Best of Colombia

Adios Colombia!

We used every day of the 180 days Colombia allows on a tourist visa and we would have happily stayed another month, or perhaps the rest of our lives, in this marvelous country. We sadly left huge parts of the country unvisited – we only made it to one Amazonian destination, we completely missed the Llanos, we barely birded Cauca and Putumayo, and we did not bird at all in Nariño; these three last states are the most diverse in all of Colombia. Nonetheless, our time was packed with incredible people, incredible places, and an absolutely mind-numbing diversity of birds!

Before talking about birds, however, we have to again say that one of the absolute best aspects of Colombia is its people. While we have met nothing but kind people along our journey, Colombia stands out as being the home of the most genuinely awesome, kind, open, and friendly people we have ever met, anywhere! No matter where we were, no matter what time of day, no matter what the circumstances, every single Colombian we spoke with was invariably kind and courteous and eager to help. We were asked at every turn what we thought of Colombia and if we were enjoying ourselves. When we told people how much we loved their country the pride at hearing how well we had fared was evident. What a purely delightful place!

Our path in Colombia was sinuous so hopefully you can follow along the windy and bumpy roads. We started by traversing the Caribbean coast from Cartagena to Santa Marta and on to the Guajira Peninsula. Cartagena, despite being touristy, was beautiful and we loved the old quarter and the food. Santa Marta’s reputation precedes it, and we had a wonderful time on the San Lorenzo ridge, racking up piles of endemic species and getting our first taste of some Andean species. The Guajira Peninsula was, as promised, hot and dry, but spectacular all the same.  Even in this desert area it was abnormally dry and flowers were near absent – Buffy Hummingbird played hard to get until the end, but we finally tracked one down, along with Tocuyo Sparrow and all the other regional specialties! Next we headed to the Serrania de Perijá, near the Venezuelan border, to help ProAves a bit with the development of their new reserve; Kathi was able to obtain the first high-quality recordings of the Perijá Thistletail and Perijá Rufous Antpitta! Next we wound down the east Andes, stopping at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve and Pauxi Pauxi, getting our first real taste of Andean birding. We made a long trek east to the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Parque Nacional Cocuy, where we marveled at Green-bearded Helmetcrest flying around the sea of Dr. Suess inspired Espeletia. If that drive wasn’t long enough what followed was a painful and slow and round-a-bout series of destinations as we struggled to find Gorgeted Wood-Quail and Mountain Grackle, though we finally found both.

Eventually we made our way to Bogotá, the city it seemed we could never leave. We crisscrossed Bogotá more than I would like to remember, but we also enjoyed the Bogotá Beer Company just as many times. We flew to Mitu for a wonderful, if intense, 10 days. Despite being Amazonian novices and struggling to distinguish approximately 50 species of Antbirds by voice, we did well and managed to find basically all of the specialties, which was a relief. Chestnut-crested Antbird and Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock are two of the coolest birds anywhere on earth!

After Mitu we dawdled around Bogotá a bit, playing cleanup, meeting friends, and making a detour to Mana Dulce for Velvet-fronted Euphonia and to dry out after a lot of cold, cold rain in BioAndino and Chingaza! From here we birded the Magdalena Valley where we were surprised to find dry, hot, windy conditions in June, but apparently that is fairly normal for that time of year, whereas the rest of Colombia was largely in the rainy season. This slowed birding down a LOT but we still tracked everything down. La Victoria in dry season was perhaps the single least-birdy place we have been on the entire trip, and we settled for seeing our lifer wild Blue-billed Curassow standing atop a pen full of captive Blue-billed Curassows at El Paujil. Rio Claro was a bit birdier and we killed the heat of the day tubing on the river, and watched the Oilbirds pour out of their cave at dusk. After this, visiting Medellin was terrific, and what a cool city it is. After the sprawl, crowds, traffic, and air-pollution of Bogotá, Medellin seemed far more relaxed and far hipper, and we had some great meals and great afternoons wandering the city. Birding around La Romera and the Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve was super fun and we finally had some good weather again (the Central Andes are not as wet as the Western or Eastern). We made a long trek down to the RNA Mono Titi in the northern Chocó, to again volunteer for ProAves, finding a bunch of new species for the area in the process. For us, the highlight was finally seeing Tawny-faced Quail after a ridiculously protracted game of cat and mouse (cat and quail?), and Baudo Oropendola didn’t suck.

