Los Llanos

Known as the "Serengeti of South America," Los Llanos is an alluring destination for anyone interested in wildlife. Covering nearly a third of Venezuela's total area, the sprawling grasslands of Los Llanos are just a short flight away from Caracas—through San Fernando de Apure or Barinas—but they feel a world away from the bustling capital. The air sings with birdcalls instead of car horns, and the unpaved roads are more likely to carry iguanas searching for a sunny spot than commuters looking for a parking space.

Los Llanos (literally "the Plains") has two distinct seasons, each offering opportunities to see a wide variety of animals and birds. From May to November the plains are inundated with water and crisscrossed by powerful rivers, forcing land animals to scramble for higher ground as the rains unleash their fury. Flooding submerges the smaller roads, making it a bit more difficult to get around. This is the best time, however, to observe the large river otters, and to see clusters of capybaras and troops of howler monkeys gather in small patches of gallery forest. This is also the time when Los Llanos cools off; daytime temperatures hover above 90°F, but the evenings are comfortably mild.

With the end of the rainy season in December, the landscape begins a dramatic transformation. Standing water quickly evaporates in the heat of the tropical sun, revealing the bright greens, yellows, and golds of the grasses. By the end of the dry season in April, the mighty rivers have become trickles, and only a few pools remain. Temperatures soar to over 110°F during the day, but it's worth enduring the heat, as the dry season is the best time to view wildlife. Four-wheel-drive vehicles can head in almost any direction across the parched landscape, bringing you to where the animals have gathered around the few remaining pools of water.

Spanish settlers established the first cattle ranches in Los Llanos in 1548, and within 200 years the expansive ranches, known as hatos, had spread across the region. Today, amid the more exotic wildlife, thousands of cows still roam the range, driven by cowboys known as llaneros. The best way to see Los Llanos is to stay at one of the half-dozen hatos set up to accommodate guests. Sometimes you can eat dinner with the llaneros in the dining hall or head out with them for a cerveza in one of the little towns that dot the region.

Although sparsely populated, Los Llanos is considered by many to be the cultural heart of Venezuela. It's no coincidence that the traditional music of Venezuela—called joropo—was born in Los Llanos. Locals still gather after dark to listen to these lilting folk songs, sung over the sounds of maracas, harps, and four-stringed guitars called cuatros. In outdoor bars with dirt floors, couples dance while joropo bands alternate rousing tunes that celebrate the bravery of the llaneros with ballads that recount the difficult lives these cowboys must endure.

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