Panama Canal Zone and Colombia
Participants: Kim Garwood, Dan and Kay Wade, Hank and Priscilla Brodkin
Author: Kim Garwood
Day 1 – July 6: fly from TX to Panama via Houston, stay 2 nights at Ivan’s B&B in Gamboa. $35/night for a single with breakfast, plus $13 for dinner, no lunch served.
Day 2 – July 7: walk pipeline road
Day 3 – July 8: meet the Wades at Panama City airport, fly to Cartagena, Colombia, meet up w/the Brodkins, stay in Santa Marta at La Perla de Carribean.
Day 4 – July 9: drove up to Cuchillo San Lorenzo at 2200 meters, stayed at cabins at the national park for 3 nights.
Day 5 – July 10: hiked up the road from the cabins to 2,600 meters.
Day 6 – July 11: went down the road
Day 7 – July 12: walked/drove down the road to Minca for 2 nights at San Souci, 750 meters.
Day 8 – July 13: walked up the road from San Souci in am, drove road left of Minca pm. Great restaurant for lunch in Minca.
Day 9 – July 14: In the morning went up to 1400 meters and back, then overnight bus ride.
Day 10 - July 15: got to Puerto Berrio about 7am, caught a mini bus to Puerto Boyaca, then a cab to Rio Claro for 3 nights, 350 meters. Had a lovely swim in the rio for the afternoon.
Day 11 – July 16: rain in the early am at Rio Claro, after a heavy thunderstorm during the night. Hiked up barbet trail before lunch, then walked the road after, went to oilbird cave at dusk
Day 12 – July 17: rain again all night, but cleared after breakfast. I went back up hill, others went to the Condor Cave.
Day 13 – July 18: rain again all night, am at Rio Claro, then drove to Medellin for 2 nights.
Day 14 – July 19: went to ‘the farm’ with Juan Guillermo & Luis, great butterflies!
Day 15 – July 20: Romera road in the am, then drove to Rio Blanco for 2 nights, 2500 meters
Day 16 – July 21: A beautiful day walking around Rio Blanco, lots of new high elevation bugs.
Day 17 – July 22: am at Rio Blanco, then drive to Otun for 2 nights, 1800 meters.
Day 18 – July 23: great sunny day at Otun.
Day 19 – July 24: am at Otun, then drive to El Cairo for 4 nights at Hostal El Cairo, 1850 meters.
Day 20 – July 25: Cerro El Ingles, 1900 meters.
Day 21 – July 26: Galapagos to San Jose de Palmar road, 2000 to 1600 meters, killer birds.
Day 22 – July 27: 2nd day at Cerro El Ingles Reserve.
Day 23 – July 28: drive to Pereira and take the bus to Bogota, 2 nights in Bogota at Platypus, 2,600 meters.
Day 24 – July 29: went to the University and met Dr Andrade in the am, then went to Cathedral de Sal in the afternoon.
Day 25 – July 30: fly to Panama City on Copa. End of Colombia report, see Panama report for continuation of trip.
Day 1 – July 6: got to Ivan’s B&B mid afternoon, then walked around the neighborhood. Ivan tells me he saw Harpy Eagle yesterday! We went looking for it late in the afternoon, but no luck. He shows me the cecropia tree it was in, right across the street from some houses. http://www.gamboaecotours.com/ Ivan’s is simple and economical. He rents 4 rooms on the ground floor of his large 3 story house. Lots of birds and agoutis around the blocks of large houses, all the same style built by the North Americans when they ran the canal. Gamboa Resort is just up the road from Ivan’s, and I run into an escorted tour from there, all of them on sedgeways riding down the road. Gamboa is pretty expensive; I’m told they have an internet café but charge $15 to use it, an outrageous price. Ivan’s doesn’t have internet, which is a bummer, so I’ll wait until I get to Colombia. One thing about being at Gamboa, there aren’t any stores or restaurants or any alternatives, just a few blocks of big houses. Ivan shows me the little grocery store, which is mostly beer, pop and chips, so bring lunch snacks or granola bars if you want something between breakfast and dinner. Ivan doesn’t serve lunch.
Day 2 – July 7: Ivan drops me off at the guard gate at the start of pipeline road. It costs $5 to walk in, $20 if you’re going to go to the new birding tower about 2 km in. I just walk down the wide dirt road, deciding to pass on the tower today. When I was here 2 years ago, in 2006, they were building the tower and doing lots of work on the road, so there was lots of construction traffic. Now there’s almost nobody, I think I see 3 cars all morning long. The weather is foggy/misty/drizzly to start, and I’m worried it’s going to rain, but it holds off until later in the afternoon. There’s not many butterflies, due to the overcast, but there is a blooming flower that the Longwings/Heliconians seem to love. I have 5 or 6 species of Heliconius, most of them impossible to photograph as the flowers are up high. Up at the top, of course, there is a big spreadwing skipper with large yellowish spots in a distinct pattern, 3 big ones, then 2 small apical spots. It’s either Yellow-spotted Telemiades/Leafhugger/Telemiades avitas or Blushing Scarlet-eye/Dyscophellus phraxanor. I’m pretty sure it’s D. phraxanor, looking at the pattern of hyline spots more closely. I try throwing gravel at it to make it move, hoping it will come down to a lower flower (in my dreams), but it won’t move. Tough guy. Several hours later, as I walk back out, it’s still there on the same flower, only now I can tell it’s been grabbed by a spider. I swear it was moving earlier, but it’s not going anywhere now. Try as I might, I can’t pull that high flower down, so I can’t get a good shot, just a zoomed fuzzy shot. The Cattlehearts/Parides also seem to like these orange and yellow tubular flowers, and as it gets drier more and more are flying around these bushes. There are at least 2, probably 3, species of Parides here, and I get a few shots of some, but most never sit still or come low enough. I walk in to the 2 km bridge, go a few curves further then decide to go back. The new tower is just before that bridge, 600m off to the left and well-signed at a large intersection. This is a good area for butterflies, as it’s more open, even if it’s not sunny. I shoot 3 species of dark grass skipper here, 1 Synapte, 1 Quasimellana, and I think a Jungle Skipper/Papias subcostulata, plus a fresh Thoas Swallowtail is basking flat out in the light mist. When I walk back home, Ivan tells me he saw the Harpy Eagle again, while I was gone. Bad timing on my part.
