The pond-side trees appeared to be turning red as flocks of scarlet ibis flew in to roost, brilliant from their bills to their toes. They dueled with egrets over the best perches, squawking raucously. A squadron of chubby capybara — the world’s largest rodents — idled in the muddy shallows before suddenly charging off, churning the water, lunging and splashing. As darkness fell, the birds settled in, the wind died and the place became tranquil. A caiman slipped quietly into the muddy water. The first stars appeared low in the eastern sky, and night fell over the Colombian llanos.
This vast region — extending from the Andes to the Orinoco River, and Venezuela beyond, is known as the Llanos Orientales — or eastern plains. It’s a broad, flat savanna split by slow, muddy rivers lined with gallery forests. In the rainy season, from May to October, tropical downpours turn muddy trickles into rivers, plains to lakes, and dry ground to mud. In the dry season, lakes shrink, rivers drop and the land becomes parched and sun-baked. It all combines to create an otherworldly landscape, teeming with wildlife.
“The plains surrounding us seemed to reach the sky, and looked to us like an ocean covered with seaweed,” wrote the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who crossed the llanos in 1800. “Sky and land merged.”
The landscape and wildlife are increasingly attracting tourists to places like Juan Solito, an eco-lodge founded in 1999 by Nelson Barragán. It’s just across the silty Ariporo River from Hato La Aurora, a 37,000-acre ranch that belongs to the extended Barragán family.
Tourists stay at Juan Solito and spend their days exploring the ranch, which is managed as a wildlife reserve through Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.
“The ranch serves as a refuge for species at risk, and teaches visitors about the culture of the llanos,” Mr. Barragán told me. “The idea is to support the natural ecosystem and maintain them in their wild state, so people can see the wild animals and the wild lands as they were before.”
Elsewhere, the llanos environment is threatened by oil drilling, intensive agriculture and overgrazing.
Mr. Barragán is a pure llanero, as natives of the region are known. He sometimes plays the lively yet plaintive llanero music for guests, on the harp, or the four-stringed cuatro. During the wet season, he rides alongside the other vaqueros to round up the cattle.
On my first morning, Mr. Barragán outlined the options for exploring the area. Over several cups of tinto, the strong black coffee that keeps Colombia caffeinated, we came up with a three-day plan — a wildlife safari, a fishing expedition and a search for snakes.
Later that morning, Giovanni Castilla, my guide, and I ferried across the river in a large, wood-planked canoe. Along the riverbank, leaf-cutter ants rambled industriously, looking like a fleet of tiny rusty boats with oversized green sails. A roadside hawk perched in a riverside tree. Parked in the shade was a Toyota pickup, tricked out safari-style with padded bench seats in the stake-side bed. I hopped in back and we rolled out onto the open plains on a rutted dirt road.
Wildlife was abundant and conspicuous. A barefaced ibis foraged through the grass as a crested caracara hunted for turtle eggs along the mud bank of a small creek. Deer grazed in the near distance, and beyond, next to a small muddy pond, a pair of jabirus — large, ridiculous-looking storks with red, pelican-like pouches.
At a larger pond just down the road, a dozen spectacled caiman lounged in the shallows, and a long-toed bird called a wattled jaçana waded alongside a roseate spoonbill. A pair of Orinoco geese tended goslings, and two dozen capybara sat half-submerged, looking docile, some with mud caked across their backs. Profiled on a sandy bench a few feet above the rest of the plain, four pairs of burrowing owls stood by their dens.
It was a lot to take in, and there was more. Off in the distance, I noticed what first looked like clouds to the west. Looking closer, it was the white glaciers of the 17,000-foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, resting atop the bluish Andes.
All the while we traveled among livestock — the Barragáns run 5,000 head of cattle, along with horses and a small herd of water buffalo. Stopping for lunch at Hato Agua Verde, one of several haciendas on the ranch, we saw a lasso stretched along a fence, freshly made from pure leather. One of the cowboys gave us an introduction to the llanero art of making these “rejos.” The process involves wetting a cowhide, slicing it into a long, slender strip, then twisting, stretching, and drying the rope.
Returning late to Juan Solito, we crossed the river in the dark. Fruit bats flew about, and a yellowish snake, an Amazon tree boa, hunted them from the thatched roof of an outbuilding. The sky was a brilliant bowlful of stars accented by a crescent moon, utterly undiminished by light pollution.
The days started early in the llanos, with a crazy dawn chorus. First came the chacalacas — pheasant-like birds whose onomatopoeic calls echoed from the mud banks of the river. Then the improbably loud calls of the horned screamers, goose-like birds with slender bony points on their heads. And, just after sunrise, a deep, eerie sound — howler monkeys calling from tall palms along the river. All of this, right by the hotel, before breakfast.
On the second morning, Mr. Castilla and I traveled to a far corner of the ranch to do some fishing. As we drove over the plains, a lesser yellow-headed vulture soared overhead, and a great black hawk flew by, one talon clutching a large iguana by the neck. Another big lizard darted shrub-to-shrub over the plain. It was darker and stockier than an iguana — a golden tegu.
