Central Colombia – June 2021

After getting some favorable reports about conditions on the ground, we made our first international trip since the pandemic began, to central Colombia with Mark Pretti Nature Tours and several friends. Our visit focused on birding the cloud forests and páramo of the western and central Andes, including Las Tángaras and Yellow-eared Parrot Reserves, Río Blanco Reserve, Los Nevados National Park, and Termales del Ruiz. And Liza was eager to try out her new camera in the field!

To skip this narrative and go straight to the photo galleries – trip photos, birds, and of course Buddy Bison! – click here.

As (friend and neighbor) Mark Pretti says,

Colombia is famous for being the most bird-rich country on Earth. While that’s impressive, so, too, is its overall biodiversity which is eclipsed only by that of Brazil…which has the advantage of being seven times larger. … On this route, we’ll visit some of Central Colombia’s most diverse locations. Some are sites established by the conservation organization ProAves, which has a network of special reserves designed to protect not only rare species but also sites of unusually high biodiversity.

We began in Medellín (transiting through Bogotá), whose elevation was just about the same as our house, just below 5000 ft. From there over the course of about 10 days we steadily worked our way upwards, first dipping down into the lowlands of the Río Cauca (1800 ft) before heading west towards the Choco bioregion and the Las Tángaras reserve (5200-6000 ft).

From Las Tángaras it was on to Jardin (5600 ft), where we spent time up in the Reserva Natural Loro Orejiamarillo (Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve). Four-wheel drive jeeps took us up the road into the reserve (8000-10,000 ft). Never did see those parrots – well there was a fly-by that some saw – but plenty of other wonderful birds. In Jardín we also visited a beautiful private garden/reserve that is a lek (think stomping grounds) for the spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-rock.

After Jardín we were on to Manizales. Originally this was going to be our longest drive of perhaps 7 hours, but due to road construction on the main route, we took a four-wheel drive “short cut” that cut several hours off the trip. (Our van driver Jovani though took the long route – and got stuck in a 10-hour road closure – in daylight. Apparently doing construction at night or leaving one lane open with traffic control was not an option.)

Our birding out of Manizales was at the nearby Río Blanco preserve, about 40 minutes away and at 8275 ft. The reserve is set up to protect the water supply for Manizales, and also hosts a wonderful suite of central Andean species, including four habituated species of antpittas – slate-crowned, bicolored, brown-banded, and chestnut-crowned.

The day we were moving on from Manizales we were supposed to return to Río Blanco, but instead went to a “new” birding locale called Hacienda el Bosque. There we had a great breakfast and opportunities to see many great birds, including more antpittas (crescent-faced and equatorial), mountain-toucans, and mountain-tanagers. The owner of HeB has big plans with cabanas and a fine restaurant; three cabanas and the restaurant were already built, it would be nice to go back some day and stay there.

From Hacienda el Bosque we were off to our highest elevation of the trip, to Los Nevados National Park (visitors’ center is 13,576 ft!) and our utterly gorgeous hotel Las Termales del Ruiz (11,200 ft). At Los Nevados, above treeline, the habitat consists of native bunchgrasses, low-stature shrubs, cushion plants, and a unique sunflower called the Espletia (to us it looked a bit like a palm that had an agave stuck on top of it). The hotel was fantastic with its geothermal pools, hummingbird feeders, and great views.

The trip concluded with a drive down to Pereira, from where we flew back to Bogotá. There at the airport we managed to get our COVID antigen tests despite Liza’s rather pathetic Spanish (and hers was better than anybody else’s!) to enable us to fly home. We spent an extra day in the city, visiting a nearby botanic garden, which was quite nice as it focused on Colombian flora instead of being a mishmash of things from other places.

Our overall impression of Colombia, on our second trip there – we went to Santa Marta and the Guajira peninsula in 2013 – was very positive. The trip was initially scheduled for June 2020 and of course was postponed due to the pandemic. Dealing with Avianca to get and then use a voucher (no refunds grrrr) wasn’t the easiest process, to put it mildly, but the actual flying was great (we appreciated the mask mandate on board and the fact that *nobody argued about it*, not to mention their boarding/disembarking by rows, so orderly).

Regarding COVID-19, Colombia lags behind many countries in terms of vaccinations – was only around 13% when we were there – but they were very conscientious about taking precautions (masks, hand sanitizing, social distancing). We were all fully vaccinated but always wore our masks when with others, as we had to believe most people we met were not vaccinated. Most of our time was out of the cities and in the countryside, and basically everybody we saw wore masks. It was quite the contrast to where we live, where less than half of the people are vaccinated yet almost nobody wears masks in public any more.

The food was hearty and generally very good, although we might have eaten more eggs for breakfast in those 10 days than we normally do in 2 months (lol). Lots of arepas (cornmeal cakes). We had some lovely trout a couple of times, including at a restaurant La Truchería in Jardín. We definitely enjoyed one of the local beers – Club Colombia Negra.

Civil unrest of course was in the American news quite a bit before we went (our news always manages to make it sound like an entire country is on fire), but we did not encounter any of that where we were.

All in all a fantastic trip and we are *so* glad we went. And to be honest, even with having to get COVID tests before flying and before coming home, and after we get back, we’d travel internationally again before we’d consider most domestic travel!

Again, to see the photo galleries, click here.

© Liza and Robert Weissler aves.org 2023, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License.