Category Archives: 2016 Colombia

Travel Report on First Days in Bogota, Colombia, Sat. Dec. 10, 2016

Hello everyone.  I am delighted once more to be on the road, anticipating this trip will cover many parts of Colombia for wildlife and bird photography.  I left Tucson Monday morning Dec 5, and arrived in Bogota shortly after midnight on Tuesday.  Multiple sources recommend never hiring a taxi off the street or hailing an open one at the airport – a common problem in Bogota being referred to as the “millionaire ride,” where the taxi in transit stops on a side street allowing 2 friends to hop in, and they then spend the next several hours first robbing, then forcing, the hapless victim to utilize ATMs for cash on all cards until the daily limit is reached (This taxi crime is common also in Mexico City).  Therefore, one always is encouraged to call a taxi from an authorized company, or buy a taxi ticket at the authorized booth at the airport or bus stations.  There is a catch at the Bogota airport – the authorized taxi ticket booth is inside the international terminal where one exits customs, but the taxi ticket vendor only accepts cash payment in Colombian pesos.  Beside the taxi ticket booth is an international monetary exchange booth with outrageous expensive exchange rates.  The Bank ATMs which dispense Colombian pesos at the bank’s daily exchange rates are located just outside the terminal exit.  I went out, used an ATM for cash, then found I could not reenter the terminal to purchase a taxi ticket.  Instead, outside I was directed to another special taxi booth where I could buy an authorized ticket for a large luxury van at exactly twice the regular taxi rate.  What a system.  I took a normal taxi from the taxi ranks without issue, other than the extra 20 minutes of drive time the elderly driver spent going in circles trying to locate my little B&B hotel.  Next trip I will utilize the hotel’s offer to arrange an authorized taxi to pick me up.

Bogota is quite a clean and relatively modern city, at least around the Centro Historico (the colonial town center), and along the Avenida El Dorado which hosts one leg of the Transmilenio transport system down the middle. The El Dorado road runs from downtown all the way out to the airport. My hotel is closer to the airport, a location decision made to save me over an hour each way in taxi time.  To visit downtown, I just hopped on the Transmilenio, the ultra-modern bus system famous in Bogota, and now copied in Madrid and Mexico City, among other world capitals (sadly not in Tucson, where they chose to start with an overpriced rail line).  Rather than subway or metro rail lines, the Transmilenio utilizes buses which have 2 to 4 cars joined like trams.  They run entirely in dedicated lanes, and stop at frequent stations which operate like most metro and subway systems; that is you purchase rides on refillable cards outside the station, then simply touch the card to the entry turn-style to enter the station.  Once inside one can freely ride the system anywhere in the city, changing buses as necessary, and exiting the system at the destination.  It took me just 15 minutes to get downtown, and I could watch in amazement at the endless multilane traffic jams on either side of the Transmilenio.

Practically all of the really old colonial era buildings and churches, of which there never were many, have been destroyed multiple times by fire or war, and so the city does not compete with historic centers like in Mexico City, Guadalajara or even Lima.  But around the famous and original Plaza Bolivar (practically all South American cities of any size surround a Plaza Bolivar, named for Simon Bolivar, the independence hero for South America), are a number of interesting 17th to 19th century buildings, with pedestrian streets and many “living” statues lining the way as in Barcelona (these are “artists” which set up props and then generally paint themselves entirely silver, bronze or gold and strike poses representing a scene as one might encounter with a work of metallic art).

I have found a street with a dozen cheap restaurants a few blocks from my hotel where I am taking my evening meals.  On the 7th of December I went into a large open-fronted restaurant called Asadero de Carne, Mi Lindo Ranchito, a grilled meat restaurant.  The large interior had a couple dozen tables, but no customers.  Several young men were gathered partying in front of the large wood grill located behind a large bar.  They insisted the restaurant was open (I normally eat about 6pm, and almost all restaurants are then empty, but fill by 7pm), so I ordered a beer and had them show me what cuts of meat were available for grilling.  The day, Dec 7, is a special festival here in Colombia, the Dia de las Velitas, or Day of the Little Candles, which honors the Virgin Mary.  The staff, including the owner, stood drinking rum and 7-Up, which they shared with me (I only took a sip, sticking to my beer).  I wound up ordering the Punta de Anca cut of meat, which is a tri-tip sirloin cut famous for grilling in Colombia.  I cannot properly describe the huge platter they eventually brought me.  They thick-sliced and grilled the entire tri-tip cut, close to two pounds of meat, and served the slices spread to entirely cover a mound of French fries, roasted yucca and guacamole on a large oblong platter.  I can eat a huge amount of food, but was fully stuffed just a little over half way through that meal.  The entire meal plus two beers and lots of fun set me back just over $9 US.  As other customers started to arrive we toned down our private party, but took a bunch of pictures. On my 6 block walk back home through residential streets, almost every 5th house had the family outside lighting sets of candles on the sidewalks.  I have great memories of the Day of the Little Candles.

I spent Thursday with a hired taxi visiting two “humedals” (marshlands) just northwest of greater Bogota.  These sites were recommended for rare and endemic birds in my guide book to birding sites in Colombia.  Both sites recommended, and I agreed, to be accompanied by an armed guard, as robbers had plagued the large marshlands in recent years. Two rare endemic species exist nowhere else except in these local marshlands, and so may go extinct in the not distant future, one being the Bogota rail. Unfortunately, both sites appeared somewhat polluted, with one being completely bordered on one side by new high rise cheap apartment buildings which drained sickly looking water into the marsh.  I did see a number of birds, but all were of the more common varieties, and so the day was not what I had hoped.

