Northern Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains & The Caribbean

We’ve purposely designed this trip to be an easy, yet endemic-filled introduction to a very safe part of Colombia. This may be a short tour, but it still offers the chance to see almost all of the Santa Marta endemics as well as numerous dry Caribbean specialties. You are likely to see many species not possible on any of our other tours. Arrangements for this tour are surprisingly simple, and there are even direct flights from Miami to Barranquilla, making connections easy for those coming from North America. So, what are you waiting for? Your only risk is wanting to come back.



For more photos, see our Flickr page.

Day 1: Arrival in Barranquilla. After arrival, you’ll be transferred to an excellent hotel in the city for the night.

Day 2: Barranquilla to Riohacha. We’ll drive through the city to the nearby Salamanca Island, having a field breakfast in the mangroves at dawn. We hope to find the extremely rare endemic Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird and the 0more common Sapphire-throated Hummingbird in the mangroves near the park HQ – it’s possible Sapphire-bellied is only an age stage of Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, but for the moment it is considered a “good” species. We’ll then bird the mangroves where hordes of wintering Prothonotary Warblers will accompany us as we search for Bicolored Conebill, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Panama Flycatcher, Pied Water-Tyrant, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Chestnut Piculet, Black-crested Antshrike, and more. A short stop later in the morning should get us the pretty Stripe-backed Wren, handsome Russet-throated Puffbird, screeching Brown-throated Parakeets, and various waterbirds. Continuing along the coast, the main highway passes lagoons jam-packed with countless waterbirds, where time permitting we may make a few stops (birding is along a very busy highway and most of the species are quite common and widespread). After stopping for lunch at a roadside restaurant, we’ll continue northeast to the Guajira Peninsula. This arid corner of Colombia holds a number of birds shared only with neighboring Venezuela. In the cooler late afternoon, we’ll bird some scrub for a first shot at the target birds (mentioned below). We’ll spend one night in Riohacha.

Flashy Vermilion Cardinals inhabit the desert around Los Flamencos
Flashy Vermilion Cardinals inhabit the desert around Los Flamencos (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: The Guajira Peninsula. After another field breakfast, we’ll bird the deserts and dry woodland in and around the Los Flamencos reserve. The superb White-whiskered Spinetail, Vermilion Cardinal, and Orinocan Saltator are some of our most wanted targets, but we’ll also look for Chestnut Piculet, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Glaucous Tanager, Tocuyo Sparrow, Buffy Hummingbird, Red-billed Emerald, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Black-crested White-fringed Antwren, and others. The lagoons behind the beach vary in water levels, but are sometimes teeming with waterbirds. With luck we’ll find some Scarlet Ibis among the more common White Ibis along with other species like Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Black Skimmer, wintering shorebirds, gulls, terns, a chance for American Flamingo, and more. After a seafood feast on the beach, we’ll drive back down the coast for a few hours to some lowland forest near the village of Gaviotas. We’ll spend the late afternoon looking for a few neat birds like Lance-tailed Manakin, White-bellied Antbird, Buff-breasted Wren, Barred Antshrike, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Cocoa Woodcreeper, and Crimson-crested Woodpecker. We’ll spend a night at nearby ecolodge near the beach.

We'll target Lance-tailed Manakin in the lowland forest
We'll target Lance-tailed Manakin in the lowland forest (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: To El Dorado Reserve. The morning’s plan is somewhat flexible – we may return to Gaviotas for a short time, bird another forested area, or get a head start on the foothills of the Santa Martas. We’ll have lunch at a restaurant with good feeders that attract White-necked Jacobin, White-vented Plumeleteer, Black-throated Mango, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Whooping Motmot, Golden-winged Sparrow, and others. After lunch, we’ll use 4WD vehicles for the ride up to the San Lorenzo ridge in the Santa Marta Mountains. This forested area is the only easily accessible area of the mountain range, and is now protected by a bird reserve that hosts all but a few of the much-coveted Santa Marta endemics. We’ll spend three nights in the El Dorado lodge located in the heart of the reserve; this enchanting spot has (on clear days) a jaw-dropping view looking down over the forested slopes and all the way to the distant Caribbean. Rooms are simple but spacious, with hot water, private bathrooms, and full time electricity. If we arrive early enough, we can spend time at the feeders, and will frequently check for Black-fronted Wood-Quails in the compost pile. The newly-described Santa Marta Screech-Owl can often be seen near the lodge after dark, and sometimes lodge staff know the location of a daytime roost.

