The following is a short recap of a recent weeklong excursion I made to Colombia in January with my girlfriend Paulina. The original plan was for a longer trip to take in more sites but we were delayed leaving Ecuador due to various reasons and had to adjust the itinerary accordingly. Birding was done primarily within Parque Nacional Los Nevados and a few of its buffer-zone of reserves on both sides of Colombia’s central Andean chain. Birdlife in this area was very much similar to that of the east slope in Ecuador with a sprinkling of area endemics possible.
Transportation & Safety
I had originally planned arriving to Colombia overland from Ecuador followed by a cheap internal flight into Ibague, but given the time restraints, full internal flights out of Pasto and the concern of Paulina getting back to Ecuador without me, we decided against this option. Instead we took advantage of an Aerogal special for buy one get one free roundtrip Quito – Bogota ($300) which worked out quite nice.
Once in Colombia we used only public transportation (taxi, bus, chiva) within cities, between cities and to sites, respectively. All forms used were very efficient, fast and professional. It did however seem that each long distance bus ride we took was even more thrilling/scary then the last. Bus drivers (actually most drivers) had a very aggressive driving style to say the least (even compared to most other Latin American countries I’ve been to). I was not sure whether I should try to get some sleep and risk being unprepared in the seemingly imminent collision that could take place at any moment, or stay starring out the window, gripping my seat and enjoying hour-after-hour of the adrenaline rush. I opted for the second and was amazed by the number of times we were mere inches away from oncoming vehicles as we passed other trucks and busses rapidly around blind mountain-curves.
Safety speaking, as that usually seems to be the primary concern with Colombia, we had no problems. When arriving at the El Dorado International airport in Bogota, I got directions to the bus terminal and asked the woman at the information desk about the safety of my route. She looked at me a little odd and stated quite confidently that most all of the main highways (away from any borders) are safe to travel. This was indeed the case and we saw many army and police along our much trafficked routes. Discussions with other travelers at hostels along the way confirmed this and no one I had spoke with noted any guerrilla-related issues anywhere they had been (main roads/cities through the country and including archeological sites of San Augustin and Tierradentro in the south). Problems are still very real in certain areas off of the beaten path and I know that there were recent problems near birding sites west of Pasto and in the Magdalena Valley south of Ibague, both of which I received word during the planning phase of the trip.
Arrival in Bogota, bus to Ibague (5-6 hrs; $9). Ibague is a decent sized city (pop. 500,000) set along the west edge of the huge Magdalena valley and capital of the Tolima Department. It has several decent hotels and makes a good base for birding the area. We stayed at El Hotel Suiza (Carrera 3 & Calle 17) which was roughly $40 total per night. El Hotel Suiza is only about 6 blocks from the bus terminal and is basically in the center of town. Carrera 3, uphill from the hotel, turns into a pedestrian mall with many stores and places to get food.
At 7am we met up with Miguel Moreno and five other members of the Grupo de Observacion de Aves del Tolima (GOAT) whom I had contacted and arranged to accompany them on a camping trip to Los Nevados and the Juntas area for their bird census. The area is along the route accessing the eastern section of Los Nevados and the road leaves Ibague climbing up past several small towns (the last of which is Juntas). Jeeps leave from the corner of Carrera 1 and Calle 14 in Ibague that can take you up the road to the park (1 ½ - 2 hrs; $6/person). Buses can also be used to access as far as Juntas (leave from same intersection I think) but the jeeps are necessary to travel past Juntas and to the end of the road / start of the trail unless you walk. The road follows the Rio Combeima valley for the most part before ending about 7 km past Juntas at a small house and horse stable. On the left-hand side of the road at its termination and behind an unlocked gate, there is a noticeable trail heading up through the pasture which leads to El Rancho, our destination for the night. The trail leads up through several pastures and scattered upper subtropical then temperate forest for about 2-3 km before ending at El Rancho (2800m) which is where a family lives and runs a few small basic cabins, a campground, access to some hot springs and can serve up a little food. This is a big stopover point for people beginning or ending their attempt at ascending the Nevado del Tolima, which is supposedly the most difficult of the five main peaks in the park to climb. The site of El Rancho is very scenic as it is at the head of a beautiful rock walled canyon with a nice big waterfall right behind it.
We leisurely made the hike to El Rancho birding along the way, pitched camp and birded some of the higher pasture edges above the camping area. Highlights included: Black-billed Mountain-Toucan (first bird of the trip!), Torrent Duck (a family in the river behind El Rancho), Purple-backed Thornbill (male & female), Golden-fronted Whitestart (tons), Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia (amazing, walk-away views) and Masked Saltator (definitely not-uncommon in the area). We rounded out the evening with an Aguadiente type of liquor and the hot springs…before a frigid night in the tent.
