In the extreme north of Brazil, Mount Roraima offers one of the most beautiful treks in South America, where you discover plants, animals and landscapes that exist nowhere else on the planet
by Giovanna Forcioni | photos Gui Gomes
There is a place on the triple border between Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana that has not changed over the years. When America and Africa were still one continent, nearly two billion years ago, a mountain rose. Millennia passed, weathering came, but little or almost nothing has changed on this mountain since then. Today, Mount Roraima is considered one of the landscapes with the oldest geological formations on the planet. Precisely why it attracts the attention of tourists, scientists, and adventurers who decide to delve into the Venezuelan savannah to discover what is behind so many legends and mysticism.
Their fascination is quite understandable. Mount Roraima is not a peaked mountain, extremely high and with a snowy peak, as we usually imagine. On the contrary: it has a table format and does not exceed 3 thousand meters in height. What makes it the “perfect mountain” for so many people is exactly what it hides up there.
The legends kept by the Pemon indigenous people, who inhabit the region, are what ensure that Mount Roraima is seen as the most mysterious of the tepuis (as they call the mountains there). Some say they have even heard strange howls from unknown creatures. But the only living things found there are birds, insects, and endemic amphibians, such as the little frog Oreophrynella quelchii. Not to mention the more than 400 types of bromeliads and 2,000 types of flowers, some that which only exist there.
A few decades ago, getting to know this whole scenario up close became a possible dream. Tour agencies organize expeditions and long-distance hikes for those who want to explore the landscapes and secrets of Mount Roraima. With the support of the indigenous community, the groups face at least six days of trekking in one of the most beautiful and impressive treks in South America.
The starting point is Boa Vista, where Azul operates daily flights with connections to several cities in Brazil. The inbound tourism brings together the expedition participants and offers a transfer to Santa Elena de Uairén, 230 km away, in Venezuela. From there, a 4WD takes you to the indigenous community of Paraitepuy, in Canaima National Park, where the walk actually begins.
Even on the road, you can already see Mount Roraima and Mount Kukenán, its brother, appearing in the distant view. With each kilometer traveled, the dimension of the challenge becomes clearer. Arriving at the village, it’s time to put on your boots, fill your canteen with water and tackle the trail. From there to the base of the mountain, there is 26 km to be covered in two or three full days of walking through the Venezuelan savannah, along the banks of the Tek River and the Kukenán River. Unlike what happens in other long-distance hikes, in Mount Roraima, there is no accommodation infrastructure, electricity, or running water. It’s important to keep in mind that it takes willingness and a little detachment. The only luxury there is being able to count on the help of the Pemon guides, who live in the indigenous community and can be hired as carriers of backpacks and other equipment to lighten the weight. Tour agencies set up camp, run the kitchen and organize all the necessary logistics for the expedition days, so you don’t have to worry about anything other than walking.
There is only one way to get to the top of Mount Roraima by walking. Interestingly, the same one has been used since the 19th century, when European explorers first risked climbing it. It took a while for them to find a way to reach the summit. The mission was so complex that some adventurers even said that the top of the tepui was “inaccessible.” But, in 1884, the English Everard im Thurn and Harry Perkins, accompanying the Pemon indigenous people, proved the opposite.
We are not going to lie: it’s still not easy, but you don’t have to be a professional athlete to get to the top either. Being well-prepared physically and, above all, willing to face the challenge is more than enough – after all, it’s a 4.5 km climb, done in about five hours, walking almost all the time on rocks. Between one step and another, it is worth looking back, catching your breath, and admiring the view of the Venezuelan savannah.
The landscape that accompanies you to the top is very different from the first days. Now, you are surrounded by trees and more protected from the sun, in the forest that covers the base of the tepui. Only after a few hours, when the wall is getting closer, is it possible to feel butterflies in your stomach and have a clearer idea of what awaits you ahead.
The final stretch of the climb is also usually the most feared by those who decide to face the mountain. With loose and slippery rocks, the Paso de Lágrimas is steeper and requires a lot of attention and care, especially in the rainy season, when a waterfall forms in the middle of the way. Nothing that courage – always with responsibility, of course – can’t solve.
You can even read travel reports, view photos and videos, and chat with others who have had the experience. It’s cliché, but it’s true: to understand what Mount Roraima is, you have to go and feel it. When stepping on top of the plateau, the sensation is of entering the scene of a prehistoric movie. The stony ground, the undergrowth, the stacked rocks that defy gravity, the fog that doesn’t let you see very far, the silence and the calm that can be uncomfortable…
The impression is having found The Lost World, described by the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle, in one of his most famous books. Creator of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, Doyle conceived a whole scenario inspired by the mountain without ever having set foot there, just reading stories of the first explorers and the indigenous people who inhabit the region. Although not an accurate portrayal of the tepui, it is a good introduction to begin to understand all the energy and mysticism up there.
Those looking from below have no idea of everything they can find at the top of the plateau. There are almost 34 km2 of area, many of them still practically untouched. It was not until 1976, for instance, that the first man, the Venezuelan writer Charles Brewer-Carias, came across a huge valley of crystals that exists at the summit. And if that’s not enough, once you’re up there, you can still choose between watching the clouds come and going at La Ventana viewpoint, climbing the Maverick, the highest point on the mountain, diving into the natural jacuzzies lined with crystals, walking to the landmark of the three borders, enter caves and, on top of that, find small waterfalls along the way.
But know that incidents — if we can say so — are also part of the package. The entire stay is made in camps, and the climate is full of surprises. From May to October, it is usually the wettest time, when you are most at risk of hiking in the rain and encountering endless fog. Between November and April, the rains usually let up, but you won’t have the chance to find waterfalls along the way, for example. You can plan, but nothing guarantees that these rules will apply when it’s time to go. Once up there, the mountain can present you with the four seasons of the year in a single day. Legend has it that Makunaima, the guardian of the mountain, is the one who controls the weather conditions according to his will. For the Pemons, the mountain is sacred and communicates with anyone who gets there open to living the experience. Even among the most skeptical, there is no way to go back to doubting it.