Colombia Birdwatching and Travel Photography
I just spent 2 weeks in Colombia with my fiancé Mikael and it was one of my favorite trips to date! We found roundtrip tickets from Portland to Cartagena using Scotts Cheap Flights for only $350. Total steal. It was our first time in South America and we are officially hooked! I had so much fun doing Colombia birdwatching and travel photography!
For those of you who follow my work/blog/instagram, you might know my nerdy secret: I am a TOTAL bird-nerd. Mikael and I are avid birdwatchers and it’s our #1 favorite thing to do when we travel (other than taking photos of course). When we found tickets to Colombia, we realized it’s actually one of the absolute BEST places in the WORLD for birding! To put it in perspective, there are around 10,000 species of birds in the world total. Colombia has over 1900 of them! So roughly 1/5 of the birds on the planet can be found in this one place. Crazy!
How we planned our trip
We procrastinated on planning our trip until the VERY last minute (per usual), mostly because we were in St. Lucia right beforehand (check out the blogs here, here and here!). I bought the Lonely Planet Colombia book and was instantly overwhelmed. The country is HUGE and there are so many cool places to go! Two weeks was definitely not enough time.
After reading the book, we reached out to my mom’s friend Dan Van Den Broek from the Portland Audubon Society. We’ve never actually met Dan, but he’s a next-level professional birdwatcher and guide, and he recently went to Colombia! My mom has taken several birding trips with him through Audubon. To my luck, he kindly responded to my random email and sent me a TON of information of where to go! Thank you Dan!
Our Colombia itinerary
Mikael and I have never been the kind of people who take easy, or simple trips, so this itinerary might be kind of strange for the non-bird obsessed person. On this trip, our priorities were rainforests, bird-watching and being in the mountains. We skipped beaches because we’ve done a bunch of other beach vacations recently, and we didn’t spend that much time in cities because we really wanted to focus on the rainforests!
Our trip began and ended in Cartagena. We bussed from Cartagena to Santa Marta and taxied up the mountain to Minca, then flew from Santa Marta to Cali, rented a car, and did an 8-day roadtrip between Cali and Medellin! Then we flew from Medellin back to Cartagena and then home! Here’s what it looked like:
-Cartagena (1 night)
-Minca (3 nights)
-Cali (1 night)
-Buga (1 night)
-Rio Blanco Nature Reserve (2 nights)
-Montezuma Rainforest Ecolodge in Tatama National Park (2 nights)
-Jardin (1 night)
-Medellin (1 night)
-Cartagena (1 night)
What we packed (and wished we had)
We packed SUPER light for this trip and it was awesome! Mikael and I each brought a backpack (not backpacking ones, just regular ones), and a side bag. We packed clothes for hot and cold weather, binoculars, books and camera gear.
Things we didn’t bring and were sad about:
-We didn’t bring enough bug spray, and the local stuff didn’t work well. Carry more 99.9% deet bug spray than you think you need! I got eaten alive while birding in Buga.
-I think in the future we’ll bring a backpacking water pump so we can filter our own water instead of having to buy expensive bottled water everywhere.
-Our light raincoats were shitty in the tropical monsoon rain haha. We ended up buying heavy duty motorcycle ponchos in Periera and they were WAY BETTER. The rain in Colombia is not like Oregon rain. You need a poncho. Bring a poncho.
-I brought some cute Victoria Secret workout leggings that have mesh areas that are nice for hiking at home. THEY WERE TERRIBLE IN COLOMBIA. I was wearing them when I got eaten alive by mosquitos. They bit me righhhht through them. And the mesh areas were so itchy on my bugbites when I wore them later. So definitely skip the cute leggings in the jungle guys.
The cameras I used
Traveling with a huge DSLR and really expensive, heavy lenses sucks. It REALLY sucks. It’s heavy, it’s awkward, and I always feel like a target. So for this trip, I tried something new.
I bought a Sony.
JK, I bought TWO new Sonys. Hehe. Sorry bank account?
After spending hours researching cameras, I ultimately came to the decision that one camera just couldn’t satisfy all my weird travel needs. But two could. So I bought a teeny tiny Sony RX100 Mark V for whenever I was in cities and needed something super small that would fit in my purse and not make me look like a professional photographer. It was so fun to take sneaky shots with it while looking like a tourist! It has full manual mode, shoots RAW, and has an awesome Zeiss 24-70mm f1.8-2.8 lens. Yes, you heard that right, f1.8. So it’s FAST. The low-light capabilities were epic! Everyone told me to buy a Fuji or a camera with a fixed 35mm lens, but I was way happier having a 24-70 for the travel shots I like to take.
THEN, I needed a bird camera. I loveeee having a super long zoom lens for travel photography and wildlife, and it’s always been SUCH a pain to bring a big DSLR with an even bigger zoom lens. Enter the Sony RX10 Mark IV. Oh my gosh. It shoots RAW and has a fixed 24-600mm Zeiss lens with an aperture of f 2.4- f4. Yes. At 600mm it is an f4.0. Holy shit. For 600mm that is fast. And the bokeh on it is beautiful. Plus did I mention the whole camera only weighs 2.5 pounds?! WINNING.
I’m not usually a gear head. I usually shoot Canon all the time and never stray. But venturing into the Sony world was awesome. These cameras made my trip SO fun. I was never stressed about carrying gear, I wasn’t weighed down by it, and both cameras did exactly what I wanted them to do!
We started in Cartagena, a beautiful colonial city in the Caribbean. We both started and ended our trip here! It was HOT. Like 90 degrees and 70 percent humidity. The walled city is SO beautiful, but it was also the most touristy place we saw in all of Colombia. There are a LOT of hawkers bugging you to buy stuff. We recommend staying in Getsemani because there are fewer hawkers there, but it’s still close to the center of town. Also, eat indoors at restaurants! It might seem nice to dine on the street, but you will get harassed and it will ruin your meal. Lastly, we didn’t see souvenirs/crafts anywhere else on our trip, and we SHOULD have bought some from street vendors in Cartagena, but we didn’t! Mistakes were made!
Make sure you stay somewhere with a rooftop pool. You will thank me later. Also, La Mulata is an amazing authentic lunch spot! And if you like sushi, check out Peru Fusion for some of the best sushi you will ever eat.
We went to Minca to spend three nights relaxing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fun fact: they are the highest coastal mountain range in the world! We stayed at the beautiful Sweet Harmony Boutique Hotel by Xarm Hotels and had a lovely room with a balcony overlooking the jungle canopy and river below. It was great for birding! There are a ton of endemic bird species that ONLY live in this region, so we were happy. We took a birding tour with Jungle Joe one morning, and saw some incredible rare birds! We also had an amazing Spanish dinner at Hotel Restaurant Casa D’Antonio. Highly recommend!
Cali and Kilometer 18
After Minca, we flew to Cali, rented Mikael’s favorite car ever (a Renault Duster) and began our roadtrip. We spent a quick night at a nice hostel in Cali and ended up liking the city a lot more than we expected! We visited their modern art museum, and ate some of our favorite burgers ever at Chef Burger, and then woke up REALLY early for a full day of birding in the surrounding mountains and countryside. Our guide Jose (with Colombia Birdwatch) was a total baller. We went out near Farralones National Park for some birding along an old highway, then ventured up to Kilometer 18 to see some beautiful hummingbirds in the rain at Finca Alejandria
Buga and Laguna el Sonso
After a LONG day of birding near Cali, we drove up a crazy mountain pass north to Buga! We arrived late, did a bunch of laundry in the sink of our airbnb, and actually slept in the next morning because we were both exhausted. Then we drove to Laguna el Sonso, a lake and wetland area known for it’s birding! We didn’t have a guide, but when we got to the lake we were amazed by the hospitality of the people who worked there! In our broken Spanish we explained that we really wanted to see a Potoo (this crazy night bird that looks like a log) and the ladies working there knew where one slept! They took us to the Potoo and showed us around the area, all for free, with huge smiles on their faces the whole time. Unfortunately, this was the day that we ran out of our Deet bugspray and I got utterly destroyed by mosquitos while we were walking around. But it was worth it for the birds we got to see!
Manizales and Rio Blanco Nature Reserve
After birding at the lake we drove north to Manizales. The city is perched WAY on top of a mountain at almost 7000ft. We got stuck in traffic there and we were amazed by the complexity and the steep hills! Someone joked to us later that “If you learn to drive in Manizales you can drive anywhere in the world.”
