7 mins

Exploring Colombia’s cowboy country

The vast plains of Colombia’s Llanos Orientales are rich in wildlife and a timeless culture – and is now opening up to visitors too

Guide Andrés looks out over the vast Llanos Orientales (Shafik Meghji)

As we galloped towards a lake in the heart of Reserva Natural El Encanto de Guanapalo, Seco Gualteros brought us to a sharp halt, turned his face to the herd of humpbacked cattle we had rounded up, and started to sing. A loud, clear, surprisingly melodious voice drifted across the pancake-flat tropical grasslands that cover Colombia’s Llanos Orientales (Eastern Plains). Moments later, the cowboys flanking the herd began to howl and wave their hands in the air. The cows appeared indierent to the cacophony, but I was thoroughly bewildered.

Barefoot, deeply tanned and wearing a denim shirt open to the chest, Seco built to a crescendo. Blinking from the intense midday sun and feeling slightly self-conscious, I belatedly added my voice to the chorus. Above us, a pair of vultures glided languidly in the cloudless blue sky, ready to take advantage of any misfortune. With a final yell, Seco urged us forward and we drove the herd into the murky, coee-coloured water.

A frontier region

East of the Andes and north of the Amazon, the Llanos Orientales cover roughly a quarter of Colombia, as well as a great swath of Venezuela. Also known as Orinoquía, this seasonally-flooded, remarkably biodiverse region is comparable to the Brazilian Pantanal, and is home to jaguars, giant anteaters, anacondas and around 700 bird species. It is sprinkled with hatos (cattle ranches) patrolled by llaneros, cowboys with a distinct culture, particularly evident in their evocative fandango-esque folk music, joropo. Vast oil and agricultural production mean the Llanos are of huge economic importance, yet they remain on the fringes of Colombian life and attracts few visitors.

Parts of this frontier region were o-limits during the half-century of civil conflict, but new lodges and reserves are now opening it up to travellers, particularly in the November-April dry season. Many of these ventures are in Casanare Department in the north-eastern Llanos. Its gateway is Yopal, a steamy, low-rise city that, despite being just an hour’s flight – or seven-hour drive – from Bogotá, feels like another world. This was what had drawn me to the Llanos in the first place: a desire to see a side of Colombia far removed from the images of the Andes and the Caribbean that dominate outside perceptions of the country.

“Yopal is on the edge of the eastern range of the Andes and from here the earth flattens out into the Llanos,” explained my guide Andrés González, over a breakfast of arepas, cheese-filled corn patties, in the main square. “The Jesuits laid the foundations for the cattle industry in the 17th century and Yopal was originally a way station for cowboys. Cattle remain big business, but oil is more profitable now.”

It was the wildlife and landscapes, though, that persuaded Andrés to give up an engineering career in Bogotá, return to the region of his birth and launch a tour company. “Mind and body, you feel better when you’re surrounded by nature,” he said, as we drove north-east, tracing the Andean foothills. Criss-crossing rivers, we passed grazing cattle, wooden corrals, roadside butchers and fleets of trucks transporting rice.

At Pore, a small town of cobbled streets and adobe houses, Andrés pulled o the main road and drove south-east. Within minutes, the scenery changed: the foothills tapered o and the land ahead was stretched as taut as a freshly-laid bed sheet. “This is a large, open place. It gives you a sense of freedom. People here are very independent,” said Andrés, pulling into an open-sided restaurant for lunch. Llanero steakhouses are popular throughout Colombia, but this was the real deal. Smoke swirled from an open fire into which slabs of beef, pork bellies and links of blood sausages were planted on wooden stakes. A plateful big enough for two cost less than £2.50.

Llaneros herd cattle through water in Orinoquía (Shafik Meghji)

Llaneros herd cattle through water in Orinoquía (Shafik Meghji)

Natural reserves

Back on the road, Andrés explained that the Llanos have long been overlooked by the rest of Colombia. “The region’s usually seen as just farmland and oil,” he said. “It has an incredibly biodiverse ecosystem, a meeting place for Andean and Amazonian species, and yet there are still no national parks in Casanare.” What it does have, though, are increasing numbers of private reservas naturales such as Hato Berlin, about an hour further south-east.

