There’s a myth here in Los Llanos. A myth about a fireball that comes from the sky and approaches solitary walkers, engulfing them in flames. Some say that this bola de fuego embodies the tortured soul of a beautiful woman who murdered her husband and made love to her son.
To some locals, this is merely a bedtime story, an urban legend to spook tourists who come to these vast grassland plains in eastern Colombia. To our guide Jhon, though, a born-and-bred llanero, as the local cowboys are called, the story is no less real than the horses we’re riding.
“Many people have seen it manifest in the sky. We were once sitting outside the farm and it appeared in front of us,” he says, trotting along slowly. “We raced inside to get out of the way. It lit up the whole house.”
“The history of this land includes stories like this. For us, it’s part of our life, part of our culture.”
I look at the couple with whom I’m touring Hacienda Marsella, a vast tourist ranch about 10 miles outside the town of Villavicencio, and we take a collective deep breath. Jhon smiles, removes his floppy sombrero and slaps it against his horse’s muscular rear. He kicks his heels into the animal’s sides. “Vamos, vamos!” he shouts, galloping toward a herd of cattle in the distance. (“Let’s go, let’s go!)
It’s about 6:30 p.m., and the sun has almost completely sunk behind the clouds. Vast gradations of reds, yellows and oranges blast through the sky. But now is not the time to admire the view; it’ll be dark soon and there’s work to be done. It’s time for the recogida de ganado — rounding up the cattle and leading them back to the farm. This is quite a challenge considering that the last time I rode any kind of animal was when I was 9, and a chain-smoking man in a parka led me along Blackpool beach on a donkey. On that occasion, it was the northern English wind that made me shiver, not the thought of directing a herd of beasts.
Jhon perches sideways on his horse and trots around the cattle. “It’s important that we count them, and if any are missing, we call out their names. Then they’ll tell us where they are by making a sound,” he says. “We have nicknames for most of them. This black one here is called Superman, because he’s strong and fast and always leads from the front.”
“This one is called the Queen,” he says, caressing a white cow’s ridged head, “because of her horns, which look like a crown.”
Jhon circles the cattle and begins to whistle rhythmically. The cattle lying on the dark-red, dusty ground are forced to move as he whacks their rumps with his stumpy, toughened hand.
“Whoopa, whoopa,” he bellows, kicking his horse to make it trot faster. The groaning mass of animals slowly begin to trundle their way through the open gate and into the vast field ahead.
Behind us, the clouds have turned black, and the breeze has picked up.
“Does it rain around here in January, Jhon?” I ask.
“Sometimes,” he replies.
“And will it rain today?”
“Yes, of course, and suddenly,” he says, laughing.
Then it happens. A dark shadow falls over the field, and the torrent begins.
Suddenly the herd comes alive and races across the field in a line about four cattle wide. My horse lowers its head and bolts forward. My right foot slips out of the metal stirrup and I grab the reins. I yank them back to slow the animal down. Instead, it dives into the middle of the charging stampede to our left.
Pounding rain slaps the cows and bulls on their leathery backs. Pistonlike hooves drive into the ground, sending mud splattering over my legs. Grunts and snorts from soaked nostrils spray misty clouds like erupting volcanoes.
After a few intense minutes, the leading cattle slow to a jog, and the others follow. My horse eases up, shakes its head and releases a couple of short huffs. I adjust myself in the saddle, wiping the cooling rain from my eyes, and breathe a sigh of relief. Until I notice that I’m alone with the herd.
Soon, a few of the cows begin to meander in different directions; others stop and look around like lost children in a mall. I turn my horse into the unsure ones, attempting to usher them back into line, but this only serves to confuse them further, and they scatter to my left and right.
Then, a ripple effect runs through the herd, as if they’d been spooked by a ghost, and they all begin to run again in the right direction. I look behind me and see a shadow emerge from the glistening rain — the silent silhouette of a man and horse moving in perfect unison. It’s Jhon, and he’s majestic. His shirt flaps out of his jeans like a cape, and earth cavorts into the air from his horse’s thumping hooves.
“Corre, corre, corre (run, run, run)!” he shouts, waving his hat in the air. He races past like a general leading his soldiers into battle.
Inspired by the sight, I dig my sneakers into my horse. I kick, kick and kick again, holding tightly to the reins in anticipation of a sudden burst that will send me galloping alongside Jhon and over the horizon.
Only, my horse has other ideas. After the first few kicks fail to inspire a reaction, I try a more forceful one into its sides.
“Come on,” I demand. “Let’s go.”
A thrash of its head and two short, sharp snorts put me in my place, and I slump back into my saddle, longingly watching the herd disappear into the distance.
When we arrive at the farm, Jhon has already ushered the cattle into the paddock and is standing at the rear of the stables, washing down his horse. He tips a bucket over its brown, shimmering back and gently caresses its mane. He ties the three remaining horses to vertical beams and directs me to the restaurant, where I can dry my clothes and get a hot drink.
The slanted tile-roof building is open, apart from several circular yellow beams holding it upright. There are 20 or so sturdy wooden tables, a few of which are occupied by families eating. One side looks out on a section of the ranch where many of the 1,200 animals, including crocodiles, buffalo, various species of birds and monkeys, turtles and deer, roam.
The downpour has stopped. As I hug a cup of coffee, I’m joined by a man carrying a walkie-talkie and two cellphones. He introduces himself as Hans, the owner of Hacienda Marsella.
After asking about my trip with Jhon, he tells me about the ranch, which has steadily developed since it opened in 2000 and is now a thriving tourist destination for those wanting to learn about the llanero way of life. The ranch is popular with Colombians from the capital city of Bogota, a three-hour drive away, but visitors come from all over the world.
In addition to taking the horseback tour and herding, cowboy wannabes can master the art of branding, tying and lassoing cattle. Parts of the ranch are best explored up in the trees, with zip lines and ropes, or bouncing along in a motorized buggy that looks like a cross between a monster truck and a spaceship. Visitors can stay overnight in various tents, cabins and houses or just come for the day, as I had chosen to do.
Such opportunities haven’t always been possible in this notoriously violent region. Rewind 10 years, and the scene would have been much different. Disputes between right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels over valuable coca cultivation territory and drug routes resulted in large-scale killings, kidnappings and displacements. Although the civil conflict and drug wars affected the whole country, Colombia’s Meta region, which includes Los Llanos, was one of the worst-hit areas.
“You wouldn’t be able to sit here talking with your camera and phone out on the table. It just wouldn’t be safe,” Hans says. “Things are okay today, but back then, you had to be extremely careful. You would never go out at night and you’d always try to avoid encountering anyone you didn’t know.”
Although violence still occurs in remote areas today, at that time many landowners were forcibly displaced or became victims of extortion as a result of armed groups seeking territory.
Hans tells me that his father was killed in 1985, “another victim of the violence.” Despite my probing, he’s unwilling to divulge more and instead directs the conversation back to the ranch.
Before I leave I ask whether, like Jhon, he believes in the myths of Los Llanos. He stands up and smirks. “No, they are just legends,” he says. “They’re not real. Nice stories, but nothing more.”
In normal circumstances, I would dismiss the myths as quickly as Hans. In the fact-saturated world we live in, it’s hard not to. But for those few hours when we were exploring the land and listening to Jhon’s tales, I have to say, I almost believed.
Willis is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia.