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An Orchid Trek in the Gran Sabana

Part 2

Text and photos © Nina Rach

Edited 17 August 2003
Published in the Spring 2002 issue of "SWROGA News"

Map of Venezuela The first part of this traveler's tale, published in the Winter 2001 issue of SWROGA News, covered the background and most of the first three days of a week-long trip to the Gran Sabana of southeastern Venezuela, in the world's largest national park -- Canaima. One of the most notable experiences on the second day of our trip was coming across large clumps of Phragmipedium klotzscheanum (Rchb.f.) Rolfe. These were prospering and blooming on rocks downstream from Quebrada de Pacheco ("Arapán-merú" in Pemón), at 1100m elevation, near km 238. We were swimming in the sandy-bottomed pool below the falls and found the plants while walking downstream afterwards. The water of the Gran Sabana streams is very pure and acidic, and the roots of the plants, as well as the grass-like leaves, are no doubt often inundated by the flowing water. The flowers are very attractive, with a greenish-yellow lip and rosy-striped sepals and long petals. According to Garay's classification, Phrag. klotzscheanum is in Section Himantopetalum, allied with caricinum, pearcei, pearcei var. ecuadorense, richteri, and the unusual tetzlaffianum and christiansenianum. Of these, only Phrag. caricinum grows in the vicinity, in both Venezuela and Brazil. [More information on this species can be found in: Christenson, EA & T. Henkel (1995). "Phragmipedium klotzscheanum," in: AOS Bulletin 64(10): 1100-1101; and "Hunting Phragmipedium klotzscheanum -- An Agony in Eight Fits," in: Orchid Hunting in the Lost World (And Elsewhere in Venezuela), a compilation of articles by G.C.K. and E. Dunsterville (1988). It was originally published in the AOS Bulletin Vol. 51, pp. 709-712 (July 1982).]

Sobralia stenophylla photo by Nina Rach

In and around the same stream, in full sun, were large clumps of Sobralia stenophylla Lindley. Dunsterville referred to this as an "indicator plant" for P. klotzscheanum. But the sobralia clumps that grew in the semi-shade of the cliffs were truly massive, more than 2 meters high and wide and completely covered with rosy-lavender flowers. This suggests to me that this sobralia is better cultivated in filtered sunlight, with an effort made to keep the roots shady and moist. Sob. stenophylla has very narrow leaves on sturdy stems, and one of the distinguishing characteristics of the rosy-lavender flowers are the fine, white hairs covering the callus.


After viewing the phrag's and sobralias, we continued on to Quebrada de Jaspe, "Jasper Creek," at KM 273. This is a remarkable site, not to be missed; for over 300m, the bed of the creek is a glistening mass of solid red and gold jasper wth no pebbles or sand, surrounded by tall forest. The water is shallow and you can walk on the jasper, quite entranced by the spectacular setting.

Part 1 ended as our group, in three SUV's, reached Santa Elena de Uairén (alt. 907m; km 315). We spent two nights at the ecotourist camp "Ya-Koo," in the hills overlooking the town of Santa Elena and the surrounding Rio Uairén valley. The accomodations at Ya-Koo are first-rate, in individual rondels with comfortable double beds, hot-water showers, and attractive gardens. There were numerous orchid species growing in the trees and used as bedding plants. "Ya-Koo" is a word from the Yanomami language (not Pemón), meaning to go on a trip. Pemón Indians are the native tribe in the Gran Sabana, while the Yanomami are found in Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazonas.