Unlike many Llanos farms, Berlin’s owners maintain the grass and woodlands, allowing wildlife to not just survive but flourish. Beside an oval-shaped lagoon a trio of vultures argued over a kill, an Amazon kingfisher flashed across the water and a toucan rested in a mango tree, seemingly oblivious to the troupe of howler monkeys that were living up to their name. On the bank, a 1.5-metre caiman lay perfectly still, eyeing us warily.

Dozens of capybaras nosed through the undergrowth or stood semi-submerged in the water, resembling mini hippos. During brief, lethargic mating sessions the world’s biggest rodents emitted high-pitched squeals. At other times, their calls sounded like dry, wheezing coughs, as if lifelong smoking habits had suddenly caught up on them. “This scene used to be typical across the Llanos, but no longer,” explained Geiler Orobeza, a guide at Hato Berlin. “Sadly many farmers consider capybaras as pests and kill them.”

As the sun set and a cooling breeze materialised, we took to the lagoon in a wooden canoe to a soundtrack of clicks, hoots, whistles, grunts and yelps. Anhinga birds dived in search of fish, while hoatzin – prehistoric-looking birds whose chicks have claws on their wings – flapped overhead. Geiler gently paddled to the far end, where gaggles of scarlet ibises and white cattle egrets squabbled over roosting spots; when they settled they look like Christmas tree decorations.

Hato Berlin provided an excellent introduction to the Llanos, but my base was some 32km south. The Reserva Natural El Encanto de Guanapalo was founded in 2016, when a family who owned three neighbouring hatos decided to jointly conserve a 20 sq km section of their land. Each hato now oers accommodation with Jeep, horseback and walking safaris. I stayed at Hato Mata de Palma, a single-storey homestead with an overhanging corrugated iron roof, a terrace strung with hammocks and views across to a nearby a lake.

Cats, dogs, chickens, capybaras and a neon-green iguana scampered about the grounds, as I sat with owner Juan Carlos Vargas for a hearty breakfast of gamey feral pig steaks and savoury bagel-shaped pastries called roscas. “Across our three hatos, we have around 90 sq km and 6,500 cattle,” he said. “When we were approached by the municipal government about creating a reserva natural, it was an easy decision. It is an extension of the conservation work we were already doing: my family has kept this landscape the same for more than 100 years.”

Birds in the trees of Garcero (Shafik Mehji)

Birds in the trees of Garcero (Shafik Mehji)

Capybara ambling by the water’s edge (Shafik Mehji)

Capybara ambling by the water’s edge (Shafik Mehji)

Llanero safaris

After breakfast, I set o out on a Jeep safari into the reserve. The rainy season was only weeks away and most of the landscape, yellow-green grassland dotted with cows and wild horses, was parched. With no hills to oer perspective, the sky looked vast. The few wetland areas that had survived the dry months were hives of activity, occupied by solitary caimans and drawing flycatchers, cormorants and jabiru storks. As we neared a lake, four turtles the size of chocolate digestives tumbled o a floating log in quick succession like synchronised swimmers. Vultures picked at the carcass of a calf, while a white-tailed hawk rested on a fencepost, clutching  a wriggling eel in its talons. In a rare copse of trees, Andrés stopped at a shallow stream and told me it teemed with piranhas and electric eels.

The Jeep safari was rewarding, but the best way to explore the Llanos is on horseback. In the late afternoon, we met Seco, a cowboy for more than 50 years, for a ride to the Garcero. Located in the western part of the reserve, this small woodland, surrounded by thick, sticky mud, is a popular roosting and nesting spot. We spotted barefaced ibises, spoonbills, herons, wood storks, anhingas and both cattle and great egrets; an impressive range but just a handful of the reserve’s 270 bird species. Riding back under a crescent moon, lightning flashed in the distance and white-tailed deer scattered at our approach. I was on the lookout for big cats: around 50 pumas live in the reserve, along with jaguarundis and ocelots, and camera traps had recently captured a number of cubs. Sadly, that night they remained elusive.

The next day I was up at 4.30am for  a pre-dawn Jeep safari. As the sun appeared on the horizon, the birdsong inched up in volume. Savannah hawks, southern lapwings and whistling ducks flew by, a burrowing owl emerged from a hollow and shook dust o its wings, and a giant anteater lay asleep in a stumpy palm tree. When we reached a large pool, Andrés and Seco took o their boots, rolled up their trousers and plunged into the knee-deep water. I waited on the bank, watching out for a rustle of reeds that would signify the presence of the largest of the Llanos’ many snakes: the anaconda.

After 10 minutes, I heard a call and, with some trepidation, waded over. Just below the surface was a mottled head bigger than a human fist. When  I managed to wrench my gaze from its black, unblinking eye, I saw a six-metre torso as thick as my thigh. For a few seconds, everything was still, until with a sudden, muscular swish, the snake disappeared. In panic, I scrambled onto the bank, leaving my dignity behind me. When I glanced back, heart pounding, Seco and Andrés remained where they were, chatting calmly.

Cattle driver (and singer) Seco directs his horses (Shafik Mehji)

Cattle driver (and singer) Seco directs his horses (Shafik Mehji)

Singing cowboys

The wildlife initially attracted me to the Llanos, but the longer I spent in the region, the more interested I became in the people who live here and their llanero culture that’s existed here since the 17th century. Following my anaconda encounter, I took part in a cattle round-up. Ranging from fresh-faced teenagers to limber men approaching 60, the cowboys were all expert riders, resting only their toes in the stirrups and steering with a nonchalant ease. A disparate herd was soon reunited, and when a recalcitrant calf made a run for it, he was swiftly lassoed.

On the lake shore, Seco sang his canto de vaquería (cowboy song), before the herd was driven across to the other side. I stayed in the shallows as the cowboys slipped from their saddles to swim the deepest section, their hats bobbing along like lily pads. They subsequently remounted and emerged from the lake in the same formation they entered. Andrés later told me cantos de vaquería are part of an aural tradition dating back centuries.

“Llanos cattle are semi-wild so you need something extra to control and calm them, and the best way to do that is by singing,” he said. “There are dierent songs for dierent types of work: milking, moving long distances, and so on. For example, when the cowboys move cattle from one farm to another, they sing certain songs. The cows are relaxed and follow the cowboy-singer at the front of the herd. He is like a ‘cow whisperer’.”

Llaneros don’t just sing to their cattle. As the sun set and bats zipped above our heads, a joropo band arrived at the homestead. Backed by a harp, maracas, and a four-stringed guitar called a cuatro, a teenage girl with a haunting voice sang of love and loss, horses and cattle, endless plains and starlit skies. Seco joined her for a few songs, before showing o his dancing skills. Inevitably, I was cajoled into joining them, consoled that at least the fast-enveloping dusk would hide my missteps.

Searching for anacondas in the reeds (Shafik Mehji)

Searching for anacondas in the reeds (Shafik Mehji)

The wetlands get ready for  the incoming seasonal downpour (Shafik Mehji)

The wetlands get ready for the incoming seasonal downpour (Shafik Mehji)

Challenges ahead

On my final morning, Seco made me a lasso. Using a centuries-old technique, he cut a long strip of leather, wound it into a rope, stretched it, and formed a loop. Watching him work was a meditative experience. In such moments, with the mesmerically flat savannah as a backdrop and birdsong in the air, it was tempting to think of the Llanos as a timeless place.

But as Andrés emphasised on the drive back to Yopal, the region still faces multiple threats: deforestation, loss of native grasslands, damaging rice cultivation, oil extraction and, of course, the wider climate crisis. Yet reserves like El Encanto de Guanapalo provide a sense of hope.

“Many farmers are now getting involved with conservation and setting up reserves,” he said. “They are learning that if they farm sustainably, like they did in the past, and keep the native grass and woodlands, they will maintain the wildlife and keep the llanero traditions alive.”