Day 3 – July 8: flew from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia at 3pm, so had a few hours around Ivan’s in Gamboa to look for butterflies. Found a flowering tree that had lots of metalmarks and hairstreaks, at the edge of the forest. Several species of Theopes. Then flew to Cartagena, where we met Pablo Flores, our guide for the next 3 weeks. Our trip has been arranged by Jurgen Beckers, a Belgium who came to Colombia as a birder and fell in love with it, and married a Colombian woman and now runs economical birding tours with his network of young hotdog Colombian birders. Jurgen has a very nice website about birding in Colombia, see http://home.scarlet.be/~tsd81005/birding/colombia.htm lots of information about where to go and what to see. After a too brief tour around the old walled city of Cartagena, we drove to Santa Marta. It took longer than I had expected, and we didn’t get to our hotel until about l0:30pm. I wouldn’t do this again, instead I would fly to Santa Marta. You have to go through Bogota to do this, so we thought it would be easier to fly directly from either Panama City or one of us was going to take Spirit Air from Fort Lauderdale, FL, but I would either stay the night in Cartagena or fly directly to Santa Marta.
Day 4 – July 9: drove up to our cabins at the San Lorenzo Experimental Station at 2,200 meters on the El Dorado road above Santa Marta. We stopped several times and butterflied, saw different species at each elevation. We stopped first about 900 meters, above the small village of Minka about 600 meters. We’ll be staying a couple of nights here on our way down, so we wanted to get up to higher elevations to spend more time. At 900 meters we were in shade grown coffee, and saw lots of Cattlehearts/Parides and a couple of species of white satyrs. Kay found a stunning and cooperative tigerwing. Then up to about 1,300 meters where we had a Turquoise Emperor/Doxocopa laurentia and a fresh Rayed Sister/Adelpha lycorias coming to a spot in the road, so everyone got good photos. Next stop at the little tienda about 1,600 meters where we ate lunch and walked uphill a little way, saw a beautiful white striped satyr and a couple of nice clearwings. Each afternoon the rains come usually by 1 – 2pm, especially as you get higher, so you have to get out and look for butterflies in the morning. We had heavy rain by mid afternoon, so got to our cabins and snugged in. The clouds start to form down in the valley and the fog billows up and gradually obscures everything, then it rains heavily from 1 to 5pm, then clears. It did this all 3 days we were there. We went out again after the rains stopped, no butterflies but great looks at Santa Marta antpitta.
Day 5 – July 10: walked up the road from Cuchillo San Lorenzo, our nice but very cold stone cabins, to the top of the road at about 2,600 meters, at the microwave towers. Actually only Kay walked all the way up, as the rest of us wandered off and went back down. I only went up to about 2,350 meters. It was sunny and beautiful at dawn, and we started the day with nice looks at black-chested jays, similar to the crested jay on the Durango highway in western Mexico. There was a good hatch of a dark blue/green firetip, Mimardaris aerata, which we chased for several days but finally got some good shots of. When you get above 2,000 meters in South America you’re in satyrland, and that was true here. We saw many Pedaliodes, at least 3 or 4 species, a couple of gorgeous Lasiophila, some Corades, those with the weird wing shape and elongated tails, and lots of Pronophila. I don’t know if they were different species or all one common species. These are all high elevation, large satyrs. Several Dallas, high elevation grass skippers, were also photographed. Many Yellow Grosbeaks, or as they’re now called Golden-bellied Grosbeaks, singing and posing nicely on top of bushes, and lots of endemic Santa Marta brush-finch, as well as several other endemics.
Day 6 – July 11: Today we headed down the road. The birding was very nice. There are 17 endemic bird species here above Santa Marta, and we saw 11 or 12 of them, most right from the road, in our 3 days. My favorite was a spectacular show by the White-tailed Starthroat, guarding his favorite bush. Kay and Dan were able to digiscope him on his favorite perches and got wonderful photos. The lower half of the bird is sparkling snow white, while the top half is dark green, with turquoise and purple on the crown. When he flies you usually just see a streak of white, and Pablo told us this species almost never perches where you can see it. But this particular individual gave us quite a show, with many memorable looks. For butterflies we had lots of yellow Dismorphia, more satyrs of course, and some hairstreaks, though most were too high to photograph. No swallowtails or metalmarks.
