The Colombian Andes – Open for business and loaded with beautiful birds!

With over 1,900 species of birds, Colombia hosts more avian diversity than any other country on Earth. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise, and tinamous, hummingbirds, trogons, puffbirds, antpittas, and tanagers will mesmerize even the most seasoned eco-travelers. Though Colombia owes much of its diversity to the Amazonian Lowlands in the east, equally important are the Andes in the west. Mostly a single cordillera through Peru and Ecuador, the Andes trifurcate into 3 distinct parallels – Western, Central, and Eastern – in Southern Colombia. That varied topography has driven high levels of local speciation helps explains why Colombia hosts so many bird species – 78 of them endemic. Recent political stability has opened the country to foreign travelers, and I’ll use this article to broadly highlight some of the Andean places I visited on a recent 7-week Colombia trip.

The Colombian Andes

The Colombian Andes © Dorian Anderson

The Eastern Andes from Bogotá

With a fully modern international airport, Bogotá is the perfect entry point for any Colombian adventure. Renting a car or hiring a professional driver with his own vehicle is easy, and a wide array of habitats can be accessed within a few hours drive of the city. Right near the airport, La Florida’s wetlands offer Spot-flanked Gallinule, Bogotá Rail (endemic = E), Subtropical Doradito, and Apolinar’s Wren (E). Northwest of the city (~75 minutes) is Laguna Tabacal at ~1,350 meters of elevation. Over 350 species have been recorded in the reserve’s subtropical forests including Colombian Chachalaca (E), Rusty-breasted Antpitta, White-bearded Manakin, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and Velvet-breasted Euphonia (E). Tabacal visitors should stop at El Jardin Encantado in San Francisco afterwards. The suburban oasis is a hummingbird paradise, and it’s possible to record a dozen species on a single visit, Indigo-capped Hummingbird (E) included.

Indigo-capped Hummingbird @ Jardin Encantado © Dorian Anderson

Indigo-capped Hummingbird at Jardin Encantado © Dorian Anderson

Further west and higher (2,700 meters), Chicaque Natural Park offers Golden-bellied Starfrontlet, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Moustached Brushfinch, and Capped Conebill in its Andean Forest. Chicaque’s craggy cliffs are stunning and worth the visit on their own. Continuing west and dropping lots of elevation into the Magdalena Valley that separates the Central and Western Andes, birders will intersect a dry forest habitat at Reserva Maná Dulce (400 meters) that hosts Barred Puffbird, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Apical Flycatcher (E), Velvet-fronted Euphonia (E), and dozens of other lowland species. Returning to Bogotá and climbing high into the mountains on the east side of the city at Chingaza or Sumapaz (both over 3,200 meters) , birders will gaze upon the stunning páramo. That frailejone-dotted landscape can be scoured for Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Noble Snipe, Many-striped Canistero, and Green-bearded Helmetcrest (E), a bizarrely-adorned and high-elevation hummingbird entirely restricted to Colombia’s East Andean páramo. Check out Finca Suasie for Chingaza Lodging. Nearby, and just outside La Calera, Observatorio de Colibries is a great place to relax and watch hummingbirds. Without lodging, Sumapaz needs to be done as a day trip from Bogotá.

Many-striped Canastero on dead Frailejone at Sumapaz © Dorian Anderson

Many-striped Canastero on dead Frailejone at Sumapaz © Dorian Anderson

Birders with additional time should make their way from Bogotá to Santa Maria (4-5 driving hours into neighboring Boyacá Department) for a sample of the Amazonian slope around 800 meters. Those who don’t do that will miss Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Lined Antshrike, Violaceous Jay, Speckled Tanager, and dozens of other birds restricted to that eastern slope. That’s a bit of a whirlwind but would give a great sampling of the East Andes! For very detailed information on the Eastern Andes (transportation options, road maps, bird guides, weather), please see these two links, also from this author: 1) Cundinamarca/Bogotá and 2) Boyacá

