The "Serengeti of South America"

The first animals you'll notice are the scary ones. In Los Llanos, the vast grasslands that make up nearly a third of Venezuela, roadside pools teem with crocodiles—both the endangered Orinoco caiman and the more common spectacled caiman, which locals call "babas." Anacondas, some more than 20 feet long, slither across your path. If you're lucky you'll spot a puma—and if you're really lucky, it'll be far away.

But there's much more to see in Los Llanos, often called the "Serengeti of South America." Bird lovers will delight in spotting dozens of species—majestic hawks to diminutive burrowing owls, well-camouflaged herons to brightly colored tanagers. Spoonbills and storks, flycatchers and kingfishers, parrotlets and cormorants abound in this isolated region. Since the landscape is perfectly flat and sparsely wooded, they're all easy to see. The most spectacular of these is the scarlet ibis; when hundreds of them return home to roost at sunset, they cluster so closely together that they seem to turn entire trees bright red.

During the dry season you can catch sight of giant anteaters lumbering across plains punctuated by knee-high termite mounds. The rainy season finds the tree branches filled with sun-worshipping iguanas that occasionally lose their grip and tumble into the waters below. No matter what time of year you visit you'll see hundreds of capybaras (called chiguires in Venezuela), cute, furry brown mammals that are equally comfortable on land or in water. Weighing more than 100 pounds when fully grown, they're the world's largest rodents.

A guided excursion is the best—and safest—way to observe wildlife in this remote region. A naturalist at one of the many lodges will take you out in a jeep or a converted pickup truck, driving along dirt roads and across patches of parched earth to get as close to animals as possible. At first you'll need help spotting wildlife, but once you get the hang of it, you'll find you can see an amazing variety of animals at close range, without binoculars. Often you can get out of the jeep and walk right among them.

Boating down the Río Apure, or one of the mighty river's tributaries, is the only way to see what the rest of Los Llanos has to offer. Freshwater dolphins will jump and play around your boat as you drift downstream watching the egrets build their nests in the branches above the water. You might want to stop on a sandbar to do some fishing—for piranhas. Catching these hungry little creatures is a fast-paced sport. Baiting a hook with chunks of raw meat, you toss a line (no rods are necessary) into the deceptively calm water. Schools of piranhas gather immediately, leaping out of the water in a frenzy to grab the bait with their jagged teeth. The trick here is to yank on the line before the bait disappears, which can happen in seconds. With some practice, you'll be able to catch enough of the salad-plate-size fish for dinner. Just brace yourself for the boat ride back to your lodge; the river won't seem so tranquil now that you know the water is infested with these little carnivores.

–Wayne Hoffman

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