Monday, 27 May 2013

Cañon de las Iguanas

This Sunday we went with one of the 16 walking groups in Bucaramanga through the Cañon de las Iguanas (Canyon of the Iguanas!). The walk starts on the road from Girón to Zapatoca just before it drops down into the Canyon of the Sogamoso river. You can see the GPS track here Wikiloc track of Canyon de las Iguanas

Apart from a few small farms near there top, the canyon is empty of people, and it´s pretty hot so we needed lots of water for this 11.5 km walk. The route drops about 500m and in places the path is very narrow with sheer drops which I hate. Other parts have steep descents (or ascents if you want to suffer more by going the other way). Once along the small river, much of the walk is over large boulders so all-in-all pretty hard work!

The vegetation is mostly desert-type plants with many spines and stings to catch the unwary on the overgrown path. There are several types of cactus, a type of nettle Cnidoscolus urens I think (nettles are called pringamosa or ortiga in Colombia) and many bushes with thorns including uña de gato (cat´s claw) with wicked hooks. The small trees do however provide plenty of shade, just beware of touching anything!

Usually, there isn´t a massive flow of water through this canyon as the area is fairly arid but there are many pools, some are big and deep enough to swim and dive in. The clean swimming holes are an excellent way to cool off from the heat of the canyon. The water is just the right temperature and warm winds can dry you off quickly when you get out. Elena even fell in fully clothed, but not too much harm done apart from a grazed knee and a wet camera, which I think we managed to save. Swimming holes are very popular here and people dive in from impressive heights - rather them than me!

I didn´t see any Iguanas on this walk, just one large lizard. Snakes are common here though we didn't see any this time perhaps because we were in a large group. I didn´t see many interesting birds on this walk though no doubt there are a few there. One species in particular is worth looking for here, the endemic Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia castaneiventris) which is classified as endangered and only occurs in a few places in this part of Colombia. With almost no flowering plants or trees in sight, I didn't have much hope of seeing one. I´ve now been to 4 of their known locations and not seen one yet!

The walk ends as the small river from the canyon joins a larger river which itself then into the big, fast-flowing Sogamoso. The last part of the walk is about a mile or so on a dirt road back to the main road not far from the bridge. This area will soon be flooded by the Hidrosogamoso dam project (about 10 miles downstream on the Sogamoso) in the next year, so perhaps this walk will be lost or at least the final part of the route changed. The construction of a very high new bridge to carry the road to Zapatoca is well underway so things are changing. It will soon be very different. At least the canyon of the iguanas itself will remain. I was a great walk, though tough, and one which I could never have had in Britain.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Mesa de los santos

The Mesa de los Santos is a popular place to go during the weekend for people from Bucaramanga. The mesa is a flatter area at about 1500m up and it is fairly dry which gives it a pleasantly cooler climate. It only takes about an hour to get there, and the drive from the main road to Bogotá is curvy and steep but in good condition. It can get busy at times when everyone returns to the city on a bank holiday Monday, but normally it´s not too crowded.

The Mesa overlooks the Chicamocha canyon and houses one end of the cable car that crosses the canyon from Panachi, the tourist centre on the main Bogotá road. The area is fast developing as a place for holiday homes, and property prices are high, but there are still many small farms, mostly of cattle and chickens.

Tucked away just off the main road is the Hacienda el Roble (Roble means Oak Tree in Spanish). This was once a large cattle and chicken farm, but was converted in the 1970´s to coffee and now prides itself on high quality shade-grown organic speciality production. People might not think of Santander when they think of Colombian coffee - we are far from the Coffee Region - but there is plenty grown.

We took a 2 hour tour which was interesting and they explained how they can maintain quality in a sustainable way. They use 3 levels of shading for the coffee bushes- using trees such as Chachafruto (Erythrina edulis), a legume, fixing nitrogen in the soil as well as having edible fruit like very large french beans. The lowest shade level is of bananas or platanos (plantains). These three shade levels create a good range of habitats for the birds on the hacienda. In addition there are several small lakes proving homes for some aquatic species and we also saw several Ospreys overhead.

As an organic producer, they are not using insecticides and pesticides which is more bird friendly and they are proud to proclaim they have recorded around 122 species. It´s not a spectacular total for Colombia but not bad for a commercial farm. They have got a Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre certification for their coffee as a result. They've also got Rainforest Alliance and several other certifications and this helps them sell to Japan, USA and the UK, including I believe to Waitrose supermarket. You can read more about the benefits of shade-grown coffee here.

Being specialized organic coffee, it fetches a premium price and the vast majority goes for export. Much of Colombian coffee goes for export. Sadly most Colombians are stuck with low-quality varieties most of which are imported!

There is also a beautiful hotel on the Hacienda with many flowers and plenty of birds visiting the fruit feeders. The place is tranquil and you can relax whist enjoying the birdsong including the Yellow-legged Thrush (Turdus flavipes)- which looks a little like a British blackbird with a similar song too. We were told they were thinking of constructing a butterfly house to show off some of the around 100 species they have on the hacienda. The hotel looks like a great place to stay if you can afford it!

On the northern edge of the Mesa is the salto del mico, a picturesque secluded waterfall surrounded by woodland. The owner makes a small charge for entry, the path is precipitous and probably very slippery when wet, but it was worth the short walk. Best to go a little after a rainy period when the falls have a good flow.