Venezuela, in northern South America, was named for Italy’s Venice by 15th-century European explorers who found native houses on stilts above Lake Maracaibo.

The Lake Maracaibo basin splits the Andes into two mountain ranges. Mild temperatures exist on the mountains while the Maracaibo basin swelters in tropical heat. Most people live in cities on the range near the Caribbean coast, from Caracas to Barquisimeto. South of the mountains is the Orinoco River basin, a vast plain of savanna grasses known as the Llanos. South of the Orinoco are the Guiana Highlands—with the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls. Almost half of Venezuela’s land is south of the Orinoco, but this region contains only 5 percent of the population.

Venezuela is one of the oldest democracies in South America (elections since 1958). A founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the nation has the largest proven oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere—and the second largest natural gas reserves (after the U.S.). The petroleum industry accounts for more than half the government’s revenue.