Northern Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains & The Caribbean

Yes, Colombia! In the last few years, the country has experienced a renaissance; the rebels have retreated to remote corners of the country and tourism is once again making a comeback. Thanks in large part to having the world’s biggest birdlist, Colombia is rapidly returning to the mainstream birding circuit. After several successful custom trips, and a recent surge in demand for tours to this stunning Andean nation, we are now offering our first set-departure tour to this friendly mega-diverse country.

We’ve purposely designed this trip to be an easy, yet endemic-filled introduction to a very safe part of Columbia, and it will mesh very well with future Colombia tours we are already planning. 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.

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

Day 2: Barranquilla to Riohacha. Leaving the hotel around 6:00am, we’ll drive a short distance out of the city into Salamanca NP, where hordes of wintering Prothonotary Warblers will accompany us as we search the mangroves for Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Brown-throated Parakeet, Bicolored Conebill, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Panama Flycatcher, Red-rumped Woodpecker, and more. Continuing along the coast, the main highway passes lagoons jam-packed with countless waterbirds. Stops along the roadside might get us Russet-throated Puffbird and the odd Bare-eyed Pigeon, and we’ll have a first chance at Chestnut-winged Chachalaca. We’ll drive through the heat of the day to Riohacha on the Guajira Peninsula. This arid corner of Colombia holds a number of birds shared only with neighboring Venezuela. In the cool late afternoon, we’ll bird some scrub near town for a first shot at White-whiskered Spinetail, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Orinocan Saltator, Glaucous Tanager, Tocuyo Sparrow, Red-billed Emerald, Vermilion Cardinal, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Black-crested Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, and others. We’ll spend one night in Riohacha.

Day 3: The Guajira Peninsula. We’ll be out early to take advantage of the cool morning hours, continuing our search for the key birds as well as visiting the Los Flamencos reserve.  It’s named after the large flocks of glowing American Flamingos that live there among the Roseate Spoonbills and thousands of wintering shorebirds. When the heat gets too much to bear, we’ll drive back to Santa Marta and spend one night at a resort hotel near Tayrona NP. We may have some time for a first visit to the park in the late afternoon.

White-fringed Antwrens lurk in the dry scrub of the Guajira Peninsula
White-fringed Antwrens lurk in the dry scrub of the Guajira Peninsula (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: Tayrona NP to El Dorado. The dry lowland forests of Tayrona NP have a number of different birds we won’t see elsewhere. The elaborate lekking dances of the vibrant Lance-tailed Manakin could be a big highlight, but we may also see Jet Antbird, Royal Flycatcher, and the outrageous Keel-billed Toucan. 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 a jaw-dropping view looking down over the forested slopes and all the way to the distant Caribbean. The newly-described Santa Marta Screech-Owl can often be seen near the lodge after dark.

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. Nineteen 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 near future. We’ll make the most of our time here, covering all the elevations accessible by road and having picnic lunches in the field. 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, Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager, and Santa Marta Antpitta, which can usually be seen with a bit of work. Around the lodge clearing is the best spot for Santa Marta Brush-Finch 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 and more birds with Santa Marta in their names: including a Tapaculo, Woodstar, and Foliage-gleaner. Other feathered gems that put gleams of lust into the eyes of visiting birders include Blossomcrown, White-tipped Quetzal, Emerald Toucanet, Golden-breasted Fruiteater, and Rusty-breasted Antpitta.

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Day 7: El Dorado to Barranquilla. After another morning mopping up our remaining endemics, we’ll drive back down the mountains, stopping in the foothills for a few other localized species like Black-backed Antshrike, the gorgeous Golden-winged Sparrow, and Golden-fronted Greenlet. We’ll then drive back to Barranquilla for our final night.

Day 8: Departure. The tour ends this morning at the Barranquilla airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: This tour is timed for the dry season. Rain is unlikely in the lower reaches, but there could be some showers in the mountains.

DIFFICULTY: Easy. Nearly all the birding is from roads or flat, easy trails. A couple of days will involve fairly early starts. Birding the Santa Marta Mountains involves taking 4WD vehicles up a very rough road, but we will almost always bird our way down the road, not up (though chasing after calling birds can cause exceptions).

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent, with electricity, hot water, and private facilities everywhere. Single rooms are not always available at El Dorado Lodge. If you book as a single and have to share at El Dorado, we will refund the single supplement for the nights that you had to share a room.