From Bogota I flew to Leticia on Saturday – Leticia is a small town sitting on the bank of the Amazon River, at the point where Colombia, Brazil and Peru all meet.  I will spend the next 17 days along the Amazon, hoping the oncoming rainy “season” (it always rains, but is most constant and heavy around February) does not start early.  Later.  Dave


Report on Birding in Amazonia, Colombia, posted Dec. 26, 2016

December 10 I flew from Bogota to Leticia, the capital of the Amazona Department.  Leticia is situated on the northeast bank of the Amazon River at the point where 3 countries meet, Colombia, Brazil and Peru.  From my hotel I simply can walk a few blocks southeast and pass into Tabatinga, Brazil – no immigration or checkpoints – although if one is traveling farther into Brazil where documentation is needed, one must get a visa at the proper offices.  Together, Leticia and Tabatinga have a population of around 100,000.  This is the largest town between Iquitos, Peru, which lies a few hundred miles upriver where the Amazon first takes its name, and Manaus, Brazil which is over a thousand miles downriver.   Just west of Leticia lies a large river island and town which is Peruvian and the northwestern side of the Amazon all is Peru.  I am told that most people here speak both Spanish and Portuguese and the currency of all three countries is used freely in the three towns.

I stayed in one of the better hotels, the Waira Suites, where I was upgraded to a double roomed suite with two flat screen TVs, which I did not use, and two air-conditioners, which I did use.  The first 3 days we received one huge downpour each afternoon-evening.  The days were mostly oppressively hot and humid, particularly when the sun came out, which was often.  City traffic is heavy, and consists over 90% of motorbikes, scooters and motor trikes (“tuk tuks”) with covers, used as taxis. This is similar to traffic in Iquitos, Peru, and makes sense when one realizes there are no roads connecting the Amazon towns to the outside world.  All commerce must either arrive by boat on the very long route up the Amazon from the Atlantic, or by air.  Surprising to me was that close to half the bike and scooter drivers are female.

The manager of my hotel put me in touch with a biology professor, Elais Cuao, who is an expert on the birds here in Amazonia.  Although somewhat pricey, I decided to utilize his expertise throughout my stay in the Amazon.  Each of my three full days in Leticia were spent in patches of forest and existence agricultural cultivation north of Leticia, with one day further north in more primary forest.  The trails on the forest floor often run through long sections of boggy ground, interspersed every 100ms or so by small deep ravines with creeks.  Wearing the 15 inch high rubber boots (which I purchased upon arrival) is pretty much mandatory, as much of the ground is two to six inches of mud.  Most of the deep creeks are crossed by single plank bridges built by the indigenous, usually with single pole handholds tied down with strips of bark to poles grounded in the creek below.  The senderos (forest trails) lead to areas where the indigenous have built their communal homes.  The heat really is oppressive, less for the temperature, which I doubt reaches much past the mid to high 80s F, but mostly for the continuous near 100% humidity.  One remains pretty much permanently soaked with sweat while working the trails with the weight of the backpack, two camera systems and a heavy-duty monopod.  My cheaper camera I keep covered to avoid killing it with sweat, as I did with a new camera in Costa Rica a few years ago.  The professional equipment is supposed to be fairly water resistant and I have not had problems with it.

Age has brought a new set of problems for my rain forest walks.  Starting a couple of years ago, one of my toes started pulling to the right and now tries to climb over the big toe.  Doctors don’t recommend surgery.  I have bought good hiking boots with ample vertical room in the toe box to mitigate the problem.  However, here in the rain forest, one must purchase the cheap and available high black rubber boots.  They are relatively narrow and have no vertical room in the toe box – my first day out I almost wore the top off the lifted toe. Ow! Ow! I ordered some medical “paper” tape to tie the toe down.  Turns out they sold me the very sticky surgical tape, and it almost ripped my skin off my toe and foot.  I exchanged it for paper tape for the skin, which worked the third day for about 2 hours, then came apart.  I have since arranged mostly for birding by private boat down the small rivers, and only go to terra firma where mixed flocks of birds are passing through.  Thus I can wear more often my own boots.  However, that has led to multiple chigger bites, to which I am quite allergic (the chiggers, known here as “aradores,” inhabit the high grasses along the edge of waterways, and climb up inside one’s pant legs unless tucked into the high rubber boots).  Never easy birding in the rain forests.

I was fortunate in three days of Leticia birding to photograph a number of new species, including the Solitary Cacique, Short-tailed Parrot, White-throated Toucan, Chestnut-sided Aracari, Paradise Tanager and Red-throated Caracara.

I did spend a couple of hours one afternoon “visiting” the muelle (dock or port) in Brazil – this involved simply taking a tuk tuk from Leticia, crossing the border which runs down the middle of a street, and continuing south to the larger port of Tabatinga.  There one finds docked the larger 4 story boats which ply the 3-day route from Manaus to Tabatinga.  If a person wishes to continue up-river into Peru, she must head for the Leticia muelle, where the smaller “Express” boats start the 10 hour run up to Iquitos.

On December 14 I traveled by “Express” boat from Leticia to Puerto Narino, the only other town of any size on the Amazon in Colombia.  I had made the decision that, despite the cost, it would be worth the price to have Elais accompany me throughout my expedition on the Amazon tributaries.  The trip upriver took about 2 hours to cover the approximately 90 km.  Puerto Narino is a small town made up of indigenous peoples from the three tribes who live in this part of Colombia.  It is touristed by daytrip groups from Leticia, and is known as an ecologically minded town.  The homes are clean, everything green and lush, and the only “streets” are concrete or paving stone pathways throughout the town.  No motorized vehicles are allowed (excepting the boats at the two piers, as all traffic is by river).  Although my hotel in Leticia had AC rooms and all facilities, the related hotel, Waira Selva, in Puerto Narino was rather basic; an overhead fan, a small balcony, cold water shower, bed and cupboard.

I stayed for 5 days, and our daily routine, rain permitting, was to be out the door by 6:30 generally to take a pequepeque (small canoe type wooden boat, powered by a gas engine which runs a small propeller on a very long 10 ft. shaft), which are the most common powered local transport in Amazonia, and able to navigate over submerged logs and through heavy masses of water plants.  Purchasing gas on the river means pulling up to small wood cabins over the water where the expensive fuel is kept in large plastic containers.  It is sold by the liter poured into plastic Coke bottles for use by the pequepeques (see picture).

We traveled three times into Tarapoto Lake, a lovely large ox-bow lake deep in the forest, where we encountered a number of birds, including the wonderfully named Horned Screamer, White-headed Marsh Tyrant and the incredible Long-billed Woodcreeper, with its giraffe like neck, long narrow head and long bill, all designed for searching for little frogs which live inside the bromeliads growing on the largest of the rainforest trees. We did one night trip, as I was interested in photographing the black caiman and night birds I previously had seen in Ecuador.  I had been told, but found it hard to believe, that no black caiman remained, not even babies (if caiman are present at all they are very easy to locate at night with a good spotlight, as their eyes shine at the edge of the water like brilliant red beams).  I was told repeatedly that the indigenous had hunted them to extinction in this area in the last 20 years.  Similarly, I had hoped to see the much endangered Amazon manatee, which my books claimed were in this lake – again I was told they had been hunted to local extinction. I was able to photograph two new species of nightjars, using the light of only my powerful Fenix LED torch (flash reflects from their eyes and ruins the picture).  We spent one day traveling a long distance up the Loretoyacu to the Cocha Soto, a black water marsh area, where we got great views of a pair of Slate-colored Hawks, a Red-throated Caracara and the brilliant Masked-crimson Tanager.

From Puerto Narino, on December 19 we traveled by small boat downriver a short ways to the Amacayacu National Park, and mouth of the Amacayacu (Yacu means river in Quechua, so if I said Amacayacu River it would be like saying Amaca River River).  About 20km up the Amacayacu lies the small indigenous village of San Martin, lying just inside the edge of the Park.  There I stayed at the Casa Gregorio, a very rustic lodging (one night I was sharing the lone bathroom with 7 others) run by Heike, a Dutch biologist who arrived 12 years ago to study leaf-cutter ants, and wound up staying, marrying Juan Gregorio, a local leader.  They provide a few rooms and all meals, mostly entertaining European independent travelers who wish an authentic rainforest experience, including lessons in various crafts from the locals.  I spent my days again departing at 6:30, for usually 8 hours or so, by private boat to various birding areas, where I took my first photos of the sadly named Drab Water Tyrant, as well as the common Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures circling overhead.  Mostly we traveled up the Amacayacu, but did walk one day a short way further into the Amacayacu National Park, where I achieved a photo of the skulking, hard-to-find White-shouldered Antbird.

After about the 5th day in the Colombian Amazon, I started to complain a little, more each day, about what to me seemed a lack of bird density compared with my memories of Amazonia in Peru and Ecuador.  Elais kept telling me that there were too many people living up the tributaries near the Amazon in Colombia, and they hunted many of the birds, as well as animals.  On my final day in San Martin, my 12th day in Amazonia, we crossed the Amazon to, first, Isla Cacao, a river island in Peru, and then onto the Peruvian mainland up the Yanayacu tributary.  What a difference.  Within a couple of hours we encountered as many birds as we normally would have in two days, and a number of harder to find species, such as both the Long-winged Antwren and Cherrie’s Antwren and, very unusually, both the Green and Rufous Kingfisher and the Pigmy Kingfisher; both are tiny (the pygmy really small), and both quite rare to find, much less photograph.  I also achieved my first half-way decent photo of the beautiful Scarlet-crowned Barbet.  We also encountered Squirrel Monkeys traveling the high tree-branch highways, and a 3-toed Sloth.

On December 22 we returned by Express boat to Leticia, and on the 23rd I paid an exorbitant price hiring a “fast” boat and we traveled once more across the Amazon into Peru, this time up the Gamboa River.  Again, we were rewarded with an abundance of species and overall bird numbers, including the Chestnut Woodpecker, Black-tailed Trogon and Mustached Wren. The river runs through entirely indigenous land, but quickly reaches untouched forest, except by fishermen.  Because it is low water season, the narrow river channel was choked with a type of water lily plant that the wind pushed into giant mats completely covering all water.  Great habitat for some water birds, but difficult for the boat motor, which continued to get clogged with the plants.  In the indigenous communities, many local families, with all their kids, were out in the water at reed choked river edges, harvesting the yellow egg pouches of some small spiny fish – “Amazonian caviar”.

Quite clearly the small stretch of Amazonia that lies within Colombia, all on the North side of the Amazon, has had problems maintaining the abundance of birdlife, and has had local extinctions of various wildlife.  This may partially be due to a higher human density in the very small area available to Colombia, but I rather suspect is may have a lot to do with the fact that less than 20 years ago, this stretch of the Amazon was heavily traveled, lived on and used for the drug trade by the FARC, the Communist revolutionary army which perpetrated against the Colombian army the longest formal war of the 20th Century, only officially ended by a peace treaty signed a few weeks ago.

Food has been somewhat less than wished for – generally consisting of small pieces of either chicken (often fairly dry) or most commonly fish (usually quite bony).  These are accompanied by rice, potatoes and lots of yuca, a plant stem that, when cooked, mostly resembles somewhat stringy potatoes cut into thick sugarcane type lengths.  Breakfast can usually include eggs, but almost always lots of fruit variety – other than bananas, papaya and pineapple I don’t recognize any of the fruit.  Much of it ranges from grape sized to mango sized colorful spheres, tough skin surrounding a tart fruity interior, usually enclosing a large single or double seed.  The local beers are much like local beers in any Latin American country – all straw colored lagers with lots of flavor (not necessarily good flavor).  I actually now tend to buy the Poker brand, which my guide and a couple of local boatmen describe to me as “agua de burro” (you should be able to interpret).

I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas working on my photos, writing, reading, checking the handful of emails I could eventually open on the OH SO SLOW internet here, and drinking the local Poker beer.  At least they have internet in Leticia, unlike Puerto Narino.  This year, although I have a full set of all my music with me, including about 20 Christmas albums, I listened to no Christmas music.  There was none around town, and the only sign of celebrations were a couple of special programs for kids in the main hall of my hotel.  The women’s shoe store across the street from my room balcony played horrid loud music all day, and the store was always packed with shoppers just before Christmas.  The only other sign of the holiday was unbelievably long lines at the Bank ATMs the two days before.  I guess Christmas just doesn’t quite work the same in the Amazon.  Ebenezer Scrooge would have found few spirits here to guide his redemption.

I left Amazonia December 26 and flew back to Bogota, where I have finally had internet sufficient to upload this report.  Tomorrow I fly to Barranquia on the Caribbean coast, and start my several weeks in the Santa Marta region of the North, which comprises the most bird rich area of Colombia.

Later.  Dave


Report on Birding the Caribbean North of Colombia, Jan. 21, 2017

I flew from Bogota to Barranquilla, the third largest city in Colombia, on December 27; my earlier flight from Leticia, in Amazonia, to Bogota was held on the tarmac for 40 minutes as we waited before liftoff for a rainstorm to subside.  My flight from Bogota also was delayed on the tarmac for an hour, in clear weather, with few overall flights, and no information from the crew as to the problem.

I decided to spend 3 nights in Barranquilla because I could not book a hotel room in either Cartagena or Santa Marta.  Colombians flock to the northern Caribbean coast from the middle of December to the about the 10th of January when they celebrate the “Dia de los Reyes Magos” (day of the wise men), and everything during this period is booked and double priced.  Barranquilla is an exception – it is a large city with few tourist sites or hotels – a rather grim place in the “historic” Centro comprised of mostly concrete and cracking sidewalks, with street vendor stalls blocking easy passage through many of the streets.  It also has a bad reputation for street theft, at least according to the huge numbers of local police who often insisted on accompanying me from my hotel entrance (I suspect looking for tips was more likely the reason, although I had few doubts as to the criminal element).  Further from the center, the city was more modern, but bland, with nothing to attract tourists (the one huge exception being that the city hosts the second largest Carnival celebration in the Americas, after Rio de Janeiro – this year it is in late February).  I did use part of my stay to visit ATM machines many more times in preparation for further cash currency requirements to occur with my birding in the north.

From Barranquilla I traveled by shuttle van – (never Marsol again, Marsol vans were located on the wrong side of the city for transport anywhere, requiring over an extra hour of travel time, the vans were over-packed, with dripping AC units, broken seats, and ours broke down one kilometer from the destination) – to Santa Marta, a delightful port town to the northeast.  I booked in Santa Marta for 6 days to get me through New Year’s, thinking that would be the worst of the crowded season (I was later proven wrong).  Many of the streets through the old center of town are now converted to pedestrian use only,  the sandy beach coast is lined by the broad “Malecon” pedestrian walkways, which themselves line the roadway all the way north to the large seaport where containers are constantly being loaded and offloaded from large ships.  Many of the little restaurants are new (the highest ranked 3 restaurants in my Moon travel guide do not exist anymore, despite the guidebook being published 1 year ago).  My favorite finds were a “little hole in the wall” called La Oficina on a pedestrian street (unknown why the strange name), which each morning served me a pile of steaming scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes and onions, a large freshly fried “arrepa” (a cornmeal and white cheese cake) and a plastic glass of wonderful fresh squeezed orange juice –  the price 6,000 Pesos ($2.00); the other favorite was “China Town,” another hole in the wall restaurant with sidewalk tables on the Malecon facing the sea; it was always crowded, and owned by an old Chinese couple, grandparents, who always were there and jumping to meet me each day (I think I made an especially good impression the first day by admiring and commenting on their grandbaby, always tightly cradled in the grandmother’s arms while she sat close to my table).  The food was mediocre, but I pretty much like any Chinese food, especially the mostly seafood types, and the portions were so stupendous that everyone carried out half of what they were served (I sadly had to leave my uneaten portions, and did not feel comfortable suggesting they be fed to the always present, emaciated and sad looking, dogs begging around the tables).

My evenings I spent on the Plaza de los Novios (roughly “lover’s plaza”), the main center of the old town, watching the dogs barking and the little kids playing with their new Christmas presents (huge numbers of various kinds of skates and 3 wheeled boards with various motive mechanisms), reading and sipping cheap red wine from Argentina or Chile (available in 1 liter boxes), which I consumed from 16oz diet Coke bottles (the red wine looks exactly like Coke in the bottle).  My days I spent wandering the Malecon and again hitting many ATM machines getting the “efectivo” cash necessary for several weeks in the mountains, to pay expensive guides and transport where there are no banks, internet nor acceptance of credit cards (I noted previously the fact that ATM machines would not dispense more than $100 to $200 worth of Pesos at a time, each time unfortunately charging up to a $3 fee).  One day I traveled by local bus to the little town of Taganga, just a few kilometers north over some coastal hills, which has become the popular haven for backpackers.  It lies in a small protected cove at the edge of the famous Tayrona National Park, has a lovely beach completely crowded with colorful boats waiting to entice the tourists to go to the secluded beaches of the Park.  I checked on the prices to go to the park for a day of birding – they wanted P1,000,000, or about $330.  I declined.  All prices were doubled or tripled during this festive holiday period.

