nr Manizales, Colombia
We’d spent the morning watching a vet shoving his arm up the backside of several cows, then shovelling out the excess manure with a cupped hand before feeling their ovaries for signs of damage. Not for the first time did we pause and comment on how weird our life sometimes seems these days.
We had travelled to Los Llanos – the plains of Colombia, a rough wilderness of tropical grasslands, sprawling cattle fincas, and undisturbed wildlife that stretches hundreds miles across to Venezuela. We were going a little bit on instinct. Not a lot of tourists go there yet, and the area we visited remains sandwiched between parts of the Llanos that are as known as much for their guerillas and paramilitary groups as they are for their birdlife and cattle.
We’d been invited to stay at a finca by someone we had met briefly at the mechanic’s in Bogota. He was a really nice guy, he drew us a detailed map of where his finca was, told us to go there, and said he’d call the farm manager and ask him to look after us during our stay. We were aware that if something had gone wrong, this could all sound a bit sketchy.
Sometimes, when making decisions like this, I try to imagine how I might explain it to my mum.
[Mum: What do you mean you’ve been kidnapped? How did it happen?
Me: Well, we met this guy at the mechanic’s and he said it would be okay…
Mum: Did you know anything about these people, or the farm, or the roads, or who you might encounter on the way?
Me: Um…. kind of, well, not much really…]
But instinct is about the most valuable asset you can bring with you when you are travelling. We really wanted to go to Los Llanos, we knew this was a unique opportunity, and we had a good feeling that we wouldn’t regret it.
We were right.
Before leaving Bogotá we’d had the new ignition wire installed in the van, and all seemed to be well with it. We had, yet again, a deadline for renewing the permit for our vehicle (which allows it to legally be in Colombia for a set period) but could not face a re-run of the bureaucratic hell involved in doing this in Bogotá. So we headed for the provincial city of Yopal in Los Llanos, to get it done before driving the final leg out to the finca.
The whole process was like night and day compared with the capital – a nice small customs office and helpful staff who didn’t over-complicate things. We completed the forms and headed back the next day to collect the permit. It was ready later than we’d have liked, and we were getting a bit tense about getting away and finding the farm before dark.
Just as the final stamp was hovering over the form, the official in charge was suddenly in the mood to chat to us about our trip. Her eyes got wider and wider as we explained we were driving the Americas and living in the van. “Aren’t you scared?” she asked.
We politely conversed. I was trying not to make it obvious that I was sneaking glances at my watch. 4pm! The farm was in the middle of nowhere and Los Llanos was not really the place where we wanted to be wandering about in the pitch black.
She patted our arms as we finally left, giving us god’s blessing and repeated wishes of good luck. It wasn’t very effective because as we tried to find the right road out of the city, we missed the turning. With little time to lose we decided to take a cheeky u-turn and head back to the junction.
We swooped left. But, unbeknown to us, a moped had just scooted up our inside and was attempting to drive straight on. I heard a thud and a scrape and saw a flash of a helmet out of Jeremy’s window.
There was a lot of shouting from passers-by as we pulled across the road and stopped (we later learned that we should have stopped exactly where we were – it seems people might have thought we were trying to leave the scene of the accident). Jeremy rushed straight over to the woman we had hit, and thankfully she was okay, if a bit bruised and shaky.
“Not only have we managed to knock over the relative of a police officer, but we’ve done so while carrying out an illegal u-turn. Not good.”
She called various friends and relatives, and lots of men started turning up, as well as the police. We felt terrible, and Jeremy’s attempts to apologise and ask how she was were quite brusquely brushed aside. As we waited for a second policer officer to turn up, it’s fair to say we were starting to feel a bit intimidated, and were pretty sure that at the very least we were going to get it in the neck from the police.
When the second officer turned up, his colleague said to him, “is she (the victim) a family member of yours?’. He said yes and went over and hugged her.
“Bollocks” I thought, we are really going to get stiffed here. Not only have we managed to knock over the relative of a police officer, but we’ve done so while carrying out an illegal u-turn. Not good.
After a bit of discussion, though, the police said: “Look, no one wants to bother with a load of unnecessary paperwork. How about you just fix her moped and that will be that?” They said they understood that we didn’t know the town and probably didn’t realise we weren’t supposed to do a u-turn there!
Jeremy went with them to the bike workshop while I stayed with the van. After a bit of a debate – during which the moped driver’s friend tried to get Jeremy to cough up for some un-related repairs – he paid 50,000 pesos (£20/$30) and left them to it.
“I bet you couldn’t get out of there quick enough!”, I said to Jeremy later.
“Well, I was trying to, but they were playing the Tottenham v Inter Milan game on the TV in there, and it was 3-0 with 5 minutes to go, so I watched a bit of it.” he said.
I don’t think that boy’s priorities will ever change.
Running even later than before, we got the f*** out of Yopal and headed down the pot-holed road to the finca. Thanks to a great map and the directions of various drunk people along the route, we pulled in to the farm well after dark but without getting lost. Only a couple of rooms on the property had electricity, so it was pitch black. The farm manager, Luis Carlos, and various other workers were there to meet us as we emerged from the van, blinking in their torchlights.
We spent a magical four days there, being shown around and looked after by Luis Carlos, the head horseman Miller and his family, and many others.
By day we walked, rode on the horses, and spent hours marvelling at the birdlife. One morning the guys took us out to another finca in the area, which was like going on a mini safari – lagoons full of dozens of caiman and turtles; capybaras (also known as chiguiros – the largest rodent in the world) roaming around or taking mud-baths, and hundreds of exotic birds darting around, including flamingoes and stork-like gabanes with their smart red collars.
We spent a morning watching the cattle being rounded up and selected for the backside treatment referred to earlier. At one point a young farm worker played ‘bullfights’ with a particularly stubborn calf, while others were lassoed into position. It was all in a day’s work for them, but hugely exciting for us to see real cowboys in action.
On the Saturday night Luis Carlos innocently suggested we drive them all to the nearby town of San Luis de Palenque, so we could ‘see the riverside malecon’. After a walk he suggested a beer in a local tienda. “If you fancy one, I’ll drive back,” I said to Jeremy. Thirty two beers later (between four of them) I rolled them out of there and into the van.
The next day they took us back to town to enjoy a traditional carne asada – a hunk of cow roasted for 6 hours on an open fire – for lunch. Divine. And this time it was my turn to quaff the beers.
There is a romance to Los Llanos that is hard to put your finger on. It’s a tough life for those who live there, but there is a lot of love for it.
At dawn and dusk there is a cacophony of birdlife like we have never heard. The flat plains stretch as far as the eye can see, before the view pixelates into the steaming haze. The darkness at night is like someone throwing a blanket over your head at 6.30pm – in more ways than one because even at 9pm the thermometer was showing over 80 degrees.
We will always be grateful to Jaime for the invitation, and to everyone at the farm for their warm welcome and their patience with our Spanish speaking. It certainly helped our vocabulary to try to give a coherent explanation of our lifestyle, our atheism and our lack of desire for children. And we had no trouble understanding their reaction – on all three counts, and in the nicest possible way, they thought were were absolutely nuts.
Perhaps the photo slideshow below will speak a few more thousand words about the magic of the Llanos.
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Things we now know to be true: Cows don’t seem to mind a rectal examination.