Venezuela is where the Andes mountain range meets the Caribbean – a land of astonishing variety that many believe is the ideal introduction to South America.
The Orinoco River separates the vast plains from the tabletop mountains of the Gran Sabana. In the west, the northern tip of the Andes creeps up into the country in a ridge of frosted peaks. The south is home to Amazon rainforest, while the north’s idyllic white-sand beaches disappear into the gently lapping Caribbean Sea.
Despite all the geographical obstacles, Venezuela has one of the best-developed road networks in South America, thanks to its lucrative oil reserves. In the south is Los Llanos, the great plains of the Orinoco, where local flora and fauna – such as scarlet ibis and Orinoco crocodile – share their territory with cattle and the llanero cowboys. For the ultimate ranch experience stay in one of the hatos, where you can enjoy a bit of luxury while getting to grips with a lasso.
Further west, at Mérida, you can be whisked off your feet by the highest cable car in the world as it glides up through the mist-swirled peaks of the Andes. Pull on your hiking boots and march out onto the trails of the páramo and the highland pastures studded with wild flowers.
If plants are your thing, then don’t miss exploring the rainforest and savannas of the south-east – a wild and untamed environment that remains as it was when the country received its first foreign visitor back in 1498. So overwhelmed was Columbus by what he saw that he described it as ‘paradise on earth’. Here Angel Falls tumbles in spectacular style from the plateau of a tabletop mountain. The highest falls in the world, its waters cascade for almost a kilometre before meeting the rainforest floor. It’s an adventure to clamber your way through the jungle to get to the base; to reach the top warrants a major expedition, but we’re guessing the views are worth it.
A final stop should certainly be either Mochima National Park, where you can hire a boat and chug round the islands until you find a deserted cove where you can drop anchor and spend a day padding across your own beach; or perhaps the Los Roques archipelago, with miles of pristine white-sand beaches and crystal-clear water.