Sumapaz Páramo © Dorian Anderson

Sumapaz Páramo © Dorian Anderson

 

The Central Andes from Manizales

The Coffee Region around Manizales and Pereira has arguably the best birding infrastructure fo anywhere in Colombia. The Tinamu Lodge west of Manizales makes a good starting point, and on its beautiful grounds lurk Little Tinamou, Andean Motmot, Moustached Puffbird, and Grayish Piculet (E). Tinamu has a wonderful array of feeders that attracts all sorts of hummingbirds and tanagers, so photographers will want to allocate extra time at that destination!

Bay-headed Tanager at Tinamu Lodge © Dorian Anderson

Bay-headed Tanager at Tinamu Lodge © Dorian Anderson

Moving east through Manizales, birders will arrive at Río Blanco, a reserve at 2,700 meters where an astonishing 450 species have been recorded! Antpittas star at Rio Blanco; ten species have been recorded at the reserve, and feeding stations for Chestnut-crowned, Brown-banded (E), Slate-crowned, and Bicolored facilitate viewing of those stealthy species. Long-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, and the occasional Sword-billed Hummingbird grace the lodge feeders, and Powerful Woodpecker and Masked Saltator are sometimes found just beyond it. Whether you visit for the day or stay overnight, you will need to contact the local water company (Aguas de Manizales, +57 312 226 1116, [email protected]) to arrange your visit. All visitors need to be accompanied by a reserve guide, but it’s well worth the charge. It would be easy to spend two full days around Rio Blanco, particularly if you’re into photography.

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta at Río Blanco © Dorian Anderson

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta at Río Blanco © Dorian Anderson

After Río Blanco, turn your attentions skywards towards Los Nevados National Park. There, at 4,300 meters and in the shadows of the active Nevado del Ruiz volcano, you’ll experience the rugged beauty of the páramo and – if you’re very lucky – see the endemic and critically endangered Buffy Helmetcrest (E). From there, descend to Termales del Ruiz for a night or two. Lounging in the hotel’s volcanic hot springs, you’’ll be able to see Great Saphirewing, Shining Sunbeam, and Golden-breasted Puffleg as they visit the hummingbird feeders.

Shining Sunbeam at Termales del Ruiz © Dorian Anderson

Shining Sunbeam at Termales del Ruiz © Dorian Anderson

 

Volcanic Pool at Termales del Ruiz © Dorian Anderson

Volcanic-fed Pool at Termales del Ruiz © Dorian Anderson

A bit farther south and outside Pereira, Otún Qimbaya offers yet more incredible birding and onsite lodging. The Cauca Guan (E) stars, but Hooded Antpitta, Collared Trogon, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, and 460 other species ensure constant action. The most adventurous should also allocate 3 full days at Montezuma Ecolodge and Tatamá National Park. Technically in the Western Andes but most easily accessed from Manizales, Montezuma offers access to a number of different elevations as well as the world famous Chocó Bioregion, a stretch of tropical forest running mostly along the Pacific slopes of Colombia and Ecuador. Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, Munchique Wood-Wren (E), Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer (E), Gold-ringed Tanager (E), and Baudo Oropendola (E) can all be found at Montezuma. The Coffee Region has offers tremendous birding with a minimum of driving, so don’t delay! For more information on the Central Andes, please see this link: https://www.audubon.org/sites/default/files/andesv1.pdf

Buffy Helmetcrest at Los Nevados © Dorian Anderson

Buffy Helmetcrest at Los Nevados © Dorian Anderson

 

Western Andes from Cali

Formerly infamous as a narco-trafficking center, Cali is now a safe and fully cosmopolitan city. Besides being the world’s Salsa dancing capital, it is a wonderful entry point to explore the Southwestern Colombian Andes. After arriving, I’d head an hour north of the airport to reach La Huerta Hotel outside Buga. That stunning property offers very convenient access (< 30 mins) to a number of mid-elevation sites, notably Río Bravo and Yotoco. Birders can scour those reserves for Cauca Guan (E), Andean Motmot, Masked Trogon, Chestnut Wood-Quail (E), and Grayish Piculet (E). A full morning should also be spent Río Sonso in the Cauca Valley where birders will find a nice mix of birds including Pinnated Bittern, Amazon Kingfisher, Common Potoo, Striped Cuckoo, and Apical Flycatcher (E). Spectacled Parrotlets nest at the reserve and are not to be missed!

