Friday, January 6, 2017

Central and Northern Colombia 2016

On the morning of 2/28, with our RV buttoned up, “airport buddy” Mike Doyle, who has in the past chauffeured us to and from the Tucson airport, once again helped us out with one of his special personalized taxi rides.

our flight from Tucson took us over the Whetstones
Our flight itinerary was simple. Tucson to Houston then Houston to Bogotá. Three in-flight movies later from Houston and an airport shuttle to the Santa Fe Real Hotel, we checked in just shy of 11:00 pm., the last of our group to arrive.
Typical of all our birding tours, we encourage participants to arrive a day early before the start of the “official” tour. It’s a practical way to factor in possible flight delays, rest a bit from a long travel day, but also provide an opportunity to have a day devoted to sightseeing. 

No doubt urged on by the need for a caffeine fix, our group gathered early at the hotel’s street-side terrace for coffee and a light breakfast. All were people we’ve traveled with before. Steve and Rita Reischel (WI), Peter and Cynthia Bridge (WI), Dean and Chris Hitchcock (MI), and Larry and Carol Dole (NH).
Our Tropical Birding guide, Nick Athanas, put in an appearance but as this was not an “official” tour day, Nick soon excused himself to take care of last minute tour details with a promise to join us later for dinner.
NOTE: At the end of this blog entry, find a link to a complete Tropical Birding trip report filed by Nick covering a detailed day-by-day listing of the birds and other wildlife we encountered. This blog entry will deal more with general tour recollections - lodging, meals, personal photos, etc.

going up in the funicular

By 10:00 am, Hermes, our driver for the Central Columbia section of the tour, arrived to ferry us to the first of two stops, the Cerro De Moserrate, a popular tourist destination. Monserrate is a mountain that dominates the city center of Bogotá, rising to 10,407 ft above the sea level. Here is where a church was built in the 17th century with a shrine devoted to "El Señor Caído" (Fallen Lord). In addition to the church, the summit contains garden trails, restaurants, a cafeteria, souvenir shops and many smaller tourist facilities. Monserrate may be accessed by three modes of transportation: a funicular (railway), an aerial tramway, or, by walking, the preferred way of pilgrims. As we were in a bit of time crunch, we rode the funicular up and the aerial tramway way down. Both provided panoramic views of the city. And once up on top, our chugging up and down trails and stone steps at 10,000 feet reminded us ‘flatlanders” that we would need a bit more time to acclimate (and glad we didn’t take the pilgrim approach to the top).

just part of the city of Bogotá
The city of Bogotá is the third highest capitol city in South America (after Quito in Ecuador and Sucre in Bolivia). Fortunately it wasn’t a race and there were plenty of things to see without going too far. Plus, the views of Columbia’s capitol city gave us a new perspective on just how much space the city of Bogotá (population of 8 million; 11 million when outlying districts are included) took up. For perspective, compare Bogota’s population to that of New York - 8.5 million (including its five separate boroughs).

gondola ride down
Before catching a gondola ride back down, we lunched at the “Casa Santa Clara Restaurante” where some of the group (OK, most of the group) ordered pitchers of sangrias to help ward off the effects of high elevation. Or so they said.
Our second stop on the day was the José Celestino Mutis Botanical Gardens. Its 19.5 acres feature plants from every Columbian altitude, climate and region and is the only botanical garden in Columbia specializing in the collection and preservation of Andean flower species. Naturally, the gardens attract birds - and we were, after all, on a birdwatching tour. 

group photo at the gardens
By late afternoon we were dropped back at our hotel. The hotel was not equipped to serve evening meals so Nick, who had rejoined the group, shepherded us to a nearby restaurant, “Miro”, where we dined and learned of our marching orders for the next day.

