Los Llanos of Colombia sometimes look and feel similar to the plains of North America and the fields of the Midwest. Lush, green, flat grasslands stretching as far as the eye can see, scattered with herds of cows and huge red skies in the morning and night. These tropical grasslands are treeless savannas and stretch for hundreds of miles before stopping at the jungles of the Amazon river basin.
The Llanos are to Colombia what the gauchos and Pampas are to Argentina: unique cuisine, music and culture that has been romanticized in Colombian literature. A vast grassland plain situated to the east of the Andes it extends over 170,000 square miles from Colombia to Venezuela. The area has one of the richest grasslands in the world and makes up over a quarter of Colombia’s landmass but yet has only a tiny portion of the country’s population.
Cattle farming has been the primary activity of the Llanos economy since early Spanish colonial days. The ranches, called fincas, are sprawling 2,000 – 4,000 acre spreads. ‘Llaneros’ or plainsmen, are the cowhands who take care of the herds. Up until recently millions of heads of cattle roamed freely on the plains.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that smaller land owners started fencing their land and farming rice, bananas and corn. Flooding during the rainy season turns the grasslands into wetlands which is home to an incredible diversity of birds.
The cattle are the Cebu variety. Originally from Asia, these humped back cattle are well adapted to withstand high temperatures and are mainly used in tropical countries. Completely grass-fed, the cattle here are free to roam the plains belly deep in grass. The meat is more muscle and tougher than barn raised cattle fed corn and grain.
While only the dairy cows are rounded up daily to milk, the beef cattle are free to roam and graze the plains for months on end. It’s and ideal life for the cattle until that one day when they are herded up and trucked to the slaughter house. At the distant ranches in Colombia’s frontier, the cattle are loaded onto river barges and brought to meat processing facilities.
The best meat in Colombia comes from Los Llanos which is famous for its BBQ beef. The choices cuts of meat are prepared on giant skewers and slow roasted over open wood fires. These restaurants, called Asaderos, roast the skewered meats in roadside fire pits offering free samples to people passing in an attempt to lure them into their open air restaurants. It usually doesn’t take much coaxing. Meat is piled high on plates, served with potatoes and yucca and not a vegetable in sight.
What to see and do
Villavicencio is the capital of the state of Meta situated just east of the Andes. Known as the gateway to the plains, the city is a good base for exploring Los Llanos. The city of 500,000 is a commercial hub of the cattle ranches in Los Llanos. A three hour trip from the capital city of Bogota, it’s an easy descent from the mountains to the warm landscape of the plains. Here heat lightning continuously thunders and flashes in the nearby Andes as the hot, tropical air of the plains rises to mix with the cool, mountain winds.
Villavicencio has a unique culture, music and food. Here one can eat huge slabs of meat or enjoy the traditional dish ‘mamona’ – choice veal cooked over a BBQ and topped with chili sauce. The town has a nice town square and cathedral – Plaza de los Liberadores and lots of green parks like Parque de los Fundadores where Pope Francis recently visited and planted a tree.
On the weekends there is plenty of ‘joropo” music which features a harp as one of the main instruments. One can dance and party with the cowboys and cowgirls at the nightclubs like ‘ Los Capachos’ – which is the most famous. There’s cock fighting and rodeos with lassoing, bull riding and ‘coleos’ , which involve four men on horseback chasing a bull down along narrow track to wrestle it to the ground.
There are a number of the ranches just outside of the city that accommodate tourists. Tiuma Park* is mentioned the most. These dude ranches offer rooms, home cooked meals and allow people to participate in the cowboy way of life on a working ranch. There are excursions on horseback roaming the open plains, along with river tours and wildlife observation safaris: with over 350 different bird species and animals that include anteaters, iguanas, jaguar, armadillos, tapirs, capybaras (giant guinea pigs – the worlds largest rodent), anacondas, alligators and water buffalo.
Exploring Los Llanos – 3- routes – 3-days
The Llanos accounts for only a tiny fraction of Colombia’s tourism. The area has a wealth of natural attractions but until recently had been off the tourist trail, ignored by both foreign and national tourists. A remote area, it was once a guerrilla territory for 30 years. But with the recent peace accords between the government and the revolutionary group FARC, the area has been declared safe to visit for the last 5 years. Many towns are organizing and promoting interesting tourism options.
From Villavicencio they have broken the nearby sites into 3 different routes. Each route requiring at least a day. The towns can be visited by bus but often the surrounding attractions, most o f which are located outside the towns, have to be reached by taxi.
Route Piedmont – along the foothills of the Andes
- Route Piedmont or ‘the foothill route’ runs north along plains along the foothills of the Andes. On this road there’s a zoo just outside of Villavicencio called Bioparque Los Ocarros which carries a wide variety of birds, animals and reptiles typical of the region.
Further north is the town of Restrepo a small cattle town. There is a salt mine here that used to be open to the public but after taking a taxi up to the mine found out it had been closed to visitors for over two years. Down the road the pueblo of Cumaral, a cattle center, is said to be the best destination on the plains to indulge in a big meal of beef.
After lunch, another short bus ride down the road is the town of Baraca – a center for pineapple production. A short ride away are the Thermal baths of Agua Thermales de Guaicaramo. And further west, 50 miles from Villavicencio, is the village of Medina where one can hike the spectacular Devil’s Canyon nearby.
Southern Route for extreme sports
- There’s a southern route that goes to the town of Cumaral. From here one can go to Sumapaz National Park and go white water rafting on the River Ariari. Futher south (3 hours from Villavicencio) visit the town of Granada. And beyond – San Jose del Guaviare and the Amazon jungle basin.
The Amencer Route – the route of the rising and setting sun
- The Amenecer (or the dawn) Route is perhaps the most scenic. It goes east to the river towns of Puerto Lopez and Puerto Gaitan.
Tiuma Park is a kind of dude ranch/park open daily from 9-4. * Just up the road is the town of Puerto Lopez. It’s a town on the Meta River. The restaurants here serve mostly fish – catfish, bobosa and apuya. This is the center of Colombia and just outside of town is the Menegua Obelisk. It’s a tower on hill overlooking the plains, marking the geographical center of Colombia. Actually the view is quite inspiring. But in the end it’s like the monument in Ecuador designating the equator. A couple miles past Puerto Lopez there’s a working ostrich farm open to the public.
The last stop, Puerto Gaitan, is a 3 hour bus ride from Villavicencio. A fluvial area, rich in oil, it’s part of the Orinoco belt oil sands that runs through Venezuela. This oil region is one of the largest and richest in the world, just behind the oil sands in Alberta, Canada.
Puerto Gaitan is also home to 4 different native tribes. The town has large, sandy, riverside beaches. From here river boats ferry tourists upriver to a spot where three rivers meet, pink dolphins are abundant and passengers can swim with these giant mammals.