Thursday, 23 August 2012

Monkeys at last

Our trip to Tayrona and Minca near Santa Marta in the north of Colombia was excellent for seeing spectacular wildlife. Best of all for me was finally getting to see monkeys in the wild. There are some species (I don't know what) on the in-laws farm, but I've not seen them there yet. We saw Red Howler Monkeys, the loudest land animal on Earth, in Tayrona National Park, near to the main trail. They were fairly calm and obliging and I had enough time to get the tripod sorted and get some digiscoped shots. I also took a short video of one individual which you can see on this link. Red Howler on Youtube. We also saw Red Howlers in the Proaves El Dorado bird reserve.

In Tayrona we got great views of the critically endangered Cotton-top Tamarin monkey (called Mono Tití in Colombia), a species endemic to Colombia. They were very curious and came quite close but sadly without the 'scope, the pictures were useless.

Near the hammocks where we stayed the night in the park were a family of Collared Aracari. My first ever toucan. I also saw my first Jacamar, the Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and my first Manakin, a hard to identify Lance-tailed Manakin (hard because it was a juvenile bird).

There were several herons on the beach, including this Little Blue Heron. I also had a few other new species in the woods near the beaches such as the spectacular Crimson-crested Woodpecker and the less spectacular Plain-brown Woodcreeper!

There were many colorful, but very quick lizards near the beach, some very large toads, and some giant grasshoppers as well as this huge millipede on the trail.

Minca was great for hummingbirds, some of which like this White-vented Plumeleteer were new to me. I was also well pleased with good views of the fantastic Keel-billed Toucans, Crested Oropendola and Black-chested Jays which were all new to me. The only problem was the horrible biting sandflies, which drew plenty of blood on our legs as we'd forgotten to put on repellent.

Also a great new bird to see was the Whooping Motmot, on the fruit feeders at Hotel Minca, where they also have many hummers on their feeders (when they've filled them!). Sadly I didn't get better shots of these birds.  

El Dorado reserve was fantastic. It was empty of people because we were "out of season" but it is packed with endemic species all year round. There is no doubt it is one of the best sites in Colombia if not the world for endemic birding - 19 species that only occur in this area. Sadly, the weather didn't help the birding or taking pictures but I did see amongst other birds the endemic Santa Marta Brush-finch (easy to see there), Colombian Brush-finch (on the compost heap), White-tailed Starfrontlet & Santa Marta Woodstar hummers and White-lored Warblers as well as other colorful "megas" like Emerald Toucanet, Masked Trogon and Strong-billed Woodcreeper. I felt very happy despite just a few hours on the reserve in poor weather. No doubt you could add dozens more great birds with a longer visit. The road is terrible though, it takes nearly 2 bone-shaking hours to get there from Minca. Probably best to stay at the lodge which looked excellent, and the food was great. 

Overall it was a fantastic trip with the monkeys and over 50 new species of birds for me. The only really problem was lack of time! 


We spent a fantastic week of holidays up on the Caribbean coast of Colombia; Cartagena, Parque Tayrona and the Santa Marta Mountains. The drive from Bucaramanga to Cartagena is very long and hot; about 12 hours, mostly around 30C, and although some of the roadside towns aren't very attractive, the countryside is really pleasant.

Cartagena de Indias is a large city with several faces; the old city, the modern skyscrapers lining the shore, and a busy commercial area inland. The walled old city is a UNESCO world heritage centre and you can see why it's popular with cruise ship visitors. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants and cafés, and most of the old buildings restored to good condition in bright colours. We visited the museum in the Casa de la Inquisición, which upstairs had some excellent displays explaining of the history of the original (exterminated) indigenous inhabitants, the slave trade, as well the colonial Spanish aspects of the city and it's fight for independence.

We also visited the iconic Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas fortress which overlooks the city. The statue is of Don Blas de Lezo, who looks like a classic peg-leg pirate, but was in fact the Spanish Admiral and governor of the city who led the successful defense against the major British attack on the in 1741. The city was well fortified and the British fleet, led by Admiral Vernon suffered a crushing defeat, despite their overwhelming force.

We then drove along the coast past Barranquilla, through the narrow strip of land between the sea and the huge Cienaga (Swamp) of Santa Marta, to the entrance of the beautiful Tayrona National Park. The park is situated on the coast and just below the Santa Marta mountains, and has fantastic sandy beaches as well as protecting coastal forests. Parking at Cañaveral, we walked about 1 hour to Arecifes where we rented comfortable hammocks for the night at about 5 pounds each. They had no mosquito nets, but fortunately I brought my own, so no bites at all for a change. Some of the parks facilities leave something to be desired, but it was well worth it. There were plenty of people on the path into the park, but they spread out, so it didn't feel crowded.

We took a great morning swim in the warm sea at "La Piscina" a beach where it's safe to swim & snorkel because of the surrounding reef. Other beaches have strong rip-tides and many people have drowned. It was a shame we only had 1 day in the park.

From Tayrona, we drove a short while to the small town of Minca, about 650m up in the Santa Marta mountains and about 15km from the city of Santa Marta. The town has a fresher climate than the coast, is surrounded by forests and small shade-coffee plantations and is making big efforts to become a major eco-tourism centre with reasonable quality accommodation, and good food. It has a friendly feel and is very peaceful compared to the big cities. It also has a several great waterfalls to visit. 

