Trip Report Colombia, January 2009
Participants: Kim Garwood, Dan and Kay Wade, Willie Sekula, Hank and Priscilla Brodkin
Author: Kim Garwood
Colombia trip report January-February 2009
I have spent 2 months in Colombia now, in July 2008 and January/February 2009, and have not once felt threatened or in danger. Much of the country is safe to travel in, the people are extremely welcoming and happy to see us, and if you have any doubts about coming I can say you don’t need to worry. I have felt more welcomed and at home here than in Ecuador or Peru. I do strongly recommend you use one of the people I talk about in these reports to organize your trip, as it would not be safe to come down, rent a car and take off on your own. You need local expertise to know where it is safe to go and where it is not, and that changes frequently.
The locals all share information with each other, and they want to keep all visitors safe. If one birder gets in trouble it will negatively impact all of them, so their primary concern is safety. In some places there is a strong military presence, but the soldiers have always been very courteous and professional to all of us. And the birding is fabulous! Willie got 137 lifers on this last trip, and he has birded in the Andes in other countries a number of times, and this was not a hardcore birding trip. We were looking to photograph butterflies.
Participants: Hank and Priscilla Brodkin, Nancy and Larry Simkins, Dan and Kay Wade, Willie Sekula, and Kim Garwood. Trip report written by Kim Garwood, email@example.com. See butterfly photos at www.neotropicalbutterflies.com plus other trip reports. At the time of this trip the currency exchange was about 2,200-2,400 pesos to 1 dollar. In July of 2008 it was about 1,800 pesos to the dollar. We obtained pesos using atm cards, plus it was easy to convert dollars for pesos at the international airport in Bogota when we first arrived. After that it would have been time consuming to have to wait in line at banks, so atm’s are much easier in country.
Organizers: Kim made all arrangements by email, first part organized with EcoTurs using the ProAves reserves, see www.ecoturs.org, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. All 3 ProAves reserves were US$65/night/person, including 3 meals and water. Transportation for 8 people in a van was US$2,200 from Day 1 through Day 17 to our hotel in Medellin. We traveled without a guide for this part, just used the local guys who lived at each reserve.
Additional information on ProAves reserves at the end of this report. Second part organized with Pablo Flores who lives in Medellin, email@example.com and Jose Castaño who lives in Jardin, firstname.lastname@example.org Pablo and Jose are bird guides and also 2 of the original 10 people who created ProAves back in 2001. They charge US$70/day, or 140,000 pesos, for guiding and logistical support, and they spent each day with us in the field, Jose for the Jardin part and Pablo flew w/us to the Choco. Pablo speaks a bit of english, but spanish is much more comfortable for them. They can read english ok in emails but prefer to respond in spanish, so I did all email communications in spanish. 2 other options, especially for non-spanish speakers, are Diego Calderon at www.colombiabirding.com and Jurgen Beckers at Trogon Trips, see http://home.scarlet.be/~tse98017/index.html. Diego is Colombian and speaks excellent english, Jurgen is Belgium, married to a Colombian and lives in Europe, but spends much of each year in Colombia. They both have good websites on birding in Colombia with lots of information. I used Jurgen in July 2008, and he set me up with Pablo as our guide for that trip. They’re all bird bums and love to show visitors the birds, and they all know each other well. Jurgen and Pablo are working on a book on where to find birds in Colombia, so they’re exploring the whole country and can help with suggestions for almost everywhere.
Day 1 – Jan 8/9: 1 night in Bogota after overnight flight from Houston, Hotel Chico Suites, 175,000 pesos/double.
Day 2 – Jan 10: drove to Mariquita, Tolima to Hotel San Felipe, 2 nights, 80,000/double/night.
Day 3 – Jan 11: drove 3 hours (each way!) to Golden Poison Frog Reserve at Falan, 1600-1700 meters
Day 4 – Jan 12: drove 5-6 hours to El Paujil Reserve for 5 nights, 300 meters
Day 5/6/7/8 – Jan 13/14/15/16: trails at El Paujil
Day 9 – Jan 17: drove to Cerulean Warbler Reserve for 4 nights, 1400 meters.
Day 10/11/12 – Jan 18/19/20: trails at Cerulean Warbler Reserve.
Day 13 – Jan 21: drove to Bucaramanga, fly to Medellin, drove to Piha Reserve for 4 nights
Day 14/15/16 – Jan 22/23/24: trails at Piha Reserve
Day 17 – Jan 25: drove to Medellin, end of ProAves part of the trip. Balance of the trip arranged with Pablo Flores, contact him at email@example.com In Medellin we used Hotel Casa Asturias, about 152,000/double w/breakfast. Larry and Nancy left us in Medellin and flew back to the US.
Day 18 – Jan 26: took 2 taxis to Jardin, 3 hours sw of Medellin, to the Hotel Hacienda Balendú for 4 nights, guided by Jose Castaño, Pablo’s friend who lives in Jardin, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The hotel cost about 2,400,000 pesos for 6 people for 4 nights, so about 100,000 pesos/night/person, or roughly US$50, including meals.
Day 19 – Jan 27: go down to 1,500 meters in the am, up to 2,000 meters to Alto de Ventanas (antennaes) for pm.
Day 20 – Jan 28: yellow eared parrot trip all day up the mountain.
Day 21 – Jan 29: we choose to go back up the mountain, best forest.
Day 22 – Jan 30: drove back from Jardin to Medellin for 2 nights, back to Casa Asturias. Spent several hours at Amaga, ‘the mud farm’, on the way, 1,600 meters about 1 hour from Medellin.
Day 23 – Jan 31: went to La Romera outside Medellin w/Pablo, 1900-2000 meters.
Day 24 – Feb 1: flew to Bahia-Solana and drove to El Almejal for 5 nights in the Choco. 180,000/person/night w/3 meals.
Day 25 – Feb 2: drove back 2-3 km past El Valle to a side road, walked to the river in the am, birded the trails around El Amejal in the pm.
Day 26 – Feb 3: hiked the long trail towards National Park Natural Utria, 4 km to Baudo Oropendola nesting tree.
Day 27 – Feb 4: boat trip to National Park Natural Utria
Day 28 – Feb 5: walked the side road again
Day 29 – Feb 6: flew back to Medellin, then to Bogota, night in Hotel Siar, 120,000 pesos/double, 80,000 pesos/single. The others flew back home either the night of the 6th or the 7th, while I stayed another 5 days in Bogota to work at the University collection. End of report.
Day 1 – Jan 8/9: flew in on a red-eye flight from Houston, arrived 5am, went to Chico Suites for the night. Then 4 of us had Angela Reyes as a guide for the day, arranged by ProAves. The others went to the gold museum, Museo del Oro, that afternoon; they really enjoyed it. It’s free if you’re over 60, and only 2,500 pesos otherwise. I think it’s closed on Mondays.
Day 2 – Jan 10: drove to Hotel San Felipe about 300 meters outside Mariquita, Tolima, northwest of Bogota about a 4 hour drive. This was the closest hotel to the Golden Frog Reserve, a new reserve for ProAves for 2 species of poison dart frogs, Ranitomeya doriswainsonae and R. tolimense. Bad traffic up and over several ridges, lots of large very slow trucks and tons of small cars doing death defying passes, including our driver. Best to just not look. It was a holiday weekend, Epiphany, so lots of people were out. Got to our hotel, dumped our luggage and drove a short distance further outside of town to a dirt road through corn fields off to our left. We got a km or so down the road and found an impassible stream that had overflowed the banks and was about waist deep, so we weren’t going any further that way. We parked and found another road to the left that paralleled the stream, where we found some nice lowland stuff. Several species of Dynamine or Sailors, including a beautiful Tithia Sailor.
Day 3 – Jan 11: some confusion, as we thought we were going back to the same road as yesterday, but instead our driver heads up the hills off the right side of the highway. We had talked to Oscar last night, who is the guide for the Golden Frog reserve, and had arranged for him to have a 4 wheel drive truck to take us, we thought, over the flooded river and into the reserve.
Well, surprise, we went way up the hills, about an hour, to his house in Falan, then a lot further up hill to another town where we got into a toyota jeep type vehicle, 6 stuffed in the back, 2 up w/the driver, and Oscar hanging off the back. 2 hours later, after much banging around on bad muddy roads, we finally made it to the reserve, picking up and dropping off locals all the way. At one point there were 15 people in the small toyota, 4 or 5 hanging off the back and 1 on the roof, plus bags of stuff.
Finally the truck drops us off and goes back down, we walk uphill and immediately start seeing lots of butterflies. The sides of the road are full of flowering shrubs and weeds, and in between the showers we see lots of bugs. Lots of new species, so we run around like chickens with their heads chopped off. Lots of skippers, a number of them new to me, including a large pale brown one similar to Pale Sicklewing only with a black spot in the middle of the fw, which turned out to be a Mimia, probably Mimia phydile. Also a couple of new Adelpha/Sisters, some lovely Riodinids/Metalmarks like Necryia and some new Ithomiinae/Clearwings.
One of the last species we saw, as it got foggy mid afternoon, was a very fresh Tithorea tarrcina /Tigerwing that was very cooperatively feeding on some tropical milkweed. Oscar scrambled up a very steep hillside and disappeared for a while, then came back down with a few frogs in a baggie to show us. Beautiful red and yellow spotted frogs, which we pose nicely on some leaves.
This reserve doesn’t have any infrastructure yet, just forest on the side of the hill that goes up steeply. It’s about 120 hectares, but I think it’s in patches. There is lots of coffee being grown and Oscar takes us to meet one family, who graciously offer us drinks of lulu, very tasty. We’re a bit concerned drinking it, but bravely go ahead, and no problems. The family lives in a very basic hut on top of a hill w/a million dollar view. Apparently they planned to cook us lunch, but we ungraciously want to go back to photographing butterflies. This is often a problem, where local people want to meet and talk, sometimes mayors and dignitaries or sometimes as in this case local campesinos, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time chit chating when I came here to photograph butterflies and I only have this one day in this area. One of the problems is that we usually have a limited amount of time during the day when butterflies are flying. Anyway, we managed to escape spending another hour or so with these nice people for lunch, and went back on the road.
Day 4 – Jan 12: We’re driving north, crossing the Rio Magdalena and zigzagging our way up the southern Magdalena Valley towards Puerto Boyaca, then off to the right to Puerto Ponzon. In Mariquita we were on the east slope of the central andes, and now we will be on the west slope of the eastern andes, on the eastern side of the Magdalena Valley, in the departamento de Boyaca.
We planned to leave at 7:30 for a 4 hour drive to El Paujil, but things don’t quite work out that way. First it took forever for the 4 couples to get checked out and pay at the hotel, so we didn’t actually depart until closer to 8:30. This is not uncommon, as none of the hotels we use seem to deal well with checkout. Be prepared to spend considerable time especially if you’re using a credit card. One advantage to staying at ProAves’ reserves, you’ve paid in advance.
Then we got lost a few times and had to backtrack, then we were on a dirt road running through open pasture, came around a corner and find a huge earth moving bulldozer stuck on a small bridge. He’s working on fixing the road and has fallen in a hole. Traffic is plugged from both directions, so we get out and add to the confusion, looking at parrots in the trees while waiting. They manage to get the bulldozer out in half an hour or so, much quicker than I originally thought. But when we continue, our van is now stuck in first gear, which makes for slow going.
We finally get to Puerto Ponzon where we meet w/Hubert, the guide to El Paujil. We change to a big stake bed truck w/all our luggage, pile in the back and chug a short distance, 10-15 minutes, then unload the truck at the entrance where we have to walk into the lodge, about 20-30 minutes down some slippery hills. They have a horse to carry our mountain of luggage, poor horse has to make at least 3 trips. But we’re finally here! Very interesting looking place. Only 6 rooms, 2 in the main building, 2 nearby and the 2 new ones several 100 yards into the forest. Willie and I get one of the forest rooms, which also have air conditioning, big surprise. I wasn’t even sure they had electricity all day, let alone a/c. The rooms are quite nice w/porches on both sides, a double bed and a set of bunk beds.
We have Colombian Chachalaca from our porch, as well as Starry Night Cracker/Hamadryas laodamia, one of the Ectima crackers or banners, and Little Banner/Nica flavilla coming to my socks drying on the railing. Only problem w/the rooms is our toilet doesn’t flush, so that occupies most of the afternoon w/several of the guys working hard to fix it. Dinner time they tell us to not use it until tomorrow, so I guess we’ll be using the bushes tonight. No problem it will be good to attract the bugs. Also there are fairly steep stairs up to the forest cabin, and in the rain they can be extremely slippery. They need to put in some sort of hand rails here.
Day 5/6/7/8 – Jan 13-16: walk the trails here at El Paujil, lots and lots of trails. One thing about Colombia, most of the trails seem to be quite vertical. Probably because most of the flat land, of which there isn’t a lot to begin with, has been cleared for agriculture, so the good habitat tends to be fairly steep up and down. So you get your exercise climbing hills here.
We have another guide today, a young volunteer here at the lodge who sort of knows the birds, Camillo. He’s very nice and speaks fairly good english, but is more comfortable w/spanish so we mostly use that. He takes us over hill and dale to the spot where they have been seeing the blue-billed curassow, which is the main reason the reserve is here.
The local name of the curassow is El Paujil. We strike out, but we’re stopping to chase frogs and of course butterflies, so we’re not exactly sneaking through the forest. Plus slipping and sliding. 3 days ago there was a huge rise in the height of the rivers, and they flooded their banks by about 15′ or more in some places. Good thing we weren’t here, as the bridge to our 2 forest rooms was under a couple feet of water. This is the dry season, so it’s very unusual to get that kind of rain in January.