Day 7 – July 12: Our last day at San Lorenzo, so we walked down the road while the crew packed up and brought the car down to meet us. Jurgen, the one who organized our trip, had talked his sister-in-law and her husband into coming up and cooking for us, and they did a bang up job. He had another Dutch couple with another guide, Wally, who lives in Santa Marta and knows the local birds very well, and we all shared the meals in our larger cabin. The cabin we were in had 2 large bedroom, 3 bunkbeds in each, and a big kitchen, and Alfonso and Claribelle cooked all day long. We were usually cold, it ran around 59 to 62 degrees, so we drank lots of coffee, tea, hot chocolate. Fortunately the bunkbeds came with lots of heavy blankets, so we were warm at night in bed, but that was the only place you were warm once it got to be late afternoon. When it was sunny in the morning, however, it got quite pleasant, I would just wear a light field shirt. The worst part is there isn’t any hot water, and icy cold showers when it’s only 60 degrees is too much for me, so we didn’t shower the 3 days we were there. The electricity is very undependable, as we lost power in thunderstorms for 2 days out of 3, so bring enough batteries for cameras. You have to bring in all your own food and supplies, as there aren’t any places to get anything, so it all has to come up the mountain with you from Santa Marta. The last day we started with fog, then it cleared about 9am, and the butterflies came out. We had a gaudy big Evenus hairstreak that caused us to almost have heartattacks, a couple of different Sisters/Adelphas, another Dalla, and more different Satyrs. Coming down we stopped at the El Dorado lodge run by ProAves at 1,900 meters, which is quite nice. Considerably more expensive at $85-100/night than where we stayed, but that includes 3 meals and transportation, and it’s a considerably plusher lodge, with hot water and nice views. There we had a great pair of Yellow-throated Fruiteaters and Blue-naped Chlorophonias coming to their feeders, as well as some different butterflies. ProAves is a conservation group that has purchased land for 12 reserves around the country, and they run birding tours through another company called EcoTours, see www.ecotours.com.co. I’m coming back in January and doing a trip with them, so it will be interesting to compare the 2 times of the year, as well as where we go. There was a nice article in Winging It about the ProAves reserves recently. We made it down to San Souci, a rustic (grotty) place for the next 2 nights. But it’s outside of town, so it’s quiet and has very nice gardens. We spent the late afternoon sitting out by Hank and Priscilla’s room, the cabana up the hill, and watching hummingbirds come to the large inga trees off their patio. Their place is like a little apartment, w/a kitchen, but the other rooms are dark, old, and scruffy. Very much a backpacker hostal, where you put your own lock on the room doors. We don’t have our own locks, so we leave our doors open, and everything’s fine. Saw our first owl butterfly, Caligo memmon, at dusk.
Day 8 – July 13: our driver didn’t show up, and Pablo couldn’t get any answer calling him, so we walked up the road from San Souci for several hours. It was great; we found white flowering roadside bushes that the clearwings like to feed on for their alkaloids, so we took tons of photos of many species of clearwings, probably 8 to 10 species, most of which were new to me. There were also Scrub-Hairstreaks/Strymon, at least 2, maybe 3 species, and our first Metalmarks, Calospila lucianus, Hades noctula, and Emesis fatimella. So in spite of the lost driver, we had a really good morning. Poor Pablo finally got a ride into town and found another guy w/a truck, came back and found us up on the road and we went to another road he wanted to work. But by the time we got there, about noon, it was raining pretty heavily, so we ended up going to a tasty outdoor restaurant on the river in Minca. If you’re in Minca, look up Bururake, it’s worth your while. It was an excellent parilla, or grill, for all kinds of meat, delicious. It poured, but we were under the roof with a nice view and lots of very good food, so life was good. They also had a lovely salad of a nice variety of greens, which Pable assured us was safe to eat. We spend a couple of hours here, then the rains let up, the sun came out, and we went looking for bugs. Our new driver claimed to know a spot for Rosy Thrush-tanager, so we went there. No birds, but several new butterflies, including our first Swallowtail that Hank got a great shot of. Came back to the hotel a little after 4pm, went back up the road, found a few more clearwings and a beautiful black snake with white rings and a brilliant red head and tail. So a good day after all.
Day 9 – July 14: Went back up to 1400 meters with our new driver and his ‘59 Dodge huge truck, with benches in the back and a tarp roof, more comfortable on this bad road than the other cars we had used. Hank found a group of Cydno Longwings/Heliconius cydno clustering under a large leaf, and at first we couldn’t figure out what they were doing. Then we realized there were pupa attached under the leaf, and it must have been males trying to mate with the females still in the pupa. Took lots of photos. Went back to San Souci for pizza for lunch, Chris there is a good cook. Then headed into Santa Marta for our overnight bus ride down the Magdalena Valley to our next destination, Rio Claro. The bus is cheap, 60,000 pesos for our ticket, which at 1,800 pesos/1 dollar is about $30-33 dollars. Food is also inexpensive. We pay for our food separately from the tour. 2 dinners + 2 breakfasts + the great pizza lunch at San Souci is only 31,000 pesos each, or about $16 – 20. The really nice parilla lunch we had the other day in Minca was 21,000 pesos for me. I’m using 2000 pesos/1 $, so it’s a little over $10, plus 10% so maybe $11 or 12. Such a deal. This turns out to be the most expensive meal we eat the entire trip. Most of our meals are about $3-4 3each.
