Trail of the unexpected: Animal attraction in Venezuela

The wilds of Venezuela are home to cowboys, capybara and some fearsome fish.

Me: "Is it safe to swim in here?"

Tour guide: "Yes, sure. Don't worry about the piranhas. They only nibble if the water's too low."

Me: "What about that big caiman over there?"

Tour guide: "He just ate. He won't bother you. But watch out for stingrays. Try not to stand on the bottom."

That's the trouble with wildlife in these parts; it can bite, it can sting, it can strip the flesh from a carcass in a matter of seconds. We're in the Venezuelan area of Los Llanos – the plains or vast flat grasslands that cover almost a third of the country (an area the size of Italy) between the Andes mountains in the west and the Orinoco Delta in the east.

This is Venezuela's Wild West, a mythologised land of hardy llanero cowboys driving massive herds of cattle across ranches the size of small European countries. It is also one of the country's prized tourist assets, a natural haven full of capybara (an aquatic rodent the size of a small sheep), caiman (South American alligators), piranhas, monkeys, anacondas, river dolphins, jaguar, puma, ocelot, and a variety of bird life unmatched anywhere in the world.

The best way to see all this wildlife is by motorised canoe, along the many caños – river branches – that bisect the savannah during the May to November wet season, turning the entire area into a giant inland sea.

We've just spent the past hour fishing for those much-maligned razor-toothed fish so beloved of horror film-makers. But the piranha isn't quite so deserving of its fearsome reputation. There are more than 30 types in South American rivers and only one or two are flesh-eaters. Some are even vegetarians. However, it's the red-bellied piranha (a bona fide flesh-eater) that we've been landing in bucket loads with our makeshift fishing rods.

The expression "shooting fish in a barrel" springs to mind as we load our hooks with raw pork or chicken, drop it into the river and wait about five seconds for a bite before whipping the line out of the water, piranha attached, and – this is the really important part – killing it immediately with a metal pin. You don't want to be standing in a boat, wearing flip-flops, surrounded by not-quite-dead piranhas.

These are creatures that – at the end of the dry season when water levels are low and food has become scarce – turn on each other, the stronger ones attacking the weak in a frenzy of cannibalism. It's probably not a good time to be dipping one's toes in the water.

As we continue our trip through the maze of caños, a 1.5-metre tall jabiru stork takes off from the riverbank and flies across our bow. A kingfisher skims the surface of the water in search of lunch and the occasional osprey plunges its talons into the water to spike its prey. All this goes on to a backing track of howler monkey screams from the overhanging trees, and groans, croaks and grunts of the noisy hoatzin as it sits in the branches digesting its last meal. This strange-looking creature, with a spiky crest, is known as the "stinkbird" because of its pungent odour; its unusual digestive system acts like a compost heap, fermenting the leaves and fruit it eats. Needless to say, we don't get too close.

Aside from the exotic wildlife, Los Llanos is also home to five million cattle, which are driven huge distances by the llaneros during the wet season to reach higher ground above the flooded plains. The llanero is Venezuela's equivalent of the Argentine gaucho, the ultimate macho figure who typifies the national traits of bravery, independence, individuality and hospitality.

Much eulogised in words and song, the llanero's traditional lifestyle has been compromised over the past century by the growth of the beef industry and the introduction of roads and fences to his domain. The llaneros were the backbone of Simó* Bolivar's army as he fought for the country's independence from Spain in the early 19th century.

The country's current President, Hugo Chávez, often invokes the spirit of Bolivar and even renamed the country as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. However, his controversial policy of land reform and redistribution does not sit well with today's llaneros, who see it as an attack on what is left of their traditions.

As the day draws to an end, our boat is followed by a pair of river dolphins, or tonino as they are known here. It's a thrilling end to our tour, but the best is yet to come. The llanos sunset has to be seen to be truly appreciated. The glowing embers of the sun turn the vast landscape a deep shade of blood-orange, lighting up the waters like rivers of fire.

That evening, back at the farm where we're spending the night, we dine on piranha cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. As the meal draws to a close we're joined by another charming little fellow who has inspired an entire sub-genre of horror: the blood-sucking vampire bat. Though unlikely to bite an unsuspecting tourist in the neck, they have been known to suck human blood, mainly through the soles of the feet. It's a comforting thought as I head through inky darkness to my bed – a hammock slung beneath a rough thatch shelter.

Venezuela facts

Population: 28,000,000
Capital: Caracas
Area: 44 times the size of Wales
Year of independence: 1811
National animal: Troupial
Opening lines of national anthem:Abajo cadenas! Gritaba el Señor (Down with the chains! Cried out the Lord)

Travel essentials: Venezuela

Getting there

* There are no direct flights between the UK and Venezuela. Iberia (0870 609 0500; and Air Europa (0871 423 0717; offer connections to the capital, Caracas, via Madrid; TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flies via Lisbon; and Delta (0845 600 0950;, American Airlines (020 7365 0777; and Continental (0845 607 6760; fly via their US hub cities.

Visiting there

* Natoura (00 58 274 252 4216; offers four-day tours of Los Llanos from Mérida, starting at US$350 (£233) per person. Transport is included, plus all meals and accommodation in hammocks or beds with shared bathrooms. Horse-riding and boat trips are also included.

More information

* Venezuela Tourist Office:

* Latin American Travel Association: 020 8715 2913;

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa corruption: The officials are caught in the web of US legal imperialism - where double standards don't get in the way

    Caught in the web of legal imperialism

    The Fifa officials ensnared by America's extraterritorial authority are only the latest examples of this fearsome power, says Rupert Cornwell
    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

    Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert