Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Colombia's Eastern Plains, Los Llanos Orientales
The Lagos de Menegua resort, located 12 km from Puerto Lopez on the road to Puerto Gaitan, is advertised as being just 3 hours from Bogota. We left my house at 9:30 in the morning. The first hour was spent simply wending our way through Bogota's increasingly insufferable traffic.
We stopped at a gas station to fill up, and Sally, being a practical and cautious person, checked the pressure of the tires. The front tires were low. The tire jockey swung into action, removed the tubeless tires, shook out several pieces of glass and pointed out the large tack that was embedded in one of the tires, probably picked up during the recent truck drivers' strike. He applied a total of 13 patches to the leaks and cracks in the 18-month-old Michelin tires.
Two hours after departing from home, we left the city of Bogota behind us. The city ends abruptly. Suddenly there are no more red cinder block houses and we were surrounded by fields. There is no industrial park or buffer zone on the outskirts of town.
It had been years since I had been to the plains region. The new highway apparently shaves 4 hours off of the trip to Villavicencio, the capital of Meta Department. The old route used to be breathtaking; it was a winding goat path precariously perched along the edge of the abyss, with some of the most spectacular views ever, probably heightened by an imminent sense of impending death. The new road is wider, better paved, has more tunnels (one of them 4.5 km long) and a much higher survival rate. We only passed one accident, with the uncovered body laid out on the road.
Despite being caught behind some slow moving trucks, we made good time to Villavo (as the locals call it). Billboards along the roadside announced the Festival de la Mujer Vaquera (Cowgirl Festival) under way this weekend. Don't think Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, these are honest to goodness female cow wranglers competing in rodeo events, including the local specialty coleo, a competition in which the rider chases down a year-old calf and has to flip the animal by applying a grip and twist technique to its tail, then jump off the charging horse and rope the calf.
From Villavicencio we lucked out in getting the road to Puerto Lopez, cunningly stopping to ask the very last roadside pineapple vendor who was located just before the place where we had to make a quick right on a discreet and unmarked turnoff before the bridge. There is no signage. The route was dotted with gorgeous pink trees in full boom. I wish that I knew what they were called.
The contrast between the mountains of the Cordillera and the Eastern Plains is amazing. Suddenly the last of the mountains disappeared behind us, and the flat plains stretch before us, all the way to Venezuela. The land between Villavicencio and Puerto Lopez is neatly parceled into cattle ranches extending for miles, the cattle grazing leisurely with plenty of room. There were no signs indicating land for sale. By all accounts the region looks very prosperous.
Many farms have their own landing strips and small planes were visible out front. We also passed the Apiay base that houses the crop spraying planes that fumigate the FARC's coca crops in La Macarena. There were a huge number of tanker trucks on the road, transporting oil from the oilfields of Casanare and Arauca to Bogota. It stuck both of us that the investment and energy expenditure of transporting all that oil by road would be better used in building oil pipelines.
We arrived at the hotel at 4:30 in the afternoon, seven hours after Sally picked me up at home, including two brief stops, one for lunch and one for tropical fruit desserts and coffee. The Lagos de Menegua hotel is nice but certainly not luxurious. A cold beer and a dip in the pool were the order of the day. As the day drew to a close, hundreds of tropical birds filled the air, catching insects in the dusk, particularly a lot of split-tail swallows.
Saturday morning we were up at 6:00 for a bird-watching hike. Didn't really see all that many birds in the wooded grove; 5:00 would have been a better time. Did see three bands of red monkeys. Coming out by the lake there were quite a few water birds: ducks, cranes and ibises.
The hotel's property is quite large. Owner Don Bene arrived in Colombia 1948 after being displaced from Palestine, and bought up 1,300 hectares of land (13 square km). As well as the hotel he has a booming fish farm that produces 5 to 6 tons weekly of the river fish mojarra and cachama that are native to the Orinoco region. The fish farm is fascinating. We had a look at the incubators where the fish eggs are hatched, and the different types of pools where the fish grow. All of the pools are covered with mesh so that the birds don't get at them. Cachama (a delicious member of the characid family, which includes piranhas --eat it before it eats you) was on the dinner buffet twice during our stay. I got the card for the distributor in Bogota, which is actually not far from my house (http://www.cendismar.com/default.htm).
In the afternoon we went to Puerto Lopez, which really is not much of a town. I bought a half bottle of my favorite aguardiente Llanero, which is only available in Meta Department. At the market place Sally bought a couple of bags of farofa, toasted manioc granules that are sprinkled on food at every meal in Brazil. After having eaten it for a whole week while traveling on cargo ships down the Amazon River, I still cringe at the sight of it. On the way back we stopped at the monument that marks the geographic center of Colombia. We stayed to watch the sunset, because the sunset over the plains is supposed to be particularly red and spectacular, but it was hazy and we really did not get the full effect. The full moon was also woozy under its cape of haze.
Many of the hotel's guests arrived quite late on Saturday. The road between Bogota and Villavicencio was closed for several hours because of a serious bus accident that left 15 dead.
Sunday morning after a leisurely sleep-in, Sally and I went out to kayak on the lake. We saw lots of aquatic birds. As we were coming around the small island to approach the red ibises known as coracora, something large and fast lunged at a wading bird on the bank, just off the right side of our boat. That made us paddle out of there PDQ. When we got back to the hotel the staff confirmed that there are babillas (spectacled caiman (caiman crocodilus) in the lake.
During lunch of carne llanera (meat cooked on a lean-to over an open fire), we had a performance of music and dance by a group of llanero musicians. Llanera music is characterized by the use of the harp, guitar, and maracas. A giant iguana came by to check out the excitement.
In the afternoon we went horseback riding. The cattle ranching in the primary activity in the plains and horses are the way to get around. I had a lovely buff colored gelding that was beautifully responsive. We rode far out on the property to a promontory in hopes of seeing the famed llanero sunset, but again the haze spoiled our plans. It was dark by the time we got back but the horses know their way to the stable. The following morning Sally realized that she had left her camera hooked around the pommel, but when she went to the stable to see if it had been found, no one had turned it in.
That put a bit of a damper on the weekend. Seeing as it took so long to arrive on Friday, we left shortly after breakfast on the long-weekend Monday, arriving back in Bogota in the afternoon without incident.