Day 10 – July 15: arrived at Puerto Berrio about 7am, just over the Magdalena River, after a night of freezing on the bus. If you take overnight buses in South America, take a blanket, maybe two. For some reason, they seem to really crank up the a/c, and it must have been into the low 50′s. But we got there, and had a very nice cup of café con leche with some empanadas while Pablo rustled up our next leg of transportation. We have so much luggage we had to buy an extra 2 seats on the mini bus to pile all our stuff. Another hour and a half and we got to Puerto Boyaca, where we changed to a minivan taxi for the last leg of another hour. We drove right by Pablo Escobar’s old mansion, which is being turned into a hotel. Brand new accommodations at Rio Claro, which looks like a popular swimming hole on the weekends. It’s about 400 hectares of second growth forest along a really pretty river with lots of huge marmel cliffs and caves. Our rooms are open, on the second floor, and look right out into the forest on 2 sides. We wake up to the ringing calls of buff-rumped warblers and bay wrens. After lunch we hike a little ways down the river to Pablo’s favorite swimming beach, which is beautiful. The river is running fairly strong, you couldn’t swim against it, but they have strung ropes across in certain places so you can wash up against the rope and pull yourself in. Lots of fun, and a spectacular setting, steep tree-shrouded cliffs, no sign of humans except the worn rope. This takes up most of the afternoon, plus we do see some nice birds and a new Emesis metalmark. Kay finds a Rufous-breasted Hermit nest right next to our cabins, and we have our first Starry Night Cracker/Hamadryas laodamia landing on the poles of our cabins.
Day 11 – July 16: heavy thunderstorms in the night, and it’s still raining when we wake up. Breakfast at 8. Rain had stopped, so we hiked up the white-mantled barbet trail. In the open places, when the sun came out briefly, there were some good butterflies, but it was brief. So we kept hiking, through the stream and up and down the hills. We only went up a couple of hundred meters, but we did that several times. Deep mud in places, this was definitely a rubber boots trail. Only Kay got looks at the barbet, but it was nice forest. She also got great dorsal shots of Pierella incandescens, with its gorgeous red dorsal hindwings wide open. A number of skippers, some of which we got and some got away. Dan almost fell off the hill reaching out for some good shots of what I think is Hyalothyrus infernalis. Late in the day we went in to the cave where we had gone swimming the day before, about a mile. Pablo told us there are oilbirds in the cave, and they come out about 6:30pm, so we sat on the beach and waited. We could hear them growling and screeching long before they came out. It was fairly dark when they finally made their appearance, but then they came out in bunches, hovering around like moths, seemingly afraid to leave the cave. Later they were drinking and bathing by flying over the river and dipping into it, very neat to watch, even if it was almost dark. Of course, then we had to hike back the rough, rocky and sandy, full of tree roots trail in the dark, with headlamps but still took concentration to not break something. But it was quite interesting to see them coming out, and especially to hear them. We heard crested owl on the way back as well.
Day 12 – July 17: More rain during the night, but by 8am it was clear. Pablo says that’s the normal pattern here, quite convenient to have it rain all night then clear off and be sunny during the day. Some of us take the truck about 6km away to the Condor Cave, which is a very nice walk through open pasture of about 15 minutes, then you get to a beautiful stream through good forest. They walk up the stream and the woods just get prettier and prettier. I didn’t go, but those that did all raved about it, and they brought back some good photos. I went back up the barbet trail, only this day I had lots of sun, so got lots of new species. A good day. Had to dodge mules hauling 2 very large pieces of cut lumber each, coming down the muddy trail. They were afraid of me, so I had to find a place to get out of their way. Not easy, but I didn’t want panicing mules, so we managed.
Day 13 – July 18: last day at Rio Claro. Hot, clear and sunny first thing, after our usual heavy night rains. Lots of bugs but they’re quite flighty so hard to photograph. Dan & Kay go out early with Pablo and get some good shots of early metalmarks, several of which I don’t know. Later, after breakfast, they’re all gone. I didn’t realize metalmarks are active right after dawn. Some people go back to the Condor Cave, but I stay at Rio Claro and chase new species, including a very cooperative Haetera macleannia. Then afer lunch we drive 4 hours to Medellin, Pablo’s home city. There are many soldiers and police on the road, seems like every other turn. Pablo tells us only a few years ago this was a very dangerous road to drive, due to the guerrillas, but the army has taken it back. They were very high profile, but they weren’t stopping traffic, just standing around and watching, with lots of automatic guns. But they did make us feel safer. This evening we go meet Juan Guillermo, who I have met on the internet over neotropical butterflies. He’s been sending wonderful photos to our forum for identifications, and he turns out to be a good friend of Pablo. They’re both nature nuts in Medellin, and are in their local bird club, which is quite active. We have timed our trip to spend the weekend in Medellin so Juan can come out in the field with us on Saturday and Sunday, when he’s off work. He and his wife very graciously invite all 6 of us to their house for dinner, and have several birding friends of theirs there as well, so it’s lots of fun to get to meet other Colombianos who are into nature. We don’t get back to our hotel until after 11:30pm, and the music is just getting wound up. Our hotel, Porton de la 70 on Calle 70, is unfortunately across the street from a disco, in the center of the action part of town, and it’s Friday night, so I don’t get a lot of sleep. Apparently there aren’t many mid-range hotels. Upper class hotels are expensive, $100 or more, and low class ones are dives. We’re in the $30-40 range, and there aren’t many choices. But the next morning I complain and Pablo gets me a small single room on the 5th floor, up the stairs, tucked away in the back and much quieter, so that’s fine.
