Colombia is without question one of the best places to watch birds and immerse yourself in nature on the planet. No other country is home to more bird species, it has the largest number of terrestrial mammals (those that live predominantly or entirely on land), the largest number of amphibians in the world (including frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians) and is home to over 4,000 species of orchids.
Colombia boasts an extraordinary total of more than 1900 different kinds of bird, close to one in five of all those in the world. Not surprisingly the Andean Condor is Colombia’s national symbol. It’s also home to some of the most sought-after wild creatures in South America including six native wild cat species, from Jaguars to Ocelots, anacondas to Tapirs and Spectacled Bears to sloths.
The birdlife includes colourful Scarlet Macaws, bizarre Hoatzins, raptors such as the Ornate Hawk-eagle, and more than 70 endemic species, found here and nowhere else on Earth. And with so many more species being discovered or ‘split’ from their close relatives, it may not be long before Colombia becomes the first country to boast over 2,000 different bird species.
The main reason why Colombia is at the top of many ecotourists ‘must visit’ destinations is the amazing variety of habitats. Even in the rich and diverse continent of South America, the country can lay claim to an incredible geographical range. Starting at the coast, visitors get two for the price of one, as Colombia has one coastline facing the Pacific Ocean and another facing the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. Heading inland, there are rainforests and cloud forests, deserts and plains, grasslands and savannahs, rivers and wetlands, and the peaks of the Andes and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains, which rise to a height of 5700 metres (almost 19,000 feet). This extraordinary range of habitats creates special niches, which in turn encourages the huge variety of birds and wild creatures – there are more species of bird in Colombia than in the whole of Europe and North America combined!
Andes & Antioquia (Región Andina)
This region is one of contrasts: from the snow-capped peaks of the high Andes, down through moorlands, forests and wetlands, to the humid sub-tropical forests of Antioquia, there is something to suit all tastes.
The area is home to a phenomenal 800 different species of birds, including endemics such as Bogotá Rail, Cauca Guan, Gorgeted Wood-quail, Colombian Turkey (Blue-billed Curassow) and a number of scarce and sough-after hummingbirds. This is also one of the best places in South America to see the extraordinary lek of the Andean Cock-of-the-rock.
These bizarre looking birds – the males of which are about the size of a feral pigeon, and bright orange with black wings and tail – gather at dawn to perform a daily display to attract the watching females. This is a ‘winner-takes-all’ situation, lending an air of desperation to what is surely one of the greatest avian spectacles anywhere in the world.
Other areas of this diverse region to explore include the Central Andes, home to the rare and localised Rufous-fronted Parakeet; one of a dozen endemics found here. And a trek up to the high tops will produce montane specialists such as the Buffy Helmetcrest (another endemic – this time a hummingbird) and the best known of all South American raptors, the huge Andean Condor.
Mammals are few and far between, though they include such sought-after species as the Olinguito which was spotted several years ago but was only confirmed as a distinct mammal species in 2013. It is usually found in cloud forests in western Colombia. While the spectacled bear – South America’s only member of the bear family – the Andean fox and mountain tapir can be found within this region.
Colombia boasts three different types of basilisk – the common basilisk, the brown or striped basilisk and the western or red-headed basilisk. Basilisks are often known as the “Jesus Lizard” because they can run on water at up to 1.5m per second, thanks to long toes on their back feet. Basilisks live in lower altitudes in western Colombia, although the western basilisk was recently introduced to Gorgona Island, 35km from Colombia’s pacific coast.
Best sites: Jardin, an attractive little tourist town about half a day’s drive south of Colombia’s second city Medellin, is a very convenient base from which to explore the region, not least because one of the most accessible cock-of-the-rock leks in South America is conveniently close by. From here, head east to the Samana River, or south to the Arrierito Antioqueño Natural Reserve, home to the incredibly rare Chestnut-capped Piha and the amazing Multicoloured Tanager, which really does live up to its name.
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