On January 4 I traveled by private taxi the roughly 30kms from Santa Marta up to MInca, a small town at about 2,000ft elevation in the low foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, perhaps the most bird rich patch of land on earth (at last count over 630 bird species in the mountains alone, about the area of New York City, with roughly the number of species existing in the entire US and Canada).  The Santa Marta Range is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and includes the highest peak in Colombia at just under 19,000ft, which also boasts title as the fifth most prominent mountain in the world, meaning height from the base ground level from which the mountain is viewed (Everest is both highest and most prominent).  The range is not part of the Andes, and so forms a huge mountain “island” system, separated from all other mountains, and over millennia has produced a huge number of endemic species of birds, reptiles and plants, found nowhere else on earth.

In Minca I stayed at the basic, but delightfully situated, Hotel La Casona, which has hummingbird and fruit feeders scattered at the edge of the forest below its back veranda.  I spent 5 days in Minca, photographing the birds around the hotel in the afternoons, and hired guides (the first of 5 guides I used during the next 13 days in the Caribbean region) to take me early mornings to nearby bird rich spots and to hike the senderos and dirt roads above Minca.  Birds photographed for the first time included the Steely-vented hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, Crimson-backed Tanager, Swallow Tanager and Golden-winged Sparrow, as well as the Collared Aracari and Gartered Trojan.  All tiny restaurants in town which were open in the evening seemed to just serve hamburgers – I finally found a restaurant, most inappropriately named “Burger Town,” which actually had most of its menu devoted to fish, ribs and pasta – a welcome change, and my nightly regular choice.

Whereas in Amazonia I had problems with my allergy to the local chiggers, in Minca occurs a species of gegenes (no-see-ems) which gave me the same allergic reactions, now on my arms rather than legs – three days of intense itching and bright redness surrounding the bite, followed by a growing blister which would often reach the size of a dime, taking weeks to heal.  Application of 100% Deet to clothing and skin was generally effective for prevention, but a nuisance to use twice daily.  I really need to visit a specialist to find why I have become so allergic to certain types of bites with age – I thought the immune system was supposed to weaken, not go into overdrive.

From MInca I arranged 4-wheel drive transportation up to the El Dorado Reserve, the first and most famous private reserve of the ProAves Foundation, which now owns about 25 private reserves in Colombia, protecting the rarest and endemic species of birds found here in the most bird-rich country on earth.  The  El Dorado Reserve is huge, and covers elevations from about 4,000ft up to the local Kennedy Peak at about 10,000ft.  The El Dorado Lodge is fairly rustic, hugging the steep mountain-side at about 6,600ft, and is surrounded by thick cloud forest and steep trails, somewhat reminiscent of Kodai where I went to boarding school as a child in India.  To reach the Lodge, and continue up to the local peak, required body-wrenching travel in 4-wheel drive vehicles – available for hire with driver and/or guides for very hefty prices.

I stayed in one of the many “dorm” rooms below the lodge, all of which were advertised to require sharing if necessary, but as very few people visit the lodge before February, I not only had a large room to myself (3 beds including a bunk), with private bath and hot water, but a huge picture window overlooking the Caribbean coast to the west, where at night one could see the lights of Santa Marta, the long La Cienega strip winding through the huge lagoon and the distant city of Barranquilla.  I had full moon nights, so would awake to bright moonlight flooding my room, with the Caribbean Sea reflecting the moonlight up into the mountains.  Beautiful.  For two of my days I shared the Lodge with 5 others, then one night had an international bird tour group, one night with an American bird life-lister and his Bogota guide, and one night I was entirely by myself at the Lodge.  The life-lister was searching for just 3 birds he had not previously recorded in the mountains – the local biologist told me he was ranked number 3 or 4 in the world for number of species listed (seen) in all the Americas.  All but one night we had no electricity, as the severe winds this time of year continued to fell large trees and tree limbs onto the primitive electrical transmission system which somehow climbs into these mountains.  The lodge building had a generator, so had power in the evening, but none of the rooms or walks to the rooms had power, so flashlights or lanterns were necessary for going to bed and getting up each morning.

The food was adequate to quite good (a little too much white rice and sweets for my taste, but they accommodated my personal requests well), and there was a lot of it;  three full meals a day, whether you were hungry or not – and the drivers and guides insisted on taking bags of snacks for the hours between meals when roaming around on the sides of the upper reserve.  Plus, every meal was served with different native fresh fruit juices, filling multiple pitchers on each table.  The endless coffee service, pitchers of exotic juices, and very expensive beer (the glass bottles must be hauled up the mountain in 4-wheel drives, along with all other food and supplies), all combined such that I believe I went 5 full days without every drinking just plain water.

I spent one day hiking out to La Cumbres ridge, where a Reserve forest guard, Cristian,  lives alone with his wife.  This is 5 kilometers of semi steep, hiking only, trail from the main lodge; the guard, with 3 others, built the trail, his own home, as well as the solar power which runs it, a year and half ago.  He has to haul in all food, supplies and natural gas on his back.  We spent part of a day birding along that trail.  On two days I paid for a private 4X4 and driver to take me and the Reserve’s local biologist-guide, Roger, to the top of the local peak, at 10,000 feet, where a number of the endemics are found.  I have posted pictures of many of the endemics; you will notice that a large number of them are named “Santa Marta _____”, accurately describing the only location on earth where they may be found.

Birds photographed include the Band-tailed Guan, White-tipped Quetzal, Blue-naped Chorophonia, Santa Marta Woodstar (together with other woodstar hummingbirds, the tiniest birds on earth, head and body combined barely over an inch long), Santa Marta Brush-Finch, Santa Marta Warbler, Santa Marta Wood-Wren, and Rusty-headed Spinetail, the later 5 of which are endemic.  One day, while continuing my unsuccessful attempt to photograph the Santa Marta Antpitta (at least 6 times we had them answering to recorded calls, often to within less than 20 feet in the brush, but they never appeared in the open), I found a small family of Red Howler Monkeys overhead in a huge forest tree; I got some good photos as Howlers almost always provide interesting portraits.

January 14 I bid El Dorado goodbye, and traveled with Sebastian, my guide for the next 4 days, back down to MInca.  We spent two days birding the 4X4 road well below El Dorado but above Minca, where I was rewarded with my first view of the Groove-billed Toucanet, Black-fronted Wood-Quail, Santa Marta Antbird and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, all rare and difficult to photograph.

On the third and fourth days we traveled on down to the Caribbean coast and then north, where first we birded the edges of Tayrona National Park for its dry-forest birds, and then a trail up Rio Don Diego for humid tropical forest birds.  I was rewarded with the Brown-crested Flycatcher, Russet-throated Puffbird, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant and Lance-tailed Manakin, among many others.  We drove on into the desert of the Guajira District, which is the northern most finger of Colombia that joins Venezuela, to the small indigenous community of Los Camarones, which sits on the edge of the Los Flamingos National Reserve.  Since I previously have on many occasions seen the American Flamingo, we were not there to take boats out to the Flamingos.  Instead, we birded the small lagoons, where I photographed the Roseate Spoonbill and Scarlet Ibis along with other waders, and then spent hours with a local indigenous guide (necessary here as all land belongs to the indigenous peoples) walking the senderos (trails) through the very dry desert cactus and thorn tree forests.  We were fortunate in locating the Vermilion Cardinal, White-fringed Antwren, Black-crested Antshrike, Orinocan Saltador and Chestnut Piculet, all relatively difficult and/or near endemic species.

The afternoon of the 17th Sebastian drove me back to Santa Marta, where I spent two nights cleaning up, working on photos, and enjoying cheap Chinese food on the Malecon.  On the 19th I traveled by Brasilia Bus (a first class bus service through much of northern South America, and a vast improvement to Marsol Shuttle Service) the 5 ½ hours to Cartagena; the high Colombian tourist season now is over here in the Caribbean, and so finding lodging was not a problem.  I am in a delightful B&B, called the Patio de Getsemani, with very friendly and helpful owners – the lodging lies in Getsemani, the little walled district now part of the Old Walled City, directly across from the San Jose Battlement on the walls.  Views from the rooftop terrace in the late afternoon are stunning, and include a full view across the bay to Castillo de San Felipe, the largest fortress built in the New World.  The Old City is still entirely surrounded by huge defensive walls.  The fortress and walls all were constructed starting in the 16th Century to defend against the pirates of the Caribbean which periodically sacked the city for the gold and silver stored here destined for Spain; the entire Old City is a World Heritage Site.  But more on Cartagena in the next travelogue – this one has grown oversized due to the intervening times, happenings and photos.

I am well and life is good.  Until later.  Dave

Travel Report on Cartagena, Birding Rio Blanco and Birding Nevada del Ruiz NP, Feb. 4, 2017

I last reported after just arriving in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.  Cartagena, the Spanish version of the name for ancient Carthage, is listed as a World Heritage Site for its 500 year old walled port city from which Spain shipped much of its plundered New World gold and silver.  The old walls still completely surround the Old City, as does the Caribbean Sea – the Old City basically was an island reached by a causeway and one-time drawbridge.  Just outside the Old City on the nearby hillside sits the largest fortress built in the New World, Castillo de San Felipe.  The walls and fort were built during the 16th and 17th century to defend against attacks by the real pirates of the Caribbean, who (including Sir Francis Drake in 1568) had sacked the Old City a couple of times.

Within the walls lies the original Old City, as well as an old working class neighborhood, Getsemani, originally reclaimed from the marshes.  The Old City is a wonderful grid of narrow lanes overlooked on all sides by solid lines of two and three story buildings, all with upper floor wooden balconies, sporting potted flowers and intense colors.  At every other intersection lies an ancient church or plaza, and in every plaza now sit myriad metal sculptures.  Much of the flavor is similar to Havana, Cuba, with which the Old City shares many cultural relations.

Getsemani, now a part of the Old Walled City, has a number of small hotels and restaurants, as well as pleasant patios, and a number of famous backpacker hostels.  I stayed in the lovely Patio de Getsemani, a B&B with very friendly owners, within easy walking distance of everything within the city walls.  The rooftop had plants and shaded tables, with fabulous views over the City Walls to the inland sea and fortress.  Every evening I sipped my red wine and smoked a cigar on the rooftop, watching the sunset colors change on the fortress walls.   On Sunday afternoon, local teams had baseball tournaments just outside the front door to the B&B, playing in the street and inner edges of the Wall – only down the street beyond third-base was their room for an outfield, so they played with 8 players, losing a center fielder, and having the right fielder playing a short-stop between first and second.  As the city Wall passed immediately behind the first to second baseline, with the sea beyond, they had some revised rules.  The pitches were underhanded (presumably to lessen the hitting distance), and any hit that went above the wall (high to right field) was an automatic 3-outs for the batter’s team (a rule clearly designed to keep from losing too many balls into the sea).

