Paradise Found – Ecolodge Juan Solito Casanare

 

One of the inmediate effects of the Peace agreement in Colombia is the possiblity of visiting amazing places banned because of the conflict. The thing is that although Colombia is a huge country, only the area of the mountains and the caribeean coast is really populated (this is one of the historical peculairities difficult to explain), and the guerrilla had kept a strong hold on those isolated territories. On the other hand, this means that many areas have been able to resist the savage progress of “civilization”, and the area of Casanare is one of them.

 

This is a county (state-department) located at the North East of Bogota, bordering the area of Llanos Orientales (Savanah) and it is one of the areas where cattleraising (ganaderia) and, more recently, oil exploration have determined the region´s economy.  Its geographical location nearby the last branch of the Andean Mountains, makes it an special place for biodiversity and green landscapes, and that is the real richness of this place, a true paradise for those who want to adventure beyond the touristic path.

My dad “discovered” the Eco-lodge Hato la Aurora five years ago thanks to an article written by our “Colombian David Attenborough” the genial Andres Hurtado (mountaineer, walker, naturalist, ecologist and educator). In the article, Andres Hurtado described this place as “a paradise where 42.000 capibaras or chigüiros (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), 2.500 deers, 350 bird species, lots of reptiles and other animals walk freely as in the first day of the Creation”. He also praised initiative of this contemporary Quixote – Nelson Barragan, our host- who convinced his family to transform part of their 17000 hectareas into a Natural Reserve (Reserva Casanare).

In a deep rooted culture of cattle-raising, the idea of not using the whole place for pasture was odd, even subversive, but the persistence of Nelson and his passion for nature was strong enough to be granted first a little area, where he built his eco-lodge Juan Solito, and gradually almost the whole hato and the family are completely integrated to the mission of protecting this place and its amazing flora and fauna. In his first visit my dad fell in love with the place and became good friends with Nelson. From the first time, my dad thought I would enjoy to visit this place.  Of course, after years of living abroad I´ve become a bit more “cautious” about where to go, specially in Colombia, so initially I was a bit doubtful, but my dad´s enthusiasm and the possiblity of enjoying a “road trip” with him changed my mind! Alas, it was the best ever trip I´ve had in recent years….

Paintings by Nelson Barragan. Copyright.

Our adventure started with an early morning flight via Avianca from Bogota  to Yopal (the capital of the department of Casanare)  in a decent sized plane for 50 people (not one of those wonky propellers as I had feared). In almost 35 minutes we crossed the cordillera oriental from Bogota to the other side, and the views are breathtaking… the transition from the green topmountain of Bogota toward the sinous and intricate pie-de-monte to get to an almost tropical area of palm trees and noisy greenery in Casanare.  One of the drivers of the Eco-lodge met us at the airport and took us  in a suitable vehicle (jeep or any double traction car) to the Reserva Casanare near the town of Paz de Ariporo, a trip of almost five hours. The road is paved in a 60% but the last leg is a red muddy unpaved road that requires more time. Because of the travel arrangements my dad travelled with Luis in a little lorry with the shopping and I joined the expedition of three ladies from Bogota,who were travelling with Julio Barragan: Nelson´s elder brother, pilot and naturalist, whose charm and charisma eased our apprehension.  And although you may think, what a bore to go through the wonky road, the truth is that once you pass the ¨El Totumo” and get to the red muddy road, you start seeing amazing fauna. Actually, it was just before in Paz de Ariporo where we were already fascinated by the butterflies and the encounter with a red leg turtle (chelonoidis carbonaria) crossing the dangerous road. Julio stopped the car and moved the orange turtle to the bush, and that was perhaps the first sign of the marvels to come, because once we finished the paved road, birds and animals started to appear.

Original Travel Drawings by Beatriz Acevedo. Copyright.