On Thursday we took a trip west from Santa Elena to the colony of El Paují at 950 m. altitude (km 74.5), an alternative community founded in 1989. Several miles before reaching El Paují, we stopped on the crest of a hill at a rustic homestead near Cathedral Pool (KM 62). An Israeli couple runs a small shop, selling home-produced honey, baked goods, and some supplies. Their honey is famous and has won international awards. The focus of this day-trip was to have lunch at Pozo Esmeraldas "Emerald Pond" at km 75 (a lovely sylvan pool with a small waterfall) and examine plants in the surrounding forest. We were pleased to find several nice epiphytes, in particular, we found a tree covered with the long winding rhizomes of Bifrenaria longicornis Lindley, growing in deep shade. This warm-growing species with quadrangular pseudobulbs is also found in Guyana, Suriname, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. At the end of the day, we returned on the long, dusty, red road to Santa Elena and took a quick side-trip to the Brazilian border. Another family-style dinner and comfortable night at Ya-Koo.
19th C. litho. - Catasetum longifolium from Sertum Orchidacearum
On Friday, we packed our belongings and left Ya-Koo. In the daylight, we could better see the plants of Vanilla palmarum Lindley, just north of Santa Elena. This vanilla has rounded, subovate leaves with acuminate tips, spaced closely on the vines. The plant we observed was not in flower, but was growing across the mat of older, brown palm fronds, at the base of the growing crown of fronds. Catasetum longifolium Lindley was growing in this same palm grove, with its roots between the leaf bases of the old fronds and its long, narrow greenish-gray leaves hang down, peeking below the old fronds. The flowers are very beautiful, in big clusters of orange-yellow, making this a desirable species in horticulture. Lithograph at right from Sertum Orchidacearum.

Farther along the road, we stopped at a Pemón Indian village displaying blooming plants of the native Cattleya jenmanii Rolfe (published in 1906). This very pretty species is found growing between 400-1000m altitude in the Roraima area of Bolivar State, southern Venezuela and in neighboring Guyana. This species was “lost” between 1906 and 1969, until Garay identified plants collected by the Dunstervilles. The plants are compact-growing with a pleasant fragrance and they are well-suited to cultivation. Typically the sepals and petals are a rich rose-purple; the lip has orange-yellow veins in the throat and two white eyes and a darker purple spot toward the apex. In addition to the plants we saw, which had apparently been collected by the Pemón Indians, there are several other color forms, including alba, semi-alba, concolor, coerulea, and aquinii. Armando Daniel Betancourt, a Venezuelan "orquidiotas" who resides in SE Florida and is currently an AOS Student Judge, recently wrote an excellent article about this species which was posted to the AOS website in late summer 2001 [].

We continued retracing our path north to Rápidos de Kamoiran. There we dropped our baggage and headed north to KM 147 (Road to Kavanayén, a.k.a. Luepa airport road). We took the difficult dirt road past the scientific station at Parupa, then turned left at KM 32, to the village of Liworiwó ("Iboribó" in Spanish) on the Aponwao River, where we rented long, narrow, wooden canoes (curiaras) with outboards and traveled downstream to Chinak-Merú Falls, with a straight 105m drop and continuous rainbows in the spray. The curiaras stopped about a half-mile from the falls ("salto" in Spanish, "merú" in Pemón) and we walked the remainder of the way between the edge of the river and the scrubby grasslands. There were many catasetums, sobralias, and the occasional plant of Eriopsis biloba Lindley blooming along the way. This species is found throughout the Gran Sabana and Amazonas. It grows as a terrestrial, rarely as a lithophyte or epiphyte, and has a maroon or tawny-colored rachis and plate-like ridges on the yellow callus of the lip. E. biloba is difficult to distinguish from Eriopsis sceptrum Rchb.f. & Warsc., but E. sceptrum more often grows epiphytically, and has a light green rachis with a cream-colored callus. [ Additional image from Jean Jules Linden's Pescatorea, 1860.] See Dunsterville & Garay Vol. 3, pp. 126-129 for a more detailed discussion of these species.

On Saturday, the plan was to drive from Rápidos de Kamoiran back to Upata. But first thing in the morning, we further explored the terrestrials in the field across the road and among the beautiful rapids behind the hostel. Then we took several stops along La Escalera, examining the plentiful epiphytes and terrestrials. We saw more plants of Sobralia stenophylla Lindley in grasslands in full sun, and Sobralia infundibuligera Garay and Dunsterville in sandy, rock-strewn areas.

