Villa Babilla: a nature wonderland
Near Cartagena
Cartagena sorely lacks a zoo. But just a few minutes' drive outside Cartagena, near Club Campestre on the road to Turbaco, is the farm of Juan Carlos Lopez. It is no ordinary farm. If you look around, you will see caimans, boa constrictors, parrots, monkeys, falcons, turtles, sloths, and iguanas, along with specially selected native flora such the Totumo and Teca trees. Señor Lopez runs Villa Babilla, 'Caiman Village', whose popularity is growing with every new animal addition. During our informal tour we were accompanied by Pancho, a small black monkey, and Lorenzo, a tame tropical bird. Their handler, and our guide for the day was the aptly named Juan Pájaro (in Spanish this translates as John Parrot).

Señor Lopez started the farm after being disillusioned with conventional farming. Luring eco-tourists to Cartagena was a gamble, but a gamble that appears to be paying off. Cruise ship passengers and school excursions are increasing in number. He says Villa Babilla fulfills three needs: eco-tourism, education and recreation. He tries to give the animals as much space and freedom as possible, though obviously in the case of dangerous animals like the caiman there has to some kind of barrier between the humans and the animals.

At the farmhouse there are a couple of dogs, a mule, and some pens containing fluorescent-green baby iguanas. One of the buildings serves as a an incubation room for the caiman eggs, collected from nests on-site. The survival rate in the incubators is about double that of nests in the wild. Señor Pajaro showed us a small animal that looked to be a cross between a large rat and a small pig, and let us hold a tame sloth. Seeing such animals close up is fascinating; the sloth has ferocious-looking talons and a strange type of hair that camouflages it perfectly when he is put back in his tree. You can get your photo taken with the sloth or one of the two very large resident boa constrictors draped around your shoulders.

Señor Lopez has devised a tour, limited to ten people at a time. After inspecting a group of concrete tanks holding hundreds of small caimans, he takes visitors to a bosquecillo, or 'little forest', where he maintains some beehives, and where he describes native trees, plants and flowers, their uses and importance to the natives. Trees like the Totumo, whose dried fruit is used to make cups, bowls and musical maracas, or the Tema, a wood prized for making boats and furniture, or the Samán tree, whose foliage can be fed to cattle. There is a giant Laurel tree on the farm which our guide Señor Pajaro showed us. Its snake-like, twisting roots are notorious for destroying houses and cracking concrete floors.

A bit further on the tour comes to a horse training arena, where locally bred caballos criollos, a fine breed called the Berberisco, which arrived in Colombia with the Conquistadors and has been bred to adapt to the climate of the Caribbean coast for 500 years. Then you will be brought into a wooded area to see the smaller, but no less fascinating fauna of the region: beautiful butterflies, strange insects and colorful birds, lured by the dense vegetation and a small pond of still water.

The tour passes some small caves where some parrots can be seen, and then to another pond where Los Patos Aguja, a type of duck, and native turtles swim happily around.

The final part of the tour ends at a murky pond, which appears lifeless and covered in floating green algae. This is the highlight of the tour. Telling everyone to keep their eyes on the water, he tosses some hunks of raw meat into the pond. But the meat never reaches the murky surface. It gets snatched in mid air by one of the hungry caimans who were waiting, unseen but ever alert, for their daily meal. These ones are not like the b 2-foot babies we saw earlier in the caiman nursery... but big, 7-foot long monsters. Soon there were dozens of them slithering towards the feeding corner, slowly slinking through the water, the only tell-tale sign of their presence being their eye-balls slicing above the water. Juan then hung a slab of pigmeat on a wire and got the hungry horde to jump up to eat it. Juan himself showed no fear walking among the reptiles, telling us there are more than 500 adult caimans in the lake and compound, which serves as a breeding area.

We returned to the main buildings where Juan compared a caiman skull to a babilla skull. Juan showed us some caiman skins which are sold for use in leathergoods. We shared some food and drink with Pancho the monkey, took a few more snapshots, and said goodbye.

To get to Villa Babilla take a bus or taxi going to Turbaco. Get off when you see a sign saying Club Campestre (opposite the Pinar de Canada Military School). The guard at the gate will direct you to walk about 100 yards downhill to the entrance to the farm, which is a red metal gate on the left, the first that you come to. It would be prudent to call Señor Lopez on 6639068 or 6639058 beforehand to arrange a tour.

Photo and story copyright of Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' is available from Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short