We hike back along the stream bed, which is fascinating. Looks like a great place for butterflies. We see a frog nest, which none of us had ever seen before. Made in the mud and built up to a circle about 15″ across, it holds a bunch of eggs in the shallow stream. Camillo tells us there were many a few days ago, then the flood washed them all away, so this one was just built yesterday. The weather here is quite variable, which they tell us is unusual for this time of year.
The first morning is gorgeous, hot and sunny and we sweat to death but by dinner we’re hearing thunder, the 2nd morning we have heavy rain, 3rd morning overcast w/rain about 10am, then the sun comes out and the butterflies are great from about 10:30 to 1 then clear and sunny the rest of the day, and the 4th morning starts sunny, clouds up early, but no rain. The 2nd night we have fairly good thunderstorms most of the night, and when we get up the water has risen to w/in about 2′ of our little bridge. Then it drops quickly, and by lunch that ravine is almost empty of water.
The river here runs milk chocolate all the time, doesn’t look very attractive for swimming. The reserve is in a valley or more of a bowl, so all the trails lead upward from the lodge and spread out like a fan. There is a caliche road that runs around the top of the ridge that vehicles used to use, doesn’t look like they go on it much anymore past the entrance to the lodge where we get dropped off. This is a good road to walk for butterflies, as it’s open with lots of flowering plants on the edge. The only problem is it’s steeply uphill from where we’re staying. The only relatively flat trail is from our forest cabins back along the river, which floods frequently when the river rises. We see mud up quite high on many plants. This area is full of riodinids, satyrs and skippers, but you have to have sun or it’s very quiet.
There are many trails that cut up then down through the forest, and of course it is dark in there, so many fewer species of butterflies. But some goodies. This is a very interesting place, due to the mix of habitats. The riverside trail turns out to be the most productive, especially for metalmarks/riodinids. We find a number of new species right next to the river, but they often don’t pose. We do get a number of gorgeous ones, Willie scores w/a lovely shot of Nymphidium mantus, a brilliant blue sparkly one, and we have 3 species of Anteros and Sarotas, or Jewelmarks. The trail is in the area that floods frequently, so it’s very wet and muddy.
Day 9 – Jan 17: On our 5th and final morning we were going to have to hike out the 1-2 kms of uphill trail, using the horse to haul all our luggage, but plans changed, as they have a tendency to do here. In the night it started to rain lightly, and about 5 am, when we got up, it was pouring. We waited in our cabin, at the top of some very slippery, muddy stairs, but the rain didn’t let up, so we started to haul stuff down. Good thing we came down when we did, as w/in half an hour the water had risen so quickly our bridge became impassible. Fortunately the guys have helped schlep the luggage, but now it’s too slippery to walk out, plus the rising water even cuts off the main trail, and the river’s too high to bring a boat.
When we came in the river was too low for a boat, so I guess there’s a fairly narrow window when it is possible for one of the open water taxis to make it to the lodge. So we wait….and wait….and wait some more. It quits raining about 10am, and the river starts to drop about 11:30, but it has come up maybe 15-20 feet! An amazing rise in a very short time. It drops quickly, but now it is up to the boatman from town to decide when it is safe to take us.
About 4pm, the people at the lodge decide we should start hauling out luggage w/the horse, but the horse has other ideas. He runs away and slips on the mud and falls into the river, where he barely manages to swim across, against the raging current, to the other side in the forest and takes off. So no luggage carrier. We finally get to town about 6pm, by boat for 30,000 pesos, where our faithful driver has been waiting since 6am, our originally scheduled departure. Cell phone service doesn’t work in the riverside town, so he’s had no way of knowing our plans. But now we’re all together and take off, for our “6-7 hour drive” to the Cerulean Warbler reserve. Of course, this turns into another adventure, where we are directed to the wrong road by the police at a checkpoint, and we end up driving down an interminable rocky road in the mountains from midnight to 3am, no one to ask for directions and can’t even use the phone.
Finally we’re able to get hold of the guy from the reserve who is meeting us at San Vincente to take us the final 5 km uphill, and find out we have taken the long scenic roundabout approach. But we finally make it and get into bed about 4am, 23 hours after we got up that morning. Driving around Colombia isn’t for the faint of heart. There are almost no signs, and even the driver often has no idea where to go. So you use Colombia mapquest and stop and ask the next guy on the street. Of course you have no idea if he tells you accurate information or not, so it’s a roll of the dice.
Day 10 – Jan 18: at Cerulean Warbler Reserve, in the Departamento de Santander at 1400 meters, above the town of San Vicente de Chucuri. Another lodge where you have to drive to the nearest little town then transfer to a jeep to pull the last 5-10 km steep uphill road. A very pleasant and airy little lodge, a comfortable row of 4 rooms w/a shared balcony overlooking a nice garden and hillside, w/a great view across to the central andes to the west. It’s wonderful to be out of the killer humidity of the lowlands, and we all enjoy it. Plus the food is much better here, don’t know why as it’s much the same. Eggs w/tomatoes and onions, melba toast and white goat cheese, but it tastes really good here. Maybe we’re just hungry, as we missed dinner the long night before. And they have fresh papaya! The first fresh fruit we’ve seen in many days.
For some weird reason Colombia seems to be the only latin country that doesn’t serve lots of fruit. We live on mystery meat and starches, which get very boring very quickly. No desserts, no fruit, very few vegetable, not much chicken, but all the rice, lentils, yucca, potatoes you can eat, and a bit of not very good meat. We all lost weight on our July trip here, and hopefully that will be the same now. But it would be nice if they could upgrade the meals a bit.
We spend most of the day, when we finally get up, around the gardens and on the balcony, and get lots of very nice birds. They have a hummingbird feeder here, which is great, we have indigo-capped and steely vented hummers, plus our big score is found by Dan, who has turquoise dacnis in a fruiting right in front of the balcony, male and female. Fog rolls in by mid morning, so we don’t have many butterflies, and what we do have is common, open pasture stuff, like white and red peacocks, but we enjoy the restful day and recover from the day before.
Day 11 – Jan 19: We plan to hike uphill (of course) to the forest reserve. Breakfast at 5:30, leave at 6am. Unfortunately there is more heavy rain throughout the night, and it’s raining when we get up. The local guide, Me-shal (maybe Michael?) at the reserve doesn’t want to take us up to the high forest, as the trail is very rocky and slippery, covered w/moss. He recommends going on a drier day, hopefully tomorrow. So he takes us on another dirt track through shade grown coffee, much of it being planted by ProAves. There are many flowering plants on the road, which looks very good for butterflies if we had some sun. But the rain comes back as we get to a small patch of forest about a mile up the road, and decide to return to the lodge.
The trail cuts down into the forest and it gets very steep quickly, and is extremely slippery in the rain. You need to have the legs of a mountain goat to walk these trails. The locals who have grown up here do it a lot better than out of shape older gringos, it would be very easy to fall and seriously hurt yourself. So another late morning on the porch, hoping it clears this afternoon. We do get a couple of good shots of some satyrs and dismorphia. One advantage of bad weather is you don’t see much, but what you find often sits still for photos, as they don’t want to fly from their shelter. But sun would be much better. Michael, the guide, says this is the sunny time of the year, in January and February, and this is unusual (of course) but there’s not much we can do about the rain.
