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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; iberia.com) and Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com) offer connections to the capital, Caracas, via Madrid; TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com/UK) flies via Lisbon; and Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com), American Airlines (020 7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk) and Continental (0845 607 6760; continental.com) fly via their US hub cities.

Visiting there

* Natoura (00 58 274 252 4216; natoura.com) 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: burodevenezuela.com

* Latin American Travel Association: 020 8715 2913; lata.org