Colombia’s Eastern Plains are one of the best places in the country for ecotourism and are essentially the Colombian equivalent of an African safari (with fewer lions and elephants!). There are plenty of excellent ecolodges and reserves where you can head out on a jeep or on horseback in search of herds of capybaras, giant anteaters, anacondas, caiman, and even jaguars or pumas if you’re lucky!
The best-of-the-best of the region’s ecolodges is the spectacular Hato La Aurora. This working cattle ranch has been free of hunting and protected for well over 50 years, so the wildlife is remarkably plentiful and incredibly calm around people, making for some amazing close encounters with some wonderful animals and birds. Plus, the lodge itself is lovely, with excellent food and live music performed regularly by its exuberant owner, Nelson Barragan.
The culture of the Eastern Plains – or Llanos Orientales in Spanish – is a unique and interesting one. The llaneros of the region are essentially Colombian cowboys and a stay in the Plains isn’t complete without enjoying some of their wonderful joropo music and dancing, and heading out to corral some cattle with real-life cowboys! One of the best places to discover llanero culture is at the Llanerazo Ranch Museum, where a local cowboy has opened a working museum of Llanos culture.
Pink river dolphins aren’t just found in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, these beautiful and surreal creatures also swim in the rivers of the Eastern Plains. The best place to see them for yourself, and even jump in the water and swim with them, is the little town of Puerto Gaitan in Meta department, where three giant rivers meet and the dolphins are abundant.
Wisirare Park, located just outside the town of Orocue in Casanare, is the most important conservation centre in the world for the rare and endangered Orinoco Crocodile, the largest predator in the Americas. Wisirare, located on a huge natural reserve with an abundance of wild animals and birds, has a breeding and reintroduction programme for these mighty beasts, and you can visit the park to see the massive crocs with your own eyes.
Located just outside of the small town of Puerto Lopez on the road from Villavicencio to Puerto Gaitan in Meta department, the geographical centre of Colombia is marked by a giant obelisk sculpture on a hill overlooking the surrounding plains and rivers. While this monument may not be worth making a specific trip for – like the Equator near Quito – if you happen to find yourself travelling in the Llanos, it’s not very often you get to visit the exact heart of a country.
Although the iconic red river of Cano Cristales – often called ‘the most beautiful river on earth’ or ‘the river that escaped from heaven’ – isn’t strictly located in the plains themselves, it is part of Meta department, and is, therefore, part of the same region. Located in La Macarena National Park, Cano Cristales surely must be one of the most spectacular rivers on the planet, and when it shows its colours between June and November, it really should be on the top of any traveller’s list in Colombia.
The Eastern Plains is Colombia’s most important cattle ranching region and, therefore, Llanos BBQ is famous throughout the country. WIth some of the choicest cuts of meat, prepared on giant skewers over open fires, a Llanos BBQ is an unmissable foodie experience on any trip to this part of Colombia.
The fringes of the eastern Colombian Andes and the Eastern Plains are home to some excellent white-water rafting, as hundreds of small rivers cascade out of the Andean foothills before winding away towards the distant rivers of the Orinoco region. The best spot for rafting is Cubarral in Meta department, where you can enjoy some top-class white-water just a few hours from the capital of Villavicencio.
The Eastern Plains are famous for their amazingly diverse birdlife, and taking a birding tour as part of a nature trip in the region is a must. With huge flocks of Scarlet Ibises, Jabiru Storks, Orinoco Geese, Whistling Ducks, and many, many more, a birding safari anywhere in the Llanos is an unforgettable experience.
This statue sits on a mountain overlooking the departmental capital of Casanare, the small city of Yopal. While the statue itself is nothing to write home about, the view certainly is: a vast panorama encompassing the city below, the seemingly endless distant plains stretching on all the way to Venezuela, and the huge Cravo Sur River curving around Yopal and disappearing into the distance. If you’re passing through Yopal, then make time for a trip up to the Virgin of Manare.