If you want to see more different kinds of birds than any other country on the planet, then Colombia is the place to go. With more than 1900 species – roughly one in six of all the birds in the world – Colombia tops the global league table. In terms of overall biodiversity, it ranks second –beaten only by Brazil, which is more than seven times its size. So in terms of convenience, accessibility and ease of access, Colombia wins hands down.
The diversity of Colombia’s wildlife is simply mind-blowing. Current figures reveal that the country is home to well over 50,000 known species, including 1,921 birds, 26,177 plants, 803 amphibians, 537 reptiles, 492 mammals and 3,435 fish. Of these, more than 9,000 are endemic to the country – found here and nowhere else in the world. There are no fewer than 73 highly sought-after endemic bird species, including the Bogotá Rail, yellow-eared parrot and Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner. There is also a host of unique hummingbirds with gloriously bizarre names: the Tolima Blossomcrown, Buffy Helmetcrest. Gorgeted Puffleg and Bogotá Sunangel.
There are four main companies promoting ecotourism in Colombia, each working closely with the government’s tourism agency ProColombia. They all take their international responsibility to our precious wildlife and the places where it lives very seriously, and work sustainably to protect our natural resources through ecotourism.
Tourism as a whole is vitally important to Colombia – it is the main generator of jobs and foreign currency. And a key part of what we offer comes under the banner of nature and adventure travel. The government has set up a strict code of good practice for tour operators, to ensure that visitors can continue to enjoy Colombia’s precious wildlife for many years to come. Wildlife tourism also benefits local communities through employment, and contributes much-needed funds to the conservation of the country’s unique ecosystems and globally important habitats.
In the words of Felipe Jaramillo, President of ProColombia: “2017 is the year of sustainable tourism, as declared by the World Tourism Organization, and this coincides with the first year of the post-conflict period here in Colombia. This is an opportunity that we must take in order for more tourists to decide to visit our beautiful country”.
Nuqui, Colombia. Photo courtesy ECOPLANET
Colombia Ecotourism Examples
One of the most biodiverse Colombia locations is the Chocó region, an area of tropical moist and dry forests, which stretches along Colombia’s Pacific coast. This area is home to some of the rarest birds on the planet, including the newly discovered Chocó Vireo, a small, warbler-like bird that was only discovered as recently as the last decade of the twentieth century.
Josefina Klinger, General Manager of the Mano Cambiada Corporation, a community tourism operator responsible for the operation of the Utria National Park in the department of Chocó, says that caring for this precious natural resource generates a sustainable economy in the long term – something that the local people understand and appreciate.
The area also offers a fascinating cultural experience, as the people who live there still practise many traditional customs. These include the custom from which the company takes its name. ‘Mano cambiada’ – which means ‘trade swap’ – involves an exchange of tasks rather than money, creating a sustainable economy in which ecotourism can play an important part.
“I am increasingly convinced that we have the best aspects of tourism here. We have even seen how foreign tourists appreciate this far more than local visitors,” concluded Klinger.
The corporation generates sustainability through projects such as the Migration Festival, in which more than 600 children and young adults visited the Utria National Park in August to celebrate the migration of birds, whales and turtles that arrive in the region between July and November each year.
According to Mano Cambiada, this educational strategy boosts the children’s learning, raises environmental awareness and strengthens values of sustainability in the next generation.
According to the annual report of Colombian National Parks, the Utria National Park more than doubled the number of visitors in 2016 compared to the previous year, mainly thanks to the promotion of ecotourism by Mano Cambiada, supported by ProColombia. Much of this was due to visitors being attracted by opportunities to go whale watching off the coast.
Another company that has invested in ecotourism is Manakin Nature Tours, who specialise in wildlife and birdwatching.
As Manakin’s manager, Luis Eduardo Urueña, points out: “Birdwatching has become an economic alternative for the rural communities. People who used to hunt curassows or catch parrots for the illegal pet trade have now become tour guides. Also, many ranches no longer cut down their trees, thus encouraging hummingbirds and other species, which in turn attracts more visitors and brings more money into the local economy.”
The company, based in Tunja, Boyaca, has more than 20 birdwatching routes throughout the country and an expert team made up of guides who are trained as biologists and ecologists, and who lead groups around more than 90 districts in Colombia.
Risaralda, Colombia. Photo courtesy ECOPLANET
“To us, the US market is the biggest one we have access to”, says Urueña. “The United States is one of the countries most attracted by Colombia’s tourism; roughly two-thirds of our customers are American. Through the support of ProColombia, we would like to venture into other markets with high potential for nature tourism, such as India and France,” he adds.
Another company, Nature Trips Colombia, offers both culture and nature tourism, mainly in the Coffee Cultural Landscape and other destinations such as Medellin, Cartagena, Santa Marta and La Guajira.
The company supports schemes for the conservation of protected areas and nature reserves with the participation of the local community, benefiting both the inhabitants and important ecosystems.
Cesar Augusto Ángel, the company’s manager, is rightly proud of their achievements. In a survey of the top 500 socio-environmental projects in Latin America, we came eleventh; and in the 2016 Green Latin America Awards we came fourth.”
The tourists on Nature Trips come mainly from the United States, Spain, France, Chile and Panama. To Ángel, one of Colombia’s great advantages as a tourist destination is the fact that international travellers can find everything in a single country: the Pacific, the Caribbean, forest biosphere reserves, interaction with different cultures and World Heritage Sites.
The final one of the four companies working sustainably with local communities in Colombia is Ecodestinos. The company, which started out in 2001 and has offices in Leticia and Bogotá, supports farmers who used to grow coca on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and are now in the business of community tourism.
Vaupes, Colombia. Photo courtesy ECOPLANET
Helida León, manager of Ecodestinos, explains the company’s philosophy: “We are working with indigenous communities such as San Martin in the Amacayacu National Park on the south end of the Amazon to develop pharmaceutical products based on local plants, offering gastronomical tourism with the community of Mocagua, and running canoeing trips on the Buritaca River with farmers in Buritaca, Santa Marta.” This company welcomes travelers from France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Switzerland, and promotes Colombia as a nature destination encompassing the five regions: Amazon, Plains and Orinoquia, Pacific, Andes and Caribbean.
The number of international travellers in the protected areas of Colombia’s National Parks increased by more than a third in 2016, going from just over 96,000 visitors in 2015 to more than 130,000 this year. To Felipe Jaramillo, President of ProColombia, these figures are a good sign of things to come – and reflect the growing interest in Colombia as one of the world’s top ecotourism destinations.
PROCOLOMBIA is the entity that promotes international tourism, foreign investment, country brand and non-traditional exports in Colombia. Through its national and international network of offices, it offers support and consultancy to clients which seeks to generate and close business opportunities. Contact: London@procolombia.co
Tourism, Foreign Investment and Exports promotion