A Colombian safari in Casanare

A Colombian safari in Casanare

I woke up cold in an air-conditioned room and glanced over at the bedside clock. I was running about ten minutes late so I hurriedly pulled on my clothes, grabbed my backpack, and rushed downstairs for a quick breakfast. We were due at the airport pretty soon, so I wolfed down some lukewarm scrambled eggs, mainlined a strong tinto, and jumped into the waiting van for the short hop to Yopal’s El Alcaravan airport.

Yopal is the capital city of the Colombian department of Casanare and is the gateway to the great Eastern Plains, also known as Los Llanos (or, more often than not, El Llano to those actually from there).

Most people head out into these wild plains in 4×4 vehicles, or even on horseback, but today I was in luck – the flight I was rushing to catch was on a six-seater Cessna and was to take me one-hour east of Yopal to the pristine natural reserves of El Lagunazo and Buenaventura, thanks to a generous invitation by the Cunaguaro Foundation, an organization that works with conservation projects throughout the region.

After a short safety briefing, we strapped in and took off, circling back over Yopal and heading into the sun with the slowly receding Andes at our backs. After an hour or so, I could see a vast lake, shimmering in the sunlight, and we began to bank to the left. The little plane circled the lake twice, before making a sharp descent over the water.

Flocks of scarlet and white ibis scattered into the air around us and a small herd of capybaras thundered off at the sound of the engines. We came in low over the lake and landed on a rutted dirt runway alongside a little house.

After cooling off with fresh lemonade on the shady patio of the main house, we strolled down to the lake and boarded a wooden canoe. We paddled slowly along the fringes of the sunken palm trees, surrounded by thousands of Orinoco geese – these beautiful birds are restricted to the plains of Colombia and Venezuela, and these reserves boast more than 30% of the global population. I had never seen more than small groups of these geese before and suddenly everywhere I looked I saw giant flocks of hundreds of individuals.

Breakfast was served at lunchtime on the far banks of the lake, but my normally picky internal food clock wasn’t complaining (for once). Sitting at an immaculately made table, complete with chequered red-and-white tablecloth, tucking into fresh tamales as the gentle breeze played on the surface of the water, it was hard to imagine being anywhere else. The only thing that might have been nicer was a lazy siesta in a hammock, and that wish came true after breakfast, as I whiled away the mid-afternoon sun back on the ranch house patio.

As the hours passed and the shadows began to lengthen we walked out from the house across the open plains back towards the lake. Of all the wonderful sunsets to be seen in Colombia, El Lagunazo supposedly boasted one of the most beautiful and we wanted to be at the lakeshore in time to enjoy it. Of course, trying to plan timings can sometimes be tricky in Colombia and it’s even trickier when there are birders involved – what should have been a fairly short stroll along the edge of the forest towards the lake turned into a 2-hour affair as we kept being confronted by ever more interesting ornithological stumbling blocks.

A South American snipe flushing from behind a grassy hillock, a pair of crestless curassows foraging in the mud alongside a small lagoon, a pair of shy and elusive Muscovy ducks dabbling in the shallows: there didn’t seem to be a moment when someone in the group wasn’t calling out the name of another new and exciting species.

By the time we reached El Lagunazo the sky was already beginning to colour and the gentle waves lapping at the shoreline were tinted with a soft orange glow.

There was still time for the best birding surprise of the day. As we passed a large morichal on the shores of the lake, one of my companions speculatively played the call of the point-tailed palmcreeper; a rare bird with a patchy distribution in Colombia, and never-before-recorded in Casanare department.

A species that almost exclusively lives in these types of palm trees, the palmcreeper does almost exactly what its name suggests, and can often be very hard to see. Suddenly, the bird responded to the call and, after a good fifteen minutes scanning the swaying palm fronds, we spotted it tucked away in the dense foliage. A new record for the department on Day One: not a bad start to the trip at all.

By this time, our hosts were increasingly anxious that we head over to the table and chairs they had thoughtfully set up for us to enjoy the sunset. But the birds had other ideas. The Orinoco geese were forming a single, vast flock along the shores of the lake, softly honking and cooing in a surprisingly beautiful chorus.

At certain moments something would startle them and they would suddenly run en masse into the water, creating a surreal rushing noise like the sound of waves on a shingle beach. For all the talk of the beauty of birdsong, this was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard a bird make.

Eventually, we managed to tear ourselves away from the geese, and walked over to the tables and chairs. The sunset was already well underway by this point, and the refreshing – and satisfyingly full – glass of cold white wine that was placed in my hand as I arrived couldn’t have been more welcome.

The sunset certainly lived up to its billing – the rippling reflection of the flaming orange sun in the lake framed by the mirror images of the palm trees was so perfectly framed it was as if I were looking at a painting rather than real life.

As the sky grew dark our host began to sing llanos songs in a thin, quavering voice that echoed out across the bare plains. He broke off suddenly, mid-line. “Shit, the motorbike,” he yelled, as his transport slowly toppled over into the dirt. We laughed, the spell momentarily broken. The stars were scattered across the cloudless night sky; a hundred thousand pinpricks in the inky darkness.

There was plenty more wine to go around and by the time we jumped onto the safari jeep to make the short trip back to the house there were more than a few of us stumbling slightly on the uneven terrain. Back at the hato, goodnights were mumbled and I headed off to a deep and relaxed sleep.

This was only the first day and there was a lot more to come over the next week – giant anteaters, zigzag herons, cowboy tales of lost souls and bags of bones, and frantic horse rides across baked dust bowls: in short, Casanare. There’s almost nowhere in Colombia I would rather find myself.

Chris Bell has been exploring Colombia and writing about his experiences since he first moved to the country in 2011. He has travelled extensively throughout Colombia and has now visited all 32 of the country’s departments. When he’s not birding in the depths of the jungle (over 1000 species now!) or exploring little-known regions of Colombia, he can usually be found enjoying a cup of coffee at home in Manizales.

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