CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela should be a tourist mecca.
It boasts the world's highest waterfall, snowcapped Andean mountain peaks and white-sand beaches dotting one of the longest coastlines in the Caribbean. But hurdles to easy, carefree travel - such as fly-by-night tour operators, lack of qualified guides and mediocre accommodations in many remote regions - keep many potential visitors away, leaving some of Latin America's most diverse natural beauty for the most adventuresome.
During more than a decade living in Venezuela, I've discovered that the hang-ups that come with exploring destinations off the beaten path are often eclipsed by the rewarding experiences.
Try trekking up Roraima, one of the flat-topped mountains called "tepuis" in southeastern Bolivar state.
The plateaus - among the world's most ancient rock formations, shaped by heavy rains over millions of years - inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic adventure story, "The Lost World," and more recently "Up!" - the computer-animated comedy-adventure film about a cranky old man who flies to South America in a floating house suspended from helium balloons.
Merciless biting flies - nicknamed "la plaga," or "the plague" by locals - can make the arduous two-day hike through surrounding savannas to the top of Roraima harrowing, but visitors are awe-struck upon reaching the summit. When sunshine bursts through the clouds, a fantastic landscape is unveiled: Beds of crystals and pink sand edge streams running through gorges and pools.
Indians who serve as guides capture and eat inch-long fire ants called "bachacos" along the trail. They'll also share a homemade beverage called "cachiri" with visitors, only to inform them later that fermented yucca and saliva are its main ingredients.
If Roraima sounds too tough, consider flying into the heart of Canaima National Park about 155 miles to the east for a visit to Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall at 3,212 feet with an uninterrupted drop of 2,648 feet.
The majestic waterfall is Venezuela's most highly acclaimed attraction. It's competing with 25 other spectacular natural landmarks in the final phase of a global poll to choose the "New 7 Wonders of Nature." People can vote by Internet or phone. The winners of the survey - organized by the group New 7 Wonders, led by Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber - will be announced in 2011.
Visitors can fly over the falls in small planes, but most choose to be ferried up the Churun River in dugout canoes and hike through the steamy jungle to the base of the falls for a refreshing swim among the rocks below.
The sun-baked southwestern plains known as "Los Llanos" that span the country's sparsely populated heartland are popular with eco-tourists.
Stay at one of the numerous "hatos," expansive cattle ranches catering to those eager to spot species such as long-snouted giant anteaters or capybaras, the world's largest rodent, weighing as much as 150 pounds.
The most courageous visitors fish for piranas in muddy rivers inhabited by Orinoco crocodiles reaching up to 20 feet or help guides pull one of the world's biggest snakes, the green anaconda, from swamplands. Their souvenir might be a photo in which they hold the fearsome reptile, which can weigh up to 550 pounds and reach 30 feet.
Anglers will want to try their luck in the Orinoco River Basin - home to over 1,000 species of fish. The speckled peacock bass can grow over 3 feet and the payara, featuring two long fangs protruding from its lower jaw, always put up a good fight, making them favorites among sport fisherman. A catfish called the "valenton" weighs up to 330 pounds.
To escape the stifling heat, head west to Los Andes. The city of Merida is a charming, university town providing a perfect jumping-off point for visits to nearby snowcapped mountains in Sierra Nevada National Park.
The world's longest and highest cable car normally brings travelers directly from the city to a lookout near Espejo Peak located 15,633 feet above sea level. The cable car system is currently out of service, so visitors are taken up the mountain in jeeps. Serious mountaineers organize climbs of higher mountains such as Bolivar Peak - the country's highest at 16,523 feet - through local tour operators. Paragliding, hang-gliding, mountain biking and rafting excursions are offered.
If you'd prefer wiggling your toes in the sand to jungle treks or adrenaline sports, the beaches dotting one of the longest coastlines in the Caribbean offer rest and relaxation for weary travelers. Or fly to Los Roques - an archipelago of tiny Caribbean islands offering snorkeling and scuba diving along numerous coral reefs and deserted white-sand beaches.
Located 95 miles off the mainland, Los Roques is a paradise for nature lovers. Over 280 fish species, including rainbow-colored parrot fish and yellow striped angel fish, dance around divers in the crystalline waters. Brown boobies and scarlet ibises are among the dozens of bird species found on the islands.