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South America's traditional cowboys are still at home on the range in Colombia

Colombian cowboys are known as <em>llaneros</em>, Spanish for plainsmen.
Carlos Saavedra
Colombian cowboys are known as <em>llaneros</em>, Spanish for plainsmen.

EASTERN PLAINS, Colombia — Urging on their horses, a half-dozen Colombian ranch hands are driving cattle through the pancake-flat prairies of eastern Colombia. They have a long way to go because this 4,000-acre ranch stretches to the horizon and beyond.

Unlike the United States, where nearly all beef cattle are fattened up on feedlots and where cowboys are mostly a thing of the past, livestock in Colombia are raised on vast, open ranges. As a result, overseeing the herds requires the special skills of Colombian cowboys who are known as llaneros — Spanish for "plainsmen."

With its lagoons, flocks of birds, and panoramic views, this ranch is a gorgeous setting for work that is often brutal.

Cows are in a corral at a ranch in Casanare, Colombia, waiting to be artificially inseminated.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
Cows are in a corral at a ranch in Casanare, Colombia, waiting to be artificially inseminated.

Back at the corral, the llaneros pull the cattle to the ground, immobilize them, then press several red-hot branding irons into their hides to identify their owner and the ranch where they are being raised. At one point, they spot a stray bull. To prevent it from disrupting the herd and impregnating the cows, one of the llaneros unsheathes his knife and swiftly castrates the bull, which bellows in protest.

Also jarring is the fact that — rather than donning cowboy boots — most llaneros go barefoot. They include Antonio Cova, who has been working on ranches since he was 13 and who says his unshod feet are as leathery as animal paws.

"It's a tradition," he explains. "You build up callouses on your feet so nothing hurts them."

<em>Llaneros</em> use red-hot branding irons to mark cattle to identify them and the ranch they belong to.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
<em>Llaneros</em> use red-hot branding irons to mark cattle to identify them and the ranch they belong to.

Llaneros have been proving their toughness for centuries. Expert horsemen and marksmen, they fought alongside South American liberator Simón Bolívar in the early 1800s to help secure Colombia's independence from Spain.

In fact, some llaneros — like Antonio Cantor — still go around with guns. Pulling a pistol from his holster, he says, "The revolver used to be a normal part of your wardrobe."

These days, llaneros remain key to Colombia's cattle industry. Most ranchers here can't afford to send their herds to large, commercial feedlots. However, pastureland in remote areas of Colombia is relatively cheap.

<em>Llaneros</em> drive cattle at a corral in Casanare, Colombia.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
<em>Llaneros</em> drive cattle at a corral in Casanare, Colombia.

Abelardo Bravo, a Bogotá businessman who bought this ranch 13 years ago, says he couldn't run it without his trusty llaneros.

"They are courageous people," he says. "A llanero won't back down from anything. He might weigh 150 pounds but he'll take on a 900-pound bull."

Still, llanero life is not all muscle and machismo.

While milking the cows before dawn, one of the llaneros softly sings so the animals will relax and give more milk. Indeed, llaneros have their own genre of music and are quick to break into song. Cantor, the pistol-packing llanero, often plays a small, four-string guitar, known as the cuatro, and croons songs about the joys of riding horseback, herding livestock and courting local ladies.

Many ranchers in Casanare still go around armed with pistols.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
Many ranchers in Casanare still go around armed with pistols.

Yet he sometimes wonders whether llanero traditions will last. Ranches are gradually getting smaller as they are handed down within families and they now require fewer workers. Some llaneros are taking easier jobs in the cities or at nearby rice farms and oil fields.

But after nearly 70 years of raising cattle in the countryside, Cantor says he's not budging.

"This is where I was born and raised," he says. "This is where I grew old. And this is where I want to die."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

These are the horses the <em>llaneros</em> use to go round up the cattle.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
These are the horses the <em>llaneros</em> use to go round up the cattle.
After slaughtering a cow to feed the <em>llaneros</em>, the hide is dried and cut to make into leather rope.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
After slaughtering a cow to feed the <em>llaneros</em>, the hide is dried and cut to make into leather rope.
<em>Llaneros</em> subdue one of the cattle so it can be branded.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
<em>Llaneros</em> subdue one of the cattle so it can be branded.
Left: Cattle waiting in a chute to be vaccinated and checked for diseases. Right: Many <em>llaneros</em> prefer working barefoot. They say they're used to it and that the calluses on their feet protect them.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
Left: Cattle waiting in a chute to be vaccinated and checked for diseases. Right: Many <em>llaneros</em> prefer working barefoot. They say they're used to it and that the calluses on their feet protect them.
A veterinarian at the ranch in Casanare keeps an eye on the cattle.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
A veterinarian at the ranch in Casanare keeps an eye on the cattle.
<em>Llaneros</em> often sing as they milk the cows to relax the animals so they give more milk.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
<em>Llaneros</em> often sing as they milk the cows to relax the animals so they give more milk.
Ranchers eat tripe soup and beef for breakfast.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
Ranchers eat tripe soup and beef for breakfast.
Antonio Cantor, a pistol-packing <em>llanero</em>, plays a four-string guitar known as a cuatro, and croons songs about the joys of riding horseback, herding livestock and courting local women.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
Antonio Cantor, a pistol-packing <em>llanero</em>, plays a four-string guitar known as a cuatro, and croons songs about the joys of riding horseback, herding livestock and courting local women.
The ranch is also home to a herd of water buffalo.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
The ranch is also home to a herd of water buffalo.
A <em>llanero</em> lassos a cow.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
A <em>llanero</em> lassos a cow.
A cowboy tries to subdue a cow so it can be branded.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
A cowboy tries to subdue a cow so it can be branded.
Cattle sometimes die from snakebite, leaving their carcasses in the hot sun.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
Cattle sometimes die from snakebite, leaving their carcasses in the hot sun.
A <em>llanero</em> saddles up to herd cattle.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
A <em>llanero</em> saddles up to herd cattle.
Ranchers clip the tail and the mane of a pony.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
Ranchers clip the tail and the mane of a pony.
A <em>llanero</em> ropes a stubborn cow that refuses to follow the rest of the herd.
/ Carlos Saavedra
/
Carlos Saavedra
A <em>llanero</em> ropes a stubborn cow that refuses to follow the rest of the herd.