Caribbean Colombia: Santa Marta & Perija Mountains & the Guajira Desert Feb 26—Mar 07, 2017

Posted by Steve Hilty


Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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This trip provided an entirely different suite of birds and a dramatically different suite of habitats than the Bogotá, Eastern Andes, and Magdalena Valley tour, which it followed. This also marked the first time we have departed from our long-standing Caribbean coast itinerary and included the relatively nearby Perijá Mountains, a narrow cordillera that borders Venezuela. The Perijá region has received much attention in the last few years from both the scientific and birding communities. The region was featured in an extensive article in National Audubon’s magazine in its March-April 2016 issue (Birding Beyond the Coca Curtain), and a lodge was opened under the auspices of the ProAves Conservation organization over two years ago with the express aim of making tourism possible on a much more ambitious scale in this poorly known region. And indeed, the region has attracted much attention from birders because of the lure of several endemic species. Despite a steady stream of visitors to this lodge since its opening, and to the region generally, as well as much positive feedback from previous visitors, our experience proved decidedly negative, disastrous, as the lodge was ransacked while we were far away up in the páramo above the lodge.

Santa Marta Warbler

Santa Marta Warbler— Photo: Steve Hilty


On the positive side, everyone was in possession of their passports, as well as binoculars and cameras, and no medications or otherwise irreplaceable items were lost. The police responded surprisingly quickly, and by the time we reached Valledupar a nice hotel was arranged and preparations were made to continue the trip. The resilience and resolve of everyone was remarkable, and I am sure that no one regretted their decision to continue with the balance of the planned itinerary. The flowers along the roadside north of Valledupar were stunningly beautiful, as were the views from the El Dorado Lodge in the Santa Marta Mountains a few days later. And the birding was superb everywhere.

Local Wayúu Amerindian guide Jose Luis Pushiana, from the village of Camarones, joined us for a terrific evening and early morning of birding in the Guajira Desert where we enjoyed just about every specialty bird possible, including the lovely Vermilion Cardinal (what a crest!), duet singing Orinocan Saltators, coveys of Crested Bobwhites, little Chestnut Piculets, White-whiskered Spinetails, and even a shy Tocuyo Sparrow that sat and sang for several minutes for all to see.

By the time we reached the foothills of the Santa Marta Mountains, we had begun to appreciate why our tour operator had summoned such macho-looking 4×4 Land Cruisers. The trip to the lodge and, especially beyond, is indeed rough and tumble. The El Dorado lodge opened in 2008, and it offers birders a magnificent base for exploration, a fantastic selection of birds, and unrivaled views of the entire Caribbean coast spread out far below, but getting there is not for shrinking violets.

The road to the El Dorado Lodge also extends beyond the lodge and upward to a cluster of telecommunication towers at about 9,200 feet. Unfortunately, a forest fire less than a year ago destroyed much high elevation forest near the end of this road, although enough forest remains that most high elevation species can still be found along the road. We, in fact, enjoyed superb views of Santa Marta Parakeets and Santa Marta Warblers, two of the harder species to find. Driving up this road is an adventure (an understatement perhaps), as it surely ranks as one of the most difficult roads you are likely to travel (think driving up a rocky creek bed). We spent afternoons around the lodge, and the next day exploring areas slightly above and below the lodge, as well as forest trails. One notable highlight was a male White-tipped Quetzal carrying an orangish-colored anole, presumably to nestlings. And, who would want to miss, for example, those jewel-like little chlorophonias that visited the banana feeder? The bright orange Marmolade bushes (Streptosolon) at the El Dorado Lodge were buzzing with hummingbirds and White-sided Flowerpiercers, and a morning foray somewhat below the lodge produced both a Santa Marta Woodstar (very close), a rare Santa Marta Blossomcrown, and a surprisingly bold Gray-throated Leaftosser. And those shy Black-fronted Wood-Quails did visit the composite site near the lodge several times, as well as two species of guans (they were almost camped there), a pair of Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes, Sierra Nevada Brushfinches, and a White-tipped Dove or two. The lodge is a delightful place, sure to keep visiting birders occupied checking strategically placed hummingbird feeders and fruit and grain feeders during every spare minute. 

We continued adding endemics on our descent to Minca, with two of the last ones being the Santa Marta Tapaculo and Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner, the latter a recent split from the widespread Ruddy Foliage-gleaner. Hummingbird feeders and fruit feeders at the Minca Hotel brought a half-dozen additional new hummers and a parade of saltators, tanagers, and even a lovely Golden-winged Sparrow. We finished the trip with a rollicking chorus of endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalacas south of the Santa Marta airport, and a pleasant morning birding rural fields and marshes near the Magdalena River before enjoying a final seafood lunch in Barranquilla and onward flights to home destinations.

I thank you for choosing VENT for your travels, and for your forbearance and resolve in the face of the unfortunate events in the Perijá Mountains. I do hope that you enjoyed the rest of this northern birding route in Colombia. The resilience with which all of you accepted our setback was remarkable. I also hope that you consider returning to Colombia to see some of the many other spectacular birds in Colombia’s Andes and elsewhere. As Colombians will tell you now, “your only risk is wanting to stay.” Perhaps not quite true of the Perijá Mountains, but having guided nearly 30 tours in the previous nine years here to many regions in Colombia, this is the first incident I have experienced, and I believe it does not reflect the remarkable stability and safety we have enjoyed in this country.