A trip to Los Llanos | A nine day adventure into the plains of Colombia
The plains of Los Llanos burst into view as the Bogota to Villavicencio bus limps over the last Andean mountain side. The huge expanse of land comes as a relief, as if Mother Nature felt it was time to go to bed. The contrast is stark. A quick look over the shoulder and the mountains of the Andes look as though they guard secrets. Rarely do we see her dark, cold rock but instead the mysterious quilt of green covers her nakedness. Los Llanos throws it off. The rays of the sun no longer need to struggle and squirm into nooks and crannies, instead they fall freely and explode on the land like a ballon full of water.
Known as the gateway to the plains, the city of Villavicencio straddles the two regions. It serves as both a natural and social halfway-house as many people visit to work in the region’s main industry – oil. Many don’t stay for long, the streams of tankers heading out of town each hold a temporary visitor. Me and my travelling companion Herman stayed for one night before venturing out into the stretching distance.
2. The Chiva Ride
At this point I should mention that we were fortunate enough to go on this trip because Herman’s Father-in-law, Chucho, is the owner of a cattle ranch far off in the plains. It was with him that we made this journey and with whom you, the reader, now find us waiting to board one of the classic symbols of Colombia – The chiva bus.
Very colourful and largely built of wood, the chiva bus is an integral part of any farmer’s life in the countryside of Colombia. They cover the entire region. The route that takes us past the farm leaves from Villavicencio just once a week – Tuesdays. For this reason they load it up with all kinds of goods such as toilet paper, dry foods, beer, petrol (basically anything you can think of). Along the way they drop off the goods to the many people who have put in an order with the business-savy chiva owners. We were in for a bone crushing journey of 15 hours over dirt tracks that some how connect all the farmhouses that dot the region.
After stopping in the town of puerto Lopez, where we briefly stood in the geographical centre of Colombia, we climbed back on the chiva, sheepishly como estas’d the fellow travellers who’s heads filled Stetson hats, and welcomed the breeze that swirled through the open cabin. The paved road soon turned into dirt and we were chucked around like popcorn in an industrial popcorn maker. The locals swayed as if they we sitting on a gyro – pro chiva riders.
3. The Landscape
The first real surprise came after around 6 hours on the chiva. The land wasn’t completely flat. Instead we found lots of small hills and valleys starting to appear until they completely filled the landscape and our journey became even more uncomfortable. It looked like a giant golf course played by the Gods. Deep bunkers and ridges, perfectly flat greens, a dense oasis that springs up around a natural stream could be seen every few 100 metres.
As we weaved our way through the landscape the sun began to drop, colours softened, insects chirped and more and more passengers nodded their heads in farewell. Soon there were three of us and the bright blue sky was replaced by a dazzling orchestra of stars free from any light pollution except their own.
4. Shifting Oil in the Dark
After a few minutes of looking up at the sky the dull pain in my neck overtook the desire to take in all the beauty of the starry night. We soon left the dirt track and entered a field off to the side. We then stopped and were asked in almost impossible to interpret Spanish to help with something in the field. With torches in hand, and a definite Breaking Bad vibe going on, we proceeded to load three barrels of oil on the back of the chiva. The driver gave us a cold beer and a rag to clean our hands as a reward and we were back on the road. I remember thinking after, that the experience was a uniquely male one. Not that I believe women are incapable of doing the work, but more the camaraderie of the whole thing, the work, the laughing, the jokes and the beer. Maybe I’m wrong.
5. The hike
After 15 hours we finally arrived at our destination only to learn that we had another 2 hours of walking until we could see our accommodation for the next 5 days. The 74 year Chucho broke the news as nonchalantly as offering tea, careful to not let my disappointment show, we moved on under the hanging stars. It is always strange to arrive in a destination for the first time at night. My curious eyes tried to make out my surroundings but the light of the moon only sketched out the route of the dirt track and a few shrubs to the side. Whilst walking my tired brain did its best to translate Chucho’s history of the farm.