We took a bunch of back roads through the Western Andes, visiting more ProAves reserves including Colibri del Sol, where we watched an Urroa Antpitta comically hop into a bucket to eat worms, as well as seeing the jaw-dropping Dusky Starfrontlet (perhaps the worst name for a shimmering, beautiful bird imaginable). After this, more back roads took us to RNA Las Tangaras, where amazing birding continues, this site is one of the birdiest we’ve ever been to. While driving around the Western Andes we reveled in how much forest remains on the Pacific slopes of the Western Andes, hopefully it can be protected before it is lost! Back to the central Andes for the Los Nevados area, where the birding is easy, the roads smooth, and the weather excellent! At Rio Blanco we enjoyed antpitta heaven (Bicolored, Plain-brown, Slate-crowned, Chestnut-crowned, Chestnut-naped, Undulated), while taking several days to finally, gloriously encounter the Masked Saltator. Some more dirt roads followed as we caught up with Indigo-winged Parrot, then thoroughly enjoyed birding Otun Quimbaya. We saw so many awesome species in the Central Andes in such short time that it all ran together, though Hooded Antpitta (after three days of dedicated searching) was a highlight of not just Colombia but of the entire trip! After that it was back across the Cauca valley to the beautiful Anchicayá valley for yet more Choco endemics and a brujita ride to San Cipriano for the Choco Poorwill, Rose-faced Parrot, and Five-colored Barbet. Then we headed across the Cauca valley one final time to Popoyan, another beautiful colonial city painted in white. Our visit to Puracé was too short and unfortunately really windy, but in the years to come we will remember a point-blank perched Crescent-faced Antpitta far more than the wind! After this we made a quick stop at San Agustin to take in the mysterious pre-Colombian statues. Then we completed a rushed loop in the Putumayo department from Pitalito, still barely in the upper Magdalena Valley, down to Mocoa, in the Amazonian foothills, and back up towards Sibundoy via the infamous Trampolin de la Muerte, finally heading on to Pasto and the border. We would have loved to have spent more time in Anchicayá, Puracé, Cueva de los Guacharos, Mocoa, Sibundoy, and Junin, but as it was we crossed the border into Ecuador on the last day of our Colombian visas, completely worn out!

In our six months we saw over 1100 species in Colombia, of which more than 700 were new for us, but these are not really impressive totals, given how diverse Colombia is. A friend of ours saw a comparable number of species in a mere two months! However, we really focused on seeing remote areas and new locations, volunteer work, and trying to track down as many endemics and rare birds as possible. Had we gone to Inirida, Leticia, and the Llanos instead of taking our time in some locations, we could have easily added 200-300 species in Colombia, but we will see the vast majority of those birds other places, whereas you can’t go track down Dusky Starfrontlet, Fuertes’s Parrot, Gorgeted Wood-Quail, Hooded Antpitta, or Cundinamarca Antpitta in any old South American country! In the end we saw 75 of 87 Colombian endemics (depending on what taxonomy you follow), as well as nearly all of the near-endemic species that you realistically had better see in Colombia (species like the Perijá endemics, Hooded Antpitta, Bicolored Antpitta, Red-legged Tinamou, and many Northeast Andean endemics that barely make it into a very inhospitable part of Venezuela). There are only a few of the endemic/specialty species that we looked for, and missed – notably Sooty-capped Puffbird, Black-backed Thornbill, Tolima Blossomcrown, and Brown-banded Puffbird. We did leave a good handful of hard Chocó birds on the table, so I guess we’ll get to know the Esmeraldas province of Ecuador quite well in the coming weeks.

As far as highlights go, they are many, but here’s an attempt at what we think are the best sites and best birds in Colombia:

Best birding sites (in no particular order):
Santa Marta (El Dorado Reserve and San Lorenzo Ridge)
Serranía de Perijá (Chamicero del Perija reserve above Valledupar)
Rio Blanco
Paramo Frontino/Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve
Montezuma Rd (PNN Tatama)
Reserva Las Tangaras
Old Buenaventura Rd (Anchicayá)
Trampolin de la Muerte/Sibundoy
Cerulean Warbler Reserve
Otun Quimbaya

There are definitely a couple of sites missing from this list, but we haven’t been to Inirida, Junin, the Llanos or many other locations yet!

Best birds in Colombia (in rough order by combination of rarity, difficulty, and opinion, not all of which we have seen, unfortunately!):

Hooded Antpitta
Banded Ground-Cuckoo
Rufous-crowned Antpitta
Crescent-faced Antpitta
Chestnut-bellied Cotinga
Dusky Starfrontlet
Yellow-eared Parrot
Chestnut-crested Antbird
Recurve-billed Bushbird
Masked Saltator
Fuertes’s Parrot
Cundinamarca Antpitta
Blue-bearded Helmetcrest
Long-wattled Umbrellabird
Gold-ringed Tanager
Multicolored Tanager
Chestnut-capped Piha
Tawny-faced Quail
Santa Marta Screech-Owl
Golden-plumed Parakeet
Green-bearded Helmetcrest
Urrao Antpitta
Tanager Finch
Beautiful Jay
Brown-banded Antpitta
Orange-breasted Fruiteater
Mountain Grackle
Gorgeted Wood-Quail

If you are planning a birding trip in Colombia, Colombia has many amazing birders and bird guides. We recommend, in no particular order: COLOMBIA Birding  (Diego Calderon), Multicolor Birding (Pablo Florez), Birding Santa Marta (Gabo Utria), Manakin Nature Tours (Luis Urueña), or Trevor Ellory’s Rockjumper trips.


3 Comments on Best of Colombia

  1. Rob Williams // November 6, 2015 at 7:39 am //

    Great trip – where did you see Blue-bearded Helmetcrest listed in your top and hard to see birds?


  2. Heya Rob, We haven’t seen the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest yet. It is possible, though quite difficult (a good bit of logistics and a week or so of muddy hiking and camping) to get up to the remnant Paramo patches on Santa Marta to try to see this bird (along with Santa Marta Wren and some other interesting endemic taxa that aren’t split but also are not yet much investigated). We also missed the Umbrellabird, Ground-Cuckoo and Rufous-crowned Antpitta in Colombia but still put them on our list. We just caught up with Rufous-crowned Antpitta here in Ecuador, more on that later.


  3. Rob Williams // November 7, 2015 at 11:36 pm //

    Thanks. OK sorry I had missed that the list included birds you had not seen. I am hoping to go for the Helmetcrest next year. Best wishes from Bogota.


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