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The Llanos are brimming with wildlife
Whether you are a die-hard wildlife enthusiast or just an appreciator of natural sceneries, the Eastern plains of Colombia won't leave you unfazed. But do you need a super complicated and expensive multi-day expedition that eats your precious vacation time (and budget)? Do you need to travel into far off-beat jungles or hard to access locations to have an authentic experience? Nope, you can spot most of the above mentioned in ONE SINGLE DAY from Bogotá!
Technically. You may want to add some resting time and stretch the experience by a day or two. All we are saying is, it can be done and you don't need to venture on a week long expedition into the middle of nowhere (although that, too, has its perks! We'll tackle this in a separate post).
Colombian Safari in a Day - Itinerary
We land in Yopal, capital city of the department of Casanare, on the first flight of the day. After exiting the plane we wander under palm trees towards the tiny terminal building inhaling the humid and warm tropical air. An iguana wanders off as we approach. We swing our backpacks over our shoulder and step into the strong morning light of the Llanos Orientales, the part of the country where the sun first touches ground every day. A white pick-up takes us through Yopal and out of Yopal on the 'Marginal de la Selva', the 'borderline of the jungle', as the road is called, that divides the lush Andean foothills from the plains. We are heading north with the Andean foothills to our left and the infinite prairies to our right. Eventually we turn east and head straight into the plains, with Llanos stretching towards the horizon all around us.
Rice fields fly past the window, savannas dotted with zebu cattle and horses. Birds of prey perch on fence posts. Wood storks stalk along waterholes. Immaculately white clouds of cattle egrets populate cattle fields. The perfectly wide and even motorway narrows into a single lane road shaded by oil trees and bush to both sides. We turn and, passing a large metal gate, enter Hato Matepalma, an extensive ranch where our safari begins. The trek leads up to a few more gates and we meet Don Ceudiel, our local guide and also a bit of a local celebrity. Rolled up trouser legs, bare and weather beaten feet, knife on his belt, plaid shirt, moustache and the iconic cowboy hat illustrate Ceudiel, who has won the region's "Gran Llanerazo" contest not once but twice! This means he knows how to work the cattle, dance Joropo, strangle with a caiman or huge anaconda, tame horses, cross rivers with horses and dozens of cattle, sing the traditional songs and stalk wildlife. Needless to say, Ceudiel is your man when it comes to exploring his native land, an expert on his field and in the field, so to speak.
We spot the first capybara! It otiosely walks across the grass just before the car and casts us a wary look and, wow, it isn't small. "A male", Ceudiel points out. A capybara rarely comes alone and so, after a lot of excitement in spotting capybara number 1, there are number 2 and 3 and 4 and... heck, entire tribes of the world's largest rodent.
We drive parallel to a long stretching lagoon surrounded by bush to our right and the open savanna melting with the horizon to our left. Herds of cattle graze, buff-necked ibises, roseate spoonbills and scarlet ibises can be seen gathering on the semi-flooded savannas, colourful dots in the sepia tinted prairie. White-tailed deers jump about. By the lagoon to our right we spot groups of capybaras and spectacled caimans, sunbathing on the shore or floating in the lake with nothing but their 'spectacles' poking out from the surface.
Two hulking wood storks stalk along the mellow water looking for fish. Wattled jacanas join them. An amazonian kingfisher shoots past and lands on a twig. A big red-footed tortoise unhurriedly crosses our path. Parakeets shatter in the bushes surrounding the lagoon and move around in noisy flocks. A zebu cattle moos deeply, another responds.
The sound of the capybaras is heard occasionally, a loud snort to warn their group of approaching humans with cameras. Albeit these capybaras lively peacefully on the farm - if no puma or caiman or anaconda intends to make them their midnight snack - they remain wary of humans. Somewhat justifiably. "Their meat is a delicacy", says Ceudiel.
Very much like guinea pigs and other rodents, capybaras are eager reproducers and not threatened. And so, once a year or so the farm owners allow hunting a few to control population - and have a feast.
Most of the time though, farm workers and capybaras live peacefully side by side. Some capybaras can be seen mingling with the farm's domestic pigs just a few steps from the house. The degree of co-living becomes evident here.
We reach the end of the lagoon where a narrow land bridge crosses to the farm house with another wider lagoon to one side of the house. Large groups of capybaras can be seen enjoying a bath including a large number of little and young capybaras. "This is the kindergarten", laughs Ceudiel. Next to human activity the capybaras don't have to fear threat from felines and anacondas and can better raise their offspring.
We exit the car and walk across the narrow land bridge towards the farm house. It's lunchtime! Under the watchful eyes of chicken, cats and dogs we enjoy a hearty meal by Doña Andrea, the farm's chef.
As sun and heat peak, we settle into a 'chinchorro' a woven hammock in the shade overlooking the lagoon with its many capybaras and caimans and the garden where hummingbirds and flame redheaded woodpeckers move about.
We take a walk along the lagoon to observe the capybara offspring. The views across the infinite prairie and the swaying grasses have something wonderfully soothing. A pair of Orinoco geese, Colombia's only native goose, waddles along the shore to join a group of white-faced whistling ducks.
Before returning to our car, we take a detour into a small palm forest to observe a family of great horned owls, Colombia's largest owl. They are accommpanied by dozens of vultures, lineated woodpeckers, oriole blackbirds and crested oropendolas who work on their iconic 'hanging nests'.
We are back in the car - or on the truck bed if you like, binoculars and cameras ready to shoot. The car picks up speed, driving past cattle herds, ponds and flooded savannas where spoonbills and scarlet ibises bill about in the silt, their bright scarlet and vibrant pink colours displayed.
We reach open savannas and drive along wilder lagoons where dozens upon dozens of white-tailed deer run across the prairie, more capybaras, geese, ducks, ibises and caimans are seen. The late afternoon sun dips the water in pastel colours and the warm prairie wind has long ago torn down our hats and messed with our hair. Groups of horses gallop past, throw their heads up into the air and snort. Cattle jumps away and gawks at the car in disbelief.
We stop by the water, sip on an ice cold beer with Ceudiel and take it all in as the sun begins to set in the Llanos Orientales in the direction of the Andes mountains, whose peaks we can spot from the distance. Not much more than a faint shade of mighty giants respectfully lined up before the Llanos.
We are headed for Yopal again. Dusk falls and slowly the distant glow turns into a deep blue. We reach Yopal in the evening, tanned, with dishevelled hair, mud stains on our jeans and a full SD card.
(The last plane leaves Yopal at 8:40 pm - if you really have to leave already.) So technically, it is possible, to do a wildlife safari in a day from the capital of Colombia. Whether you are pressed for time or looking to enjoy a few days more in the eastern plains to also get a taste of the local culture, set out on horse back, take a boat trip down one of the many rivers, explore the Andean foothills on a mountain bike ride, visit farms and observe even more wildlife, we can advise you: firstname.lastname@example.org