We made our way out of traffic and up into the high mountains overlooking the city. Rio Blanco Nature Reserve is run by the Manizales water company, so it wasn’t the easiest place to get reservations at! But the hospitality (and food!) was amazing! We were literally the only people staying there. Our guide had been born on the property and spent her entire 25 years of life birding there. It rained on us a lot during our visit, but we got to see THREE species of ant-pittas, a super rare robin-looking bird, so that was a special treat! I got photos of them too!
The funny thing about this place was that is was COLD. Like, really cold. We were probably closer to 9000 ft up there and it was in the 50s. The rooms were very nice but not heated! So we were perpetually cold. I brought warm layers on the trip, but not a TON of them, and I had been wearing them every day. So that was hard. But it was still really beautiful and fun!
Montezuma Rainforest Ecolodge and Tatama National Park
After two chilly days at Rio Blanco, we made our way west to Tatama National Park, the most remote place we visited in Colombia. On the way we took a detour to a hot spring, just for fun. The hot spring, called Termales Balneario was RIGHT in front of a massive waterfall, and it was so cheap. Our entrance fees, plus a coffee, juice and beer all cost under $15 USD. So awesome! We also managed to get sunburned WHILE IT WAS RAINING. Ridiculous.
Getting to Montezuma Rainforest Ecolodge was probably the biggest challenge of our trip. We knew it had arguably some of the best birdwatching IN THE WORLD, but it was really difficult to make a reservation at the lodge! Their email was down, the phone number was down, we tried using Whatsapp, nothing. We tried for 2 weeks and couldn’t reach them. It wasn’t until we talked to our guide Jose in Cali, that he was able to text the owner’s daughter and help us make a reservation.
Getting to the ecolodge was a trek but it was worth it. Pro tip: if you rent a car in Colombia, make sure its a 4WD. We paid extra for our Duster and we were SO GLAD. We definitely drove through rivers, landslides, huge puddles, narrow 4WD roads, you name it, to get to places like this.
The Ecolodge Experience
The lodge sits on the edge of Tatama National Park which is about 200 square miles long. The park has almost no roads going into it and very few trails. It’s one of the most inaccessible parks in the country and therefore perfect for birding. We hired a guide named Fernando and an even BIGGER 4WD truck and driver and spent a full 12 hour day birding in the park on different elevations around the mountain. The truck took us up the miserably steep and rutted road to the summit at sunrise and it was one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve ever experienced.
The birdwatching road only exists because the summit has a military base to help ward off FARC and guerilla activity in the area. Funny story – we actually got to meet the military! We were quietly birding along the road when all of a sudden a group of men marched up, fully armed with weapons and uniforms. I almost peed my pants. But they smiled at us and in our broken Spanish we had a lovely conversation with them! Then they asked for photos! I was confused at first, but they actually rolled out a Colombian flag and took a photo WITH us! Then they made a short video explaining how they were helping to keep tourists like us safe in the region (which was previously extremely dangerous).
I think this was the most intense 2 days of birding I’ve ever done. We probably hiked close to 5 miles the first day and saw an insane number of endemic and near endemic species. One bird we saw had literally only been named LAST YEAR. That’s how many new birds they are discovering in Colombia!
Getting lost driving to Jardin
We were sad to leave Montezuma because it’s the kind of place you could spend months at and still see new birds every day. But our adventure to Jardin was pretty nuts.
We were using Google Maps and Waze to get around, and everything went smoothly until this day. It was supposed to be a 5 hour drive to Jardin, but it turned into 8 hours. We got our car searched by more military guys (they aren’t joking around in that area), and we had to go over countless foggy passes again, and then cut over a 1 lane dirt highway through coffee plantations on another mountain top. Every time we ended up on a tiny dirt road I was soooo sketched out that we would run into the wrong people and get ourselves in serious trouble! But luckily that didn’t happen.
We did get lost though.
Google told us to take a shortcut that was such a small road we couldn’t actually fit our Duster down it. Hedges scraped both sides and it was more like a driveway than a road. We came to a cemetery and the road got even narrower while being on the edge of a cliff and we were like, “nope!” So we re-routed ourselves and the “highway” that took us to Jardin was equally bad, just wider. It was a dirt road over a 10,000 ft mountain pass. Google maps estimated it would take 2.5 hours just to go 47 kilometers. This meant we would be driving in the dark, over a mountain, on a road we weren’t sure was even going to Jardin, through back country and foot deep mud slides. It was miserable, dangerous, and I was SO ANXIOUS.