six lanes of traffic - note pedestrian negotiating all lanes
This is a good time to interject that traffic in Bogotá (nay, all the major cities we encountered) was some of the worst we’ve ever experienced. And for that reason, Nick suggested that we get early starts in order to arrive at birding locations at a reasonable hour. Indeed, even when leaving at an early hour, the traffic was heavy. Many trucks, buses, taxi vans, and cars but most of the chaos seemed to come from thousands of people zooming on motorcycles, motorbikes, and bicycles. Interesting to note: they have strict helmet laws. A total disregard for their personal safety driving like mad men - but, they ARE required to wear helmets.
After a short stop for a box breakfast, our first birding stop was Chingaza National Park. Unfortunately, we were refused entry. Apparently, our driver had failed to bring along the required paperwork indicating we had a reservation. Oops. Worse, even though the park’s computer had our reservation in their system and was expecting us, because we couldn’t prove who we were, we were denied entrance. Bureaucracy at its finest. I mean really. What were the odds that another group claiming to be from Tropical Birding would show up and falsely claim to be us? Whatever. We turned around and birded the roadside picking up most of the birds we would have had in the park anyway. We then opted for Plan B (always have a plan B…and sometimes a plan C). We took a 20 minute side road toward Rinco de Olso to stop for a box lunch break…which turned out to be an excellent birding stop. Screw the park.
We’ve visited national parks in several countries and have never encountered the issues we encountered with Columbia’s national park system. They have a strict rule that anyone entering a national park is required to sit through a lengthy (sometimes up to an hour long) introduction explaining all the rules one must abide by in a park. On one level, yes, it’s important to protect the park. But lecturing people about how to behave for nearly an hour? By the time we would be lectured to, we would have missed our early morning window of time for the best birding. And besides, the lectures were all in Spanish (without no interpreter/subtitles)!

staking out feeders at Observatorio de Colibries
The afternoon turned out to be very relaxing as we birded the recently created “Hummingbird Observatory”, the Observatorio de Colibries near La Calera, about 30 minutes north-east of Bogota at a private residence. Here we sat and watched several hummingbird feeders while enjoying freshly prepared baked goods, coffee and tea. Very civilized!
We returned to our hotel in Bogatá for dinner, tally our checklists, then retired early with another early morning departure to follow.

roadside birding and a magical tree at Laguna Pedro Palo
On the road again at 4:30, we managed to beat most of the heaviest traffic (although honestly - it was hard to tell the difference between heavy and not heavy) and arrived at Laguna Pedro Palo in time for eat our box breakfast. After birding the grounds (essentially roadside birding) we moved on to Parque Preserve Chicaque, a fascinating park but unfortunately, just as we began to traverse the steep main trail, we were engulfed by fog which considerably reduced visibility and consequently our bird tally.
Back at the hotel for our last night in Bogatá, we dined at the Black Tower Hotel a short walk away. The choice (a good one) was based upon recommendations by some of our group having tried it earlier on the 28th. Bird checklists done and dusted, we retired in preparation for another early morning departure.

Spot-flanked Gallinule
Feb 29 - a leap day. We were allowed to sleep in so instead of our usual 4:30 a.m. departure, we departed the hotel at a leisurely 5:00 am. Honestly? The traffic didn’t seem any worse at 5:00 than it was at 4:30! Eventually we arrived at the Parqué la Florida, one of the better known wetlands around Bogatá. After a curbside breakfast (out of the back of our van) we climbed through a not-yet-open gate to bird the wetlands. Quite a lovely walk as we scored our target species.

Indigo-capped Hummingbird at El Jardin
An hour’s drive later found us at El Jardin Encantada in the municipality of San Francisco, another private reserve where our hosts plied us with pastries, wine, tea, and coffee while we stalked along a balcony lined with feeders overlooking a flower garden.
Then it was just a few more hours drive to the town of Victoria where we unloaded our bags at the Victoria Plaza Hotel, re-boarded our van, and squeezed in some late afternoon birding at the Bella Vista Reserve. Back to the hotel for dinner, checklists, happy hour and retire for the evening in our tiny street-side (read traffic noise) room with a very loud floor fan (but at least we had a fan!).

