Oh 2020. What a year. I mean, what more can really be said? As per tradition, I am writing a few blog posts about my highlights from this year, in roughly chronological order. Today's post will be about Colombia.
Heading into 2020, Laura and I were pretty excited for a year filled to the brim with travel and all the accompanying wildlife sightings. The previous August we quit our jobs, flew to Ecuador, and explored there for the final three plus months of 2019. Following a short two weeks in Canada to celebrate Christmas with our families, we were soon back on a jet to South America. Our first two months of the year would be spent in Colombia!
Laura and I picked Colombia, in part, because I was leading a tour for Quest for two weeks in February. We were (and still are!) planning on traveling in Latin America for a couple of years, and so of course Colombia would feature prominently. I had spent five weeks in Colombia previously and Laura had explored the south of the country with me last October, but clearly there was so much more of the country to discover.
I have to say that our two months in Colombia to begin 2020 went about as well as could be expected. We had no major (or even minor) issues, our minds were blown time and time again by incredible wildlife sightings, and we forged long-lasting friendships with some of the wonderful people living in Colombia. Our Spanish improved and we forced ourselves to move out of our comfort zones on many occasions. As cliche as it sounds, backpacking and/or traveling relatively cheaply in an unfamiliar land can do wonders for personal growth.
Laura and I flew to Bogotá on January 4. We picked up a rental car the next day and hit the road, completing a big loop southeast, east, and north of Bogotá. Much of the time during this period was spent in the mountains. Of course this is not a surprise, given that the Andes are such a dominant feature of Colombia.
South of Bogotá, we stayed in AirBnBs with some wonderful people and found bird species such as Green-bearded Helmetcrest, Rufous-browed Conebill, Golden-bellied Starfrontlet, Apolinar's Wren and Bogotá Rail.
Moving east, we spent a day in the highlands east of the city in search of a very rare and localized bird. The Cundinamarca Antpitta. This day was one of my favourites of the year since we were well off the beaten track, successfully avoided people, and experienced incredible scenery. It was just us and the birds (and snakes and butterflies!). The weather was gorgeous and we eventually found our target antpitta just when it seemed like all hope was lost.
The suffocating heat of the llanos was next on the agenda. Bird diversity increased significantly in these eastern lowlands though it was imperative that we were out searching for them before dawn. The heat shut things down pretty quickly by mid-morning! Finding five Giant Anteaters, including a mother with a baby clinging to its back, was a memorable highlight here. We also had two interactions with police officers but luckily both experiences were largely positive. (We talked our way out of a huge ticket, but that's another story...)
The town of Santa Maria in the foothills of Boyacá was recommended to us by our friend Luis Urueña of Manakin Tours. Laura and I were treated to the generous hospitality of Eibar Algarra and we fell in love with Santa Maria. The Spot-winged Parrotlets only snuck onto my lifelist as heard only, but we also encountered Pavonine Cuckoo, Band-bellied Owl, and many fun insect, arachnid, and herp species during night hikes. La Almenara is a protected reserve outside of town where we spent much of our time. I would love to return one day to this gorgeous tract of forest.
Laura and I left Santa Maria and traveled north into the highlands near Duitama, southwest towards the dry Magdalena Valley, and east back to Bogotá. We experienced some incredible scenery and long hikes and explored other areas that were well off the beaten tourist track. We enjoyed birds like Mountain Grackle, Black Inca, and Lazuline Sabrewing and set up our moth light on a few occasions (always a highlight!).
Laura and I returned our rental car to the airport in Bogotá and teamed up to lead the inaugural Colombia trip for Quest. This tour covered a lot of ground in the eastern and central Andes, followed by a few days in the Santa Marta moutains and La Guajira in the far north. By all accounts, the trip was a success as we experienced so much diversity in just a few weeks.
I could spend many paragraphs droning on about this trip, but I will try to summarize quickly. Some of my highlights included:
-the absurd diversity of hummingbirds, many of which were seen very well at various hummingbird gardens;
-watching and listening to the desert landscape of La Guajira come alive at dawn;
-experiencing nearly every possible endemic bird species found in the Santa Marta mountains;
-the surprise of encountering a Colombian Screech-Owl during a very productive night hike at Otún Quimbaya (which also featured a rare snake!);
-nonstop mixed flocks at Rio Blanco, some of which included rare Masked Saltators;
-exceptional views of several antpitta species throughout the trip, my favourite being the Crescent-faced Antpittas of Hacienda El Bosque; and,
-the sunrise in the Santa Marta Mountains which is, in my opinion, one of the best in the world.
Laura and I took a week or so to relax in the northern lowlands after what had been a whirlwind month of travel. Unfortunately, Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona was closed for the month - a fact which we did not realize until after arriving at our hostel. Despite this minor setback, we found some excellent hiking areas nearby and enjoyed a week of sun and relaxation.
Laura and I went our separate ways for the next twelve days. She volunteered her veterinarian services at two clinics in Riohacha and Cartagena while I flew to Medellín and rented a car. There were still a handful of Colombian endemic bird species and a few other targets that I "needed" and this whirlwind loop allowed me an opportunity to search for many of them. I must admit that I was a little nervous prior to this adventure, but again, it all worked out in the end! I was forced into many situations where I had to practice my Spanish; I do not think there was even a single opportunity to speak English! Thanks to the hospitality of Colombians everything went off without too many problems.
I took my little rental car up many mountain roads that it had no business traversing. Somehow, I avoided flat tires or any other problems with the vehicle. I slept in my car on four occasions to save time and money. And I found almost all of my target bird species on this trip including "mega" endemics like Indigo-winged Parrot, Rufous-fronted Parakeet, Blue-billed Curassow, Chestnut-capped Piha, Urrao Antpitta, Dusky Starfrontlet, and Antioquia Brushfinch!
Laura and I reconvened in Medellín and bussed to the nearby reserve of Río Claro. We only had one week remaining until our flight to Costa Rica and this seemed like the perfect location to unwind and prep for the next leg of our adventure. The reserve left a lot to be desired and I would not recommend anyone stay here for more than a night or two, mainly due to the dilapidated, overpriced accommodations. That being said, we cleaned up on birds and other wildlife sightings and explored some nice trails. Some avian highlights included Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant, Bare-crowned and Magdalena Antbirds, the Oilbird cave, and finally catching up with a nemesis - the Fasciated Tiger-Heron.
Laura and I rented an AirBnB near the Medellín airport for our final night in Colombia. Despite its proximity to the airport the property held many bird species, highighted by a Prothonotary Warbler, some very photogenic Acorn Woodpeckers, and our first White-faced Whistling-Ducks. The next morning we were off. Costa Rica beckoned - stay tuned for my next post.