White-tailed Starfrontlet is a super-flashy endemic that sometimes visits the feeders at El Dorado
White-tailed Starfrontlet is a super-flashy endemic that sometimes visits the feeders at El Dorado (Nick Athanas)

Days 5-6: The Santa Marta Mountains. This mountain range is completely cut off from the Andes, yet has the tallest peaks in Colombia. Due to its isolation and height, it holds one of the highest densities of endemics of any spot in the entire world. Twenty-one endemic bird species are currently recognized as well as more than seventy subspecies, some of which will likely be raised to species level in the future. We’ll make the most of our time here, covering all the elevations accessible by road. The higher elevations hold flocks of screeching Santa Marta Parakeets, cute Yellow-crowned Redstarts, chattering Santa Marta Warblers, the stolid Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, and some skulkers like Brown-rumped Tapaculo, Rusty-headed Spinetail, and the “soon to be split” local race of Rufous Antpitta. Working our way down the mountain, we’ll get into range for White-tailed Starfrontlet, Streak-capped Spinetail, and Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager. Around the lodge clearing is the best spot for Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada Brush-Finches and lots of endemic subspecies including Cinnamon Flycatcher, Black-hooded Thrush, Blue-capped Tanager, and Emerald Toucanet. Below the lodge the forest is taller and a little drier, and has some different species like White-lored Warbler, Santa Marta Blossomcrown and more birds with “Santa Marta” in their names: including the Tapaculo, Woodstar, and Foliage-gleaner. Other feathered gems that put gleams of lust into the eyes of visiting birders include White-tipped Quetzal, Emerald and Groove-billed Toucanets, Golden-breasted Fruiteater, and Rusty-breasted Antpitta. On one day, we’ll need an early start (4:30am departure with a field breakfast) in order to get up the very rough road to higher elevations, but on the other we can have a later breakfast in the lodge.

Santa Marta Antpitta can be tough, but we'll make a serious effort to see it
Santa Marta Antpitta can be tough, but we'll make a serious effort to see it (Nick Athanas)

Day 7: El Dorado to Minca. Our start time will depend on which birds we are still looking for – sometimes it is necessary to go back up to the higher elevations if we missed any endemics up there, though anyone who prefers to just relax around the lodge and take some photos is more than welcome to do so. Later in the morning, we’ll head back down the mountains to the foothill town of Minca, where we spend one night in the Hotel Casona de Minca (the same place with the feeders that we stopped at for lunch on day 4).

Golden-winged Sparrow is fairly common around Minca, and sometimes visits a feeder
Golden-winged Sparrow is fairly common around Minca, and sometimes visits a feeder (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: Minca to Barranquilla. One last morning in the foothills will give us a chance to find several great birds not found higher in the mountains. The gorgeous Golden-winged Sparrow (which sometimes visits the hotel feeders) tops a nice list of targets that also includes Black-backed Antshrike, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Rufous-breasted and Scaly-breasted Wrens, Scaled Piculet, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, and others. After lunch, we’ll start driving back to Barranquilla, stopping at a reliable stakeout for the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca, before driving back to Barranquilla for our final night.

We've got some good stakeouts for the very local Black-backed Antshrike
We've got some good stakeouts for the very local Black-backed Antshrike (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: Departure. The tour ends this morning at the Barranquilla airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This tour will especially target the endemics and other regional specialties of Northern Colombia, but it will also try to see a good number of more common and widespread birds. Early starts are necessary on most days since the best birding is in the early morning. Start times will usually be from 5:30-6:00am, with one 4:30am start. On three days of the trip there will be around two hours of downtime after lunch, but other days are quite full. Three breakfasts will be field breakfasts, but lunches and dinners will be in the lodges/hotels or nearby restaurants. The drives are not too long, with the lengthiest being about four hours on day 2.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. For the first few days, the terrain is entirely flat. Even in the mountains, nearly all the birding will be from a dirt road where we will be mostly walking downhill. There will be some short excursions on moderately difficult trails where a walking stick could come in handy. You can expect to walk around 3 miles (4.8 km) a day on average. Access to the Santa Marta mountains is by an extremely rough 4×4 road, which could be an issue for people with serious back problems (check with us if unsure). The highest elevation reached is about 8500 ft (2600 m) but the lodge is much lower at 6600 ft (2000 m).

CLIMATE: Warm to hot in the lowlands, and cool to pleasant in the highlands. The coldest temperature is normally 45°F(7°C) on one or two mornings, where a couple of layers and a pair of gloves could be nice for an hour or two before it warms up. The tour is run in the dry season, but it is not unusual to get a bit of rain in the mountains, though it is usually not much.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent, all have private bathrooms and electricity. Except for one night, all have hot water; the one night is in the hot coastal plain where the lack of hot water is usually tolerable. Wi-fi is usually available in all the hotels, though it may only be available in public areas, and is sometimes very slow.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have some nice chances to photograph birds especially around the feeders at El Dorado and Minca. The scenery in the mountains is also worth a few shots.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended sta. Currently, citizens of the US, Canada, UK, EU, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan (among others) do not require a tourist visa, though Canadian citizens will need to pay a reciprocity fee on arrival (approximately CAD$80, payable with cash or credit card). Tourists visas are required for citizens of many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 9 (if you have a very early flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); when eating at a restaurant that does not include any drinks, reasonable non-alcoholic drinks will be included for that meal; safe drinking water only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 8; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other tour participants if they are arriving/departing at the same time); ground transport for the group in suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s) to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 8 (transport in the mountains will be in several 4WD vehicles which will travel together); entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; flights; excess luggage charges; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.