Awoke early and hiked up along the main trail to the Nevado del Tolima (which starts right at the hot spring pools) and went as far as the waterfall at 3000m. The trail required some scrambling over landslides and a few potentially dangerous sections but was still manageable. We saw a park service ranger, who did not collect a fee, but was only concerned with whether we had given our names somewhere below in case of an accident. This trail eventually reaches paramo and Miguel told me that both Rufous-fronted Parakeet and Bearded Helmetcrest can be seen there though we did not continue. After a quick breakfast we packed the tents and birded our way back down towards Juntas along the main road. In Juntas we picked up a small bus back down to town.
The roadside habitat between the horse stable at the top of the road and Juntas is where endemics such as the Tolima Dove, Olive-headed Brush-Finch and Blossomcrown can be found. The Reserva Natural Ibanasca, which we did not have time to bird, has some trails and is on the right-hand side of the road on the way up, at least 3-4 km past Juntas and just before a pedestrian bridge goes over the road. This would be best for the finding Tolima Dove as they prefer to be within the forest while Blossomcrown can be seen feeding at small red flowers along the roadside anywhere. We did not see either of those but did see several Olive-headed Brush-Finches along the roadside on the way back down, several of which may have been immature birds as they were entirely yellow-headed and breasted. Paintings or photos of this species are few and far between but I have read that there is some variation in the amount of yellow on these parts of the bird in both adults and young. Other highlights of the day included White-tipped Swift (many; great views), more Masked Saltators (bringing the total to 7!) and many of the same birds for the previous day.
Paulina and I slept in and eventually climbed on a bus from Ibague to Pereira, on the other side of the mountains and in the “zona cafeteria” (4 hrs). We arrived in Pereira and secured a room at the Hotel Catalunia near the Plaza de Bolivar (Carrera 9 & Calle 19; $50).
This morning we awoke early and made our way to Transportes Florida (west side of Calle 12 just south of Carrera 9) which is where chivas destined for Parque Ucumari leave from in Pereira. The trip took about 2 hours up to El Cedral and cost around $4 per person. At El Cedral we followed the continuation of the road as it turned into a trail and followed a streambed up the mountain towards La Pastora. The hike to La Pastora was in the neighborhood of 5km and took several hours, birding a little along the way. Horses can be arranged in advance to take you up as far as you need to go. Birds en route included a noisy flock of White-capped Tanagers, a pair of Andean Toucanets, Highland Motmot, Glossy-black Thrush and a fly-by group of Golden-plumed Parakeets. The entrance trail to La Pastora is to the right of the main trail where there is a sign and you must step over a wire fence. Food can be provided on site at La Pastora and dorm-type rooms are available for a cheap price. The area has good forest on the sides of the surrounding valley and would be best to spend several days in the area, working your way further up for specialties (antpittas, parakeet, etc). We unfortunately only had one night here but enjoyed the atmosphere and had the place to ourselves.
We awoke early and birded the trail back down to El Cedral to catch the chiva that arrived there around 11 a.m. Several large flocks along the lower portion of the trail included the wanted Multicolored Tanager, Oleaginous Hemispingus, many Rufous-breasted Flycatchers, Streaked Xenops and Yellow-vented Woodpecker while both Tourmaline Sunangel and Bronzy Inca being common. We arrived early at El Cedral and started walking the road down (catching the chiva from the road). We had a few small flocks and found a really nice Red-ruffed Fruit-crow in the roadside forest further down.
Once in Pereira we got a bus to Cali (4-5 hours) and saw many Bare-faced Ibis en route along the marshy roadsides in the Cauca Valley. We arrived to Cali after sunset and treated ourselves to a nice room overlooking the Plaza de Cayzedo at the Hotel Royal Plaza ($60).
Days 7 & 8:
Paulina’s flight back to Quito left that morning and I explored Cali on my own for the rest of the day. Night at the backpacker Guest House Iguana ($9) and many beers with a few Israli backpackers ($5) rounded out the trip before my departure the next day. Small buses (vans) leave from the bus terminal in Cali and take you directly to the international airport outside of town for a small fee. My luggage was searched several times and I was questioned repeatedly regarding my stay in Cali prior to my departure at the airport. I was surprised that I got more shit from the authorities in Colombia worried I was taking drugs out than I did from the ones in the U.S. when I got back (who didn’t ask me one question).
I was surprised how different Colombia is from Ecuador (which I spent loads of time in). It is different in a very good way which one must simply go there to discover for themselves. It is an excellent place to visit and especially to bird and I would highly recommend it to anyone whether on the solo backpacking trip or an organized tour. There are many reserves popping up in the parts of the country that we birders are interested in visiting and conservation is surely alive there….which is always great to see. Check out the Proaves website for info on some of their projects and contact them for any information on visiting their sites.