Russet-throated Puffbird
Black-capped Donacobius
The next morning we left the hotel for a few hours to revisit Bella, then returned to checkout and drive to a birding spot recommended by Hermes: a lake name “Charca Guarinocito”. Both birding at the lake and the lunch/birding stop at another Hermes recommendation, Restaurante Faijoles y Yosados Don Dario, were spot on.

local motorcycle highway patrol (yellow shirt) stopped by to scope out the birds
Emerald Toucanet
Later in the afternoon we arrived at the Rio Claro Preserve for a few hours of binocular time before we checked into our next overnight located in the park, the Cabañas La Mulata. Dinner on the property plus some owling. No air conditioning but fans helped.

The next morning some of us met for an optional early bird walk before breakfast. We returned to discover no water in all of our rooms. So not even a cold water shower or a flushing toilet. After breakfast we wasted no time packing up for the brief 15 minute drive to Gruta del Condor, a private reserve. Trying to beat the heat of the day, we strolled through a long pasture. Our ultimate goal: a cave opening that lead into an oilbird roost.
A local dog we dubbed “oily” insisted on accompanying us despite our best efforts to dissuade him. He continued to lead the way, barking and chasing pastured horses (and birds).

heading in and then some boot emptying afterward
As we approached the cave opening, water appeared in what had been a dry stream bed presented a bit of a problem. We had been warned ahead of time that water levels might impact our access. And while the depth of water present wasn’t insurmountable, the knee deep water would overflow our boots. Some ignored the overflow boot issue while a few opted to go bare foot (daintily, due to the rocky stream bed). Those of us who have seen oilbirds on previous trips elsewhere, awaited the group’s. “Oily” also went into the cave much to the distress of the oilbirds we could hear screeching in the darkness. Once out of the cave with excellent looks at oilbirds (and very wet clothing) we returned to our van for a long drive to Medillín, our next overnight stay.

Hacienda la Extremaydura
We arrived late afternoon at the Hacienda la Extremaydura, a colonial themed hotel with each of our rooms resembling a colonial dwelling. Although we would not be partaking in many of the amenities, la Extremadura had everything a modern hotel visitor needed: spa, gym, jacuzzi, swimming pool, chapel, meeting rooms, room service, restaurant, etc., plus great views. We enjoyed walking the grounds until after sunset, then dinner, followed by rooms with hot water. Yay! This was also our last full day in Central Columbia. By the way, the city of Medellin was very attractive. We would have liked to have spent a bit more time exploring.
The next day we would bid Central Columbia goodbye with an in-country flight to Northern Columbia. Our flight schedule allowed time to breakfast at Hacienda la Extremaydura, bird a small local preserve, “La Romera”, and fit in a little roadside birding. Returning to the hotel to collect our bags, we then dashed to the airport in some “un-dashable" traffic where we also bid farewell to Hermes (expressing our gratitude in the form of tips).
Our flight lasted only an hour, arriving in Barranquilla where we again - surprise, surprise - experienced severe traffic congestion. We were transported to the Hotel Majestic where we dined, tallied our checklists and retired to the sweet strains of loud street noise punctuated with street music.
The driver who picked us up at the airport, Virgilio, turned out to be our driver for most of our birding in Northern Columbia. Extremely friendly, Virgilio was not going to leave us wanting for food or beverage snacks on his watch.

Las Acasias where we seemed to spend more time birding than eating
Ringed Kingfisher at Isla de Salamanca
Our first morning, we made our way out of town to some productive roadside birding spots. Our first planned destination stop was a small reserve, Isla de Salamanca, which was closed when we arrived. But Virgilio knew the guards who let us in early. Virgilio’s wife had prepared a nice variety of food for our ‘box breakfast buffet” out of his van. Back on the road we birded our way to a large wetland/dry scrub habitat named “Los Flamencos” located in the Guarjira Peninsula. At Virgilo’s suggestion we lunched at Las Acasias, a restaurant overlooking a river with plenty of birding opportunities from it’s expansive wooden deck. Food was slow to arrive but given the variety of bird life, we didn’t mind the wait. In fact, we frequently jumped up from the table several times during our meal whenever another new bird was spotted.
That night was spent at the Taroa Hotel in Riohacha. Our evening meal was in the hotel’s rooftop “Aliuuka” restaurant just as a band was setting up. Nice view of the surrounding city but the the loud band forced us to retire to the hotel’s breakfast bar on the first floor to do our daily checklist (which was opened just for our use). Oh, and our bathroom had a wonderful surprise - a “rain shower” shower head (by Corona). Life’s simple pleasures.
With another box breakfast in hand, we departed Riochaca for a brief stop in Perico. Then back to Los Flamincos to try again for species we’d missed. According to Nick and Virigilio, the area, already a dry scrub habitat (home to the Wayúu people who seem to somehow eek out a living there) seemed much drier than on their last visit. As a result, some of the target birds we were seeking, had moved on. In particular the endemic Buffy hummingbird was no where to be found (and this was pretty much our only shot at finding one). But, we did get stellar views of the White-whiskered spinetail!

