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Saturday, March 14, 2009

real cowboys play harps

A very protective crocodile
In the belly of Venezuela is the Llanos, the land of grazing humpbacked cattle and spirited joropo music. Never heard of joropo? Imagine a syrupy ballad sung by earnest cowboys who pluck harps while accompanied by little four-string guitars called cuatros. When I boarded the bus that took me to the far-as-you-can-see flatlands of the Llanos, the driver's CD collection started to sound like a mix tape of drunkards yodeling like cats at 3am. It's a little hard on the ears at first, but after a while I kinda liked it.
I've been out of internet-land for a bit, but a while back I spent two days on the plains getting some R&R at the Hato El Frio, a huge private ranch with a biological station supported by an ecotourism project. Though thousands of cows wander over what seems like a bazillion acres, it's also a wildlife refuge that's more impressive and concentrated with animals than any zoo. In the rainy season, the parched region I encountered transforms to a wetland of biblical proportions.
I lucked out and was the only visitor at the hato, so I got to ramble around in a 4x4 with my own private guide. We talked a lot. About why hardly any Americans visit Venezuela, our favorite places to swim, Hugo Chávez (naturally), and the coolest animals we've ever seen in the wild.
With his experienced eye, I saw scores of amazing animals that would have just blended in otherwise. Tiny ground owls with ostrich-like legs, a young anteater sleeping in a spiky ceiba tree, the gentle side to side s-tracks of an anaconda, and my favorite back story, a black and white bird the locals call "the police." Like a speed trap, they stay silent until you're right on top of them and then they scream like sirens.
The entire earth seemed to be full of living things. In the shrinking watering holes, thousands of adorable snub-nosed capybaras splashed in the mud, looking like 3- to 4-foot-long hippo wannabes. Trees boughs bore huge pustules of termites. Scores of caimans held their pointed mouths open like wax figures until they got nervous and barreled into the water. Beefy mosaic-colored iguanas munched on grass and then ran like maniacs when we got within a few feet. And birds called scarlet ibises were the color of red lollipops, making me swoon when they spread their wings against the pale blue sky.
Every time we passed a sandy mound, my guide would point out the shells of turtle eggs that had been dug up and sucked out by raptors, so we stopped to poke around a bit when we came upon an undisturbed potential nesting area. Carefully walking, we spotted our first Orinoco crocodile in the water. It was a good 5 to 6 feet long, and it was lurking about 10 feet out before it suddenly sprang out of the water and sprinted up the beach in what seemed like one second. Yes, she had eggs here as well, and she wasn't messing around. We definitely got the picture.

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