Day 14 – July 19: Juan and Luis, one of the guys at the dinner the night before, meet us and take us to a private farm they often bird. We have a very tasty breakfast at a small restaurant on the road next to where we’re going to hike, and we leave the cars next to it. There are soldiers here, so it’s a safe place to leave vehicles. Colombia has lots of these simple little places to eat on the mountain roads, and the food has been really good. We have special arepas, a corn grilled flat thing you put butter and local white cheese on. These today are arepas de chocolo, made with special highland corn, and are really good. One is plenty for a meal, as they are thick and filling. They also serve very good coffee con leche, in large soup bowls you have to use both hands to pick up. Delicious and cheap, what’s not to like? I could get used to this. You sit on benches around the central area where the food is cooked over wood burning fires. Then we walk down the road, through the fence and onto the farm. It’s about 1400 – 1500 meters, maybe an hour out of town. Lots of it is pasture for cows with woods, very wet and muddy. An amazing number of species of butterflies, almost all of them new for us. Many ithominids, mostly tigerwings. I’m surprised to see so many tigerwings at this elevation, as I have thought of them as lowland bugs, but I’m obviously wrong. They appear to be lekking at the edge of the woods, sitting on leaves, sometimes 3 or 4 species on the same tree or shrub. In the pastures there are many flowers and butterflies all over the place, lots of grass skippers and pierids. It’s difficult to pick something to photograph, you keep seeing other ones to go after. We have a wonderful morning, though it’s exhausting slipping and sliding up and down the hills in the heavy mud. Often you are afraid you’re going to lose your boot in the mud. I fall once or twice and Hank falls so often he becomes a total mudball. We have a great time, and then the guys take us back to another wonderful outside restaurant with bird feeders where we have another great meal, a local soup chalupa?? with several types of meat, avocado, crispy things and plantain, many wonderful tastes all mixed together. It’s much better than it sounds, and very filling. And more coffee, of course. It starts to rain very hard during our late lunch, perfect timing as we had a great sunny morning, so we spend a few hours hanging out in the restaurant watching the every changing parade of great andean birds come to the feeders. This is my kind of birding. Finally we have to head back to town and our hotel. We’re so full we don’t bother with dinner, and hit the sack early to catch up for last night’s lack of sleep.
Day 15 – July 20: Juan and Luis come along again, and Diego shows up on his motorbike to meet us as well. He’s starting up his own company for bird tours, colombiabirding.com. We go to the Romera road area, maybe 30 minutes from town. This is a great road, narrow and twisting up in to the hills, paved and almost no traffic, and nice habitat, up about 1900 – 2000 meters. Our target bird is red-bellied grackle, but we don’t find any. We do find lots of great high elevation butterflies, however. Juan brings along fish bait, like he did yesterday, and we got some beautiful riodinids, our first dartwhites, and a spectacular leafwing, Fountainea nessus, pink and purple on the dorsal. Plus a bronzy golden Eunica or Purplewing which I’ve never seen. We don’t have near as much sun as the day before, and especially at this elevation the butterflies really wait to come out when it’s sunny. This would be a fabulous place to spend a full day, but unfortunately we have to leave and drive on to Rio Blanco. Another great restaurant, then a 2nd one where we stop for a fruit drink. They make delicous fruit drinks with either water or milk. I have mango but guayanaba is also excellent. They’re like fruit shakes, one goes a long way. We get to Manizales, then take a bad dirt road up from there to the east, on the western side of the central Andes, above Cauca Valley. We finally make it to Rio Blanco at dusk, after sunset, having to walk the last kilometer or so uphill at 2400 meters because the van can’t make it up the dirt road with us in it. We find a sicklewinged guan as it’s getting dark, and get to our rooms for the next 2 nights. Higher than San Lorenzo but not near as wet, so even though it’s only 60 degrees in my room tonight it doesn’t feel as damp and cold. And they have sort of hot water!
Day 16 – July 21: very nice weather today, even though it started out pretty chilly, in the mid 50′s. After breakfast Pablo couldn’t pry the others away from the 15+ hummingbird feeders all around the porch. They have nearly 30 species of hummers here, and most of them are gorgeous. They also have a pair of spectacled bears, who come out and wander around their field. I take off down the hill accompanied by Pablo and the forest ranger Hugo. He suggests that a good place for butterflies is back down the road at the gate, 3-4 km downhill. There is a milk delivery car that goes down about 9am, and we can catch a ride on that. Of course, then we have to walk back up, starting at 2100 meters, but I’m game. So we catch our ride, get to the rio, and he’s right, there are nice puddle parties of Dartwhites/Catastica and a couple of new species of Sisters/Adelpha as well as Actinotes and some Dallas, all high elevation goodies. One species that’s new is Podotricha judith, a longwing with very falcate edges and orange and black stripes, and it’s big. Another killer one is the common Morpho sulkowskyi flying around along the river. A truly beautiful Morpho. No photos of those, too bad, they never stop. So I’m happy for several hours, and Hugo waits patiently. Apparently he’s not supposed to let tourists wander on their own. Finally I’m satiated and we head back up hill. Fortunately for me about half way up we catch a ride from a construction gang going up to work on the water system, and I get a free lift hanging onto the back of a jeep, as they’re packed in. Beats walking, and we get back just in time for lunch. The others had wandered around and have lots of good shots of Pedaliodes, Corades and other high elevation satyrs, so it’s been a great morning. Kay and Dan have some shots of another new leafwing, Fountainea centaurus, even if it’s worn. I spend most of my afternoon relaxing on the western porch watching the clouds change and basking in the sun, when it’s there. We look out and see across the Cauca Valley to the western Andes, a spectacular view, plus there are constantly a couple of zillion hummers whipping around. The most beautiful looks at spectacled??? violetear I’ve ever seen.