White-whiskered Spinetail
young salesman
arid and dry habitat at Las Flamencos
A couple of young Wayúu entrepreneurs selling bracelets managed to find us. One young man in particular did a very brisk business selling string bracelets.
An early seafood lunch at Las Flamencos, was overlooking the very warm, humid, Caribbean seashore at the Restaurante “Los Cocos”. Excellent seafood and welcomed cold beers! Peter even donned a swim suit and braved the surf. Then we were off to deal with Tayrona National Park.

dining and swimming at Los Cocos
Recalling our earlier experience at a national park we were not surprised when were asked to disembark and attend a required “educational” lecture on how to behave in the park. 90% of a 10-min video followed by a 10-min lecture (all in Spanish) had nothing whatsoever to do with why we were at the park. But we were told to sit quietly, smile, and nod a lot. A half hour later we were on our way down the park’s main road to check out a few bird hot spots.
The big surprise in the park came when we spotted a pair of blue-billed curassow. Initially Nick thought they might have been introduced (hence, not countable). But later confirmation with park officials indicated that no, the birds were in fact a viable wild population. Exciting because a) we absolutely never would have expected to see any on the trip, and b) only 150-700 birds are known to exist in the world (and some of those in a breeding program). Wow!

if only the rest of the place was this nice!
but there were Yellow-headed Carcara on the hotel property
That night we spent at the Hotel Mendihuaca, in the town of the same name. It turned out to be one of those hotels where the online write up/photos far exceed reality. It reminded us of a country western lyric, “she ain’t pretty, she just looks that way”.
Checking into the hotel proved to be a challenge. The front desk took forever to process our passports. Then the young man tasked with finding our rooms (there were several buildings in various states of disrepair) finally found our building/room after a half hour of searching while we tagged along pulling our luggage (think warm, muggy ocean air). Thankfully, the third story (no elevator) room had air conditioning. But it didn’t seem to be working (the remote control battery was missing). No matter. The young man showed us how to manually turn the unit on by flipping a switch located on the not terribly accessible wall unit. At least we had air conditioning.
At about 4:00 in the morning, with cold air blowing hard across our bed and unable to regulate the flow (remember the dead battery in remote?) Tom got up to turn it off…and experience a large arc of electricity as the wire to the switch came loose. No more air conditioner. And no desire to be anywhere near it. But hey. We did have running water. That evening we dined in the hotel’s dining room overlooking a rather attractive swimming pool complex where we tracked down adult beverages at the poolside karaoke bar. Yes, a fully functioning karaoke bar. In full throat.
Come morning we birded the grounds followed by a Continental breakfast. Checking out seemed to take as long as checking in but eventually we were in our van headed to the quaint town of Minca.

lunch at the Hotel Minca
The area was where the caciques (leaders) of tribes (Kogi, Arhuaco, Arzario, and Kankuamo) from the indigenous Tairona culture, held rituals with offerings to their Gods to meet their people's needs. During the Spanish conquest of Colombia which began in 1499, Minca was colonized by the Juan de Minca family in 1525. Don Juan, a very religious man, made an offer to the nuns of Barranquilla to build a cloister to preach religion and create a convent. The convent was name La Casona. Some of the original buildings still exist, some of which serve as lodgings at the Minca Hotel.