I could gather that after the Second World War a huge stretch of land (5000 square hectares) was bought by a Japanese man. He proceeded to build up a business for keeping and selling cows. The most influential thing that he did was to change the type of grass grown on the land. This huge undertaking reinvigorated the area and made it what it is today but he had to dig deep into his pockets. After some time he got into financial trouble and began to grow marajuana on the farm and was arrested and extradited to the States. The farm was then split into 13 separate farms, one of which we were now walking through. After two hours we walked through the door, drank panela and lemon and found a spare bed.
6. The Farm Reveals itself
First impressions always battle against preconceptions. Comparing something real against a figment of imagination always means that it’s going to be different. But this finca was so completely different to what I had imagined for weeks before that I felt a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t expecting it to be so simple. Food was cooked over a wooden fire, water drank from the river, light produced by a few strips of LEDs from solar energy captured by panels on the roof.
After a simple breakfast of eggs and hot chocolate we sat and talked awkwardly with the farm hands. Things are very traditional here. To be hired by a farm owner it is required that you are in a team of two. The man works with the cows, the horses, feeding, transport and anything that requires labour. The women, usually the man’s wife, does everything in the house, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, looking after children. For a farm owner it is important to find a good team that can run all aspects of the farm. This is of course very outdated system for any of us, but in that situation where there is always so much work to do both in the house and on the land it is difficult to think of a better way.
Chucho’s team in the farm are not the best in the area. Originally employed temporarily before a new team was set to start, at first they plugged a gap. However, the new team never arrived. The man, Caporal, is a very knowledgable farmer and works hard all hours. However, he was injured after falling from a horse in 1998 and now has several injuries but they don’t seem to affect his work too much. From what I gather the problem lays more with his female parter Leighdy (Pronounced as Lady). She has the mental age of a child and although very sweet and kind struggles to perform basic duties such as cooking, cleaning and keeping order in the house.
So this is the moral quandary. Do you fire both of them? Do you keep just Caporal and fire Leighdy? Break up the team, which also has a romantic element? Or do you keep eating bad food and wash your own clothes? I got the feeling things out there tend to be based more on the functionality of the farm and the wellbeing of the animals rather than feelings of guilt.
7. Time to explore
After breakfast we went to explore the farm on foot but soon realised that on the plains the sun had an extra intensity. After 15 minutes and a brief excursion to pick a papaya from a tree we were back in the shade with plans to relax and go out again in the afternoon. At this point we were definitely not in any kind of rhythm and feared that this could turn into a boring 5 days. An hour later Chucho called Herman in a manner that will become normal. We were given hats with neck protectors, told to put on our boots and we left to be given a tour of the farm. We were shown the horses and some cattle, then taken into one of the many oasis that dot the landscape around springs and streams. Inside is dense and full of life completely the opposite to the arid plains just outside. The oasis we were in was used to provide drinking water for the farm. The first day went by with a groggy cloud around my head. Bed called and that’s where I headed at around 8pm that night.
A full night of sleep allowed us to really take in the surroundings the next morning. A simple stroll around the finca brought a smile to my face. A moment’s pause allowed silence to sit on my ears, full and thick. It’s strange how silence has a heaviness. In that way it’s so much louder than the shrill staccato of a car horn. My normal waking process includes at least two mugs of coffee but on this second morning I found myself plonked on the back of a horse herding a large group of cattle. This woke me up faster than a coffee.
If you ever get the chance to herd some cattle you should do it. The cows were incredibly responsive to Chucho’s moany, groany shouts of ‘UURRGHGHHHH DOOO OOHHHH DOO OHHH’. It sounded as if you slowed down Homer Simpson’s classic Doh ten times. They perked up their ears and moved on ahead of us. Me and Herman caught each other’s eye from over the cattle, we didn’t need to say anything. This was cool.
What wasn’t as cool however was where the cows were going.