We have an early lunch, and then miraculously it starts to clear, so some of us wander out. I go back up to the small patch of forest we went to this morning and get lots of good photos all along the road. The sun breaks through about 1pm, and suddenly there are butterflies everywhere. Not a huge number of different species, but lots of individuals. Many different satyrs, including a beautiful fresh Pronophila which we catch and shoot in the hand, so we can see the dorsal. Mexican silverspots hilltopping over the coffee, my first Memphis on the trip, almost everything I see is quite fresh. Lots and lots of the small Apaustus gracilis, or Delicate Skipper, a very striking skipper that is half bright white on the ventral hindwing, so when it flies it seems to flicker off and on.
I’ve never seen as many as we have here, they are all over the flowers on the roadside. ProAves is planting many trees around here and over the coffee, so this will be a great spot in a few years as all the plants grow up. There is a good sized nursery here, with racks and racks of seedlings growing. ProAves bought this land only 3 years ago, and it is amazing what they have accomplished in such a short time. Right now the lodge is in mostly open pasture and the forest is visible a few hill tops away, but I think that will change as time goes by. Shade grown coffee is very good for birds, and butterflies too. In this preserve Michael tells me they have 200 hectares of bosque, or forest, and 26 hectares of coffee. Plus ProAves has purchased a much larger chunk of forest on the nearby ridge, over 3600 hectares, where they have the big cats and spectacled bear. They have many long term plans. They are just starting to get into ecotourism, where they have paying visitors to their reserves and are building accomodations, so they are still on a learning curve as to what visitors want. But they are all eager to please. Almost all of the people we have met working at the lodges are from the local towns, so ProAves is obviously trying hard to involve the local people and show them some of the advantages of conservation. No one at the lodges speaks english, so usually ProAves sends a bilingual guide w/a group, but several of us speak enough survival spanish to go without.
Day 12 – Jan 20: Another rainy night and morning, so we put off the hike to the forest yet again. This is the weirdest weather I’ve ever seen, with heavy rains at night and into the morning, then it usually clears about 11 or 12 and the afternoons can be very sunny and beautiful. As soon as it brightens up the butterflies are out, as they seem to know they only have a few hours to do what needs to be done. I’m much more used to clear sunny mornings, with a build up of clouds in the afternoon and heavy rains late in the day, but this seems backwards. But then, it’s not supposed to be the rainy season!
Today we have an early lunch, at 11am, and it lightens up a bit, so we set off after lunch for the hike up to the forest. You go down to the main road, around the farm at the corner and up through a gate on an old stone road. Michael tells us this road was built by the Germans 180 years ago, and was the only road connecting these towns, from the lowlands to the highlands. The rocks have spread apart and can be quite slippery, so you have to pay attention to where you put your feet.
We climb about 250 meters in an hour, from 1400 at the lodge to 1650 where the forest starts. It’s amazing how the woods just start in a line of tree ferns, w/pasture right up to the edge. The rocky road continues into the forest, where the rocks are all covered w/moss. We learn to step in between the stones, or to walk on stones that have moss. The most slippery ones are where the moss has been scraped off the stones, then it’s like walking on glass. You can rent horses or mules to ride up to the forest, but we decide to walk. It takes us about an hour, though the guide says 40 minutes, not bad for us.
We climb in the forest up another 100-200 meters, to a bit over 1800 meters, finding several flocks. Our best bird is great looks at white-mantled barbet, 4 of them in a fruiting tree right over the path. Lots of North American warblers, and some nice cloud forest neotropic warblers as well. You could easily spend the entire day here in the forest. The normal plan is to leave the lodge at 6am so you’re in the forest by 7, and you would see lots of birds then, assuming it’s not pouring with rain. We also find some nice butterflies, but it is cool and foggy most of the afternoon, so butterflies are limited. We get good shots of a beautiful clearwinged satyr, Pseudohaetera hypaesia, and see some Necryia metalmarks and another black and red metalmark, maybe an Ancyluris, though they are perching on top of the bushes so we can’t get good looks at them.
This is a lovely piece of forest. I will have to come back and hopefully get some sunny days, maybe in February. The guys tell us this is the wettest January they can remember, this is supposed to be their summer. Maybe another year.
Day 13 – Jan 21: 6:30am departure for our 3 hour drive to Bucaramanga for our 11am flight to Medellin, then 4-5 hour drive to the Chestnut-capped Piha reserve, or Arrierito Antioqueño. All connections work like clockwork, drivers are waiting even though our driver to the Piha reserve doesn’t know where it is, but she only gets lost once. There aren’t any signs, so you need to know which turns to make, and we finally get here about 6pm. Delicious food, we’ve heard this reserve has the best cook, and dinner seems to support that. The Cerulean reserve had quite good food, but this is even better.
They have recently redone the rooms, and there are 4 doubles, very spacious w/lots of shelves. They usually have one double bed and a set of bunk beds. We have a tropical screech owl calling during dinner, and Carlos, the guide here, tells us they have lyre-tailed nightjar in the road early in the morning.
Day 14 – Jan 22: 5:30am breakfast so we can look for birds from their clearing, w/bananas stuck on the branches. There are a number of tanagers and saltators who come in for bananas, one new for all of us is black-winged saltator.
After breakfast we head up into the forest, a short distance down the road up to the right. The trail climbs steeply at first, then it’s not so bad, but you continue to climb more gradually. Lots of stairs, with a number of very sturdy handrails and bridges. Carlos, the guide, is the one who has built and maintains these trails, and has done a bangup job. These are some of the nicest trails I’ve been on, with rich heavy spongy detritous under foot which makes for comfortable walking, in spite of the up and downs. He also knows the birds and can whistle many of their calls, and knows the rarities that visitors are most interested in. He finds us a quiet, steathily feeding flock of red-bellied grackles and we get killer looks, plus chestnut crowned pihas and several of the spectacular tangers, like black and gold tanager and purple-mantled tanager. He also shows us a nest of colombian screech owl which is right next to the trail, w/in inches.
I’ve never been so close to an owl nest before, and the beautiful rufous female glares back at us from inches, about 2 feet off the ground inside a hollow trunk. Very few butterflies, as it’s cool and overcast, but it doesn’t rain until just before we get back to the lodge for a late lunch. We do find a wonderful clearwing with a yellow band and some yellow spots, maybe Greta ochretis, certainly one I’ve never seen. It poses for many photos, most cooperative.
Day 15 – Jan 23: Nancy and I luck out and see lyre-tailed nightjar fly overhead before 6am, while sitting out on their back clearing after Carlos whistles it in. Mucho suerte! We also hear wattled guan giving their weird metallic call from up on the hill, and Carlos says he knows a fruiting tree they like, so we may try to see them late this afternoon. He says 5 am or 6 pm.
