Another oddity is the grillo de agua, which translates as "water cricket", and which indeed is an aquatic cricket. These beasties are rather large for crickets, and reportedly can give a painful bite. Coatimundi tracks and mouse (?) tracks can be seen, but the critters are shy and infrequently caught abroad in the daylight. According to guides, the coatis are newcomers, having followed the trekkers trail, perhaps scavenging campers' left-overs. Other animal sightings are not impossible, but so far there are no credible sightings of Conan Doyle's dinosaurs! Nonetheless, the terrain is so bizarre that it is hard not to suspect some strange critters are lurking about, flitting among the crazy rock formations, perhaps even gnomes.

Roraima visitors should try to stay on established trails, which generally show up clearly as traffic wears away the algae-blackened surface to expose the pale quartzite underneath. Anyone attempting a long un-guided ramble runs a real risk of getting lost; stick with your guide!

The return trek down to Paraitepui is commonly done in two days. With an early start, the first day is a long hike from the top all the way back to the Río Tek campsite. Again, the point is to cross both the Kukenán and Tek rivers without delay. From Río Tek camp Paraitepui is just three or four hours of hiking. Paraitepui is home to the porters and this is where they should be paid. Visitors' knapsacks may be inspected here to make sure no unauthorized souvenirs have been carried down from Roraima.

Transport from Paraitepui back to Santa Elena should be pre-arranged, for vehicular traffic is scarce here and all seats may be taken on such vehicles as may arrive.

Want to trek Roraima? Rutahsa Adventures will be glad to help you arrange the trek that suits you. We have contacts with reliable Venezuelan operators and can set up a Roraima trek for you beginning and ending in Santa Elena, or we can arrange an entire package from Caracas and back. Tell us about your Roraima dreams and we will help you make them come true.

GRAN SABANA and ANGEL FALLS: Roraima is one of many dramatic tepuis rearing up from Venezuela's Gran Sabana. To reach Santa Elena from anywhere in Venezuela you must either fly over the Gran Sabana or cross it by vehicle. We recommend you combine your Roraima trek with a Gran Sabana tour, flying in to see the "lay of the land", and touring by 4WD on the way out. And no first trip to Venezuela is complete without a visit to Angel Falls.

RUTAHSA ADVENTURES can arrange Roraima treks, Gran Sabana tours and visits to Angel Falls for independent travelers. We can also arrange visits to the Orinoco Delta, Los Llanos, Isla Margarita, Los Roques, the Cave of the Guácharos, Mérida and more, as described in our website Venezuela for Independent Travelers. We can set up the custom trip of your choosing using reliable independent Venezuelan operators. E-mail us at: Rutahsa Adventures

"We want to thank you for everything and let you know that it was all perfect. Everything went as scheduled and exceeded our expectations.... We were continually amazed by the culture and beauty of the country....we loved Venezuela and all the people we met." --Brooke Hutchens and Steve Bushey, who went on a Rutahsa-arranged Angel Falls trip, July 1999.

Photos on this website by Janie and Ric Finch, @copyrighted.