THE TINY COUNTRY of Guyana, situated on South America’s northeast coast, is called the “land of many waters” due to the large number of waterfalls, rivers, and wetlands found throughout the country. The most spectacular of all Guyana’s water attractions is the Kaieteur waterfall located about 150 miles inland on the Potaro River. At 741 feet — 5 times the height of Niagara Falls — Kaieteur Falls is the largest single drop waterfall in the world.
The falls were discovered in 1870 by British geologist and explorer Charles Barrington Brown. Nearly 60 years later, Kaieteur became the country’s first national park. Recent legislation has increased the park’s size to 762 square miles. The falls are named after an old Patamona Indian chief called Kaie. According to Patamona legend, Kaie saved the Patamona from a warring tribe by canoeing over the falls as a sacrifice to Makonaima, the great spirit.
The falls have served as Guyana’s most well known tourist attraction, and tours are led by small plane from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown. The one-hour flight takes travelers from the plains on the coast to the lush green mountains of the interior. Some travelers may choose the overland route to the falls that involves a 2-day drive from Georgetown, an 8-hour hike to the base of the falls, and a 4-hour climb up the side of the gorge. All tours include a guided tour of the forest surrounding the falls to see Kaieteur’s other natural wonders. Kaieteur sits on the eastern edge of the 1,500-foot-high Potaro Plateau that covers southeastern Venezuela, northern Brazil, and western Guyana. According to the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana, at the height of the rainy season the falls span more than 450 feet and drop 35,000 gallons of water per second into the 741-foot gorge.
The ever-present mist from the waterfall has created a cloud forest that is rich with mosses, ferns, and orchids. One of the most spectacular plants is the giant tank bromeliad that grows as high as 12 feet. Bromeliads create microhabitats for frogs and insects by funneling and storing water in the center of the plant. At Kaieteur, the one-inch golden frog spends its entire life living in bromeliad tanks where it eats, swims, and breeds. Although these frogs are related to poison dart frogs, this particular species is endemic to Kaieteur and is found nowhere else on earth.
Along the forest trails, visitors can glimpse the Guianan cock-of-the rock. The males are easy to spot in the dark forest understory, because their brilliant orange feathers and orange crown stand out against the sea of green trees and plants. During mating season, small groups of males clear out a spot on the ground where they compete for female attention through lively dances. Another visible bird is the white-collared swift that makes its home on the cliffs behind the waterfall. Thousands of these insect-eating birds fill the sky at dawn and dusk as they exit and enter their roosts with amazing speed and agility.
Little is known about the mammals that live in Kaieteur. Howler monkeys, foxes, agouti, paca, tapir, red brocket deer, jaguarundi, raccoon, and collared peccary are found in the park, but are rarely seen during a short visit. A thorough study of Kaieteur fauna has yet to be completed. One of the few scientific publications focusing solely on Kaieteur covers the flora of the area. The Preliminary Checklist of the Plants of Kaieteur National Park, Guyana, was written by Smithsonian Institution scientists C.L. Kelloff and V.A. Funk
Currently Kaieteur is an undeveloped site. There is a small airstrip, a few cleared trails, and a rustic guesthouse. The Guianan government hopes to attract more visitors to the area by building full-service lodges and a visitor center. The challenge will be to make the area more accessible to tourists without detracting from the beauty of the environment.
Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman