May 2017: To celebrate my 40th birthday, I flew to Medellin, Colombia with a few good friends, Johnny, Jimmie, Dan and Frank. This would be my 2nd time to Colombia and my first time to Medellin. I also wanted to visit the Los Llanos, a wildlife rich swamp that had the highest density of anacondas in the world. My dream was to see an anaconda and to see one on my 40th birthday would be the best birthday present I could possibly get.

 

 

Los LLanos of Colombia

Los Llanos

The Los Llanos in Colombia until recently was too dangerous to visit because of the presence of communist rebels-FARC. Evidence of this was in the bullet holes some of the farmers showed us at their ranch during our trip.  The Llanos is a mixed tropical grassland, and swamp area that forms the floodplains of the Orinoco River, one of the largest rivers in South America. it is located in eastern Colombia and western Venezuela. It is one of the largest swamplands in the world after the Pantanal and it has an equal amount of wildlife and diversity. There are herds of capybaras, deer, anteaters, caimans, list of never-ending bird species, jaguars but what really attracted me is the anaconda. The Los Llanos has the highest density of anacondas in the world, and they can be found on some places in every few square meters. The anaconda is world’s largest snake, and these giants can grow up to 100’s of pounds and 20′ long. They are massive and I wanted to see one. The only problem was that I was visiting the Los Llanos in May, and this was still considered the rainy season meaning the water levels were relatively high and the wildlife harder to spot since snakes like the anaconda like to conceal themselves in the water and there was still lots of water for them to do so.

To reach the Los Llanos, my friend Jimmie and I (my other friends had no interest in looking for anacondas and stayed in Medellin) flew from Medellin to Yopal. In Yopal we met our driver who drove us to a farm stay in the Los Llanos called Hato la Aurora. The unique thing about the Los Llanos is that very little of it is protected land. Most of it is owned by private cattle ranches but despite this the cattle and wildlife co-exist harmoniously and the ranch owners on the most part allow the wildlife to thrive and, in some cases, have even turned to tourism to supplement their incomes as was the case with the cattle ranch, we stayed at in the llanos.

From Yopal we drove 4-5 hours to the ranch crossing through swamps and dodging a few crocodiles that were lying in the middle of the road. When we arrived at the ranch at night, there was live guitar music and dancing. A few Colombian tourists were visiting the ranch and Jimmy and I danced to Colombian country music and drank rum on our first night at the ranch. The wildlife was incredible and didn’t disappoint.

 

Common cattle in Los Llanos

Los Llanos Rancher

Semi-Wild Horses

Semi-Wild Horses

Horseback Riding

One of the highlights of the Los Llanos was horseback riding. Ironically, the last time I rode a horse was in Colombia in 2006 and I vowed to never ride one again after my horse tried to assassinate me in Tayrona National Park. But here I was on another horse in Colombia riding through the swamps of the llanos. The water was up to the horse’s knees in some parts and the horse did get spooked on a few occasions, which sent it running in terror and me regretting my decision to ride another horse but unlike the horse in Tayrona, this horse didn’t sprint for long and would actually heed my instructions to halt.  Jimmy and I along with our horse guide, a local rancher rode our horses for most of the day stopping to watch wildlife and eat lunch. 

Me Horseback riding

Wildlife

Wildlife was everywhere in the Los Llanos and the area reminded me of being in safari in east Africa.  The swamps were full of herds of capybara-world largest rodent and small caiman crocodiles. In addition to this, there were iguanas everywhere, some sitting in the treetops and when we approached, they would launch themselves into the water plunging 20-30 feet to the water below. We fed the caiman crocodiles small bits of fish meat almost by hand and the capybara would allow us to walk within a few feet of them before they would race off for cover in the swamps. One of the highlights was seeing the burrowing owls and a small anteater with a hook arm used for digging up ant nests.

Los Llanos-capberbera herd

Anaconda Tracking

According to the ranchers there were many anacondas and they even had photos of them. The photos were usually of 5 or so men holding the huge snake up across the width of the men all standing side by side. The problem was it was rainy season, and the water was high, so the anacondas were mostly concealed beneath the water. To find an anaconda, a local rancher led Jimmy and I through the swamps in knee high water with rubber boots and large wooden sticks poking the water in front of us after each step we took hoping to find an anaconda hiding beneath the water and cause it to move so we could locate it and pick it up out of the water if we could catch it. Jimmy was not a big fan of this activity. He confessed that he wasn’t a fan of snakes like I was.  We never did find an anaconda using this method, but I did step on a small 4-foot-long caiman crocodile that lunged upward at my stick scaring me as much as I scared it.

Then one morning one of the Colombian tourists mentioned to me at breakfast that he spotted a massive anaconda the morning before sunning itself on the shore of one of the nearby swamps. I raced over the swamp and sadly the anaconda was not on the shore sunning itself. One of the ranchers decided to help us find the snake and he climbed up a tree hanging over the swamp. From the lofty perch of the overhanging tree and proclaimed the huge snake maybe 15′ long was sunning itself on a patch of mud on the inside of the swamp. I quickly crawled up the tree limb leaving my camera behind since it would be too difficult to climb the branch with my camera. I crawled up beside the rancher and he pointed to the anaconda. It was coiled up in the mud and was as massive as I imagined. It was looking up at us with its dinosaur like reptilian eyes. I stared at it with the ranchers’ binoculars for a closer look and did my best to ignore the fire ants biting my leg and thorns digging into my skin. My sunglasses fell off my head and landed in the swamp below almost hitting the anaconda.  The anaconda allowed us to watch it for a few minutes before slinking into the dark depths of the swamp. I had come for the anaconda, and I saw one but sadly I didn’t get a photo like I had hoped.

Los Llanos-capybera herd 

Los Llanos-caiman crocodile

Los Llanos-anteater

Attacked by a Deer

There were plenty of wild deer but one morning while I was exploring the ranch I was staying on, I came across a fenced enclosure with a warning sign on the gate indicating, “Cuidado,” I noticed the gate was open and there was nothing but tall grass inside and there was no sign of any animals. My curiosity got the best of me, and I entered the gate and walked a few feet inside when I noticed a few small friendly female deer approached me with their heads down in a subservient manner. They seemed tame and I pet the tops of their heads. Then like a velociraptor from behind me a small buck appeared out of nowhere behind me blocking my exit. For what the buck lacked in physical size he made up for in antler size. His antlers were almost as tall as he was and were absurdly enormous. I soon discovered that they were also sharp-razor sharp. it dawned on me why the caution sign was posted on the enclosure gate. The deer were rare and local farmers were breeding new deer in this enclosure to help the wild populations recover and I had just walked into the breeding zone of this small but very territorial and feisty buck, and he felt threatened. He was not too please about me petting his females and started to dig his antlers into me and it punctured my skin and caused me to bleed. I realized he was going to disembowel me if I didn’t grab his antlers and hold on to them to keep him from stabbing me. I was stronger than him, so this seemed to work. While holding on to him, I turned him around so I could reach the gate and escape. Even though I left the enclosure the little buck was still charging the fence trying to get me. Later when I told the rancher where I was, he responded, ” Muy Péligre.” 

Los Llanos Deer

Los Llanos capybera

Los Llanos capybera

My Frog Friend in my shower

Iguana

Cabybera

Tropical Hawk

Borrowing owls

Los Llanos Swamps

Medellin and Its Pablo Escobar History

The city of Medelin sprawled out across a mountain valley and the ridges around it in Central Colombia is a beautiful city but its drug and crime history from the 70’s and 80’s which was largely centered around the Medelin cartel run by Pablo Escobar was anything but beautiful. Pablo Escobar in his heyday of the 80’s was one of the richest men in the world and may be the richest criminal in history. I wanted to visit Medellin after watching the Netflix Series Narcos, which was about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar and his ruthless drug war against the Colombian government and the United States DEA. To win the support of the poor masses that lived in the Barrios of Medellin, Pablo would build houses and donated millions of his dollars and to this day he still commands the respect and gratitude of many of the people in these neighborhoods. In return for his aid, the people of the barrio’s would work for him, serve as lookouts and devote their loyalty to the Medellin cartel. Like all powerful people, Pablo went too far and became too greedy. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of cops, government officials, rival cartel and perceived snitches as well as innocent bystanders caught up in the crossfire of the drug war. He blew up a courthouse, had presidents assassinated, and even has an airliner mostly full of civilians blown up.  Pablo eventually lost his war against the DEA and Colombian government, and he was executed on a rooftop while on the run in Medellin.  His grave is adorned with roses and gifts and serves as a pilgrimage site to many of the poor that still admire him.

I arranged a tour through a local tour guide familiar with the history of Pablo Escobar. and he drove my friends and I around in his minivan showing us the different locations in the city where the largest shootouts occurred, buildings some abandoned where hideouts were once located, a cartel prison where prisoners were tortured and executed, the house where Pablo was killed on the rooftop and the barrio that Pablo built.

Medellin City sitting in the mountain valley

barrio that Pablo helped to build

barrio that Pablo helped to build-grafitii praising pablo

Grave of pablo

Meeting the Brother of Pablo Escobar-Roberto Escobar

As a bonus, we also managed to make contact with Pablo Escobar’s brother, Roberto (nicknamed Osito-little bear and the   accountant and co-founder of the Medellin Cartel). Before I left for the Los Llanos, I spent one night in Medellin and one of the hotel managers claimed to know a guide who knew Roberto and I asked him if he could arrange a visit. Even though it took a few days for Roberto to accept our meeting, arrangements were made, and the last stop of our tour was going to be to one of the houses that Roberto owned, which he kept as a small museum dedicated to his brother Pablo. In exchange for Roberto’s time, he expected us to donate 20USD each to organization in Colombia that helps the blind. Roberto was mostly blind ever since he was nearly blown up when he was in prison when a letter bomb sent to him from the Cali Cartel detonated in front of his face almost killing him and destroying most of his vision.

When we arrived at Roberto’s house, he was waiting for us with a small entourage of armed men. he claimed that he needed them as protection because he still had many enemies and he pointed to bullet holes in the wall of the houses from an attempt on his life that happened recently according to him. The attempted hit could have been from rival cartels with old scores to settle or from petty gangs believing that he had access to millions of dollars of the Medellin Cartel still believed to be hidden somewhere. Some think that Roberto as the cartel’s accountant has knowledge of where the money is located.

Visiting Roberto was a strange experience. He was a very distant and callous individual. He was a no bull shit kind of guy and we wanted to avoid asking him offensive questions. This was a guy who threatened violence against the producers of Narcos’s, whom he claimed mis-represented his brother and probably even more importantly, did not share with him any of the proceeds from the series. He posed for photos with each of us in front of his wanted poster and it became very clear that he was proud of his criminal past and had no regrets. In fact, I asked him if he had any regrets and he said absolutely not. He even shared some stories about how powerful and fun live in the cartel was and for a second, I saw a glint of excitement in his dull, hardened eyes. He spoke highly of his brother and claimed that his brother only did good for the people of Medellin and was slandered by the government. In addition to his poor eyesight, his hearing is failing him and when I tried to thank him for meeting us, he asked our guide in Spanish angrily, “what the fuck did this gringo say to me.”

pablo’s car with bullet proof windows and bullet holes in it

Pablos jet ski

Roberto escobar-pablos Brother

Me and Pablo’s Brother, Roberto escobar

2 + 5 =

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