5.5 Venezuela and the Guianas


Venezuela regions map
Venezuela regions map

Bordering the Caribbean is the large urban country of Venezuela. The Andes Mountains reach into the northern part of the country and make up the terrain of the northern coastal region all the way to the capital city of Caracas.

The large grassland plains of the Llanos extend farther south from the Colombian border to the Orinoco River delta. The Llanos is a large, sparsely populated region that makes up about one-third of the country. It is remote, susceptible to flooding, and used mainly for raising cattle.

Llanos, Venezuela

In the southeast of Venezuela are the Guiana Highlands, which make for a spectacular physical landscape of tropical forests and rugged mountainous terrain.

Angel Falls

The highlands include Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world. Angel Falls drops 2,647 feet and is Venezuela’s most popular tourist attraction.

National Geographic: Climbing Angel Falls, the Beauty and the Danger | One Strange Rock

Lake Maracaibo, a large inland sea located in the western region of the country, is not a true lake in that it is open to the Caribbean Sea, but it is considered the largest inland body of water in South America.

Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela
Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela

Venezuela has a heavy Spanish influence laid over an Amerindian base in a plantation region known for its African infusion. There is also a strong Caribbean cultural flavor, which is evident in the region’s music and lifestyle. The official language is Spanish, but more than thirty indigenous languages are still spoken in the country.

Venezuela gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and has developed into an urban country with an economy based on oil production. A large extent of the interior is undeveloped. Venezuela does not have extensively developed agricultural production, so most food goods are imported. Lake Maracaibo has vast oil reserves beneath it that have provided substantial wealth to the country. Venezuela has significant involvement in drug trafficking, with Colombian cocaine and other drugs transiting Venezuela towards the United States and Europe.

As is the case with many countries, national wealth in Venezuela does not filter down to most of the population. The wealthy elite who have benefited the most from the nation’s wealth often find themselves on the opposite side of the political debate from the majority, who are likely to live in poor conditions.

Optional video: Venezuela: Mothers giving away babies – BBC News
Note: There is a bad word in the subtitles. Abuse is mentioned. A pregnant belly is shown.

Caracas has many upscale neighborhoods, but it also has a large number of slums on the outskirts of the city. Slums in South America go by different names, such as barrios in Venezuela or favelas in Brazil. Many of Venezuela’s barrios are built on the mountainsides of the Andes.

Slums in Caracas
Optional video: Indigo Traveler: INSIDE VENEZUELA’S BIGGEST SLUM (Extremely Dangerous)
Note: This video is 23 minutes long.

Venezuela was once the richest country in South America with the largest oil reserves in the world, but at the time of this writing, it has the highest inflation rate in the world. Its economy’s downturn is tied to its dependency on oil exports as you can see in this video:

Newsy: A history of the crisis in Venezuela

Venezuela is one of the 10 most biodiverse countries on the planet, yet it is one of the leaders of deforestation due to economic and political factors.

Tirgua National Park, Venezuela
Tirgua National Park, Venezuela

The Guianas

The Guianas

The Guianas in the northeast were the only European colonies in South America that were not under Spanish or Portuguese control. The British, Dutch, and French all held claims to different parts of the Guianas.

In the early 19th century, most of the colonies of Middle and South America gained their independence, often led by the Europeans who had settled in the region. Larger colonial possessions often separated into smaller independent states. For a short time, the states of Central America formed a federal republic, but this experiment devolved into civil war. Today, most of the mainland of Middle and South America is independent, with the exception of French Guiana which is maintained as a French territory and is home to a launch site for the European Space Agency. 

Masaman: A Mix of Indians and Africans in South America? People of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana

Guyana is the only South American nation in which English is the official language. The majority of the population, however, speak Guyanese Creole, an English-based creole language, as a first language.

Guyana achieved independence from the United Kingdom as a dominion on 26 May 1966 and became a republic on 23 February 1970.

Guyana in the news and in history: In 1974, the Guyana government leased 3,800 acres of land to Peoples Temple, an American new religious movement, led by pastor Jim Jones. The settlement, informally called “Jonestown”, eventually grew to a population of about 1,000 people, mostly emigrated from the United States. In 1978, Guyana received worldwide attention when 909 people died in a mass murder/suicide in Jonestown by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.

