“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ~Jawaharial Nehru
Los Llanos are vast plains of grasslands and savanna in both Colombia and Venezuela. In Colombia we had traversed them for six days to reach the Venezuelan border. We felt a bit saturated with the landscape, but now had to cross the Venezuelan Llanos as well, this time to get to the Andes Mountains.
Hato Marisela (former Hato Frío)
A friend in San Fernando de Apure suggested stopping at Hato Marisela, about halfway, to check out its abundance of wildlife. The hato (the Venezuelan word for ranch) used to be known as Hato Frío, when it was still privately owned. In Venezuela, many well-running businesses have been nationalized over the past years. Locals continue to tell us that this measure has led only to disaster. It has created shortages of basic products such as toilet paper and flour, as well as lots of other problems (which are beyond the scope of this blog post).
When privately owned, Hato Frío owned 45,000 cows and had a thriving tourism business. Now nationalized and called Hato Marisela, there are only 12,000 cows left (they just sold them off by the thousands without any long-term planning) and no tourism. The latter they have tried to revive for the past three years. Should be ready next year, we were told.
Give it a Try
Since we like to follow up on friends’ advice on where to go, we stopped at the hato to check it out, even though we had low expectations on being allowed to enter.
We talked to a guard, who discussed it with his co-worker, who then called his boss. The latter arrived on a motorcycle and concluded the decision was up to the head of the tourism department and returned on his motorcycle to find that person. As the sun was beating down on us, I found a place in the shade and took a nap. This game of going through the hierarchies, after all, could take the rest of the afternoon.
To our surprise this was not the case. Twenty minutes later or so (not sure, I slept), a woman arrived on the back of the motorcycle with the head guard, asked what we wanted and answered, “Sure, why not. I can show you around.”
We fell silent from disbelief. “Really? You’re sure?” we checked. We were new in Venezuela and had not yet learned how often people in this country would be going out of their way to help us.
Thus we met Arelis. We had a FANTASTIC afternoon – and yes, it was so extraordinary that it justifies the capital letters.
A Caiman Breeding Center
We drove down an unpaved, raised road that cuts through grasslands, passing lakes and streams. Because of the heat not much activity was going on. “The animals are taking a siesta,” Arelis commented. We stopped at several sand banks, artificially-made nesting grounds for the different kinds of caimans and crocodiles that live here. Too many of these reptiles have been wiped out over the past decades and the really big ones – measuring up to 8 meters in length – no longer exist.
Arelis not only is in charge of revamping tourism at this ranch but is also the coördinator of the conservation of flora and fauna (part of the ranch is a reserve). To help increase the number of caimans, she daily takes eggs from the nests and puts them in the ranch’s fenced-in nursery. Here the eggs will hatch and after a year the young reptiles will be released.
From Land to Water
We stopped along the side of the road, walked inland a bit and met a group of fishermen and their families. The men were playing a game very similar to jeu de boules but with bigger balls and the cap of a water container serving as target ball. According to Arelis, this version of the French game was introduced here by Americans (or they introduced the French game and it locally evolved to this version; not sure).
One of the fishermen took out his boat and off we went. It was bliss. Clouds had taken over, there was a bit of breeze, the views were beautiful, the tranquility overwhelming. We spotted one big caiman, according to the fisherman four meters long and he thought it wise to keep our distance.
Back to Land, but with Lots of Water
Back on the road, Arelis suggested driving to another part of the ranch. By then the heat had gone and the world had awoken from slumber. Thousands of birds, dozens of iguanas, hundreds of caimans and capybaras sat, swam, flew, walked, darted, ran, dove all around us. This was watching wildlife at its best!
On our arrival Arelis had agreed on letting us camp on the hato’s terrain, but now she offered us a room. “We’re not open yet and the bathrooms don’t have water yet, but the beds do have new mattresses.” Wasn’t that the nicest gesture? Yes, it demanded a bit of improvisation. We sprayed a cockroach, bathed outside somewhere in a corner on the terrain with red-brownish water, and the aircon worked only until 11pm because they depend on one generator to generate electricity. But the bed was good, the mosquito protection in front of the windows perfect so we slept well.
We’ve always had faith in people, and on our journey we’ve experienced over and over that beautiful people live everywhere. Yet what we encountered in Venezuela in our first week has been beyond all expectations (this anecdote is just one of the experiences).
Yes, the country is on its knees and faces many problems, among which very serious safety issues. Traveling here isn’t all roses and rainbows. It can be tricky, time consuming, and you’ll need to improvise as you go.
Yet as far as we are concerned, those issues are no reason not to go here. The kind of meeting such as today confirmed once more that you can find extraordinary people anywhere – also in a country of crisis. And, in the end, traveling – at least for us – is all about the people.