A sketchy encounter
To make matters worse, we had a WEIRD run-in on that road. As we were driving we came across a white guy sitting on the back of a motorbike with a Colombian. He pulled alongside us and started speaking French to me. Then he told us that he was going up the mountain and staying at a restaurant on the top with amazing cheese and coffee. He insisted we join him for a meal. Mikael was REALLY tired from driving all day so we decided coffee sounded good and agreed to stop when we got there.
The dude was acting really excited and animated and also kept slapping his legs while he was on the bike. When we got to the “restaurant” (just a small, lonely building on a mountaintop with an old couple serving coffee and cheese to weary drivers), the white guy told us to park on the side. We quickly realized something seemed off about him. He was SO amped up. Weirdly hyper and probably coked out or on some sort of drugs. He never actually sat down to have coffee with us. He was all over the place.
A family of Colombians to our rescue
Right after we arrived, another car pulled up and it was a family of local Colombians! They had a small child and 4 or 5 adults in a big pickup. The man driving was so friendly and he spoke perfect English. He lived in Riosucio where we had just come from, and he owned a big egg farm. He told us he had ran the Chicago and New York marathons and loved visiting the US. When he realized we were also driving over the pass, he told us that he was happy to caravan down the mountain with us in case anything bad happened since it was dark and we were probably the last people going over it tonight. SO NICE!
The sketchy thing is that as soon as the Colombian family showed up, the white guy got majorly twitchy. He kept hanging around on the side by our car, and then Mikael overheard him blatantly lying to the Colombians. He told them that he came WITH US IN OUR CAR. And he told them that he wasn’t staying at the restaurant after all (like he told us). I asked him a question and he got SUPER defensive with me about something really small. And it turns out he was from Belize – when originally we thought he said he was French. Super weird.
When Mikael realized he was lying about how he arrived/where he was going next, we immediately got a VERY bad vibe about the situation and realized this man was not our friend and he was definitely luring us into some sort of trap. Upon this realization we got the HELL out of there. We followed the Colombians down the mountain for the next hour and a half and they waited for us to make sure we never got too far behind. They were like a family of guardian angels on an otherwise super stressful night, and we are so sad because we never got their names to thank them!!
We were really shaken, but we made it to our beautiful hostel in Jardin. The family owning it was so nice!! The next day we slept in a bit and then went out to see the town and look for a special bird called – no joke – the Andean Cock of the Rock. This was a semi-fail, because they have an actual Andean Cock of the Rock center in town where the males like to come each day to do their weird mating dances. BUT, we got such a late start that we completely missed the hours of the center. So we just birded NEAR the center and ended up seeing a bunch of funny female cocks of the rock anyway.
It was Sunday and the colorful town center was packed with people and markets. So we enjoyed a midday beer and people-watched a bit before hitting the road to Medellin.
Medellin was awesome, but we had very little time there and we were pretty exhausted at this point. We stayed in a really nice hotel in El Poblado called Hotel Dix. It had an epic hot tub and steam room on the roof overlooking the city, so we bought beers and smoked a cuban cigar up there and had a great time. We also met up with a mutual friend, Melissa Thibodo, who lives in Medellin teaching English but is from Medford, Oregon! She was so sweet and showed us around all the bars and nightlife. We had been on a birdwatching schedule all trip (bedtime at 8pm and wake-up at 4:30am), so staying up late was hard haha. But we managed to bar hop a bit and stay out til 12 haha. I really wished we could have explored the area longer because there is SO much to do and see there! But alas, we didn’t have the time.
The next day we flew back to Cartagena, walked around the city some more, napped, birdwatched along the wall, and had a good dinner at that Peru Fusion place. The following day we spent the morning beating the heat at another rooftop pool before our longggg trek home to Portland. It was a warm and relaxing end to the trip!
If you made it this far, I commend you! I’m sorry for making the longest blog ever, but I really wanted to share more about the places we went than I usually do! I hope that some fellow bird-nerds and travelers find this blog useful when they plan their Colombia birdwatching trips!
If you are going to Colombia and want to reach out, feel free to contact me if you have questions! I’d love to help!