Colombia Photo Journey

Colombia’s bird list is nearing a staggering 2000 species, and in recent years eco-tourism has really started to flourish – it is primed to become the newest bird photography craze. More and more sites are offering feeding stations conducive to photography, not just for the spectacular hummingbirds, but also for tanagers, antpittas, and more. Our inaugural photo tour to this amazingly diverse country offers a good mix of feeders, set-ups, and opportunistic shooting.


Day 1: Arrival. The tour begins this evening in Bogotá, the bustling capital city of Colombia, where we spend the first two nights in a nice hotel.

Day 2: Around Bogotá. We’ll spend the day shooting in the mountains around Bogotá. We’ll start with some multi-flash at some hummingbird feeders at a private home about 1h20m from the city. Some truly spectacular hummers can be found here, among them Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Black-tailed and Green-tailed Trainbearers, Coppery-bellied Puffleg, and Sword-billed Hummingbird. Depending on activity, we may spend the whole day there, or check out other locations.

Day 3: Bogotá to Manizales. We’ll transfer to the airport this morning for a short domestic flight to the city of Manizales in the central Andes. From here we’ll travel about 1.5 hours up into the mountains high above the city to a remote and beautiful lodge with thermal baths – it’s nice to soak in the pools after a day of shooting! We’ll spend three nights here.

There are few if any other places where Rainbow-bearded Thornbill comes into multi-flash setups
There are few if any other places where Rainbow-bearded Thornbill comes into multi-flash setups (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Days 4-5: Termales del Ruiz and Los Nevados. Hummingbird photography is the main draw here, and our lodge as a superb garden with numerous feeders, a covered area, and plenty of space for multi-flash setups. At least 12 species are possible to photograph here: Golden-breasted and Black-thighed Pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Shining Sunbeam, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Great Sapphirewing, Tourmaline Sunangel, Mountain Velvetbreast, Viridian Metaltail, Tyrian Metaltail, and Sparkling Violetear. The temperate forest around the lodge also offers chances for opportunistic shots of great birds like Lacrimose and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, Pale-naped and Gray-browed Brush-Finches, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Brown-bellied Swallow, and more. We’ll also spend at least one morning around the entrance to Los Nevados National Park at 13,800 ft. (4200 m.). Buffy Helmetcrest, an impressive endemic hummingbird, often can be photographed on perches or while feeding on Espeletia flowers. Other possible targets here are Tawny Antpitta, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Sedge Wren, Andeam Tit-Spinetail, White-chinned Thistletail, and Andean Siskin. The scenery is also impressive with fast grasslands, otherworldly plants, and ghostly mist that can come and go at any moment.

Great Sapphirewing is a big and beautiful highland hummer
Great Sapphirewing is a big and beautiful highland hummer (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 6: Termales del Ruiz to Rio Blanco Natural Reserve. Depending on weather and other factors, we may stick around for some more photography near our lodge, or we may leave early and stop at other sites en route to our next major stop at Rio Blanco, where we have three nights. The reserve is run by the municipal water company to protect the very important watershed, and is blanketed with lush cloudforest. The lodge has recently constructed three new rooms that are larger and more comfortable than the older rooms. Due to the small size of the lodge, singles are not always possible, and some singles may need to be accommodated in the older rooms.

Buffy Helmetcrest is a terrific endemic that we'll target near Los Nevados National Park
Buffy Helmetcrest is a terrific endemic that we'll target near Los Nevados National Park (Nick Athanas)

