Geographically Venezuela is a land of vivid contrasts, with four major divisions: the Venezuelan highlands, the coastal lowlands, the basin of the Orinoco River, and the Guiana Highlands. An almost inaccessible and largely unexplored wilderness south of the Orinoco, the Guiana Highlands occupy more than half of the national territory and are noted for scenic wonders such as Angel Falls. Iron ore, gold, diamonds, and other minerals are found near Ciudad Bolívar and Ciudad Guayana. The dense forests of the region yield rubber, tropical hardwoods, and other forest products. The boundary with Brazil is mostly mountainous; its rain forests are home to thousands of indigenous inhabitants. The Orinoco, one of the great rivers of South America, has its source in this region. The Orinoco basin is a great pastoral area. North of the Orinoco and about the Apure River and its tributaries are the llanos, the vast, hot Orinoco plains, where there is a great cattle industry.
Oil is found north of the Orinoco in Anzoátequi and Guárico states, but it is thick and was not easily extracted and refined. Prior to the 1990s the most vital oil region economically was an area in the coastal plains, the lowlands around Lake Maracaibo. There, since 1918, foreign and, later, Venezuelan interests have developed astonishingly rich oil fields. The coastal lowlands are exceedingly hot, but coastal ranges rise abruptly from the Caribbean to cool altitudes of 6,000 to 7,000 ft (1,830–2,130 m). These ranges soon become a region of hills, intermontane basins, and plateaus known as the Venezuelan highlands and are a spur of the Andes. Further to the southwest, close to Barquisimeto, the mountains rise to their greatest height at Pico Bolívar (16,427 ft/5,007 m) in the Sierra Nevada de Mérida.
Densely populated, the highland region is the political and commercial hub of the nation. Coffee, the keystone of the economy before the oil boom, comes from the slopes and cocoa from the lower foothills. Valencia and Maracay are, next to Caracas, the chief cities of the mountain basins. Economically dominant in the 19th cent., they are still major urban centers, despite some loss of power because of the oil boom along the coast. Cattle from the llanos are fattened on the rich valley grasses near Lake Valencia. Field crops are intensively cultivated in the vicinity.
The politically and economically dominant landowning class is mainly of Spanish descent. About 65% of the population is mestizo, 20% white, 10% black, and 2% indigenous. Spanish is the official language. There is no established church, but nearly all Venezuelans are nominally Roman Catholic. There are 20 universities in the country.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.