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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
B A C K -
and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short