Days 7-8: Rio Blanco Natural Reserve. Rio Blanco is famous among birders for its antpitta feeders, which have been going for many years now. Up to five species visit, though on any given day it is more likely to be able to see and shoot two or three. Combine that with low light and possible inclement weather, it’s well worth trying every morning. The easiest species are usually the handsome Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and the duller (but endemic) Brown-banded Antpitta. Slate-crowned Antpitta is a bit harder due to its small size and nervous habits. More luck is needed for Bicolored and Chestnut-naped Antpittas, which are more sporadic. Hummer feeders by the lodge are good for both multi-flash as well as getting clean shots of perched birds, and possibilities include Long-tailed Sylph, Bronzy and Collared Incas, Tourmaline Sunangel, Lesser (Green) Violetear, Sparkling Violetear, Speckled Hummingbird, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Buff-tailed Coronet, White-bellied Woodstar, and Booted Racket-tail. The guides are also trying out some banana feeders, which at the moment only attract a few species such as Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager and Slaty Brush-Finch, but they have potential to be a lot better in the future. The forest is loaded with other birds as well, and with persistence, playback, and of course some luck there are tons of other possible birds to photograph including Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Masked Trogon, various tanagers, Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Golden-plumed Parakeet, Black-collared Jay, and many more. The local guides here are excellent and sometimes have stakeouts for other birds like Lyre-tailed Nightjar and White-capped Dipper.

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is the most photogenic of the bunch at Rio Blanco
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is the most photogenic of the bunch at Rio Blanco (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: Rio Blanco to Hotel Tinamú. After another morning at Rio Blanco, we’ll drive about an hour downslope to a lodge with its own private reserve located in semi-humid forest at 3950 ft. (1200 m.), for a two-night stay. This is a very small lodge, and singles may not be available here.

Day 10: Hotel Tinamú. The lodge is much lower and warmer than other sites we stay at on this trip, and so has quite a different set of species to photograph. There will be options for multi-flash around the feeders for the likes of Steely-vented Hummingbird, White-necked Jacobin, Black-throated Mango, Rufous-tailed Hummer, Long-billed Starthroat, and White-vented Plumeleteer. Fruit feeders can be busy with Green Honeycreeper, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, Scrub Tanager, and Streaked Saltator sometimes joining the more common Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers, Clay-colored Thrush, and Great Kiskadee. The grounds of the lodge offer opportunistic shots of other species including Bar-crested Antshrike, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Spectacled Parrotlet.

Black-throated Mangos visit feeders at Hotel Tinamú
Black-throated Mangos visit feeders at Hotel Tinamú (Nick Athanas)

Day 11: Hotel Tinamú to Jardín. We’ll enjoy the early morning activity around the lodge clearing, and then embark on a five hour drive, crossing the Cauca River into the western range of the Andes. We’ll spend three nights in an eco-lodge in the mountains above the town of Jardín. The lodge is right in the forest with superb rooms, great food, and nice views. It has both hummingbird feeders and fruit feeders, and plans are underway to add a moth screen. Common Potoo can sometimes be photographed on a day roost next to one of the cabins.

Days 12-13: Jardín area. The areas around Jardín offer some great options for both photographers and birders, with more being developed. We’ll keep our exact plan open depending on weather and possible new sites. A private house about 30 minutes from our lodge has some superb fruit feeders that can busy busy any time of the day, but morning tends to offer the best light. Some of the visitors include Andean Motmot, Colombian Chachalaca, Flame-rumped Tanager (the endemic red-rumped subspecies), Crimson-backed Tanager, Scrub Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, White-lined Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, Red-headed Barbet, Clay-colored Thrush, Pale-vented Pigeon, Yellow-backed Oriole, Green (Inca) Jay, Green Honeycreeper, Black-capped Tanager, Acorn Woodpecker, Black-billed Thrush, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Streaked Saltator, and White-winged Becard. Another big attraction is an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek that is very near the center of town. The males sometimes come in incredibly close, and the site can be visited in the afternoon when the light is a lot better than during the pre-dawn activity. There will be an optional day trip to the Ventanas road, where the photography is more opportunistic, but offers mouth-watering possibilities such as the seriously rare Yellow-eared Parrot and spectacular Red-bellied Grackle; plans are also afoot here to feed antpittas, though it may take some time to become viable.

