22 – 24 May 2015.
Cocuy National Park, in a word, is amazing! Paramo, glaciers, lakes, and breathtaking views are enough for anyone to want to visit. However, getting to Cocuy National Park takes some time; it’s an 11-14 hour bus ride from Bogota. But trust me, the journey is worth every hour. We were a bit unsure about heading to the park because we read accounts of long miserable drives. Finding ourselves in Soatá already, about ½ way to the park from Bogotá, we decided we couldn’t pass on the reputed beauty. To our surprise, however, the roads are paved all the way to the town of El Cocuy and after that the dirt road up to the park is in very good condition. Heck, we drove faster on the dirt road than we have on some paved highways! It took us approximately six hours to get from Soata to El Cocuy and another hour to get to Finca La Esperanza, where we stayed just outside the park boundary.
Cocuy National Park is not really on the birding circuit but for those with a little sense of adventure or who want to take in some incredible views, Cocuy is absolutely worth a stop. We were really not sure what to expect bird wise in the park, as we could not find any eBird records or trip reports for the area. To our surprise the birding at Cocuy was pretty awesome! Sometimes it is kind of nice to arrive at a new destination and not have a list of target birds that need to be sought out. Target lists, while nice and super helpful, can sometimes make birding a little stressful because you feel the pressure to see all of the birds on the list.
Without a list and only a rough idea of what paramo species to expect, we headed out for a hike towards Laguna Grande. Just behind the buildings at Finca Esperanza, there is a rocky outcrop with some scrubby flowering bushes and a few trees, where we came across Glossy Flowerpiercer, Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Pale-naped Brush-Finch, and Andean Siskin. Glossy Flowerpiercer, by the way, in the Eastern Andes can be difficult to distinguish from Black Flowerpiercer. In the Eastern Andes, Black Flowerpiercers have a white shoulder patch similar to the shoulder patch on the Glossy Flowerpiercer. However, Glossy Flowerpiercers are slightly larger, have a slightly bluish tint to the shoulder patch and have darker bills compared to Eastern Andean Black Flowerpiercers. It takes a good look to be sure which flowerpiercer you are looking at and both species are common in the area. Beware the that the first edition of the McMullen and Donegan field guide is a little misleading in how these species are illustrated, check other field guides and read the physical descriptions well!
From here the trail crosses some pastures where Andean Siskins and Plain-colored Seedeaters are very common, and there are throngs of Eastern Meadowlarks, Rufous-collared Sparrows and Great Thrushes. Brown-bellied Swallows are common overhead. As we continued up the trail we entered into scrubby elfin forest, where we came across White-chinned Thistletail, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Bronze-tailed Thornbill, and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. Wow, we thought, this is way more birds than we expected to see and we’ve seen quite a few of the paramo specialties already. But the day got even better as we continued to hike toward Valle de Frailejónes. As soon as we crested the small ridge, the valley before us was filled with plants straight out of a Doctor Suess book. Fuzzy bunches of yellow flowers shot straight up on trunks the size of people all over the valley. The scene was incredible but our attention quickly turned to the hummingbirds we saw racing around the Espeletia (the fuzzy yellow flowered trunks), or Frailejón as they are known locally. Ah… Shining Sunbeam. The drawings in the field guides just cannot do justice to the color of the Shining Sunbeam. Six Shining Sunbeams chased each other around through the maze of Espeletias. I, in one of my better moments remarked, “wow, they fly like birds”, to which Josh took great pleasure in laughing at. But, seriously, Shining Sunbeams are pretty large and fly more like a swift or even a passerine than a hummingbird at times. It was quite amazing to watch them take direct flights with ease all around the Espeletia. Among the Shining Sunbeams, Josh saw a different hummingbird whiz by and got brief looks at the ultimate punk-rocker of hummingbirds… the Green-bearded Helemetcrest. I mean, come on look at this hummingbird, a goatee and spiked hair; the Bearded Helmetcrests are hands down some of the coolest hummingbirds around. Bearded Helmetcrest has just recently been split into four species, the Green-bearded Helmetcrest in the Eastern Andes, the Buffy Helmetcrest in the central Andes, White-bearded Helmetcrest in the Venezuelan Andes, and the recently rediscovered Blue-bearded Helmetcrest in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Helmetcrests feed primarily on Espeletia in the paramo and range from 3200 m elevation up to treeline, principally in paramo. Several species of Espeletia occur throughout the paramo in Colombia and neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador. However, many of the Espeletia species, and the paramo in general, are at risk of extinction due to agricultural conversion and cattle grazing. Thankfully, the paramo in the national park is still in excellent condition and Espeletia abound and with them the Green-bearded Helmetcrest, are plentiful. Helmetcrests, like many other highland hummingbirds, do not usually hover when they forage; instead they cling to the flower or stalk to feed. The cling to feed behavior can sometime make them difficult to spot but throughout the day we saw six Green-bearded Helmetcrests!
