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Venezuela, Land and Resourses

Pico Bolivar, central Venezuela, Guiana Highlands, Lake Maracaibo, mountain zone

Venezuela has four distinct geographic regions: the Maracaibo lowlands, the northern Venezuelan highlands, the Llanos (plains) of the north central region, and the Guiana Highlands to the south.

Situated in the northwest corner of Venezuela and nearly enclosed by mountains and highlands, the Maracaibo lowlands make up the smallest natural region of the country, with an area of 65,000 sq km (25,000 sq mi). However, it contains Venezuela's second largest city, Maracaibo, which is supported by the area's rich petroleum fields.

Lake Maracaibo, an inland extension of the Gulf of Venezuela, dominates the Maracaibo lowlands. Lake Maracaibo is a fresh-to-brackish body of water about 210 by 120 km (about 130 by 75 mi). A narrow channel 8 to 15 km (5 to 9 mi) wide connects the northern end of the lake to the Gulf of Venezuela, which is partially enclosed by the Paraguana and Guajira peninsulas. In 1956 this channel was dredged to a depth of 11 m (35 ft) to allow passage of tankers and other vessels up to 28,000 tons.

Shorelands near the channel are covered with semiarid brush. Southward, the land changes to wooded savanna, in which are located the oil fields near Maracaibo and the major fields north of San Lorenzo. The southern lakeshore has a luxuriant tropical forest rising above swampy, insect-infested lagoons. Widely scattered sugarcane and cacao plantations occupy the better-drained soils in this area.

Around the Maracaibo region and extending eastward along the Caribbean shore are the Venezuelan highlands. In the easternmost region of the highlands, the crest of the largely uninhabited Sierra de Perija range forms the Colombia-Venezuela border. Within this mountain zone, peaks reach elevations above 3,400 m (11,000 ft), with average crest heights about 2,400 m (8,000 ft). Heavily forested slopes descend from the highest peaks in a series of lesser ridges to the humid lowlands of Lake Maracaibo.

To the south of Lake Maracaibo, the Cordillera de Merida extends northeastward from the Colombian Andes. This range is the highest and largest Andean range in Venezuela, containing the country’s highest point, Pico Bolivar (5,007 m/16,427 ft). The Cordillera de Merida extends 490 km (300 mi) from the Colombian border to the dry Lara depression near Barquisimeto. To the east, a series of mountain ranges dips to lower elevations and changes direction, paralleling Venezuela’s east-west Caribbean coast for nearly two-thirds its length. These coastal mountains contain most of the major population centers.

The Llanos, a region of vast tropical grassland, occupy the north central region. These plains cover about one-third of the country and slope gently to the Orinoco River delta. Elevations rarely exceed 215 m (700 ft). Coarse sand, gravel, and silt, brought down from the Cordillera de Merida by the Capanaparo, Arauca, and Apure rivers, mantle the higher plains, becoming finer toward the Orinoco. Savanna grasses, widely scattered clumps of brush, and palm groves cover the land. During heavy tropical rains from May to November, rivers overflow their banks and vast areas are inundated. During the dry season that follows, grasses become parched, trees drop their leaves, and ranchers drive their cattle to water in wet lowland pastures near the Orinoco.

More than half of Venezuela lies south of the Orinoco River in a remote region known as the Guiana Highlands. The mountains of the Guiana Highlands reach elevations of more than 2,700 m (8,900 ft). They extend from the delta of the Orinoco River into Brazil and Guyana, and are varied by open areas and forest. The chief ranges are the Sierra Parima and Sierra Pacaraima, which form part of the boundary with Brazil. Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, is in the eastern part of the highlands. A rugged, hilly plateau region drained to the Orinoco system by swift-flowing rivers, the Guiana Highlands have attracted attention owing to discoveries of ores such as iron, manganese, and bauxite.

Venezuela has six navigable rivers. Of the thousand or more streams in the country, the majority flow into the Orinoco, which, with the Apure, Meta, and Negro tributaries, forms the outlet into the Atlantic Ocean for much of the interior of Colombia, as well as inland Venezuela. The Orinoco extends east across central Venezuela and drains approximately four-fifths of the total area of the country.

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