Spectacled Parrotlets at Río Sonso © Dorian Anderson

Spectacled Parrotlets at Río Sonso © Dorian Anderson

After that lowland time, gain elevation westward to reach Dapa, Chicoral, and La Minga Ecolodge. Specialty birds in those closely-clustered areas include Golden-headed Quetzal, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, and the out-of-this-world Multicolored Tanager. That last bird frequently visits feeders at La Minga, so don’t miss those! The route to reach the town of Kilometer 18 from La Minga is a bit circuitous, but there are a number of great sites in that area. Finca Alejandria has an incredible feeder array and is a must-do for photographers (loads of hummingbirds plus Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager and Red-Headed Barbet). Nearby, the San Antonio forest presents beautiful cloud forest habitat that hosts White-whiskered Puffbird, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, and Metallic-green Tanager.

Red-headed Barbet at La Minga © Dorian Anderson

Red-headed Barbet at La Minga © Dorian Anderson

 

Multicolored Tanager at Finca Alejandria © Dorian Anderson

Multicolored Tanager at Finca Alejandria © Dorian Anderson

Next up is Anchicaya as accessed from the Old Buenaventura Road. That mostly abandoned and primitive track runs all the way down the Pacific Slope and offers wonderful Chocó birding. The upper reaches of the road around El Descanso are home to Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Toucan Barbet, Club-winged Manakin and a host of others. Though it is not open yet (scheduled Jan 2019), Finca Araucana will offer wonderful lodging at that upper end of the road. Araucana will also be the best base from which to explore KM 18, San Antonio, and Finca Alejandria. Pance and Los Farallones offer yet more good birding just 20 minutes from the southern end of Cali. If you’re thirsty for more, I’d head farther south towards Causa Department and Popayán to bird Puracé National Park and the high elevation páramo. Puracé visitors will have chances for Tawny Antpitta, Many-striped Canastero, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Golden-crowned Tanager, Blue-backed Conebill, and the unparalleled Andean Condor – complete with 11-foot wingspan! Puracé has wonderful scenery, the San Juan volcanic hot springs being just one example.

Andean Condor at Puracé © Dorian Anderson

Andean Condor at Puracé © Dorian Anderson

 

San Juan hot springs at Puracé National Park © Dorian Anderson

San Juan hot springs at Puracé National Park © Dorian Anderson

The most adventurous should continue farther south to explore Nariño’s Pacific Slope at La Planada, Río Nambi, and Tumaco. Accommodations in those less-developed areas are very basic but offer access to incredible birding. Orange-fronted Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Scarlet-and-white Tanager, Indigo Flowerpiercer, and Moss-backed Tanager can all be found on Nariño’s Pacific slope. If you do that it would sense to fly from Tumaco back to Cali or Bogotá, depending on your travel plans. For very detailed information on the Western Andes (transportation options, road maps, bird guides, weather), please see these three links, also from this author: 1) Valle/Cali, 2) Cauca/Popayán, 3) Nariño/Pasto/Tumaco

View from lookout at La Planada © Dorian Anderson

View from lookout at La Planada © Dorian Anderson

Whew! That’s a load of information, but it should give you at least some idea of how to go about planning trips to the various branches of the Colombian Andes. It would be possible to spend a month in each of these destinations and still not see everything they offer. Fortunately, there’s no rule on how many Colombian trips you can make!