After breakfast we walk up the road to the cienega or lake about 30 minutes, of course we take a few hours as we’re birding all the way. Several nice flocks, and one big one with dozens and dozens of birds, all apparently different, so it’s mad chaos while we follow the flock down the road and everyone seems to look at a different bird. Very little traffic, which is great, and good views of the trees, so we have a blast. Tons of tanagers, lots of north american warblers, white crowned manakin, brown-billed scythbill responding to Carlos’ whistle, more good looks at a piha, lots of fun.
Like the other lodges, Carlos and his wife Luz only speak spanish, but he’s very imaginative with showing the birds to my friends who don’t speak spanish, drawing little maps or sketches in his book. Dan and I speak enough spanish to get by and to communicate our needs and wants, but the others speak very little.
We continue on up the road to another batch of forest owned by ProAves, about 250 hectares more along the road, so you’re walking through decent habitat. Around the lodge, which is an old farmhouse, they have about 150 hectares. There is another trail about 10 minutes beyond the lake, but it’s steep and goes through pasture for a ways before you get to forest, so we stay on the road and get more tanager flocks, including some eye level views of spectacled tanagers very close. Plus we even get a few nice butterflies when the sun peaks out here and there. Dappled Daggerwing/Marpesia merops, White-spotted Metalmark/Ithomiola theages and Clean Mimic-white/Pseudopieris nehemia, all very fresh.
This road looks like it could be great with sunny weather. Carlos says August is the best time for butterflies. They get heavy rains then, but also bright sun after the rains, and lots of butterflies. Looks like I’ll be coming back in August. Late afternoon we hiked up w/Carlos to find the fruiting tree where the wattled guans like to eat. He led us right to it, and there were 3 guans high up. 2 of them flew off as we slid across the hill to where we had a good view, but one stayed. It’s a huge bird. Unfortunately it started to rain, again, and became a fairly heavy rain, and some of us had not brought umbrellas so we were soaked. Carlos says they come every afternoon to this tree, and there were gold-headed quetzals there as well.
Day 16 – Jan 24: I went back up the hill into the forest today, while the others walked the road. Very few butterflies, but some good birds. I got sooty-headed wren and moustached puffbird. When I came back for lunch the others had photographed some good butterflies on the road, a new Mylon and a fresh Oxeoschistus satyr. This place has had the fewest butterflies, which seems odd as the forest looks quite good. They must be better at another time of the year. I’m wondering if Aug/Sept/Oct might be a better time, as that can be very good at Cock of the Rock lodge on the Cusco-Manu road in southeast Peru. Late in the afternoon we went back to see the wattled guans again, and got good looks at a male. Plus we saw lanceolated monklet and white whiskered puffbird, so the birding was great.
Day 17 – Jan 25: our driver comes back to get us about 9:30am, then we drive back to Medellin for the night. We’ll stop at the same tasty restaurant for a late lunch. The drive should take about 5 hours. Our driver is right on time, amazing as she drove from Medellin.
We get to our hotel in town, Hotel Casa Asturias, which is nice and quiet. It’s in an upscale part of town, and there is a fabulous grocery store only a couple of blocks away called Pomona. It seems like a Central Market from Austin or San Antonio, and we buy wine and cheese and lots of goodies. Plus they have a Crepes y Waffles right next door, so guess where we go for dinner? More pigging out.
Another very tasty restaurant near by is an italian place called Pastaizzita?, both restaurants recommended by Pablo. The salads are ok to eat at both, and the vegetarian pizza is one of the best I’ve ever had. For the italian place go to Pomona and turn left, while Crepes y Waffles is next to the store to the right. Crepes y Waffles is a Colombian chain I’ve eaten at in Ecuador and Panama, I wish they would come to the US.
Day 18 – Jan 26: our 2 taxis show up at 7:30am to take us the 3 hours to Jardin, where we meet our guide for the next 4 days, Jose. We have arranged the rest of the trip with Pablo Flores, the great guy who we used in July 2008. He does a lot of work for different conservation organizations on cerulean warbler in Venezuela and Peru, as well as Colombia. His friend Jose lives in Jardin, so he meets us at the hotel there, Hotel Hacienda Balandú, about 2 km outside of town.
This is an old coffee and cattle ranch, and they have all sorts of old equipment and animals around. It’s a popular weekend retreat for folks from Medellin, which is why we’re here Monday to Friday. It includes 3 meals/day, and our lunch is quite tasty, including coffee flan, which is a life flan for all of us. Delicious! The butterflies are great too, the best we’ve had this trip. There is a good dirt road running along the back of the hacienda, and we go out through a locked gate the guard opens for us, and find tons of bugs flying. It stays sunny all day, which is a miracle, and we photograph lots of things. We’re at 1800 meters, so we have a very interesting mix of lowland crescents, 5-6 species, and highland dismorphia and satyrs.
Day 19 - Jan 27: Jose and his wife, Savina, are here to get us in a jeep at 8am, after the 7:30 breakfast, and we head back down the valley and take a dirt road down to the river, left off the main paved road. This cuts down through coffee and small fincas, where we park and walk the rest of the morning. We work our way all the way down to 1500 meters, from 1800 in town, to a stone bridge over the water, then up the muddy other side. There are lots of butterflies all morning long, many skippers including some new ones I don’t know, plus lots of pierids and 2 beautiful Colombian heliconius, the blue and yellow Heliconius erato chestertonii and H. cydno cydnides.
Up the other slope we find a nice clearwing lek, where there are many tigerwings chasing each other and perching on the coffee in the shade. The coffee pickers must think we’re nuts as we try to get photos, and their little dog keeps lurking around and barking, even though the guys keep calling it away. Guess he’s never seen anything like gringos photographing butterflies.
There are also lots of Melanis metalmarks and a few other new ones, so we have a great morning.
Back to the hotel for lunch, then we go out again in the jeep, this time we go up to about 2000 meters and walk another nice dirt road that leads to microwave antennae towers, called Alto de Ventanas. This ends up on a spectacular ridge where we can see down both sides, to Jardin on our right nestled in the valley below and the San Bartolo valley to our left, where we can see ridge after ridge leading up the peaks of the western andes, truly a magnificent vista.
We watch the sun gradually set and the light changes constantly as the afternoon goes on, it feels as if we’re walking through a painting, with white collared swifts bombing over our heads so close you can hear them cut through the air. Jose says in late February/early March you can see the yellow eared parrots here, as there are croton trees with fruits that they like. What a spot for a B and B!
The trail cuts around to the left across the hills, and you could keep walking to more forest, but we run out of time and have to turn around and head back to town. Past the towers, we go through a gate at a farm, owned by Hymie’s parents, and get far enough out to see many bushes of red flowering plants that the hummingbirds are fighting over, and sort out several species of hummers. Mostly green violetears ticking from every bush, but violet throated woodstar and speckled hummer as well.
