The name "Venezuela" conjures up images of dark and mysterious jungles, lush rainforests, plains, mountains and islands lying in the Caribbean. It has everything South America is famous for and then some. Spreading across the centre of the relatively small country is a place like no other: Los Llanos, which translates into "flat plains".
Vast plains spread from the Andes Mountains in the west to the Amazon River basin in the south and the Orinoco River in the east. They are all home to cattle ranching and superb wildlife. Sorrel Wilby was amazed to discover that almost at every metre, she encountered armadillo, crocodiles and anacondas. The diverse landscape is one of the world's major biomes and diverse ecosystems.
Los Llanos' diversity attracts international researchers and scientists. Florin savannahs, riverbanks and forests all have different ecosystems and provide environments for birds to nest and wildlife refuge. Protection works very well on private ranches where conservation and poaching are watched very carefully.
Hato El Cedral Ranch
Sorrel visited El Cedral, a 53,000 hectare cattle ranch in the low plains of Apure State near the town of Mantecal. It's overseen by 120 resident cowboys who keep an eye on 20,000 cattle and wildlife.
Guides take adventurers on eye-popping eco-tours of the best of the Orinoquia System. It's heaven for birdwatchers. There are 344 registered species. The hoatzin, also known as the stinkbird, is a bizarre looking creature with eyes circled in blue. Their odour seems to deter predators even the ever-hungry caiman steer clear. Mind you, the resident crocodiles aren't so fussy when it comes to human meals, so be on the lookout! Ditto the flesh-eating piranhas.
Enormous quantities of mammals and reptiles roam free, unperturbed by humans. The crab-eating fox, giant anteaters, white tailed deer, red howler monkeys, puma and jaguar are all there. Waters swarm with pink dolphin, crocodiles, caimans and anacondas. Capybaras, the world's largest rodent that can weigh up to 60kg, were often seen as delicacies and were once in danger. Venezuelans find the herbivores delicious, but they are off the menu these days and numbers have grown to more than 20,000, so something's working.
The ranch hosts tourists with comfortable rooms and three meals a day. At night, local cowboys serenade. Just gorgeous: sitting at dinner by candlelight and being serenaded by guitar, harp, cuatro and maracas.
Twenty-five air-conditioned cabanas have ceiling fans and private bathrooms. There is a pool and an attractive dining room where you can enjoy Creole and international cuisine. Landscaped gardens are an oasis in the savannah with giant cedar trees full of birds.
To get the most of your experience, you need to get going fairly early in the day, but don't bother to set an alarm. You will be told the sun is up by howler monkeys they have the loudest call of any land-based animal in the world.
In the dry season the water is concentrated into smaller billabongs, so you will see larger congregations of bird flocks and visiting migratory birds. Mind you, you won't be disappointed in the wet as there is still a staggering variety.
If you fancy tracking an anaconda, just let your guide know you're interested. They are elusive but locals know what to look for and will even catch one and measure it. The one Sorrel measured was almost 5m long. The anacondas are so powerful they just squeeze their prey to death. They also have teeth to make sure the job is done properly.
El Cedral has boat tours and safaris year round.
Los Llanos in the centre of Venezuela.
Kumuka Worldwide Tailor Made Tours has a six-day exclusive Venezuela tour for $2000 per person twin share. They operate from Caracas. Four- and five-star accommodation, most meals, activities, internal flights, private guide and transport are included. They run year round. Choose your own departure date.
Prices correct at March 12, 2009.
For further information
Kumuka Worldwide Tailor Made Tours
5/387 George Street
Ph: 1300 667 277 or (02) 9279 0491
Fax: 02 9279 0492
Visas: Australians do not require a tourist visa to enter Venezuela.
Electricity: 120V/60Hz using United States-style two pin plugs.
Time zone: GMT -4 hours.
Currency: the Bolivar fuerte (BsF).
International dialling code: +58.
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