Babilla in the rice fields- Original Drawing Beatriz Acevedo

The many species of egret (garza) from the “common” cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), the great egret (Ardea alba), the beautiful and fragile blue egret (Egretta caerulea), and some other types of herons habiting the swamps created by the rain. Unfortunately, these wetlands are also used by rice growers and their poisonous fumigations and agricultural practices… But still babillas (a kind of lizard) and caimans remain in the wetlands…  The important thing is that there were all sort of birds… not only the small colourful birds that we saw in Minca (another paradise near the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta, on the caribbean coast) but real big birds: garrapatero mayor (crotophaga major), yellow billed pintail (anas georgica), muscovy duck (cairina moschata)… in the distance we saw a bird disguised as a stick, and it was actually a tiger heron, and other amazing types of herons like the Garza Soldado (Jabiru mycteria) and many other birds that I lost count…

 

Flirting Gallinazo ASONALGA. Original Drawing. Beatriz Acevedo

 

In that environment even the birds we normally ignore look amazing… take the common gallinazo (zopilote negro – Coragyps atratus) a vulture that is normally despised because of its association with death. For others, this zopilote is actually a “cleaner”, and funnily enough “gallinazo” is a Colombian slang  for a womaniser (a man who likes to flirt). At some point we stopped because Julio found another motorist in trouble and the we  stayed in the car, when suddenly this black bird approached us. After seeing so many beautiful birds, the ladies were not really impressed by the advances of this infamous “gallinazo”, but he was undeterred: displaying an amazing plumage, the gallinazo started a great dance similar to the colombian cumbia… flirting and puffing for our attention to the point that we had no other option but to fall in love, confirming their Don Juan fame! Here is my drawing:

 

Soon we approached the “Reserva Casanare” sign for the Eco-lodge Juan Solito our final destination, and here we realised the importance of the double traction vehicle and the expertise of the drivers, as the terrain became irregular and the journey became a sort of Paris-Dakkar rally… luckily prior to the last leg of the journey, Julio had offered us a final stop for a cool beer, which was actually the best way to approach the ondulated terrain, but very soon we got to the Eco-lodge Juan Solito.  Indeed, after five hours on the road, the sight of a huge house with palm roof under gigantic ceibas looks like a real haven. We were offered cold drinks: fruit juice, agua panela con limon, bottled water and iced beers, and we were given our rooms. The rooms are spacious and very clean, they have basic facilities like en-suite bathroom, a mosquito net, a fan, and clean sheets. After a quick refreshments we went for a copious dinner where we were able to meet the other travellers and of course, the magnificent Nelson and his team.

Nelson is a man in his forties, a proper Llanero with an apacible nature and sweet smile. His tenacity and persistence had made the Reserve. He studied agriculture and ecology and he is also an amazing artist: a talented painter (many of his paintings are reproduced here signed as “Pareja”) and musician, and basically a poet of nature and an eco-preneur.  His talents and creativity are now turned on to the Hato La Aurora and the natural reserve. I think that artists like Nelson have the ability to work with different mediums: music, paint and landscape! This is his great work! Nelson welcomed my dad as a brother – a consejero and I felt quite impressed by their friendship and how my dad felt completely at home. A young rescued deer also came by and became enthralled with my dad, I thought he had arrived to some sort of spiritual home, and this realisation illuminated the rest of our days together. My dad is a real character, easy-going, wise and a bit mad, and he makes friends so easily… even though he is retired, he is busy advising friends, chatting with neighbours and having adventorous trips throughout the country. I adore him!

Arrival at Eco-lodge Juan Solito. Pictures Beatriz Acevedo. Copyright.

We also found out that our companions, one of the ladies from Bogota, had a connection with the place. Clemencia Delgado had spent many times in la Aurora, because her grandfather, Don Chepe Delgado was the original owner of the Hato la Aurora, where he lived with his wife and six daughters.  When the wife died, tragically young, he opted to send the daughters to Bogota to study, and they became professionals, some of them becoming the first women to go to university in the first half of the twentieth century. Clemencia´s mother married a Bogota man, but they were always connected to the Hato. Clemencia was fond of the place where she learned to ride, to swim and to love the land… but without male heirs to continue the tradition, Don Chepe decided to sell to the Barragan Family who added Hato Corozal, Juan Solito and Hato Agua Verde. Of course, this was a very emotional journey for Clemencia, who is a respected ecologist, an educator and biologist, and we  somehow shared her awe, her memories and her passion for the place and the groundbreaking nature of this project!

