We decided to spend a few days in the Coffee Region (Eje Cafetero) and around the Los Nevados National Natural Park. After a 10 hour drive from Bucaramanga we arrived at the city of Manizales. In the central Bolivar Square is an attractive cathedral (complete with Peregrine Falcons) and a not so attractive statue. Apparently it is a hybrid of Simon Bolivar and a condor!
Early the next day we set off to visit the nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano. The volcano stands some 5320m above sea level and has been active last year. Now the activity has died down, it is possible to visit the lower parts of the mountain again but only for a short period, and so we were lucky to get a chance to see it.
The volcano is the highest of the five located inside the Los Nevados park and the top is covered with glaciers and snow. Many Colombians like to go to see the snow, but after recent eruptions the white snow is covered with volcanic ash and the top sections are off-limits for safety reasons. This caution is fully justified since the lahars (volcanic mud-flows) that resulted from the 1985 eruption of this volcano killed more than 23,000 people in the Armero tragedy.
However, as you pass higher up you can see the true Páramo vegetation is very different from Britain! It is dominated by Frailejón plants and includes many beautiful small flowers. Some of these plants are found no-where else in the world making it a priceless habitat. It also protects the water-supply for about 2 million people in the region.
The highest altitude we were permitted to go was the Valle de las Tumbas at around 4300m. This is around the limit for any vegetation. There are just a few small plants clinging to the bare rocks. I think this is the highest I've ever been on a mountain. This area is overlooked by a smaller crater (La Olleta) of the main volcanic cone(Arenas) of Nevado del Ruiz. Sadly the main peak was covered with cloud. It was cold at that height, and the air thin enough to notice, but the sunlight was very strong, so a hat and suncream were important to avoid burning from the UV.
On the way up we saw a pair of large Black-chested Buzzard-eagles (Geranoaetus melanoleucus). The local guides along the road also suggested we would get a chance to see the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) and sure enough, we got a great fly-past from one of these magnificent birds, the symbol of the Andes.
About 16 birds were re-introduced to the Los Nevados area some 10 years ago and they are breeding in the park. However, they reproduce very slowly so it will take a long time for them to build up their numbers. It seems there is a feeding platform with cattle carcasses left out for them in this area of the park, so it's a good place to see them if the sky is clear enough.
For me a dream come true to see the flight of the condor......