On Sunday, four of us caught a flight from Porto Ordaz back to Caracas. Crossing the Orinoco in early afternoon, we saw the dramatic demarcation where the clear blue waters of the Caroni River meet, but do not mix with, the thick brown waters of the Orinoco River. The demarcation even looks dramatic in the photos taken through the windows of the plane. The "black-water" rivers occur to the east of the Upper Orinoco river basin. Their water is clean, free of sediment, the color of dark tea. Black-water rivers drive color from humic acid of decaying vegetation and they support few fish. These are distinguished from the "white-water" rivers of the Orinoco and its lower tributairies, which have clear-colored water, full of sediment.

La Gran Sabana


Timing. Might want to time a field trip to coincide with one of the interesting orchid shows. In Caracas, SVCN usually holds a spring show, and SOEM holds a fall show. AVO may also sponsor a spring show. Outside of Caracas, there are shows in the cities of Barquisimento (dedicated to Cattleya lueddemanniana, each February) and Merida, as well as in Tachira (two each January), near the Colombian border (closest airport: San Antonio de Tachira).

Easier to go with a group, arranged by a local outfitter. Purchase maps and guidebooks. Note that the Audubon Bookstore in the Las Mercedes area of Caracas, previously a cherished source of maps, topo sheets, guidebooks and natural history material in different languages, went out of business in the summer of 2001. Some useful books have been available at the Haansi store, in El Hatillo, but the stock there wavers. Bring along:

1. Guide to (Guia de) La Gran Sabana, by Arturo Garbizu (1997) Published by Oscar Todtmann Editores in Caracas. Convenient double wire binding and waterproof covers with excellent maps.

2. Orchids of Venezuela, An Illustrated Field Guide, First Edition by Dunsterville and Garay (1979); Second Edition edited by Romero and Carnevali (2000).
3 soft-cover books in a slipcase, excellent line-drawings, weighs about 4 pounds.

3. Ecograph Maps: Gran Sabana/Canaima; Roraima, published by INPARQUES; concise, full-color folders showing schematics, text in either English or Spanish.

If you want to make arrangements on your own, suggest that you purchase the most recent edition of Posadas… It is available in English as well as Spanish. Arrangements need to be made in-country for accommodations. Reservations generally need to be prepaid, charged against a national (Venezuelan) bank account, although some of the larger places may allow credit cards.

Vehicles. Take an SUV, preferably with 4WD, and travel in a caravan. There are long-distances to cover, and beyond the main paved highway, the roads are in questionable state. These can be rented in Caracas or Pto. Ordaz. Bring fuel canisters, water. Walkie-talkies and cell phones are handy. Snake anti-venom serum. DEET. Sun-protection lotion. Altimeter or GPS.

Cameras, film, binoculars. Recharging units subject to the hours that the generators keep the electricity flowing at any given posada. The light varies from quite bright on the savannah to deep shade of the forests. Bring a good flash and consider film speed. Consider a waterproof camera.

Clothing: Prepare for savanna, jungle, and river trips. Spray it all with DEET!

Laws. Remember that the majority of this area is national park. There are National Guard roadblocks every 25 kms throughout the country. A knowledge of Spanish is most helpful, as is an understanding attitude.

Shopping. There is not much to purchase in the way of souvenirs, but consider that both gold and diamonds are found in the area south of the Orinoco River. If you are driving from Ciudad Guayana to the “beginning” of the Gran Sabana at KM 88, you will be passing by the town of El Callao, where there are a large number of gold shops, selling locally panned nuggets, as well as chains and all manner of jewelry fashioned of 18K gold. Excellent souvenirs. Closer to the Brazilian border, especially in the town of Santa Elena de Uairén, locally mined diamonds are also offered for sale, along with cut stones. Cash only.

Food. Bottled water, sodas, tea and coffee, along with simple meals including rice, arripas (corn or wheat), fruits, soft cheese, beef (“bistek”) or chicken (“pollo”) are available throughout the Gran Sabana.

Return to Part One of the Gran Sabana Trek

Return to Autre Vie

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