Day 17 – July 22: spend the morning at Rio Blanco, and I walk down on a trail that goes through the forest. We end up back down at the river, which means I have to walk back up. So I get my exercise for the day, and get some good butterfly photos as well. Plus some nice birds. Good looks at Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, one of the prettiest New World woodpeckers. After lunch we head off for Pereira and take another bad dirt road up to Otun Quimbaya reserve for the next 2 nights. This is a surprisingly nice hotel, up 12 km of bad road, and it’s surrounded by good second growth forest.
Day 18 – July 23: up at 5:30am for birds, and we see the localized Cauca Guan and Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, plus wonderful looks at a pair of torrent ducks and their 3 young. The adults are doing a type of behavior none of us have ever seen, where they lean forward with their necks straight up in the air and stick their tail feathers up like a fan, while vocalizing loudly. It reminds me of sage grouse. It may be some sort of call to the young, as it doesn’t seem to be courting to each other. After breakfast we wander the road and/or the trails and see lots of goodies. It’s a beautiful sunny day, and it lasts all day, which may be a first for our trip. It’s a treat to be able to walk on a road and have it be relatively flat, rather than straight up like at Rio Blanco. Again almost no traffic. Some new metalmarks, and my first Elzunia humboldt. Also lots of fresh Fountainea nessus, but no centaurus. Those may fly a little higher, like at Rio Blanco. Or maybe their flight time is a little earlier, as we only saw one and it was worn.
Day 19 – July 24: Another nice morning, not as sunny as yesterday but some new bugs. A big firetip that won’t let me shoot it, Mimoniades nurscia, and more Altinotes on the road. There is a platoon of soldiers camped in the woods right down the road from the hotel, and the first I know of them is when I look up from shooting a butterfly in the road and see a guy in camo with lots of weapons watching me from in the woods. I say buenos tardes and smile, and he responds politely. Several of us talk to them, especially Dan who speaks the best spanish, and they say they are hear to serve us, to make sure we’re safe. We have seen heavy military presence in several locations, and it does make us feel safer. They all tell us the areas are calm and muy tranquilo, but they are certainly showing a strong presence. After lunch we drive back to Pereira and onto El Cairo. We have to take a very small jeep down to Pereira, with 8 of us and our luggage, and 3 of us stand on the rack in the back, including me. The guides don’t want me to do it, but it’s more comfortable than being smashed inside with my pack and my laptop on my lap. So Priscilla holds my stuff and I stand on the back. In Pereira we change to a minibus, still squashed in, and drive several hours to El Cairo about 1,900 meters, a small pueblo at the end of the road on the west slope of the western Andes, near the choco. A neat little colonial town with children playing in the square and in the streets, very peaceful. We stay in the nicest hotel in town, Hostal El Cairo, which is actually on the edge of town with great views of the valley dropping away beneath us. It’s quiet and the rooms are nice, the landlady is high energy and very helpful, the only downside is the water heater is broken. Fortunately one room, mine, has hot water (don’t ask why), so we all shower in my room every evening.
Day 20 – July 25: Up early to leave at 5am for Cerro El Ingles, which starts with an hour ride in another willy jeep that’s from 1950. All the old willys must have retired here in Colombia, as they are the vehicle of choice for these muddy mountain roads. This one’s bigger than the one we rode in yesterday, and the driver is very good. We get up to one of the reserves of the local conservation group, Serraniagua, which has organized this part of our trip. They provide the driver and jeep and a local guide who’s called Junior and is very helpful. Their website, www.serraniagua.org, has info about this part of Colombia and the work they’re doing with local farmers to help preserve the forest. We get up to the forest, above pastures, and walk up a little ways and over a pass about 2,200 meters into the department of Choco, which is extremely wet. Being on the steep pacific side, the clouds come up from the sea and all the water is squeezed out by the steep slopes, so it rains all the time. As we cross over the pass it gets much wetter, and the rain gets steadily heavier. We’re seeing some good birds, my favorite being the purple-mantled mountain-tanager, but it’s too much wet for me and I turn back, wanting to go lower down on the drier side and look for butterflies. We find many bugs the rest of the day, as it’s basically a small track through the forest with lots of streams crossing and running down the track. So there are many Dartwhites and Dismorphias everywhere, several species of Corades and a gorgeous large Mygona irmina, a big satyr with large bright white areas on the dorsal hindwing. It makes me think of a Pierella, and between Hank and myself we get some good shots.