Day 20 – Jan 28: today we go for the yellow-eared parrot, in another ProAves reserve up the mountain about 2,800 meters, 1,000 meters above Jardin. We spend all day, taking a pack lunch from the hotel, working the dirt road up in our jeep, walking a lot. This is nice cloud forest, and we find some flocks of tanagers and other goodies. We get to the parrot roosting area late in the afternoon and have to slog through a high elevation palm swamp to get into the parrot spot. 3 of them fly around and we get good looks, a spectacular large parrot more like a macaw. ProAves has put up nesting boxes in some palms and the birds like to sleep inside them. Dan even gets some decent digiscope shots of parrots in the box w/their heads sticking out, but they don’t come in until 6pm, so it is getting dark then. Of course then we have to ride back down the hill an hour and a half or more, so we’re late getting back to the hotel, but we see a red brocket deer on the road in the headlights and get great looks at it.
Day 21 - Jan 29: We decide to go back up the mountain, as that was the best habitat and our only chance this trip for higher elevations. This time we drive to the top, to the parrot reserve, where a parrot flies overhead as we arrive. Then we spend the day slowly working our way back downhill, walking much of the 20 km or so with the jeep following behind. We get some rain, but more nice birds, including close looks at white-capped tanagers below us. This would be a fabulous spot for some hummingbird feeders, like Yanocoche outside of Quito. Very little sun but as soon as it lightens up butterflies show up. We get good shots of some Corades and lots of Pedaliodes, along with several species of Leptophobia, all high elevations genera. We end the afternoon at the plaza in town having an excellent cappuchino, this traveling is rough.
Day 22 – Jan 30: 2 taxis pick us up at 7:30 for our drive back to Medellin, but Jose has told us about a chocolate shop Dulces de Jardin. He has arranged for the owner to meet us there early, so we direct the taxis to the store, first left past the stadium on our way into town from the hotel. The owner is there waiting, and it’s a lovely little shop with all sorts of truffles and fruit candies. We buy lots, 4-5,000 pesos a box, about $2-2.50, such a deal! My favorite is the piña y mango, but the chocolate con almendras (nuts and coffee) is a big hit as well.
Then it’s off to Amaga, a private finca where the guys from Medellin often go birding. We went here in July and it was a great butterfly spot, but extremely wet as it’s cattle pasture with forest in between the pasture parts. Now it’s much drier and there are fewer butterflies, but some different species. Still a good spot for rubber boots, as drier just means the mud only goes to your ankles instead of your knees.
There are cattle in the fields now, and the grass and flowers are chewed down as compared to July, but there are still several species of clearwings down in the darker ravines and in the forest. Juan Guillermo, a butterfly photographer who lives in Medellin and has sent me some wonderful photos, tells me he has 170 species photographed from this location. We find 3 new species he has not seen there, so it shows how varied the population can be week to week. He was just here 2 weeks ago.
Then we have our favorite arepas con chocolo, w/high elevation corn, and good café con leche at the little restaurant back up on the highway at Paso Nivel and head into Medellin to the Casa Asturias. The taxis cost about 250,000 pesos roundtrip Medellin to Jardin for both of them, plus an additional 100,000 pesos to wait 3-4 hours while we tromp around in the mud butterflying.
Day 23 – Jan 31: We go to La Romera road with Pablo, Juan G. and Luis, another Medellin birder. This is another spot we went in July, unfortunately it’s cool and wet this morning. This is the locals’ favorite spot for red-bellied grackles, which we missed in July, but we get very close looks this time. Plus most of us get good looks at yellow-headed manakin, unfortunately not me as I was shooting a fabulous bronzy purplewing/Eunica carias.
The sun finally starts to show up about noon, and we start seeing butterflies. We get some great shots of our first leafwings of the trip, beautiful spread Fountainea nessus and some nice Actinotes, as well as 2 species of Pyrrhopyge/Firetips. The guys take us to their favorite grill restaurant nearby, and we pig out once again, good steaks and ribs. We’ve had better food on this trip than in July, I’m afraid we’re not losing any weight this time.
Day 24 – Feb 1: our 1 hour flight from Medellin to Bahia-Solana which was supposed to take off at 8am had a 6 hour delay, so we didn’t leave until after 2pm. We flew Satena, and apparently this isn’t uncommon for them, as when we finally boarded they handed out preprinted cards saying please excuse the delay. It will be interesting to see what happens on our way back, as we only have an hour layover in Medellin to catch our flight onto Bogota. Satena had already cancelled our original return flight for Feb 5 a few weeks before, so we had a choice of returning on the 4th or the 6th, and we chose the 6th. We shall see.
Arriving in Bahia-Solana was interesting, as there was a heavy military presence and they inspected all our luggage, both carry on and checked. Of course this took a lot of time, so hours later we were finally ready to get in our toyota for the slow bouncy ride to the hotel, an hour away. The luggage was all piled on top, none of it fell off amazingly, and it didn’t rain until after we were in our cabanas, a true blessing as the driver didn’t have a tarp. He seemed amazed when we asked. What’s a little rain?
So what should have been a short hop turned into an all day marathon. But the simple hotel www.elalmejal.com.co seems very nice and is right on the beach, with 5 or 6 cabanas, each with 2 bedrooms and a shared bath between the bedrooms, nice porches and lots of electrical outlets, more by far than any other place we’ve stayed. Funny the things you pay attention to. We get a 2 bedroom cabana for each couple, so we have plenty of room. It’s warm and humid, but they have 2 strong portable fans in each cabana, mosquito nets over the beds, and the cold water shower feels refreshing and the food, mostly fish, is fresh and quite tasty.
Day 25 – Feb 2: we explore the trails at El Almejal, then take a truck back through the town of El Valle and a couple of kms to a side road, where we hike along looking for bugs. This is all second growth and fairly open, with standing water next to the road. Kay finds a great bright orange and black riodinid, Symmachia xypete, which hides under the leaves but lets us shoot it to our hearts content. Willie sees baudo oropendola fly over, and we get a couple of good flocks with becards, tanagers and black cheeked woodpeckers. Slaty antthrush is singing from the bushes but we can’t see it, even though it is very close. We walk to the river, which has big mud flats that should have butterflies but don’t. Weird how few bugs are here.
Day 26 – Feb 3: the death march to the baudo oropendola nest. It was ‘only’ 4 km to the nest tree, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you do it in thick gooey mud which sucks at every step it’s pretty tiring. Of course we had to do 4 km each way.
We did make it to the nests and got great looks at the birds, and it was nice secondary forest once we got past the chopped parts near the town, but we were pooped at the end of the day. It didn’t help that the jeep that was supposed to pick us up at our hotel and take us a couple of km to the footbridge where the trail started first was late, then stopped a few hundred yards from the hotel (probably out of gas) so we had to walk the extra couple of km to start. The surprising thing was that we saw very few butterflies, even though we had a nice sunny day. It was good looking forest, sun, just not many butterflies. We did get some, and a few new metalmarks for me, but I would have expected lots more in such habitat.