(I thought so much about my lovely friend Lesley Longworth, biologist, educator, artist, fantastic friend…)

Soon the night came and a chorus of insects, cicadas, dragonflys, and all the sounds of nature descended over us. The sky became the scenario of millions of stars and planets like thousands of celestial eyes winking at us, and we truly felt embraced by the magic of this place. While my dad stayed around talking to Nelson, I went to bed tired with an unwelcome migraine, and I thought about what the legend says: “El Llano embruja”, that can be translated roughly as “The Llanos are bewitching…” and  with that in mind I slept soundly till the next day.

Early in the morning a new chorus of birds and other animals awoke in the forest. We went for a nice breakfast in the Kitchen area next to the Rio Ariporo, a magnificent river like those only seen in River Monsters or Nigel Marven documentaries (indeed this place has been featured in many natural documentaries of BBC and National Geographic). It is the rainy season and the colour of the river brings the red mud of the mountains and its tales.

Once again the breakfast included generous portions of fruits, juice, hot chocolate, home made cheese, eggs, bread, etc. When we were starting our breakfast, a new group of visitors who had arrived in the night approached the long table. Leading the group was a tall handsome man in their 60s, a sort of Indiana Jones accompanied by a pretty  woman (Sol, his partner), another beautiful lady (his sister Ingrid) and a young lovely couple (Jorge and his polish partner Anna). When he saw us he made a little joke to my dad about he (my dad) being surrounded by women, and my dad responded by acknowledging the presence of this “alpha male” by “lowering his head” (his words…) that was so funny!  The man turned to be Rafael Vieira, an expert naturalist, founder of a bird and fish sanctuary in Islas del Rosario, and this trip was a birthday present for his sister Ingrid… and their presence became the best addition to the group.

For that day the plan involved a Safari toward the main house of the Hato la Aurora where we were invited for a nice lunch at the Manor House where Ligia de Barragan, the mother superior, lives with three of the brothers. We were divided in three cars; one for me and my dad, with Hernando the driver and Eunice one of the girls working in the project; the truck for the Indiana Jones group accompanied by Giovanni a young birdwatcher; and Julio with the Bogota Ladies. Once again the safari went through quite moved terrain, but we were able to recognise many species of birds, including the noisy guacharos or oilbirds (Steatornis caripensis), beautiful red eagles (Busarellus nigricollis), egrets, herons, families of arucos (Anhima cornuta) as gigantic black hens walking by. We also saw a group of little yellow owls nesting on the dry ground away of the snakes.

The birds are becoming used to the presence of people, so they were quite amicable, and indeed this is a paradise for bird watchers. Only days before there was the worldwide birdwatching day, and two experts ornithologist visited Colombia for the observation of a total of 1341 species of birds, 20% of which were recorded in el Hato la Aurora, positioning Colombia as the country with highest index of bird biodiversity in the world! In addition to the birds we encountered herds of beautiful Cebu and San Martiniano cattle, and teams of wild horses. Both the cattle and the horses are part of the cultural heritage of this region, as this is a place of rancheros y ganaderos, and activities like marking the cattle, el coleo and other cattle related activities have become popular festivals and carnivals defining the identity of the Llaneros.

Under the low sky of floating clouds and green llanuras, the journey simply was amazing and we saw lizards, iguanas and wild pigs, flocks of green parrots and quick tijeretas or fork tailed flycatcher (tyrannus savana) and before we noticed we reached the Big house, where the Barragan Mother expected us with a feast of meat, platano, yuca, avocado and other local delicacies for our delight. The garden was beautifully curated with species of wild ferns, flowers and palms and hundred of feeders for hummingbirds and many species of birds residents of the magic garden. The sun was shining high in the sky and the temperature after lunch with another migraine throw me to the nearby hammack where I took a long nap. I was not alone, almost half of the group slept the lunch and in the afternoon we met for a presentation about the jaguars by another of the brothers: the biologist Jorge Barragan. Thanks to the support of the Fundacion Panthera, Jorge and other researchers have been able to install cameras to spot the elusive felines.