Day 21 – July 26: up a little later, as we go to a local panaderia for a 5:30 am café de leche and some sweet rolls, then off to the Galapagos road. Pablo is used to bird tours with very early starts to get the birds, so we keep whining and trying to slow him down. So we compromise with a 5:30 breakfast, and tasty coffee. The Galapagos to San Jose del Palmar road is an area that has only recently been considered safe for eco tourists, and I think we’re only the third group to go in. The birding is fantastic, as it’s a fairly wide dirt road with great views over the mountains and down the ravines. We see lots of special birds, lifers for all of us. Killer looks at golden-ringed tanager, which seem to be everywhere, and look fabulous against the dark mossy covered trunks. Some of us get black solitaire, we all get great looks at orange-breasted fruiteater, and lots of green and black fruiteaters, and many other Colombian specialities. One of the best is the lek of club-winged manakins Kay and Junior find down a very dark and wet trail, behind the old school building. They hear a weird electrical sound and are afraid it might be a radio, which could be guerrillas, so they come back out. But when they describe the sound to Pablo, he knows what it is and we all go back to find the manakins, and we get to see their strange display. It’s funny, but we see very few butterflies, and almost none land on the road or pose for photos. We see a couple of different metalmarks but can’t get any photos. We do get some great shots of a beautiful striped hairstreak, Micandra aegides. On our way in we run into a convoy of 4 large trucks filled w/police, who stop and talk to our driver and Pablo at lenght. One talks to Kay and asks her if she is a Colombiana, to her surprise. They tell us the area is muy calma and it’s ok for us to proceed, so up the road we go, following our extensive and very heavily armed escort. On the way out, at the end of the day, we’re stopped again when we get back to the paved highway (a small mountain road) by police who pat down the driver and our 2 guides, but again just nod politely to us. Pablo tells us later there are coca fields further down that road; that’s one of the reasons we didn’t go below 1,600 meters. It’s not secure further down, but no problems on the stretch we work. However, the guys want us to all stay together, and once Hank is a little ahead and some rangers on motorbikes stop and talk to him. The guides charge up there and explain who we are and what we’re doing, and again it’s smiles all around and we continue on. This is the place Pablo keeps the closest watch on us and doesn’t let us wander off. I was told by several South Americans that it was important we have Colombians with us, not to try and do a trip there by ourselves, and this appears to be very good advice. Pablo explains a number of times what we’re doing, photographing butterflies and looking at birds, and even though we might be able to speak adequate spanish it might be difficult if he wasn’t there. He has proved his worth many times over, just to smooth the way. They are not used to the idea of eco tourists, and definitely not used to folks from the US on these back roads.
Day 22 – July 27: The Brodkins and I go back to El Ingles preserve, and the Wades go back to the Galapagos road to try and do some digiscoping. Yesterday the birds were sitting and openly visible there, while at El Ingles it’s much more closed in and harder to spot birds in the trees. It’s interesting as we see many more butterflies at El Ingles, though both are about the same elevation and in the wet Choco cloud forest. So the 3 of us find a number of different species, especially satyrs. Good shots of Daedalma dinias and more Corades, as well as lots of different Dismorphia. The Wades get good looks at tanager-finch and crested ant-tanager.
Day 23 – July 28: last breakfast at our favorite panaderia where we buy all the guava empanadas they have every morning. Then back in the microbus to drive back to Pereira, where we get on a long distance bus to Bogota. It takes 3 hours to Pereira, then 8 hours to Bogota, so it’s a long day. At one point soldiers board the bus and collect everyone’s identification cards. But Pablo, our guardian angel, explains we’re tourists from out of the country, and they say never mind to us. They take all the cards and run them through a computer database, looking for bad guys. Fortunately no one on our bus is on the bad guy list, so we proceed on, after a mean looking soldier comes back on the bus and politely calls the names one at a time and returns the cards. These guys all look like classic jungle fighters but have consistently been very polite and professional. We get to Bogota about 6:30 pm and get to our newly renovated hotel in the historical Candalaria part of the centro by 7:30 or so, though it takes our 2 taxis quite a while to find the hotel. Www.platypusbogota.com. It’s fairly quiet, again sort of a backpacker place with a big kitchen on the 2nd floor and coffee all the time, but nicer than most of the places we’ve been. Feels very safe. Clean, a nice courtyard, comfortable, except my single room is a little noisy as I’m right on the entrance courtyard so I hear the buzzer on the door and people talking as they come and go. The outer door is locked all the time and you have to buzz the innkeeper to get in. Pablo stays with his uncle, and when he comes to get us the next morning the woman won’t let him in, as she doesn’t know him. So we have to vouch for him for once.
Day 24 – July 29: the Brodkins leave mid morning, but the other 3 of us have an extra day. I head to the Universidad Nacional de Colombia to try and meet Dr. Andrade, who is the head of the collection there and a faculty professor. Andy Warren had been there the week before to give a paper and told them about me, so I’m somewhat expected, which was very nice and helpful of Andy. Pablo helps me take a taxi to the University and we wander around, asking directions a number of times before we finally find the right building. It’s a huge campus, and of course we get out of the taxi at the opposite side of where we finally find the correct building, so we must walk for more than half an hour. There are guards to get on campus, and guards at the entrance of each building, so it’s very secure. We ask for Dr. Andrade, and the guard tells us he just left. I show him my Mexican butterfly book and say I want to leave it for Dr. Andrade as a gift, so the guard lets us go to his office. I don’t think we would have gotten in without his name. I meet a couple of women grad students there, Lina Campos and Nadja Grote, who graciously show me the collection, where I meet a 3rd student, Hannier Pulido. Lina specializes in riodinids and Hannier is into hesperids, which is great. He shows me a couple of drawers of Pedaliodes, which would be very helpful to work on. I think Lina is also working at satyrs. All 3 are very friendly, we exchange emails for future visits, and they give me a copy of the book they just published last year of butterflies of Santa Maria, which is very nice. Then Professor Andrade shows up, so I get to meet him as well. Nadja and Hannier come back to my hotel, as I offer them my last 2 extra copies of my Mexico book, so it’s hugs all around and offers to help me with future trips. Hannier even expresses some interest in working as a guide for a butterfly trip, which would be fantastic. He is a good nature photographer, and I hope to get to see some of his photos in the future. A very good and productive morning. I’ll definitely be spending some time in Bogota in the future. In the afternoon the Wades and I, with Pablo, take public buses to the Cathedral de Sal, which turns out to take a little over 2 hours to get to. This is a truly amazing place, an absolutely enormous series of huge spaces carved out underground and made into a cathedral, with the stations of the cross in each gigantic room. The size is incomprehensible, the rooms are sometimes close to 100′ high. Well worth your time to see it, a truly unique place. We take a taxi back, and it still takes us more than 2 hours as the traffic is horrendous and the driver has no idea where our hotel is. We finally get back after 7pm, and decide to just hit the close tasty restaurant where we had breakfast, just a block down the street. We were going to go to Casa Vieja, which a friend had highly recommended, but we’re too tired. Next time.