We were driving west, the plains rippling into gentle hills until the forested ridges of the Andes appeared on the horizon. The traffic increased, towns replaced villages and the landscapes of the Llanos slowly faded away, but that cowboy chorus, however, lingered in my head. The canto de vaquería has long lilted across the Llanos Orientales and should now do so for centuries to come, serenading cattle – and visitors – to safety across those unfathomably epic plains.

Footnotes

The trip

The author travelled with Journey Latin America (020 3553 9647) on a tailor-made trip: a 12-night itinerary including the Llanos Orientales, Cartagena, the coffee region and Bogotá.

Vital statistics

Capital: Bogotá

Population: 50,660,000

Language(s): Spanish

Time: GMT -5

International dialling code: +57

Visas: UK nationals staying up to 90 days do not require a visa.

Money: The Colombian peso (COL$) ATMs are widespread, including in Yopal.

Top tip

If you want to blend in with the locals in the Llanos Orientales, make sure you choose the right hat. Llaneros will typically wear a wide-brimmed criollo hat for work, while a smarter fino hat is donned for social occasions.

When to go

There are essentially two seasons in the Llanos Orientales: wet and dry. Temperatures are fairly constant, averaging around 26-28°C throughout the year.

May-Oct: Wet season. Some areas flood by more than a metre and huge swathes are transformed into wetlands. This is the breeding time for many species, but exploring the region can be a challenge. 

Nov-April: Dry season. The best time to visit the Llanos. Much of the wildlife congregates at the few remaining water sources, making them easier to spot.

Health & safety

Travellers should be covered with all the routine immunisations recommended in the UK, including tetanus plus hepatitis A and yellow fever and they should also consider other travel vaccines including rabies; check Fit for Travel online. Malaria is present in the Llanos (and elsewhere in Colombia), though the part of Casanare covered in the main article is considered to be low risk; talk to your GP practice nurse before travelling. Biting insects are ubiquitous: cover up and use repellent with 30-50% DEET or a repellent containing IR 3535.

The security situation in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, but it is important to keep up to date with the latest local and FCO travel advice.

Getting there

Several European, US and Canadian airlines fly from the UK to Bogotá, including Iberia, Lufthansa, Air France and Air Europa, via their hubs. Flight time is around 11 hours direct/14.5 hours indirect.

LATAM (0800 026 0782) fly direct from Bogotá to Yopal. Flight time is around 1 hour.

Getting around

The author’s transfers were provided by the tour operator. Although the quality of the roads in Casanare is generally good, accessing reserves such as El Encanto de Guanapalo can be challenging and is best left to local drivers. Wild Llanos offer transfers, day trips and tours from Yopal.

Cost of travel

Travelling in Colombia is cheaper than in western Europe or North America but more expensive than India or South-East Asia. The Llanos Orientales’ remoteness and lack of public transport means you often have to rely on organised tours or private transfers, which pushes up costs. But food is cheap: a hearty lunch or dinner in the region will only set you back around £2.50-£5. 

Accommodation

Located in the heart of Reserva Natural El Encanto de Guanapalo, Hato Mata de Palma is a traditional, single-storey homestead with spacious guest rooms, each with their own modern bathroom. Accommodation is also available at the reserve’s two other hatos, Altamira and Montaña, and in Yopal, which has budget and mid-range options.

Food & drink

Chocolate santafereño (or chocolate completo), a mug of hot, lightly spiced chocolate into which slices of cheese and cheese-flavoured bread are dunked, is a classic breakfast option in Colombia. Arepas, corn patties commonly stuffed with cheese or meat and served on street stalls, are equally popular.

The Llanos Orientales are famous for their barbecues, which feature copious amounts of local beef (and often pork and chicken). They are generally accompanied by rellenas (blood sausages), chicharrón (fried, crispy pork belly), chunks of plantain and cassava, and a tangy chilli sauce. 

Further reading & information

Colombia (Rough Guides, 2018) The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Colombia's official tourist information site

DID YOU KNOW?

An hato is defined as a farm that spans 1,000 or more hectares (10 sq km), has 1,000 or more cattle, maintains the native biodiversity, and keeps llanero traditions alive. 

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