Stretching from the Andes in the west to the RĂo Orinoco in the east, the flat as a griddle savanna of Central Venezuela is known simply as â€śLos Llanos,â€ť or â€śthe plains.â€ť In total, it covers 300,000 square kilometers of Venezuela, or about one third of the country. With few cities, the Llanosâ€™ main draw for travelers is its wildlife, although the region is also the spiritual capital of the country and home to the unique and fast-paced joropo music.
It is difficult to visit the Llanos independently, because the wildlife is concentrated around hatos, large cattle ranches. Tours based out of MĂ©rida take visitors to special hatos that have developed eco-tourist infrastructure. These trips, generally four to five day jeep and boat safaris, cost around $30-$40 a day. Travelers typically start out from their campsite in the morning to look for animals, return to the hato for lunch and a siesta to escape the midday heat, and then undertake an afternoon trip in search of more wildlife. The days are long, so evenings are spent relaxing around the hatoâ€™s campfire before retiring to hammocks for the night.
There are two seasons in Los Llanos: dry and wet, in which the land is either flooded or bone-dry. Animals are easier to see in the dry season (December to April) as they flock to the scarce waterholes. At this time, these waterholes resemble fourth-grade biology posters that show an entire ecosystemâ€™s collection of plants and animals crowded into a space the size of a living room: caimans and iguanas sunbathe along the shoreline, dozens of herons, egrets, and other birds wade in the shallows, snapping up small fish, and capybara skirt the waters. Just below the surface, the water teems with piranha and bottle-nosed dolphins.
Unlike the more famous Amazon, the Llanos have few trees, and this open landscape offers the ideal opportunity to catch a glimpse of animals that would otherwise be difficult to spot. Consequently, dozens of fish, birds and mammals can be seen any time of the day. Camoflauged animals, like turtles and the enormous anaconda, are actively sought by the Llanos-bred guides, and often detected for a quick show-and-tell and photo session.
But the region offers more than just animals. The town of Guanare is where the Virgen de Coromoto, the countryâ€™s patron saint, supposedly appeared over 350 years ago to an Indian chief, and pilgrimages are made every year to its shrine. The people and the regionâ€™s culture are other draws. One Llanero contribution to national culture has been joropo. Many Llaneros (inhabitants of the Llanos) play joropo instruments, and it is probable that this music will break out spontaneously on any given night on the hatos. Known locally as mĂşsica llanera, joropo has its roots in Iberian Spanish music, although the composition of its instruments is uniquely Venezulean: the arpa llanera (a sort of harp), the cuatro (a small four-stringed guitar) and maracas. The rhythm is fast and many of the themes deal with life in the Llanos and the character of its inhabitants.
Los Llaneros themselves tend to be friendly and they love to sit around and shoot the breeze with visitors. A look at the land and their life shows why they are renowned for their fierce independence and resilience.
The Llanos is a perfect destination for anyone looking for adventure, wildlife, a different culture, or merely a change of scenery. Interaction with its animals, whether swimming with freshwater dolphins or fishing for piranhas, is guaranteed, and its friendly people and distinctive music and culture are sure to impress any traveler willing to get a little dirty and take a big step off the beaten path.