“About time someone mows the lawn around here,” jokes Gareth, as we land in a field just outside the colonial town of Honda. Stepping out of the single-engine propeller plane, I try to hide my nausea from his wife and two children seated in the back. Before me lies an 8,000-hectare ranch, where some 7,000 cattle and 150 horses are taking in the morning sun.
Only thirty minutes earlier we had packed into a Cessna at the Aero Club of Bogotá. Looking out the window, I noted that the aircraft was only slightly larger than the jeep parked under its right wing. “Try not to hit your knees against the instrument panel,” said my pilot and host for the weekend. “You don’t want to adjust the flaps.”
With the capital resting at 2,600 meters a.s.l, it is a steep drop from the Savanna to the Magdalena Valley. Its latte-brown river snakes through the steamy green mountains of the Tolima department. The rush of heat was instant; Gareth pulled off his grey sweater over a pair of rimless glasses.
Just as soon as we had dropped off our bags, we were in the air again. It was a quick ride to Ibague, the capital of Tolima department, where Gareth wanted to buy bulls for breeding. “It’s our own little ecosystem,” he explained. About half of the impregnated cows would be sold off to other ranches for feeding; the rest would replenish his reserves.
Mauricio, a stocky Colombian sport- ing aviator, greeted us at the airport with his car. We marveled at the smooth highway constructed by the government in recent years. “If you want to build roads in Colombia, you better be a lawyer, not an engineer,” said Mauricio, a cigar hanging out of his mouth.
We pulled up to a traditional ranch house, with red tiles atop white adobe walls. The ruddy-faced owner, donning a pink Ralph Lauren dress shirt with white pants, led use through a pair of stone columns for the tour of 25 bedrooms, each assigned a small metal number nailed to the door. The home, designed by famed Swiss architect Víctor Schmid, included trapdoors to prevent kidnappings.
Following a round of vodka lemonades, the showcase of bulls began. White with taut muscles, they were displayed first in groups, then one by one, a wrangler calling out the numbers branded into their hides. The men huddled to compare notes, forming a ring of Panama hats. On the opposite end of the enclosure, women sat along a stone wall, pulling up their legs when the bulls passed by.
During our walk to the stables, Mau- ricio explained that Brahma cattle had been imported from Texas to Colombia in the 1930s. “Bulls in the Eastern Plains only last about four years. Ours will work for ten,” he boasted, in perfect English. He had studied agronomy in Gainesville, Florida, and often collaborated with Gareth.
Isabela, who is married to Gareth, handed me a freshly picked guava, noting that they are best served with salt and a shot of aguardiente. As we were leaving, I watched neon-green lizards scurry up the thick buttress roots of ceiba trees, and the cacti that stretched above the canopies. That night, flashes of lighting lit up the floral-patterned tiles and paintings of indigenous women in my bedroom.
In the morning, I lost my hat twice atop a brown horse named “Gin” while ducking beehives in low-hanging branches. Gareth led the way with a machete in hand, clearing the paths of his ranch as we passed foals trotting after their mothers, and ponds with red-spotted turtles. The distant buzz of cicadas mimicked an orchestra tuning before performance .
With white and yellow butterflies flying low to the ground, I felt like a character in Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’ Gareth’s son handed me a blade of wild grass and showed me how to chew the reed, folding it into one’s mouth like a retainer. After two hours, we led the horses back to their watering troughs and washed them down with hoses.
Come afternoon we were standing beside sacks of sand and crates of empty beer bottles in the back of a pickup truck, headed towards the city center of Honda. We rode by pale green iguás trees spotted with termite nests, and under the power lines that had first brought electricity to the ranch in the 1960s.
Since Colombia’s independence and through the early twentieth century, im- ported goods would travel upstream from Barranquilla through Honda, and then by mule to Bogotá. While new technology and infrastructure rendered the waterway impractical for transporting goods, the cobblestone streets and vintage store facades of every color have remained.
Atop a restaurant rooftop we drank passion fruit and vanilla ice cream shakes, looking over the intersection of the Mag- dalena and Gualí rivers under a metal yel- low bridge. Below, locals had gathered to sip on cans of beer, celebrating a yearly festival during which cousins of the cat- fish, caught between rapids, made for easy pickings.
During our ride home through balmy darkness, Gareth told me about how his family’s ranch had suffered in the 1940s during “La Violencia,” the single bloodiest period in Colombia’s armed conflict. Liberal bandits had attacked the workers’ outposts, and slaughtered the livestock. “Our neighbors were less fortunate,” he mused. “They took their women, and pulled the men’s tongues through their throats.”
The truck passed through a military outpost, and onto the narrow road home. In the 1970s, as guerrilla activity in Tolima had just begun to heat up, Gareth’s father had donated the very front of his property to the 41st Battalion of Tolima, effectively turning the armed forces into his gatekeepers.
Poor visibility at dawn kept us playing rounds of Rummy on a wooden table. When the sun had burned off the clouds, we grabbed the familiar plane by its struts and pushed towards an open field.
Back in Bogotá, we taxied past six Blackhawk helicopters. Gareth had decided to buy an equivalent number of bulls for his farm, but was holding out for a lower fee. “I’m actually fine with the price,” he told with me with a grin. “But in Colombia, if you don’t haggle, you look like a fool.”