Ciudad Guayana to Santa Elena de Uairén

Travelling South from Ciudad Guayana to the Brazilian border is becoming an increasingly popular excursion for Venezuelan tourists, as well as for overland travellers heading into (or out of) Brazil via Boa Vista. The road to the border at Santa Elena de Uairén passes across the beautiful Gran Sabana and is completely paved, with all bridges in place.

Getting around

A 4WD is only necessary off the main road, especially in the rainy season. You may need spare tanks of gasoline if spending a lot of time away from the main road (eg in Kavanayen and El Paují) and have a gas-guzzling vehicle. Carry extra water and plenty of food. Small eating places may close out of season. There are Guardia Nacional checks at the Río Cuyuní (Km 8), at Km 126, and at San Ignacio de Yuruaní (Km 259), and a military checkpoint at Luepa (Km 143); all driving permits, car registration papers, and ID must be shown.

Advice

Camping is possible but a good waterproof tent is essential. A small fee is payable to the
indígenas
living around Kaui, Kama and similar villages . Insect repellent and long-sleeved/trousered clothes are needed against
puri-puri
(small, black, vicious biting insects) and mosquitoes (especially in El Dorado, at Km 88 and at Icabarú); or use baby oil mixed with vitamin B12. Arrange five-day/four-night tours of the Gran Sabana in Caracas or in Ciudad Bolívar (cheaper and easier). See www.lagransabana.com.

El Dorado

This hot, dirty and very noisy miners' supply centre in dense forest is 76 km from Tumeremo, 278 km from Ciudad Guayana, and 7 km off the road on the Río Cuyuní. On a river island is the prison made famous by Henri Charrière/Papillon's stay there in 1945. The local gold seams have been largely exhausted but mining still continues and the town's nightlife is entirely for the miners, violence is in the air after nightfall. El Dorado's other economic mainstay is its gas station.

El Dorado to Santa Elena de Uairén

Las Claritas
, a gold-miners' town at Km 85 has a couple of places to stay, a restaurant, a big market for food and gold, and safe parking at Las Hermanitas de las Pobres (Convent), which can be better reached by the track from Km 88. At
Km 88
(also called
San Isidro
), there is gasoline, a garage, one of the last reliable telephones before Santa Elena and Banco Guayana. Everything is expensive; better food shops at Km 85.

The wall of the Gran Sabana looms above Km 88 and the highway climbs steeply in sharp curves for 40 km before reaching the top. The road is in very good condition and presents no problem for conventional cars. 4WDs may be better in the wet season (May-October). At Km 100 the huge
Piedra de la Virgen
(sandy coloured with black streaks) is passed before the steepest climb (La Escalera) enters the beautiful
Parque Nacional Canaima
.

The landscape is essentially savannah, with clusters of trees, moriche palms and bromeliads. Characteristic of this area are the large abrupt
tepuis
(flat-topped mountains or mesas), hundreds of waterfalls, and the silence of one of the oldest plateaus on earth. At Km 119 (sign can only be seen going north) a short trail leads to the 40 m
Danto ('Tapir') Falls
, a powerful fall wreathed in mosses and mist. If you are paying for your ride, try to persuade the driver to make a short stop; the falls are close to the road (about five minutes slippery walk down on the left-hand side), but not visible from it. (Buses cannot be flagged down here because of dangerous bends.) The
Monumento al Soldado Pionero
(Km 137) commemorates the army engineers who built the road up from the lowlands, finally opened in 1973; barbecues, toilets, shelters are now almost all in ruins. Some 4 km beyond is
Luepa
; all travellers must stop at the
ciudadela
(military checkpoint) a little way south. There is a popular camping place at Luepa, on the right going south which belongs to a tour company. An informative guide on duty will rent you a tent or you can hang a hammock in an open-sided shelter (very cold at night, no water or facilities, possible to buy a meal from a tour group, but expensive). The Inparques station at Luepa has some guestrooms which are intended for visitors of Inparques, but they may let you stay for a small fee. There is a kitchen at the station and a cafetería for employees of Inparques and Edelca. You can camp at a site right on the Río Aponwao on the left hand side of the road going south.

Some 8 km beyond Luepa, a poor, graded gravel road leads 70 km west to
Kavanayén
(little traffic, best to have your own vehicle with high clearance, especially during the wet season, take snacks; the road can be cycled but is slow, lots of soft, sandy places). Accommodation is at the Capuchin mission, very friendly, also in private homes. One of the two grocery stores will prepare food, or the restaurant opposite serves cheap breakfasts and dinners, order in advance. Medical post in front of the mission, where handicrafts are sold.

The settlement is surrounded by
tepuis
. Off the road to Kavanayén are the falls of
Torón Merú
and
Chinak-Merú
(also called Aponwao), 105 m high and very impressive. Neither is a straightforward detour, so get full instructions before setting out. Chinak-Merú is reached via the very friendly Pemón village of
Iboribó
(there is a small bakery near the junction to Torón). A day's walk west of Kavanayén are the lovely falls on the
Río Karuay
. Ask locals for details.

For the remaining 180 km to Santa Elena de Uairén few people and only a few Pemón Indian villages are to be seen. San Juan and San Rafael de Kamoiran and
Rápidos de Kamoirán
are passed. The 5-m Kawí falls on the
Kaüi
River are at Km 195, while at Km 201.5 are the impressive 55 m high
Kama Merú
falls (US$1 to walk to bottom of falls). Also a small lake, handicrafts, a small shop, canoe trips. Cabins and
churuatas
can be rented, also camping.
Puri-puri
flies descend at dusk. Buses can be flagged down going south or north three times a day; check times in advance.

Santa Elena de Uairén

This booming, pleasant frontier town was established by Capuchin Monks in 1931. The mid-20th century cathedral, built from local stone, is a famous landmark. Thanks to its relaxed atmosphere and many hotels, Santa Elena is an agreeable place in which to spend time. Gold is a better buy here than in Ciudad Bolívar.

El Paují

A road leaves the highway 8 km south of Santa Elena and after passing through a tunnel of jungle vegetation emerges onto rolling savannah dotted with
tepuis
. The road has been considerably improved and has been paved for about 20 km. The rest is graded, but rapidly deteriorating. It can take between 2-4 hours to reach El Pauji. Take advice before setting out, as rain can rapidly degrade the road. At Km 58 is a Guardia Nacional checkpoint at Paraitepuí, waterfall nearby.

El Paují
, 17 km further on, is an agricultural settlement with a growing foreign population. It is a lovely area, with good walking. Excellent sights:
Chirica Tepuy
, huge, beautiful, jet black, set in rolling savannah;
Río Surucún
, where Venezuela's largest diamond was found;
Salto Catedral
(61 km off the road), beautiful small hollow, lovely falls, excellent swimming (camping, shop);
Salto La Gruta
, impressive falls, but very slippery; and
Pozo Esmeralda
, 1½ km outside El Paují towards Icabarú (400 m south of road), fine rapids, waterfall you can stand under and pools. At Los Saltos de Paují are many powerful falls; going from El Paují towards Santa Elena, before crossing the first bridge, take track on left for about 500 m. A good walk is to the small hill, 2 km from El Paují beyond the airfield; views from the crest over
El Abismo
, the plunging escarpment marking the end of Gran Sabana highlands and the start of the Amazon rainforest. It takes an hour to reach the top, and the walk is highly recommended. Guides, though not necessary, are in the village. A recommended guide is German-speaking Marco. Small campsite (lovely early morning or sunset).

Apiculture is the main activity of El Paují and there's an International Honey Festival every summer. The honey made in this area is delicious; buy it at the shop in El Paují or Salto Catedral.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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