Golden-winged Sparrow
Rufous-breasted Hermit
We lunched at the Minca Hotel (amazing soups!) and while we waited to be served, we were overwhelmed by closeup opportunities of several bird species coming to hotel's feeders (plenty of photo ops!). The town also is home to many artisans with several shops displaying their wares.

our room and the deck for birding
Minca was where we transferred our luggage to, and split up into, three small 4-wheel drive SUV’s, for the drive up to El Dorado Lodge in the Santa Marta Mountains. From 12,000 feet below sea level to over 18,700 feet, the 170 million year old range is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. The need for 4-wheel drive (drivers and vehicles supplied by Nature Colombia) was quickly evident as we began our ascent up the San Lorenzo Ridge on what many have described as the “worst road in the world”. Or was that just some tourist hype? Honestly? We’ve experienced some roads that qualify as being worse. However, not nearly as long. So to qualify - yes, it was the LONGEST worse road in the world. But then the property around the lodge is home to over 350 species of birds, 26 endemic to Colombia!

upon reflection, maybe this would have been the way to go - slower but not as bumpy
We made a few birding stops along the way - as much to stretch as it was to bird. Eventually, hours later, and with some of our skeletal parts permanently rearranged, we reached the lodge. Perched on a hillside at 7,000 feet with an incredible views of the Santa Marta Valley and distant Caribbean Ocean, our epic road trip was soon forgotten. Wow. Double wow. Triple wow. It was worth the ride.
El Dorado as a reserve was established in 2005 by the acquisiton of ten properties totally 2,983 acres through efforts of ProAves, the Rainforest Trust and donors from the UK and US.
There was time to meet the staff, hang out at the feeders arranged around a large wooden deck, and start photographing. This was when we learned about keeping an eye on the lodge’s compost pile for black-fronted wood-quail. Also time to enjoy drinks from the bar and await dinner.

an unexpected reuniion - Tom Carol, Bill, Connie
While we were on the deck, a group of three people strolled up the steps. It turned out to be one of those serendipitous it’s a small, small birding world after all moments. Standing before us was Bill Volkert and his wife Connie who we’ve know for years but haven’t seen for years. Bill is a retired WDNR wildlife specialist who retired from the state’s side of Horicon Marsh (the Fed side is a NWA). Tom and Bill first knew each other from working together on environmental issues in Wisconsin through Audubon connections in the 1970’s. Bill and Connie had just finished leading a bird tour in Nicaragua and had decided, along with their friend John, to spend a little time in Columbia.
Our room at the lodge was on the small side but made to feel big due to two walls of windows and a deck overlooking the valley. We could have stayed for weeks.

just after seeing the parakeets depart their roost
Birding at the lodge during our stay consisted of several short drives and hikes on various sections of the road above and below the lodge, with breaks at the lodge for meals. One expended drive consisted of going much further up the mountain to a roosting site of endemic Santa Marta parakeets. The trick was, to leave early enough (4:30), drive (bump our way) for an hour on even worse driving conditions than we experienced getting to the lodge. Our goal was to glimpse endemic parakeets leaving their roost sites at sunrise. Piece of cake.
On the morning of parakeet quest we were out the door in total darkness (fortified with a little caffeine, thank you very much to the lodge staff!). During the last fifteen minutes, the headlights in the lead vehicle failed leaving Nick to hold his flashlight on the road for the driver.
Yes, we managed to arrive just as the sun was coming up and while we enjoyed a box breakfast, the parakeets were up and about. How terrible it would have been to make the effort and not see them due to bad weather, etc. Some groups in the past have experienced just that so we were very pleased with our effort and luck.

our hostess and her two children
our stalwart drivers
and when they weren't driving, they were doing road repair
We continued to bird the area before retraced the rut road to the lodge for lunch. The lodge hosts offered - and we gladly accepted - to show us a presentation about the lodge, the work being done at the Reserva Natural de las Aves El Dorado, some history of the indigenous Wayúu people and efforts to educate locals as to the importance of wildlife conservation. Like that Colombia is a critical mega diverse country. While it's smaller than Alaska, and despite being 1/8th the size of Brazil, it ranks as the most species rich nation on earth: Number 1 for birds, number 1 for amphibians, number 2 for vascular plants, number 3 for reptiles, and number 4 for mammals.  The lodge also had a small gift shop selling handcrafted jewelry made by Wayúu women, part of the Women Empowered By Conservation (MEC), providing workshops to to train women with the goal of helping them attain economic empowerment.
More roadside birding and a short walk on the property to scope our Santa Marta Screech-Owls before dinner. Then a short evening walk to find frogs before retiring for our last evening at the lodge.