Even after the punk-rockers, the birding at Cocuy continued to delight with Andean Tit-Spinetail, Many-striped Canastero, Plumbeous Sierra Finch, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, and more Plain-colored Seedeaters. In the Valle de Frailejónes we also came across the endemic Apolinar’s Wren, much to our surprise. We did not expect to see this little guy here as they are most frequently found in marshes near Bogota, but a subspecies of Apolinar’s Wren also occurs in the paramo, and Cocuy National Park is a stronghold for this endangered bird as well. When we first saw the Apolinar’s Wren, I have to admit we were a bit unsure what wren we were exactly looking at, as it was extremely pale in color and lacked the dark markings illustrated in our field guide. But after a few minutes of working to get better looks at this skulking species, and after more carefully listening, we confirmed that indeed it was an Apolinar’s Wren, and in fact there were a few of them around.
The birding, not to mention the scenery, along the trail to Laguna Grande is excellent, so good in fact we barely made it out of the Valle de Frailejónes. Because we still wanted to see more of the national park we headed back to the Finca to rest and enjoy the afternoon, planning to head out early the next morning and finish the hike to Laguna Grande. It’s a 4-5 hour hike up to get to the lake, gaining about 1000 m of elevation, but it is absolutely amazing! We hiked to the Laguna Grande and a bit beyond towards the glacier and had the pleasure of being snowed on at 15,000 ft. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen snow so for us it was a treat!
The next day we headed to the southern, Lagunillas entrance, to see a bit more of the park. The Lagunillas sector is equally beautiful but the terrain is less steep. The trail from the cabins and camping area, Cabañas Herrera, follows a river valley past a marshy pond and up past four lakes. The first marshy pond, only about 15 minutes from the cabañas, is great for Andean Teal. Here we also had distant glimpses of Paramo Pipit and our first of several Chestnut-winged Cinclodes of the day. Green-bearded Helmetcrests are also very common in this area; in one morning we recorded 14 individuals. Andean Tit-Spinetails and Many-striped Canesteros are also common here.
A bit exhausted from the hike to Laguana Grande the previous day, and with the icy wind putting a damper on birding, we only made it to the second lake. But at the second lake we gave the lake an obligatory scan and turned up to our surprise, an American Coot of all things. The birding is equally as good in the Lagunillas sector but some birds such as the Shining Sunbeam and White-chinned Thistletail were less common and others such as the Andean Tit-Spinetail and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant were more common.
That evening, after the weather passed, we went snipe hunting. Yes, for our non-birding audience, snipes do exist and we went looking for one. Most of the time seeing a snipe involves your heart jumping out of your chest as it bursts from directly underfoot, something akin to fireworks going off at your feet. Rarely do you encounter a snipe with first being scared to death, but we went looking for one anyway. We walked to the first little marshy pond from the cabins at around 5:00 in the evening and waited, in the cold, for a snipe to magically appear. If you are laughing at us, well you should be. Who sees a snipe when they go looking for them?? We scanned the marshy edges of the pond and the soggy areas with short grass for about 45 minutes before, as the light started to fade, Josh stood up to look at a different spot and said “I’m looking at a snipe”. What! Seriously! Indeed there was a snipe just standing on the banks of the small creek. Seriously! After staring at this guy for a few minutes we could make out a pale belly with no barring on the chest, and a bicolored bill, making this little snipe a Nobel Snipe. We raised our hands to a cheer and happily set off back to camp for a warm meal and hot chocolates.
If you go:
The drive from Bogota to the park really isn’t all that bad and if you start early you will probably arrive before dark. There are plenty of stores in El Cocuy but if you want anything special it’s probably best to stock up in a bigger town before you head out. The best route goes to Soatá then takes the Via Boavita road out of town to Boavita and on to Uvita. In Uvita turn towards San Mateo, continue from there to Guacamayas then on to Panqueba. Just above Panqueba, there is a signed fork in the road, one direction for Güicán and one for El Cocuy. There are only a couple of signs for the National Park along the entire route, but at each town anyone can point you to the right road leaving town for the next leg of the journey. Above El Cocuy and Güicán, the circuit road that links the Lagunillas Sector, Finca La Esperanza, and the other trailheads (including the popular Cabañas Kirwana for access to the trail to the top of Ritacuba Blanco, 5330 m), is well signed the whole way. Gas and diesel (although more expensive) are available in each of the towns along the way.
There are two park offices and two ways to get to the various entrances to the park, one in El Cocuy and one in Güicán. Services are available in both towns. Which entrance you use just depends on where you want to go in the park. While it is no longer possible to do the six day trekking circuit through the park, the park is still open and there are plenty of hiking trails open.
When you get to El Cocuy or Güicán, you need to buy rescue insurance before you can enter the park. Insurance was $7,000 COP per person per day and can be purchased in the town of El Cocuy (the office is around the corner from the park office) or in Güicán. After you purchase insurance you need to go to the park office in town (El Cocuy or Güicán) to pay your entrance fees ($52,000 COP per person) and register your itinerary. Anyone in town can point you to both the insurance and park offices.
We stayed at Finca La Esperanza at the edge of the park. The La Esperanza is a working farm that provides basic accommodations, food, and a hot shower. Guillermo answers the phone when you call to make a reservation and speaks fluent English, and is super friendly. The trail up to the Valle de los Frailejónes and Laguna Grande starts at La Esperanza.
We also stayed at Cabañas Herrera, at the southern park entrance. When we were there the cabañas were not open but they let us camp, with access to bathrooms and icy cold showers (which we did not take advantage of, but who would at 4,000 meters).
More information about the park can be found here.