I suspect this area is so wet there aren’t large numbers of butterflies here. We weren’t even seeing many red peacocks or hermes satyrs in the open areas. Pablo had hired a local guide, Carlos, who was probably an ex hunter, and he had fabulous eyes for anything that moved. He found us black-tipped or white cotinga, oropendolas, stripe-throated wren, killer looks at rose-faced parrot very close to town, plus he carried a 5 liter plastic jug of water so we could refill our water bottles. I drank 3 bottles of water and was still dehydrated, it was hot and sweaty work.
Carlos cost 60,000 pesos, and was well worth it, plus 10,000 to hire another truck to bring us home from the bridge. We rebelled, and declared we couldn’t walk the couple of km back through the village and on the beach to our hotel. We would probably have paid 10,000 each for the ride.
Day 27 – Feb 4: woke up to heavy rains, so we waited a while for it to stop before taking our small open wooden boat on a 45 minute ride around the point and into the ensenada or bay up to the National Park Natural Utria. We lucked out on the rains stopping, as it would have been most uncomfortable in rain, and we would have been soaked. It rains so much here the local people can’t imagine not doing something because it’s raining, as they would never do anything if they let the rain stop them, but we’re wimps and don’t want to be wet all day, plus we’re carrying lots of optics and cameras.
The boat trip was 440,000 pesos for 9 people, and the 2 boatmen waited with us all day. They came and picked us up in the ocean right in front of our hotel, and launched us into the waves, but they knew what they were doing and it went just fine. It would have been more expensive if we had hired the boat through the hotel, which wanted 650,000. Pablo arranged our boat through the National Park people. They took us to the headquarters up the bay, where they had built a very nice new building in August 2008, where they served us a delicious fish (big surprise) lunch freshly caught for 15,000 pesos/person.
The entrance fee to the park is $US14, or 30,000 pesos each. This is good for several days, so if you stay a few nights you only have to pay it once. We were just doing a day trip. You can stay in some simple but quite adequate accommodations there, 2 beds/room w/a private shower/toilet for 95,000 pesos/person, which includes 3 meals. You had better like fish, as we didn’t see many cows or chickens.
There are 3 trails and we walked 2 of them. The best was the short trail to the mangroves, which were at extreme low tide. I’ve never seen mangroves without any water around them, and we walked in amongst the exposed roots with our heads below where the high tide mark was. The mangroves were blooming and they were filled with hummingbirds fighting. We had sapphire-throated and blue-headed hummers, plus lots of rufous-tailed. There was a great lek of golden-collared manakins on the way to the mangrove, which was very active, must have had a dozen males zipping around and cracking and popping like crazy. We also walked part of another trail, which goes down the beach and up a stream that comes out on the end of the beach. This was dark, slippery, and required wading up through the water, and I wouldn’t recommend it, but it was beautiful.
The 3rd trail requires taking a boat across the bay to the other small building, where you walk into the forest and over a small pass to the beach on the other side. Pablo says it takes 45 minutes to walk it, I would guess quite a bit more for out of shape gringos, but he says it’s not a tough trail. This one has the best birds, but it was so dark and muddy we decided to pass. On the way back Willie spotted a close king vulture perched, and the boatmen went close to the tree covered cliff and we got excellent looks, the best I’ve ever had of this species. Then he took off from his perch and soared around the bay against the dark green forest, it was a killer look.
The scenery on the boat trip was spectacular, tall steep mountains of wonderful forest right down to the water’s edge. Very few people live here, except in the small Caribbean style town of El Valle, about 10-15 minutes from our hotel. The El Almejal, where we stayed, is the best in the area, according to Pablo, and we didn’t see anything to make us doubt him.
Day 28 – Feb 5: our last day in the Choco, and of course it rains until about 10am. Then we spend some time up the hill above the hotel cabanas, where they have several lookouts, thatched palapas with good views for whale watching. In September to December they have humpbacked whales here, and are trying to promote it as an ecotourism venture. Their busy season is December over the holidays, but the rest of the year it’s pretty quiet. The lookouts are good for raptors as well. We see white hawk and crested eagle, the eagles almost every day, which is not an easy bird to see. Lots of honeycreepers and dusky-faced tanagers and other tanager flocks, so it’s always worth it to spend some time at the lookouts. Besides the scenery is very enjoyable.
Day 29 – Feb 6: we have to be at the airport at 11 for our 1pm departure. I see why they want us there so early for a short domestic flight when it takes forever to check in. 3 women spend 10 minutes on each passenger, but we manage to get it done. They have a strict weight limit on this flight of 15 kilos, or about 33 pounds, so we stuff all our heavy items, like optics and books, in our carryon backpacks and stagger on board. There is also a 7,000 pesos departure fee you have to pay.
The plane coming from Medellin never arrives by 1pm, but fortunately for us, not for the other passengers, another plane has come in and is supposed to go to another destination. However that airport is on strike for some reason, so they divert that plane to the Medellin flight, and we get out relatively on time. We make our short connection to the Bogota flight, and the Hotel Siar is there waiting to pick us up, so all works well.
The airport pickup is 30,000, whether it is for 1 person or 8, in cash, but you can use credit cards for the hotel. Next time I would not plan to have an ongoing flight, but would stay in Medellin. With the undependability of the flights it makes things easier to have more of a fudge factor built into your travel plans. My friends are all heading back home either tonight or tomorrow, while I’m staying on in Bogota to spend a few days at the National University collection working with specimens.
Additional information on ProAves reserves:
We have visited 5 of them on this trip, and stayed at 3, plus seen the one in the Santa Marta Mountains. Here’s more details on each one. One thing to be aware of is they don’t seem to stock any alcohol, beer or soft drinks at any of the reserves we have been to, so if you want something to drink aside from bottled water or the juice they serve at meals, or coffee/tea, plan to stop at a market on your way and stock up.
ProAves is doing great work in Colombia, buying lots of land for conservation, and staying with them helps them raise money for important work, as well as showing locals the importance of ecotourism. They have the common problem of difficult access to get to good habitat. If ecotourists have easy access, so do others who can chop and clear the land. So most of the reserves are up at the end of difficult steep muddy roads that take time, and usually a serious jeep type vehicle, to get to. The trails are often also steep and muddy and not easy to watch birds from. You’re often hiking up trails at altitude, sometimes 2,000 to 2,500 meters or higher, so if high elevation bothers you don’t come to Colombia. And we were only at mid elevations.
El Dorado, Santa Marta Mountains, 1900 meters up a bad 4 wheel drive road, about 2 hours from Santa Marta. I think it’s $85-100/night/person, includes all meals. This is a lovely place, nice sized rooms with big picture windows looking down the valley, hot water by propane so even if you lose electricity you still have hot water. An important point, as the national park lodge up the road, San Lorenzo, (where we stayed in July 2008) only had electrical showers, and as we lost power every day due to thunderstorms, it made for freezing showers. I have not stayed at El Dorado, but will be using this lodge on my next trip to Colombia.