Cartagena also sports the original “La Cava de Puros,” an excellent and famous cigar shop now with branches in Bogota and Medellin.  I spent a fair amount of time talking with the owner, an Italian living for years in Cartagena.  The shop mainly sells all the well-known brands of Cuban cigars, but the prices, as I found also in Mexico, are astronomical compared to cigars from Central America or Colombia (the very cheapest Cuban puros start at about $20 US, with the majority running $30 to $40 each).  I tried some of the Cava’s own branded Colombian cigars and found them very good, running at around $5 each.

I spent several hours walking the walls around much of the Old City, and spent an entire morning exploring the Castillo de San Felipe; first built in the mid-16th century, the outer walls of the fortress rise over a hundred feet, constructed of giant blocks of yellow-black stone coursed to slope inward.  Around the various upper levels are dozens of splits through the upper walls where cannon are placed to provide fire power in all directions.  Through various small entryways from the upper decks is a maze of long splitting tunnels providing hidden passageways throughout the fort, as well as leading to underground prison cells.

From Cartagena on January 24 I flew to Bogota and from there to Manizales, which lies on the western slopes of the Central Cordillera of the Andes – The Andes, which run north from Ecuador up through most of Colombia, split within Colombia into three separate north-south ranges, or “cordilleras,” named the Oriental, Central and Occidental (Eastern, Central and Western).  Bogota sits on a high plateau on the Eastern range, Medellin and Manizales on the high western slopes of the Central range, and Cali on the Western Range.  Travel between these various areas seems close on the map, but by bus on the mountain 2-lane highways takes forever.

Manizales depends on a great deal of industry for its prosperity, and is a rather modern city of 390,000, sitting at just over 7,000ft., it is draped over steep mountain ridges on all sides, but provides little in the way of interest for tourists.  I have been ensconced in the Estelar El Cable hotel, named for the nearby remnant of the old cable system used for the first half of the 20th century to transport coffee over the Central Cordillera, where it then was shipped up the Magdelena River to the Caribbean coast for export.  The hotel is a business hotel, full during the week with business people, empty on weekends, and offering terrific views over Manizales.  It includes with the room free hot breakfast and dinner buffets.

Although Manizales itself doesn’t offer much attraction for tourists, nearby are two significant areas of great interest to those looking for rare birds – Rio Blanco and Nevada del Ruiz.  Reserva Rio Blanco, covering much of the slopes above Manizales at about 8,600 to over 9,000 ft., is a private reserve owned by the local water company of Manizales to provide the city’s water.  Rio Blanco is famous among birding tours for the huge variety of rare birds, including up to 7 species of Antpittas – these are birds of the deep forest floors, and prior to about 20 years ago were not often seen nor photographed as they stayed in the very dark undergrowth.  A now famous person (to birders), Angel Paz, about 15 years ago discovered on his large reserve in Ecuador that by keeping a regular daily schedule, over years antpittas could be enticed at set times to come out of the undergrowth into small dark sheltered clearings within the forest.  They are lured by providing earthworms, a favorite food of the birds.  (I visited Angel Paz when in Ecuador a few years ago, and photographed his several species of antpittas).

Two National Parks in Ecuador now also lure out several other species of antpittas, and, here in Colombia, Rio Blanco is the first to do this, providing me the opportunity to see 4 new species of antpittas – I was able to get wonderful photos of all four species, the Chestnut-crowned, Brown-banded (endemic here), Bicoloured and Slate-crowned.  Rio Blanco also offers over 8 species of hummingbirds around its very rustic “lodge” (I hesitate to use the term lodge), and a huge number of other deep forest birds along its heavily cloud-forested senderos (trails).  I spent 3 days at the Reserve, each morning climbing the steep hills and trails with the local guide Carlos, who was wonderful at locating all the specialties.  We also went out twice after dark for nightjars and owls.  I was able to get fine photos of the endemic White-breasted Woodstar, Long-tailed Sylph, Capped Conebill, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Golden-headed Quetzal and Beryl-spangled Tanager, among many others.  Among night photos, I captured the rather rare Mouse Opossum and White-throated Screech-Owl.

The second nearby attraction is the Parque Nacional Nevada del Ruiz, which encompasses a huge section of “paramo,”(somewhat poorly translated as “a very high moor”) – the term paramo in the Andes refers to the large expanses of flat-land, hills and mountainsides situated above tree line, occurring here at close to 14,000 ft., and extending up to where the perpetual glaciers and winter snow pack sit at around 16,000 ft..  The paramo is not barren, but is verdant and thickly covered with exotic bunch grasses, cushion-plants, flowering bushes and shrubs and very strange succulents and the Frailejones, tall yucca type plants.  I spent two full 11 hour days, with private 4X4 vehicle, driver and bird guide, traveling up the mountain one direction, and returning an alternative route, for additional species.  We had a huge thunderstorm in the Manizales area the afternoon of my 4th day, and thereafter the mountain roads up to the paramo had a large number of landslides partially blocking some of the way.

Although not a huge number of species, many of the endemic and rarest birds, many very exotic, reside only at high altitude.  The paramo of Nevada del Ruiz is home to one particular hummingbird, called the Buffy Helmetcrest, which resides only in this small spot on earth and is highly sought after by birders.  I managed to get a number of delicious photos of it feeding on the exotic flowers and Frailejon plants.  Clamoring around on the hills leads quickly to shortness of breath at this altitude.