Day 25 – July 30: up early for a 9am flight to Panama City on Copa. We say goodbye to Pablo at the airport, after having to check in then go wait in another long line to get a stamp as an exemption to the airport tax, then go back to get our boarding passes. Not a very efficient way to run a system. Several more lines for various things, including a pat down search by same sex guards, and we finally get on our plane and back to Panama. I’m staying at the Albrook Inn, close to the domestic airport, for 2 nights. It’s a $30 cab ride from the international airport, arranged by the hotel in advance. It has a nice garden area, and I spend a few hours birding/butterflying while I wait for my room to be ready, as I arrive early. They have a nice restaurant with US food, and US prices. A bowl of fancy onion soup and a salad of tomatoes and mozarrella cheese is $15. No more cheap meals like 6,000 pesos/$3 as in Colombia, but then here I have choices. It’s all a trade off.
This is the end of my Colombian report. The Panama section will be a separate report. My overall impression of Colombia is go! We never felt in danger, and the people were very friendly. We spent most of our time, if not all of it, in secondary growth forest. I think the primary forest is more difficult to get to, often involving walking or horseback, or really bad roads. The roads we were on in the mountains were often very difficult, deep mud and ruts, 4 wheel drive required. The willys were standard transportation, not very comfortable but they get there. Don’t try and go to too many places, as transportation time is long between good locations. The food is filling, large quantities but often boring, especially at the lodges. The little restaurants we stopped at on the roads, especially around Medellin, were very good and quite cheap. But at the lodges it was mostly a piece of tough beef and lots of rice and potatoes, very little fresh fruit. I don’t think they eat much fruit in the highlands. Much more beef than chicken. A few times we could ask for what we wanted, and we asked for pollo a la plancha, a standard simple grilled chicken dish common in Mexico and other latin countries, but some cooks didn’t know how to cook it. So it was mostly meat and starches. They have very good fruit drinks, made with either milk or water, like a shake. Only a few flavors, but all good. They must drink their fruits rather than eat them whole. We never got a dessert, may be why most Colombianos are slender. If you want snacks, sweets or munchies, bring them with you. Jurgen had told me to estimate $20/day for food, and that was high. I spent about 600,000 pesos on food and some add ons, which is a little less than $300. We used atm’s to get cash, as almost no places took credit cards. These don’t always work, depending on which card you use, so bring multiple cards if you can. You can usually get only 300,000 pesos on one withdrawal, so we had to hit the atm’s several times, especially for couples with one card. There are of course many fabulous birds, as Colombia has been on most world birders’ lust list for a long time. We spent most of our time looking for butterflies, but couldn’t help but see many great birds. Jurgen Beckers is a serious birder, and offers several good birding trips. Our trip was customized, so with a small group you can organize as you want. Our trip was mostly at mid elevation, 1,400 to 2,400 meters. There are good places to go much higher, in the paramo, but we never got above tree line. Our only lower elevation location was at Rio Claro, at 350 meters. There we had the most butterflies, which is typical as you get more species in the lowlands than the highlands. We wanted to work the upper elevations however. The Andes in Colombia split into 3 cordilleras, east/central/west, and the habitat is different on all three. So there is tremendous diversity. The 2 large valleys in between are mostly developed with agriculture, and there are fields up most of the mountain sides. So you have to go high, up to the ridges, to find habitat. Probably my favorite area was around Medellin, and there are a couple of good reserves within a few hours of there. El Cairo, on the wet pacific side of the western andes, is probably one of the better places for birding. Santa Marta has a bunch of endemics, so most folk want to go there, though it requires an internal flight, or long bus ride, to get there. I would probably not use San Lorenzo again, but stay at the ProAves El Dorado lodge. In the cities we were in low middle level hotels, and I would probably upgrade. Our trip cost with Jurgen was $1,570 each for 5 of us for a little over 3 weeks. It was considerably more if there were only 3, as the expense of the guide and the vehicle is fixed. We had Pablo with us the entire time, from Cartagena to the airport in Bogota. ProAves is quoting me about twice that for our January trip, so it will be interesting to see if it’s that much nicer. Transportation is a large part of the trip expense, as the roads are slow. We had 2 long bus trips on this tour, and having a private vehicle would have added considerably to our cost. I don’t think ProAves does the bus trip thing, so that may be a big difference. None of us ever got sick at all. We ate veggies and salads at several restaurants, but tried to stick to bottled water as much as possible. Sometimes it was hard to find, especially in the highlands, as the locals prided themselves on their tasty water. Much more difficult to find than in Mexico, where bottled water is everywhere. All in all a good trip, with lots of new species of butterflies. I’ll be back.