More than 80% of Guyana is still covered by forests, those forests also contain the world’s rarest orchids ranging from dry evergreen and seasonal forests to montane and lowland evergreen rain forests. These forests are home to more than a thousand species of trees. Guyana’s tropical climate, unique geology, and relatively pristine ecosystems support extensive areas of species-rich rain forests and natural habitats. 

Guyana has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world.
TMC CORP: Why you should visit Guyana


Suriname map
Suriname map

Suriname is the smallest sovereign state in South America. On 25 November 1975, Suriname left the Kingdom of the Netherlands to become an independent state but maintains close economic, diplomatic, and cultural ties to its former colonizer.  While Dutch is the official language of government, business, media, and education, Sranan Tongo, an English-based creole language, is a widely used common language.

Lifey: The Sranan Tongo language

Suriname’s ample supply of fresh water is vital to the biodiversity and healthy ecosystems of the region.

Waterfall near Paramakatoi

Most tourists visit Suriname for the biodiversity of the Amazonian rain forests in the south of the country, which are noted for their flora and fauna. 

Blue poison dart frog
The blue poison dart frog is regularly found in Suriname.
Incredible drone footage of Suriname: an introduction by All Suriname Tours

French Guiana

Map of French Guiana

French Guiana is an overseas region of France. French Guiana is the second-largest region of France (it is more than one-seventh the size of Metropolitan France) and the largest outermost region within the European Union.  Fully integrated in the French central state in the 21st century, Guiana is a part of the European Union, and its official currency is the euro. 

Saul, French Guiana
Saul, French Guiana

French Guiana has a tropical rainforest climate. Located within six degrees of the Equator and rising only to modest elevations, French Guiana is hot and oppressively humid all year round. 

French Guiana has some of the poorest soils in the world, and it is heavily dependent on mainland France for subsidies, trade, and goods.

FRANCE 24 English: French Guiana: A tropical overseas territory
Note: A naked child is shown in this video.

Key Takeaways:

✎ Venezuela depends on oil exports to gain most of its national wealth. It has the highest level of inflation in the world.
✎ Britain, Holland, and France formed colonies in the Guianas. The slave trade brought many people of African descent to the Guiana colonies.
✎ Guyana was a U.K. colony and is the only South American nation in which English is the official language.
✎ Suriname was a Dutch colony.
✎ French Guiana is an overseas region of France.

Next: Chapter 6: Europe

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Image and additional information credits:

Political map of the Guianas
By ArnoldPlaton – Own work, based on this map and the map from this article, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18445142
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41757595
Guyana info
Houses in Guyana
By Dimention3d at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21303031
Golden frog
By Bill Cameron – Kaieteur Falls, Guyana, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1709263
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650076
Suriname info
Paramakatoi waterfall
By Kevin Gabbert – User: (WT-shared) Kevin James at wts wikivoyage – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22942754
Blue poison dart frog
By Michael Gäbler – own work (eigenes Werk), CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6603366
Map of French Guiana
By Taken from the CIA World Factbook web site on December 22, 2005 January 18, 2006., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=492359
Saul, French Guiana
By Cayambe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 lu, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26464896
French Guiana info
Venezuala info
Angel Falls
By Jeanpaul Razzouk – https://500px.com/photo/81171177/angel-falls-by-jeanpaul-razzouk, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55522121
Venezuela regions map
By Peter Fitzgerald, Shadowxfox, Wilfredor, Oscar – Venezuela Division Politica Territorial.svg, ParquesNaturalesVenezuela.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22748300
By PAULINO MORAN – https://www.flickr.com/photos/manurey/4364373356/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9890885
By Crucifix Jean-Luc jlcrcfx – http://unsplash.com/photos/19tQv51x4-AImageGallery, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58815536
Lake Maracaibo
based on Geohack information for Maracaibo and Gibraltar, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=325603
Caracas slums
By Wilfredor – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30503943
Tirgua National Park
By Adriano Dante – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84284400

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