The birders here tell me the higher lodge is closer to the great birds, as there are about 13 endemics here in the Santa Martas, but with a truck you can get dropped off at the top, about 2600 meters, and walk down. Or you can walk up as well, but it will take a few hours, more than I would want to do. We walked up from the higher lodge, starting at 2200 meters, and it was more than enough for us. There is lots of good habitat below the lodge as well, in slightly lower elevations, so you could easily spend several days here. There are few trails off the road, but just walking the road up or down takes you through great habitat.
Golden Frog reserve at Falan, in Tolima, about 4-5 hours west of Bogota. There isn’t any infrastructure at this reserve yet, as it’s very new. You just walk the dirt road that goes through the middle of it, and it’s about a 3 hour drive from the San Felipe Hotel, down on the main highway from Mariquita. There is another hotel up in Falan, but for some reason we didn’t stay there. They may not have had enough rooms, as we were a group of 8. 3 hours each way is a long day for walking along a road a mile or so, but the forest was quite good there, lots of blooming shrubs on the road and lots of butterflies. I don’t think this would be very good for birds however. Very steep hills up and down from the road, so we didn’t get off the road at all.
El Paujil reserve, outside Puerto Ponzon about 2 hours from Puerto Boyaca. This is a lowland location, very hot and humid, about 250 meters at the lodge. The access is difficult here. You have to drive about 1.5 hours on a dirt road once you get off the paved highway, and it’s through open cattle pasture, so it’s boring. Depending on the rains the road can be bad. Once you get to Puerto Ponzon you have to either take a boat, if the river is not too low or too high, or transfer to a truck or jeep for the 15 minute ride. The boat cost 30,000 pesos, the truck is included I think. The problem is the rains can raise the river very quickly. We were stuck 12 hours before we could get out, due to heavy rains starting 5 am on our departure day. Everything flooded, and we couldn’t walk out to the truck either.
If you come by truck you have to walk about a kilometer or so downhill on a slippery trail. This means that you have to walk up if you have to leave this way. They have 1 horse to carry the baggage, but if you’re a larger group this can mean several trips by horse. Fairly time consuming. The rooms are right next to the river where it floods, it is a wet varzia forest, and full of riodinids/metalmarks. Also the 2 newer rooms are built on a separate hill, with very steep muddy steps, and when the river rises it can cut off the bamboo bridge to them, so the rooms must be inaccesible much of the year.
There are many trails, mostly leading up away from the rooms. The trails seem to fan out from the lodge up the valley, so the lodge is at the bottom of a bowl. We did not see the blue-billed curassow, and we were told they can be difficult. This is probably the best reserve for butterflies, because it is low and tropical. But that also means it is hot and uncomfortable, with everything wet all the time. The food was the least interesting here, compared to the other reserves, and the staff seemed the youngest and least knowledgeable. No one knew diddly squat about the birds, while the other 2 reserves we stayed at had a guide who was very familiar with the local birds. They were very friendly and willing to try and help, but you had to ask for everything, and maintenance seemed to be a problem. I probably won’t go back to this reserve, as there are other places to see lowland stuff more easily.
Cerulean Warbler Reserve, above San Vicente de Chucuri, about 3 hours from Bucaramanga. You can fly to Bucaramanga, which avoids a long all day drive from Bogota, 12 hours +. From El Paujil, which is what we did, it was about 8-9 hours drive. Maybe shorter, because we got lost in the middle of the night. But it’s much more comfortable, because it’s about 1400 meters and has a very pretty view down the valley. There are 4 good sized rooms with a shared porch, plus some other rooms inside the main building.
The very nice couple, Michael and Isabel, who do the cooking and guiding were friendly and helpful. Tasty food! Jose was there as well, as the manager, and everything was well run. Michael led us on hikes, and was familiar with the birds. The main dirt road that leads on up the hill from the lodge is good for butterflies, through shade grown coffee so there’s lots of flowers alongside the road. You get some higher elevation satyrs, like Pronophila, and a good mix of second growth species. The main trail is up to the right, behind the farm below the lodge, about 250 meters climb to the patch of forest. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to get up to the forest, through cattle pasture. You hike an old rocky road built 180 years ago, which can be very slippery and mossy, especially once you get into the forest. The forest was quite interesting, unfortunately we had a cool wet day and went in the afternoon, after a morning of heavy rain. On a sunny day I suspect this could be great for wet, cloud forest butterflies that like darker forest. Good birds here, you could easily spend a day or two up in the forest. This one is worth going back to.
Chestnut capped Piha reserve, 4-5 hours north of Medellin. We flew from Bucaramanga to Medellin, avoiding an 18 hour, 2 day, drive. 259,000 pesos on Aires, about $115 one way. This reserve had the best birding of the ones we visited, and the couple who runs it, Carlos and Luz Marina, were fabulous. The best food, and Carlos is a whiz at finding birds. He knows all the calls, and can whistle them in. Plus you have decent habitat right around the rooms, and the road is very good to work. He has built the trails up and down steep hills, which were extremely well maintained.
The best trails we saw, an amazing amount of work. He seemed to know every inch of the trails, where birds were nesting, where the fruiting trees were, he obviously spends lots of time out on the trails. He showed us wattled guan easily because he knew the trees they were eating in. He told us we could go at 5 am or 6 pm, and the birds were there 2 days in a row. There are a couple of trails, the main one is quite long, or you can walk the dirt road which is easier to see birds on. Very little traffic, so walking the road is a good option. There is another patch of forest owned by ProAves a little ways up the road, maybe 30-40 minutes, which is also good for roadside birding. There is a trail that goes off road into this patch, which we did not take as Carlos said it was about a 30 minute hike to get into the forest. We stayed on the road which had forest alongside, and saw tanager flocks and butterflies.
We had cool rainy foggy weather, the fog seemd to roll in and out every 10 minutes, so it rarely was warm and sunny enough for butterflies, but with some sun I suspect there are lots of good cloud forest butterflies there. I’ll definitely be back. This was our best birding of the reserves.
Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve, above Jardin, about 3 hours sw of Medellin. I think you can stay at simple accomodations here, but we stayed in Jardin and made an all day trip of it up the mountain. The reserve is at 2,800 meters, 1,000 meters above Jardin, which is a lovely little coffee town of about 8,000 people with a great plaza lined with coffee shops where the locals appear to spend much of their time just hanging out.
Staying in Jardin seems much more comfortable than staying at the reserve, but it could be interesting to stay a night up on the mountain. The road was very interesting to work, several good tanager flocks. We spent 2 days on it and saw different birds each day, as much of it is good cloud forest. Of course doing it the way we did takes more money, as you have to have the jeep and driver with you for the day. The parrots themselves are away from the road and you have to slog through muddy grass and palm swamp. ProAves has a number of nesting boxes up for them, and Jose, our guide, has worked with the parrots for quite a few years.