TRAVEL / High noon with the llaneros: The horsemen of Venezuela's central plains are opening their ranches to eco-tourists. Tony Perrotet goes wildlife-watching in the badlands

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The Independent Culture
THE HEAT of the Venezuelan Llanos had already descended when I drove into Mantecal, a run-down, one-horse town that looked like a tropical version of a Hollywood Western. Slouching around on the muddy street corners were clusters of llaneros (as the Venezuelan cowboys are called), thumbs hooked in their jeans and straw cowboy hats cocked low over their eyes in the classic gun-slinger pose.

Inside the main town bar - a sauna-temperature shed with no chairs and salsa music crackling over the

radio - the few unkempt patrons watched me with the same fixed, vacant gaze that the rest of us reserve for evening television. Meanwhile the bar girl kept up her end of the show: she sent my beer sliding from one end of the counter to the other, without spilling a drop. Did these people naturally act like this, or had they seen High Noon too many times?

If this were almost anywhere else in Venezuela, the suggestion would not be entirely frivolous. Since the discovery of oil in 1922, the country has been transformed into the most yanqui-fied spot in South America: most of Venezuela has accepted six-lane highways, Cadillacs, fast food and baseball as if, just by imitation, it might become the 51st state of the USA. But the vast region known as the Llanos, or 'plains', is an anomaly, a decaying backwater preserved in a 19th-century cocoon.

Once seen as the nation's heartland, the region is looked upon with a mixture of sentimentality and disdain by the rest of Venezuela. It was in the Llanos that the 'national character' was supposedly forged, and Venezuelans (who now mostly live along the Caribbean coast) can still become dewy-eyed about its people and landscape, even though they only recognise them from photographs. But historically, like many Latin American frontiers, this raw, rural world has also

been viewed as a heart of darkness - a place where the never-ending heat drives settlers to insanity and suicide, where civilisation slowly decays and barbarity thrives.

These days the Llanos are enjoying a minor renaissance, with many enormous hatos, or cattle ranches, opening up to a new wave of eco-tourism. The region offers some of the great wildlife-watching of South America, with more bird species found in its expanses than in North America and Great Britain combined. The ranches, still working, will arrange horse rides into the plains and boat trips along tributaries of the Orinoco. But Hato La Trinidad de Arauca, where I was headed, had the extra appeal of being bound up in the region's mythology: it is the setting for one of South America's classic novels, Dona Barbara, a depressingly sexist work about a llanero woman, Barbara, who was gang-raped as a teenager and spends her life taking vengeance on all men.

Combining the threat of witchcraft with seductiveness and cruelty, she becomes the de facto empress of the hitherto male-dominated Llanos - until an incorruptible man from the big city reawakens her feminine instincts and causes her downfall.

Paying a visit to this peculiar outpost, now going by the user-friendly name of Hato Dona Barbara, took some planning: first came the flight into Caracas, Venezuela's chaotic, skyscraper-infested capital on the edge of the Caribbean. A connecting flight to the dusty town of San Fernando was followed by a rough 10-hour drive in a Land Rover across the savannah, which stretches green and pancake-flat in every direction.

Although many visitors elect to take a light plane for this part of the journey, I wanted to absorb some of the plains' haunting atmosphere. In the wet season, the whole region is flooded by rains so that it looks like an inland sea; in the dry season, the sun bakes the Llanos into a virtual desert, leaving the bones of dead cattle whitening on the cracked earth. It wasn't hard to agree with the famous German scientist Alexander von Humboldt who, during a visit in the late 18th century, wrote of 'something awful . . . in the uniform aspect of these steppes. All around us the plains seem to ascend to the sky . . . like an ocean covered with seaweed.' (Von Humboldt would never forget the Llanos: he trod on an electric eel here and walked with a limp for the rest of his life).

Finally the gates of the hato appeared, opened by llaneros on horseback carrying antique rifles. I was directed along a muddy track for another six miles before glimpsing the ranch house: after crossing the bleak plains, it rose like an apparition from Beverly Hills, glistening white and pink and surrounded by swaying palm trees.

Closer inspection only confirmed that strange forces have been at work. Inch-high figures of Jesus and Mary are embedded almost unnoticeably in the masonry. Dominating the garden is an airplane propeller, twisted by an accident into the form of a giant four-leafed flower then set on a pillar as a sculpture. And gathered in cages all around the property are exotic creatures such as ant-eaters, chameleons and capybaras - huge water-going rodents that the local Catholic church once declared to be fish so they could be eaten on Fridays.