The Jaguar is the largest feline of America and it is endemic of the whole continent and there is a corridor (mythologic, symbolic and ecological) from Mexico to la Patagonia, and many of the species have flourished in this reserve. They have identified around 20 adults and youngsters as well as Pumas, foxes, wild boars, anteaters, tapires, and dantas. Many of these animals were thought extinct or in risk, but the labour of researchers and a (slowly) growing environmental consciousness have brought them back to the woods and savanahs.  Many cattleowners are afraid of the Jaguar because they keep their cattle in the wild, but the solution is to have the herds in fenced fields. Indeed, the presence of the Jaguar is a regulator of the eco-system, otherwise the population of deers and other species may grow without control, as in the case of English deers that need to be culled due to the absence of a top predator like the wolf or the jaguar in America.

When we thought we had seen enough for the day, a major spectacle awaited. Near the House there is a lake, where the egrets and legendary red ibis nest for the evening. This was a scene of the paradise: the golden sunset over the transluscent lake, a family of capbairas placidly swimming, palm trees in the horizon and crocodriles sunbathing. Suddenly a flock of white egrets arrived to the tree, and another, and another… but then an orange cloud of scarlett ibises arrived to the same tree which was getting full occupancy… during the next hour this was the magnificent spectacle. I could not believe my eyes, I felt overwhelmed by it all: being there in this Paradise, being with my dad, sharing stories with him, watching all these amazing birds and feeling that there is still hope in this country still coming to terms to the peace agreement and our own wealth! (the pictures don´t make justice to the beauty of the place, but here they are).

The return was accompanied by bands of mosquitos attacking the fresh meat of the visitors, but with a good eco-repelent we fought them back… once in the vehicle we started our return behind the car of Indiana Jones group, who were pointing at trees and things in the dark. All of a sudden they stopped and jumped into a swampy area where tiny flourescent eyes floated happily… they were baby crocodriles and Sol (Indiana Jones wife) was cuddling the cute crocs for us to caress… this was simply amazing. The end of the journey took us to the other side of the River Ariporo, where a huge canoe took us to the Eco-lodge, tired and exhilarated…

Because our travel was “exploratory” we had booked only three days and we had flights for the next day. We were so sad… we wanted to stay longer! My dad would have wanted to resume his conversations about life and nature with Nelson, and I would have wished to have more time to paint and to enjoy this unique place. But life is cruel and we had to go… however, just before we took the car for the journey back to Yopal, another surprise awaited.  Some members of the project had seen a huge anaconda and they informed Nelson about it. Quickly we took the path toward the place of the Anaconda, Dad and myself went before, but soon the group of Rafa Vieira aka Indiana Jones arrived in the scene. Without wasting time Rafa took his shirt off and jump in to the water grabbing the huge snake by her head to identify her species and keep it calm. We had time enough to get close and even to take the epic picture accompanying this tale! We were simply amazed and so grateful for the last gift of this generous land…

The return was also full of other sights, but my migraine attacked again and took over the whole journey: was it grief? was it excitement? was indeed the pain of leaving paradise?… or perhaps as the legend says, the Llano really bewitches you. It was a fantastic adventure with my dad and also a rediscovery of my own country and the potential of ingenious artists such as Nelson Barragan. The trut is that I can´t wait to come back to Juan Solito, to the Reserva Casanare and enjoy the generous hospitality of the Barragan Family  and the hopeful delights of a country awaking to our own paradise!

 

 

Practical Information

Contact; http://www.juansolito.com/?lang=en_us

Nelson Barragan, Reservations Mobile 0057310 580 5395 – 0057320 342 6409

Travel to Bogota, by Avianca direct flight from London (tariffs variable depending on season from GPB 600-800). Flight from Bogota to Yopal approximately GBP120 (return).  Terrestial transport from Yopal to Reserva Casanare GPB110 per person return (yes it is expensive, but it is worth it). Bring cash (colombian pesos) although they have also credit cards.

Accomodation in rooms, camping or hamacks including all meals check: http://www.juansolito.com/ecolodge-accommodation-in-rooms/

Safaris or activities around GPB 50 per person, for more accurate information check:

Preparations

Vaccinations against tetanus and yellow fever and malaria are recommended. Long sleeve shirts, hats and long trousers. Walking shoes and wellingtons. The eco-lodge uses only bottled water. Small first aid kit, anti-mosquito lotion. If you are vegetarian you may suffer a bit because this is a land of cattle and the meat is everywhere, but they can cater for you too. There is not wifi, although there is a bit of internet for local providers. Nelson can also offer his internet but it is quite limited (it is also nice to be disconnected). There is electricity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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