The Orinoco is one of the longest rivers in South America at 2,140 km (1,330 mi). Its drainage basin, sometimes called the Orinoquia, covers 880,000 square kilometres (340,000 sq mi), with 76.3% of it in Venezuela and the remainder in Colombia. The Orinoco and its tributaries are the major transportation system for eastern and interior Venezuela and the llanos of Colombia.
The course of the Orinoco forms a wide ellipsoidal arc, surrounding the Guiana Shield; it is divided in four stretches of unequal length that roughly correspond to the longitudinal zonation of a typical large river:
242 kilometres (150 mi) long, from its headwaters to the rapids Raudales de Guaharibos, flows through mountainous landscape in a northwesterly direction
750 kilometres (470 mi) long, divided into two sectors, the first of which ca. 480 kilometres (300 mi) long has a general westward direction down to the confluence with the Atabapo and Guaviare rivers at San Fernando de Atabapo; the second flows northward, for about 270 kilometres (170 mi), along the Venezuelan - Colombian border, flanked on both sides by the westernmost granitic upwellings of the Guiana Shield which impede the development of a flood plain, to the Atures rapids near the confluence with the Meta River at Puerto Carreño,
959 kilometres (596 mi) long with a well-developed alluvial plain, flows in a northeast direction, from Atures rapids down to Piacoa in front of Barrancas
200 kilometres (120 mi) long that empties into the Gulf of Paría and the Atlantic Ocean, a very large delta, some 22,500 km2 (8,700 sq mi) and 370 kilometres (230 mi) at its widest.
At its mouth, the Orinoco forms a wide delta that branches off into hundreds of rivers and waterways that flow through 41,000 km2 (16,000 sq mi) of swampy forests. In the rainy season, the Orinoco can swell to a breadth of 22 kilometres (14 mi) and a depth of 100 metres (330 ft). Most of the important Venezuelan rivers are tributaries of the Orinoco, the largest being the Caroní, which joins it at Puerto Ordaz, close to the Llovizna Falls. A peculiarity of the Orinoco river system is the Casiquiare canal, which starts as an arm of the Orinoco, and finds its way to the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, thus forming a 'natural canal' between Orinoco and Amazon.
The Boto, or Amazon River Dolphin, is also known to inhabit the Orinoco River system. The Orinoco Crocodile is one of the rarest reptiles in the world, with fewer than 250 specimens remaining in the wild. Its present-day range in the wild is restricted to the Orinoco River Basin. The Orinoco is home to the Caribe Piranha or Pygocentrus cariba.
Recreation and sports:
Since 1988, the local government of Ciudad Guayana has conducted a swim race in the rivers Orinoco and Caroní, with up to 1000 competitors. Since 1991, the "Paso a Nado Internacional de los Rios Orinoco-Caroní" has been celebrated every year, on a Sunday close to 19 April. Worldwide, this swim-meet has gained in importance, and it has a large number of competitors.