It is not hard to find out if the fish are biting on a river in southern Venezuela. Here the fish have teeth after all. Just toss a twig on the water and watch it jiggle as the hungry critters nibble at it. I am of course talking about the infamous piranha, 8 inches of razor sharp aggression with a voracious appetite for meat and so mean they frequently fight amongst themselves and are prone to cannibalism. It is not unusual to fish one out with a missing eye, a war wound from a previous fight. To catch them is easy as they literally bite anything. You don´t even need a rod, just a stick wrapped in fishing line and a small hook.
Attach a piece of meat, undo the line, swing the hook, and throw it into the water. Hold the line tense until you feel it tremble, then pull sharp and you have hooked your prey as it comes flapping out of the water giving you the evil eye in the process. Just make sure you can get it on the boat without biting you. These animals are meaner than Jaws on a holiday weekend.
Piranha are also very ugly. They have a silver and gold scaled body the size of a man’s hand but it is the jutting lower jaw with fearsome pointy teeth that makes plain they would come last in any aquarium beauty contests, not least because they would eat the other contestants if given half the chance. They are unique to South America and in particular the vast plains of Los Llanos, a huge marshland that stretches across southern Venezuela and parts of Colombia. Las Llanos is a wildlife treasure trove and we’re not just talking of the cute furry kind: 3m (10-ft.) anacondas lie in the shallow waters, their black skin peeping above the water looking like old abandoned truck tires. Fearsome crocodile lurk along the river banks, their long jaws open like mobile animal traps. Fat families of capybara, the largest rodent in the world, play in the river while massive flocks of scarlet ibis fly overhead. Other birds include the jabiru, scarlet macaw, and numerous species of hawk and heron. When you fish in the river you´ll occasionally see the pink belly flash of a large river dolphin, while jaguars, pumas, and ocelots lurk in the foliage.
Vast distances and a poor road network mean Los Llanos is difficult to get around independently. For a true Los Llanos experience, choose a vast ranch (locally known as a hato) to stay in (see recommendations below). The best provide daily field trips on horseback or boat to explore this massive area and of course fish the famous piranha. You can also immerse yourself in the region’s unique cowboy culture where fat men in large Stetsons sing folklore songs while strumming on giant harps. Here the locals ride bareback with an old rope for reins. The Llaneros, as these rugged horsemen are known, are a fiercely proud people whose bravery helped Venezuela achieve independence from the Spanish.
As you sit down for dinner in this flat badland, a huge starry sky hangs overhead and silent lightening flickers along the distant horizon. No doubt a plate of the favorite local dish will be put in front of you—piranha.
When to go: Anytime but the dry season, from Dec–June, has the best opportunity for wildlife watching.
Caracas, then 9 hr. by car.
$$ Hato El Cedral, Mantecal, Los Llanos ( 58/212/781-8995; www.elcedral.com). $$ Hato Piñero, El Baúl, Los Llanos (58/212/991-8935; www.hatopinero.com).