After breakfast we birded about a kilometer of the road leading up from the lodge in hopes of getting eyes on a Santa Marta antpitta (we heard loads of them) but in spite of our best efforts, it remained a “heard only” trip bird. But then that’s not at all uncommon with members of the Graillariidae order. Then it was time to gird ourselves for the drive back to the Minca Hotel. The drive, as it was going up, interspersed with stops for birding and stretching.
Back at the Minca Hotel we lunched again and met up with Virgilio who transferred our luggage back to our van. We certainly enjoyed the El Dorado Lodge but were we very, very happy to be back on paved roads, congested or not!
On our return to Barranquilla, we made a detour to bird a section of road (Valé Road) then onto the Majestic Hotel for our farewell dinner. The next day everyone would be flying home. We made sure this time to get an interior room away from the street noise!

poolside Majestic Hotel
Some of us didn’t have flights until late in the afternoon so we made arrangements with the hotel to store our bags and accompany Virgilio who promised us some authentic local shopping. Unsurprising, Virgilio seemed to know everyone and quickly pulled together transportation (his brother owned a taxi) to visit a local open air market where authentic native crafts were sold. Virgillo and his brother were instrumental in helping all of us get the best deals and made sure we were buying "authentic". Following our shopping spree, Virgilio arranged for us to have lunch at a local restaurant (again, a family relative), "Parrilla Libanesa" before we were dropped back at the hotel. We still had a little time to kill so we sat with Rita and Steve enjoying some cool drinks before our taxi took us to the airport.

open air market, sampling deserts, happy shoppers
Unfortunately, our return to the states was not as straight forward as when we arrived in Columbia. Our 9:25 pm flight from Barranquilla to Bogotá was delayed due to a bad storm in Bogotá. The storm had knocked out all power to the Bogotá airport so there were no incoming flights. Or outgoing flights which in our case meant that the plane coming from Barranquilla was unable to leave Bogotá. The delay turned out to be quite serious.
Barely anyone spoke English in the Barranquilla airport (and our airport conversational Spanish isn’t all that strong). Many of the Barranquilla airport shops and restaurants had shut down and trying to sort our our flight options was challenging.
Our flight from Barranquilla to Bogotá finally arrived but didn’t get us into Bogotá after 6:00 am the next morning - well after our connecting flight to Houston had left. The next available flight to Houston wouldn’t be until late morning.
Eventually we arrived in Houston, clearly well past our connection to Tucson, resulting in yet another long layover. So instead of arriving in Tucson the next morning at 11:00 am, didn’t see Tucson until 9:00 p.m.
Fortunately, we had been able to keep our stalwart “airport buddy” Mike apprised of our lack of progress. One thing about Mike, he’s always flexible. Mike, accompanied with his girlfriend Julie, picked us up the airport for the ride back to Kartchner Caverns. By the time we got back to our RV it was after 11:00 p.m., a solid 12 hours later than planned. Add to that, we’d been up since 5:30 the previous morning. A very long return indeed.

Again, be sure to check out this link to the very bird-centric trip report written by Tropical Birding Nick Athanas who was a real joy to work and bird with.

In spite of the last minute flight delays, our trip was everything we had hoped for and more. The Colombians were very friendly and genuinely happy to see birders returning to their country. In retrospect it would have been great to have spent a lot more time in Central Columbia (at least two weeks). Perhaps another trip?
Our personal bird tally included 95 life birds, 3 heard only life birds, 34 endemic species, and a total 463 species (seen/heard). Our relatively low life list tally compared to others on the tour was the result of having birded so much in neighboring Ecuador.

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