There is a terrific Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek near Jardín
There is a terrific Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek near Jardín (Nick Athanas)

Day 14: Jardín to Medellín. After another morning around Jardín, we’ll pack up and drive about four hours, driving through the city of Medellín, and spending the night at a hotel near the international airport.

Day 15: Departure. The tour concludes this morning with transfers to the airport.

Fruit feeders near Jardín attract stunners like Crimson-backed Tanager
Fruit feeders near Jardín attract stunners like Crimson-backed Tanager (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed to moderate. Breakfast times are typically 6:00-6:30am, with one earlier breakfast required to visit the Ventanas road. Most days will have several hours of downtime to relax or download photos – this is often in the late afternoon when the light may be poor and when it is more likely to rain. There are two longish drives of 4-5 hours, otherwise the travel time is not too bad.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Much of the main tour will be spent near feeders which are accessed by short walks on slightly inclined tracks or trails with steps. The worm feeders at Rio Blanco are spread out over about half a mile (0.6 km) of inclined dirt roads, but we may be able to use a vehicle to avoid the steepest part. Visiting the cock-of-the-rock lek near Jardín requires walking down a short but steep driveway that can be slippery. If possible, we will hire jeeps to take us down with our gear, but construction of a bridge may prevent vehicle access. Our lodge on days 3 to 6 is located at 11,500 ft. (3500 m.), however only short, easy walks are done at these altitudes. Anyone of reasonable fitness level will be able to join this tour, but if you have any mobility issues, please contact us before signing up.

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 55°-75°F, 13°-24°C), but colder at the high elevations (possibly down into the 40°sF/single digits°C) and hotter at Hotel Tinamú. Some rain can be expected (good rain protection for your gear is highly recommended).

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent for most of the tour at Bogotá, Termales del Ruiz, Jardín, and Medellín. The lodge at Rio Blanco has three new rooms with private bathrooms. They are larger and more comfortable than the three older rooms (two of which share a bathroom). Hotel Tinamú is small with only four rooms; rooms can get a bit warm but fans are provided. For larger groups, singles may not be available at Rio Blanco or Hotel Tinamú. Priority for the better rooms will be given first to those in double accommodation, and second by order of booking. All accommodations have full time electricity, hot water, and wi-fi (sometimes only available in the common areas). Apart from the aforementioned rooms at Rio Blanco, all accommodations have private en-suite bathrooms.

WHEN TO GO: We often run this tour early in the year when it is less rainy and when visitors from North America like to escape the winter. However, as a custom tour it can be run most months. If possible, it’s best to avoid mid-March to mid-May and September-October due to high average rainfall.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: On the main tour, at least half the time will be spent on birds coming to various types of feeders (with the option for some multi-flash hummingbird photography). The rest of the time will be spent targeting other birds near the lodges or along dirt roads or short trails; this sort of photography is rather opportunistic, and some playback will be used to help get birds into range of our lenses.

GEAR: A good 300mm lens (or high quality zoom that covers 300mm) and a full-frame camera are ideal for hummingbirds. For other birds, especially smaller birds at fruit feeders, a 500mm with a 1.4x or 600mm is the best option, but a 300mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters also usually does a great job. A smaller lens can be nice for scenery shots in the high Andes. A flash (where permitted) is also useful since light can be quite low early in the morning and inside forest.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and EU countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 14; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 15 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice and tea/coffee during meals; safe drinking water only between meals (though some lodges also offer tea and coffee at any time); one of our photo guides with camera and audio playback gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 14; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (the type of transfer will depend on the specific hotel and in some cases will be a hotel shuttle bus); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 14 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; one-way flight from Bogotá to Manizales; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to help keep track of what you have photographed (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 in the city hotels (if you require their services); international flights; 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; excess luggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

Andean Motmots are amazingly common and bold in this part of Colombia
Andean Motmots are amazingly common and bold in this part of Colombia (Pablo Cervantes Daza)