Sidling out to meet me was the ranch's current owner, Dr Hugo Estrada - a thick-set, easygoing character whose bright tropical shirt, sunglasses and baseball cap betrayed an upbringing far from the Llanos. A doctor of law, Estrada had given up his practice in Caracas to take over the family property from his eccentric father, who had built the ranch house and its odd accoutrements. 'My father was more of a poet than a rancher,' the doctor explained. 'We went from owning 18,000 head of cattle to 3,000 in a couple of years. Then the family started legal proceedings to have him declared incompetent.'

The famous heat and solitude of the Llanos must have pushed the elder Estrada over the edge. Without doubt his most bizarre construction was the 'Ship of Stones' - a 30ft-long ship's hull made of bricks, sitting in the garden with dozens of large Orinoco turtles wallowing in mud inside. As an Argentine traveller I met at the ranch said: 'If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had invented this place, it would be considered a stroke of fantastic genius.' An image remains of the elder Estrada as a doddering Kurtz out here in the Llanos, cut off from the rest of the world and indulging his every whim - not quite a descent into barbarity, but close enough in his family's eyes.

Several miles away from the ranch house, around 20 simple but comfortable rooms have been built to lodge guests, and it's easy to while away several days exploring the property, chasing after wildlife and observing the macho culture of the llaneros.

These days, there's not much pride in the llanero traditions: most wear factory-made Western trousers and shirts, with the ubiquitous straw cowboy hats (although some prefer a plastic hard hat). Despite the 100-degree heat, a couple of them wear thick woollen ponchos ('Against the rain,' one explained with a shrug).

As horsemen the llaneros are still spectacular. Early in the morning they can be seen rounding up the cattle around the ranch, chasing any stray beasts across the plains and riding them down with lassos. There are also some peculiarly Venezuelan rituals for cattle branding: for some reason (obviously unrelated to efficiency), the llaneros have to swing a bull to the ground by its tail.

The best time to ride around the property and do some animal-spotting is just after dawn, when the air is coolest. All over the Llanos, one can gallop over a crest and see a lagoon full of pink flamingos sieving with their beaks for food, and watch for several minutes before they disappear in a graceful cloud. Until recently, flamingo feathers were one of the area's most valuable exports but today the birds are zealously protected.

Jaguar tracks are not uncommon, although the creatures are rarely spotted, while day-long boat trips can be taken along the Apure River to get a closer view of the endless ranch's range of birdlife, with floating caymans and the occasional anaconda thrown in for good measure. During the steaming hot nights, I would listen to the flapping of large bats swooping low overhead before the humming of cicadas lulled me to sleep.

Although the Llanos were once equated with rude backwardness and barbarity, after a couple of days on the ranch I found myself dreading my return to the capital Caracas - Venezuela's bloated, traffic-clogged temple to modernity. While I was later to spend many a hedonistic day by the country's justly famous Caribbean beaches, sipping cuba libres beneath the swaying palm trees, the memory somehow seems pale by comparison with my stay in the haunting, desolate Llanos.-


GETTING THERE: Fly to Caracas with Trailfinders (071- 938 3366) from pounds 496 return. Venezuela's domestic airlines, Aeropostal and Avensa, offer several flights daily to San Fernando de Apure. Book with Trailfinders, approx pounds 48 return. From there, travellers go by four-wheel drive or light aircraft to the region's hatos.

STAYING THERE: Hatos trips can be organised by asking around at the various hotels, but are more secure when pre-arranged. The main agent for Hato Dona Barbara is Lost World Adventures in the US, 189 Autumn Ridge Drive, Marietta, Georgia (010 1 404 971 8586); its office in Caracas is Edificio 3-H, Oficina 62, Boulevar de Sabana Grande, Caracas (010 58 2 718644).

TOUR OPERATORS: Journey Latin America (081-747 3108) puts together various modules into individual itineraries, flight to Caracas from pounds 433, 4 days at Hato Pinero ranch from pounds 662. A 15-day tour costs from pounds 1,374, plus pounds 667 for return flight from UK and all internal flights.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Venezuelan Consulate General, 56 Grafton Way, London W1P 5LB (071-387 6727).