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Villavicencio

Villavicencio is the capital of Colombia's expansive Meta department. Located at the beginning of plains that stretch on endlessly eastward to Venezuela, it's a bit of a wild cowboy land. But just three hours from Bogota, it makes for a great weekend getaway, and you won't find a better place to enjoy the finest Colombian beef, or carne llanera, as it's called, and take a horseback ride.

The world just seems bigger out on the plains, the skies vaster, the sun brighter, and the colors more vivid. It is quite amazing how much the landscape changes as you drop from Bogota's high altitude to Meta's lowlands.

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Villavicencio, a rather unwieldy title, is often called Villao for short. Villao's Plaza Los Libertadores is located at the heart of downton. Take a moment to look at the Nuestra Senora del Carmen cathedral. A concert series takes place here from time to time, and the whole town will turn out to hear the music. Villao's the kind of place where you might just see a llama wandering the streets, far from his home in the Andean highlands. He'll help his owner earn an honest day's living. If you see someone selling llama rides, take them up on the opportunity. Most people selling such services are very honest, but if the price seems a bit steep, don't be afraid to negotiate.

While Colombian cities don't have the same bargaining culture of, say, Otavalo, some reasonable good-natured bargaining is always in order. Villao, like most cities in Colombia, has its fair share of nice malls and casinos. Head out to the Great Plains Casino for a night on the town. Most Colombian casinos are simple affairs offering slot machines and the like, but a few classier ones serve up blackjack, poker, and roulette.

Villavicencio is densely packed with busy streets, crammed with the hustle and bustle of daily commerce. For many working class Colombians, or gente humilde, as they would typically be called, a day's work is the struggle to make enough to eat a nice almuerzo, and pay your rent at the end of the month. Colombians typically fill up on simple foods, like rice, eggs, soups, and arepas (cakes made from cornmeal) at home.

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Just fifteen minutes outside of the city, make sure to put Biopqarque Los Ocarros on your agenda. It's just 6 or 7 dollars to get in, and it is a full afternoon of fun entertainment, with dozens of animals to see. The ocarro is a regional term for armadillo. An exceedingly interesting, if smelly, animal, the ocarro is much beloved here and is characteristic of and well-suited to the Colombian plains environment. Imagine coming upon this jaguar in the wild! It's said that humans and monkeys share 99% of the same DNA. I wouldn't doubt it based on the incredibly human look in this gorilla's eyes.

After a busy day walking around downtown and heading to the zoo, why not grab some great seafood at Frutos del Rio? We tried the seafood caserole, ceviche, and fried fish. All were excellent, and make sure to wash it down with some jugos naturales. Colombians often squeeze lime juice on fish. From your hotel, hop in a taxi and head west towards the plains for some horseback riding fun. You should look to spend about $20.000 for an hour ride. And if you're a little shy around horses, just ask the owner to give you a gentle one. All horses are not the same!

As we were heading out to horseback ride I asked our taxi ride how long it would be to cross the plains to Venezuela. He said it would be more than 24 hours straight to get to the border. It is a far, and somewhat dangerous route. While security has improved greatly in recent years, the Colombian-Venezuelan border still has areas with a lot of guerrilla activity. Though not known as an architectural mecca, I was very impressed by some of the avant-garde downtown skyscrapers. They blend very well into the llano environment. While the plains are very hot, they are not all that dry. You'll find a mix of plains terrain, and almost semi-tropical rain forest around Villavicencio. As always, rent a car, or find a friendly taxi driver to take you around, because some of the best spots are outside the city.

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