We left the truck at an impassable creek crossing and set off walking through a patch of jungle. This corner of the ranch felt wilder. It was easy to imagine jaguars roaming the land, and they do.
In April 2017, Nelson’s brother Jorge Barragán and Brigitte Baptiste, the director of Colombia’s Humboldt Institute, saw two large jaguars resting in a swamp in the middle of the day. Using wildlife cameras, Jorge and a team of wildlife biologists has identified 31 jaguars on the ranch, including residents and migrants.
Emerging from the jungle, we came to a small river where a weathered johnboat was tethered to a tree. Mr. Castilla poled us up to a confluence, and we tied off in the shade. It’s best not to wade these waters — there are freshwater stingrays swim here, and electric eels (which were objects of von Humboldt’s fascination and study).
A hoatzin, a primitive bird like a living archaeopteryx, called in the distance as we baited hand-lines with — what else? — gristly chunks of local beef. Drifting the bait in the slow current, we quickly started catching fish. First, a couple of small catfish nibbled, then toothy piranhas hit the bait savagely. A couple of hours later, we hiked out with a fine stringer of plump piranhas, which we ate that night — scored, fried and delicious.
Meals are served in an open-air dining area with a palm-thatched roof, on a table that’s a solid plank from a ceiba tree — three feet wide, 24 feet long, and five inches thick. On one wall is a large map of the ranch, and on a railing, a hint of the surrounding wildness: the paw of a puma torn asunder by a jaguar. The food is fresh, simple and hearty — soups, arepas, avocados, fruit and fruit juice, and beef, pork and fish. There’s also tasty homemade cheese — queso fresco, or farmer’s cheese — from a small herd of dairy cows.
The main building has eight rooms and a patio strung with hammocks. Another building has six more rustic rooms, and a set of bookshelves overflowing with well-worn field guides (handy for identifying endemic birds like the pale-headed jacamars that hang around the buildings).
It’s clean, comfortable, and basic, but it’s not for everyone. There’s not an infinity pool, nor a hint of a yoga mat. You’ll not get cellphone service or Wi-Fi, and English words are in short supply. The showers aren’t cold, per se, nor is the water heated. The nearly equatorial sun, on the other hand, is relentless at midday. And there are chiggers, ticks and mosquitoes, and venomous fer-de-lance snakes. An English-speaking tourist who arrived just before I left was unimpressed. “If this is the way eco-tourism is developing in this country,” he told his wife, “I don’t think it’s going to be very successful.”
Jaguars are not the only charismatic megafauna on the llanos. There are also anacondas so huge they are the subjects of this folk tale: A llanero is walking through a riverside jungle, and stops to rest, sitting on a downed tree … which soon begins to slither off. The tale seemed hyperbolic until I was drinking beer in a roadhouse one day and noticed a snakeskin hanging from the palm fronds of the roof. It appeared to be 20 feet long.
A week before I arrived, a large anaconda had eaten a caiman in a small pond near Juan Solito, then spent the day digesting on the bank. So on my third day, Mr. Castilla and I walked over to look for it, distracted along the way by dozens of birds. Small, medium and large parrots flew by — brown-throated parakeets, yellow-headed parrots, and chestnut-fronted macaws.
Mr. Castilla spied an anaconda track in a ditch beside the road, and began wading barefoot through the muddy, calf-deep water, searching for the snake. Soon, he stepped on something soft that moved slightly beneath his feet. Taking a step back, he gestured to me to come closer. Then he used a stick to gently probe the mud, which suddenly exploded, as a caiman emerged thrashing, jaws snapping, then hastily departed.
Nearby, a refined-looking raptor perched in a low tree, a savanna hawk. Arriving at the pond, we saw a similar hawk scanning the water, but this one had a paler head. It was a black collared hawk, which preys on fish. But the anacondas stayed hidden.
Later that day, I set off with another guide, Jeremias Tumay, to search for anacondas in another corner of the ranch, this time on horseback. Though motorcycles, jeeps and pickups are popular on the plains, horses are better for fording rivers and creeks.
Llaneros have earned reputations as excellent horsemen, and Simón Bolivar relied on them in his fight for independence. In “Bolivar: American Liberator,” Marie Arana wrote: “The llaneros were accomplished horsemen, well trained in the art of warfare … They made tents from hides, slept on earth, reveled in hardship. They lived on the open prairie, which was parched by heat, impassable in the rains.”
On the sure-footed horses, we descended the steep muddy bank, and crossed the Ariporo River, stirrup-deep in the opaque flow. Then we rode an hour over the llanos to a small lake, where hundreds of ducks dabbled amid a large herd of capybara and dozens of shorebirds.
We found no snakes, but skirting another pond on the ride back, we came upon a reptile rarer still. Mr. Tumay spotted what first looked like a caiman, but without a knobby nose. It was an Orinoco crocodile, a critically endangered species that can grow to lengths of 20 feet. The sighting was a surprise, but not entirely unexpected — Mr. Barragán has been cooperating with several wildlife agencies on a crocodile reintroduction project.
After a brief glimpse, the crocodile disappeared into the water, in a corner of the llanos still big and wild enough to keep a few secrets.
Murray Carpenter is the author of “Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us.”
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