Driving up from Minca to the El Dorado bird reserve higher up in the mountains is an experience in itself; the road is the roughest I´ve ever driven, but our little 4x4 made it. The reserve lodge was very nice, with great food, but we missed out on any views of the mountains because of cloud and rain. We walked up towards the San Lorenzo ridge, but didn't have time to make it to the top. From there, if you are very lucky with the clouds, you can see Pico Bolivar and Pico Colon, the highest points in Colombia at around 5800m, covered with year-round snow. It was a great experience to visit the mountains, and again I wish we'd had more time there, though the weather was not always good. Apparently Dec-Feb is the best time to visit, with much more chance of clear, dry weather, but with global warming, Colombia's climate is much less predictable.

Of course the trip was great for animals and birds, and I'll put some pictures of those in the next blog entry.

Thursday, 2 August 2012


We decided to spend a few days in Boyacá, the neighboring department to the south of Santander. The drive from Bucaramanga is interesting, but takes some time due to the winding mountain roads. We split our time between historic points of interest and trying to see more of the nature. Boyacá has many towns higher in the mountains with a cool climate and it has some stunning scenery which looks a little different to Santander.

We stayed in Paipa, a small, pleasant town with many hotels offering thermal baths from the natural hot springs and it has a nice lake. At 2500m altitude it was a little chilly at night. It was good to walk around the lake and see the odd waterbird like Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot which I´ve not seen in Santander. The cooler climate and better roads of Boyacá mean that road cycling and running are popular. Paipa looks like a good base for some training, though I think the lake maybe too cold for comfortable open-water swimming.

Just outside the town is the stunningly restored Casona del Salitre, a national monument and also a hotel. It was very quiet when we visited and is a superb place to relax with a glass of wine. I'd highly recommend this place.

A few km from Paipa is the Pantano de Vargas (Vargas Swamp). This was famous for one of the last battles, in 1819, of the war of independence from Spain. It was led by Simon Bolivar and other famous leaders such as General Santander. There is a very large monument to the 14 lancers whose heroic actions helped win the battle. Several hundred men of the so-called British Legions; Brits and Irish fighting for Bolivar, also fought bravely in this battle. They were led by Col James Rooke, their half British and half Irish commander, and they too played a crucial role in the victory. They went on a bayonet charge up a hill against the Spanish positions. Rooke was seriously wounded, losing his arm, and he later died and was buried nearby. There is a statue to Rooke in the main square in Paipa which is named Jaime Rook park in his honour. There is also a battalion of the Colombian army named after him, and a plaque at Boyacá bridge memorial so the British & Irish role is not forgotten. We visited on the anniversary of the battle, and there was a ceremony going on with flags, mounted troops and marching bands on this huge monument.

We popped into Tunja, the main city of Boyacá. It has an enormous main square with, of course, the statue of Bolivar.

Not far outside of Tunja, on the main road to Bogotá is the Puente de Boyacá (Boyacá bridge). This was the site of the key 1819 battle which consolidated independence for Gran Colombia, and is the location of an important national monument. The current (more recent) bridge is tiny as the river is not wide, but the location was strategic as it formed the route from the eastern plains to the capital, Santa Fé de Bogotá. There is, of course, a large statue of Simon Bolivar on the hill. He´s surrounding by 5 women who represent the five nations of S America which he helped to liberate. (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia). There are several other monuments on the site too. It is very well maintained and being surrounded by green hills, it has a pleasant feel about it.

The nearby colonial town of Villa de Leyva  is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Colombia. It was home to important figures such as Antonio Nariño, who on reading the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen in books imported from France, thought it would be good idea to publish them in Spanish and disseminate them in Colombia. He also was a key leader in the struggle for independence, and he was imprisoned by the Spanish four times. The main square is large and feels a little empty, but there are many other pleasant places in the surrounding cobbled streets.

Near to Villa de Leyva is Iguaque, a national park. We briefly visited the Iguaque Wildlife Sanctuary which was very good and I saw a few new species like the striking Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager and Rufous Wren. Within the reserve, you can hike to a number of mountain lakes, but you must start before 10 am and we were too late. There are also some large and decent looking cabins to stay in lower down in the forest.

Despite on-and-off drizzle, we drove around Lago de Tota,  the largest lake in Colombia which being about 3000 m above sea level, was cold. The road around the lake is mostly in good condition and is being improved to form a tourist circuit. There were a few wilder areas around the shore, but much was inaccessible apart from the beach on the western side. Many of the flatter areas are being cultivated for spring onions, but there are still a few marshy areas for the birds like that below. With the poor weather, the only new bird I saw was a Large-billed Tern.

After the lake, we continued driving up higher to the Paramo de Siscunsí (Paramo refers to a high mountain moorland above the treeline) which looked interesting, but there was sadly no chance to see it properly in the rain. There is a watchpoint for Andean Condors here (at 33km from Sogamosa on the road to Aguazul) though you have to walk about 4km from the road. With the thick clouds and heavy rain, we didn't even think about trying this, but as a number of these rare birds were re-introduced from captivity in this area some years ago, it maybe worth a look in clear conditions.