The two roads up to the paramo, from 7,000 to almost 14,000 feet, climb through heavy cloud forest with a vast number of bird species.  Here, where fog often was a problem at the higher elevations, I managed photos of, among others, the Blue-backed Conebill, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, White-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Pale-naped Brush-Finch, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Stout-billed Cinclodes and Tawny Antpitta.  Within the cloud forest, and often fogged in, at 11,500 ft. sits a hotel with thermal springs heated by the dormant volcano; the hotel has created gardens and put out feeders to attract hummingbirds.  Here I photographed 10 species of hummingbirds, including the rare and endemic Black-thighed Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Tourmaline Sunangel, Shining Sunbeam, Mountain Velvetbreast, Great Saphirewing, Sword-billed Hummingbird (the straight bill is as long as the bird), and, most exotic and beautiful, the Rainbow-bearded Thornbill (must see photos).

Although not as expensive as my travel to lodges in the Amazon, or boating the Galapagos, this trip is “running up the tab” as I have opened the purse-strings somewhat more than usual for private boats and 4-wheel drive vehicles, both with operators, and private bird guides – the reward is more photo opportunities, and many more rare, endangered and endemic species.

From Manizales I currently am planning to travel north to Jardin, not far from Medellin, where I will continue seeking bird photo opportunities.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Birding Jardin and Las Tangares, Colombia, Feb. 19, 2017

I last reported from Manizales in the Andean Central Cordillera (range).  From Manizales I traveled February 5th by private car down through the Cauca River Valley, which runs between the Central and Western Cordilleras, and up to Jardin which lies in a central plateau on the Western Cordillera.  Jardin is a small town with brightly painted two-story buildings and a wonderful central Plaza with the impressive neo-gothic iglesia on its east side.  My first night I was forced to book a room just outside of town as most of the hotels were full; I moved into town the second and third nights, but was unhappy with the hotel I chose.  I moved a second time, this time to the wonderfully cheap and centrally located Hotel El Dorado, just off the Plaza.  For a large, bright room, large bathroom with hot water, creaky wooden floor, and friendly staff I paid just 30,000 Pesos per night ($10).  Breakfast I found each day at the wonderful Café Fuente del Sabor, open 7 days a week at 5:30 am (perfect for birders), with 3 scrambled eggs, white cheese, an arrepa (Colombia’s famous maize bread), donut and huge “soup-bowl” of hot chocolate – for 5,500 Pesos (just under $2).

Most birding was done on the 4-wheel-drive track road which runs over a pass at just under 10,000 feet before dropping to Rio Sucio on its way to the Cauca Valley.  With my guide Alejandro, and a different Willy’s Jeep and driver each time, we birded the Jardin-Rio Sucio Road every other day for roughly 7 to 8 hours.  The area if famous for its rich and varied bird life on this road, and I was successful in photographing many species including the Slate-backed Chat-Tyrant, Lachrymose Mountain-Tanager (yes, it has a yellow tear-drop spot behind the eye), Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Saffron-headed Tanager, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher and the endangered, only recently rediscovered and endemic, Yellow-eared Parrots.

Very close to town, in a Lek (special display areas, used annually by certain types of male birds for attracting females) on a heavily forested steep hillside, a couple of dozen Andean Cock-of-the-Rock males gathered morning and evening for raucous jousting on the dark forest boughs, hoping to attract a female.  Andean Cock-of-the-Rock males are among the most striking and beautiful of the world’s birds.  Normally the Cock-of-the-Rock leks are notoriously hard to find and notoriously hard to get to, and support few individuals.  This particular lek is unlike any I ever have heard of, and the birds are numerous, though difficult to photograph in the very dim light, with the perpetual intervening twigs and leaves.

The town plaza filled each evening with kids and dogs and folks strolling and sitting and eating from the dozens of food vendors.  I sat on a bench, sipping my red Argentinian wine from a plastic coke bottle, smoking my pipe and watching the activity.  Many elderly women, apparently single, dressed high fashion (to my eyes), walked through the plaza.  Most who passed me turned and smiled (not common with other folk).  I got the distinct impression that many wealthy widows, and/or divorcees, moved from the larger cities to Jardin for the beautiful county life, and perhaps were looking for the prospect of a not-quite elderly gentleman to join them.

After 8 days in Jardin, I hired a private car and driver again to transport me to Reserva Las Tangares, another ProAves Foundation bird reserve, located on the western slopes of the Western Cordillera.  I stayed in the somewhat rustic lodge rooms (they had electricity and good hot-water “showers,” though as was common throughout, the cheaper lodging’ showers don’t actually have shower heads, just the overhead water pipe – it does ensure good water output).  I once more was served too much food, with three meals a day plus the constant pushing of snacks and drinks between meals.  A tropical issue was having the dining tables out under an open palapa, overlooking the beautiful rapids of the Atrato River, which wound entirely around half the lodge property; the lights in the palapa at breakfast, before dawn, attracted hundreds of different insects to the white table-clothes below.  I have included a photo of an unusual leaf insect with huge pincers.

The Reserve’s guard, who knew most of the birds well, acted as my guide and drove me daily up the 4-wheel track road that passes back east over the ridge to drop into a central valley.  The road is famous for its variety of tanagers and many other rare and special birds.  Everywhere, as was common also in the Central Cordillera, debris from recent land-slides broke through the roads, and left many places where I worried the ground would give way under us.  All mountain slopes run at least 45 degrees, and many run to almost sheer cliffs, yet are covered with high trees and vines.  Photographs were difficult to take through the heavy vegetation and in the high trees – of course this is a common complaint for everywhere.  I have included shots of the Flame-rumped Tanager, Scrub Tanager, Ornate Flycatcher, the near endemics Velvet-purple Coronet and Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, the endangered and endemics Black-and-Gold Tanager and very rare Red-bellied Grackle.

From Las Tangaras I came by private car to Medellin to plan my final days in Colombia.  Medellin, like Bogota, is a large, clean and very modern city.  I am staying in the Poblado District where I am sure I am far from the probably less savory parts of the old town and surrounding areas.  Until later.  Dave