Did you know that Colombia has as many as 5 biosphere reserves? Biosphere Reserves are terrestrial and marine ecosystems protected by the Countries and by the World Network of Biospheres, whose main function is the conservation of the planet’s biodiversity and sustainable use.
The Biosphere Reserves form a Global Network in which each country participates on a voluntary basis. Additionally, UNESCO has defined operational guidelines for Biosphere Reserves as a way to ensure better international cooperation. This also takes into account national laws, which play an important role in the status of a biosphere reserve.
But What are Exactly the Biosphere Reserves?
The biosphere reserves are the central instrument of the Man and Biosphere Program (MAB) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which was established in 1976 to promote sustainable regional development.
Biosphere reserves are extensive and representative areas of natural and cultural landscape, which must be safeguarded in the long term.
Moreover, biosphere reserves must achieve the three fundamental objectives of conservation, development, and logistics as follows:
- From conservation, the reserve must ensure the genetic heritage and the refuge of natural and cultural landscapes. In turn, it must safeguard ecosystem services (i.e. clean water, clean air, food, recreation).
- From development, it aims to apply sustainable ecological and socioeconomic techniques in all economic sectors.
- From logistics, it must facilitate multidisciplinary research and educational activities.
They represent a reservoir of genetic resources and ecosystems and are also areas of sustainable land use, spaces for education, research, and recreation. The biosphere reserves are like “laboratories” where the flora and fauna found in this area are subjects of natural and scientific interest. Additionally, the integrated management of land, water, and biodiversity is studied at these reserves.
The Biosphere Reserves of Colombia
Colombia’s location towards the north of South American region is naturally surrounded by open water from two sides, from the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It also counts with important ecosystems such as the Biogeographic Chocó, the Andean Mountain range, the Eastern plains of Orinoquía, and the Amazon jungle, among the biggest ones.
This privileged biogeographic position of Colombia provides an ideal habitat for a diverse range of flora and fauna to flourish, and that is why it has 5 biosphere reserves that protect important and unique ecosystems existing in the Colombian territory.
Needless to say, these reserves surely deserve a visit. Check out this list of the 5 biosphere reserves of Colombia:
The Andean Belt Biosphere Reserve, declared by UNESCO in 1979
The Andean Belt Biosphere Reserve is located in the Colombian massif in the south of the Andes. The Andean belt includes three national parks: La Cueva de los Guacharos Natural National Park, Puracé Natural National Park, and Nevado del Huila Natural National Park.
Cueva de los Guacharos Natural National Park
Cueva de los Guácharos NNP was the first area in Colombia to be declared a national park in 1960.
The Cueva de los Guácharos park protects the Andean forest and paramos, from 1200 to 3800 masl. What stands out most is the protection of the extensive and almost extinct areas of Andean oak (Quercus humboldtii Bonpl., Fagaceae) and the endemic oak Colombobalanus excelsa Lozano, Fagaceae, a new species of oak described in the park in 1979.
The park owes its name to the guácharo bird (Steatornis caripensis, order Caprimulgiformes, family Steatornithidae). This is a frugivorous, nocturnal bird that lives in caves and hollows. Its name is onomatopoeic, it is derived from the Quechua huach and means to scream or cry, because of its characteristic song. Something very interesting about these birds is that, like bats, they are guided by a system of echolocation.
Puracé Natural National Park
Puracé National Natural Park is a volcanic zone and protects high mountain ecosystems, as well as nationally threatened species such as the Colombian pine (Podocarpus oleifolius), the oak (Quercus humboldtii), the wax palm (Ceroxylon spp), and the tree fern (Cyathea spp), and animals such as the Andean Condor.
Its name, in the Quechua language, means “mountain of fire”. The main rivers of Colombia are born there: Magdalena, Cauca, Patía and Caquetá and also 30 calm and clear lagoons, ideal for contemplation.
Within its marvelous landscape, the Coconucos volcanic chain rises, also known as the Serrania de los Coconucos, composed of 11 volcanoes. Of these, the most outstanding are the Sugar Loaf (5,000 meters / 16,404 feet above sea level), the Puracé (4,780 meters / 15,682 feet above sea level) that is the only active one, and the Coconuco (4,600 meters / 15,091 feet above sea level).
Nevado del Huila Natural National Park
This snow-capped mountain has the largest glacier in the central mountain range of the Colombian Andes and is the second largest glacier in the country, after Cocuy.
The park shelters a volcanic area with paramo, subpáramo, and Andean forest vegetation. It also overlaps with indigenous reserves in the departments of Tolima and Cauca. This park is closed to tourists.
- Birdwatching (take a look on our trip Upper Magdalena Birdwatching Tour).
- Botanic and scientific tours.
- Community-based tourism.
- Cultural Heritage Observation.
El Tuparro Biosphere Reserve, declared by UNESCO in 1979
El Tuparro Biosphere Reserve is located in the eastern part of Colombia in the region of Orinoco in the Vichada department. The reserve is surrounded by the Tomo River to the north and the Caño Maipurés to the south. It is one of the few places in the world where the Amazon pink dolphin lives.
The park has numerous trails for bird watching and hiking. In the year 1800, standing in front of the imposing torrent that the natives called Quituna, in awe, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, described as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” what is known today as the Raudal de Maypures, one of the main attractions of the protected area.
- Note: It is prohibited to visit the park for sportfishing. Don’t be fooled by unscrupulous offers.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Biosphere Reserve, declared by UNESCO in 1979
The mountainous system called the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is conceived as the ‘Ancestral Territory’ of the original peoples Iku (Arhuaco), Kággaba (Kogui), Wiwa and Kankuamo.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Biosphere Reserve is a pyramidal territory, isolated from the Andes, and considered the highest coastal mountain in the world. It is located to only 42 kilometers from the sea, and it rises abruptly from the coasts of the Caribbean Sea until reaching a height of 5,775 meters (18,946 feet) in its snowy peaks Bolívar and Columbus.
To the north it is bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the plains of the Guajira peninsula; to the southeast it is framed by the courses of the Ranchería and Cesar rivers, and to the west, it borders the great alluvial plain of the Magdalena river and the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta.
For the variety of ecosystems, thermal floors next to the sea, its singular beauty and cultural richness constitute it a unique territory. Its main attraction is a sacred site for the four indigenous peoples of the Sierra, this is the Teyuna Archaeological Park “Lost City”.
- Hiking and Trekking at Teyuna Archaeological Park “Lost City”. For more tourist information about Tayrona Park and “Lost City treks” check our entries Best Time to Visit Tayrona Park to Avoid Crowds and Bad Weather and Travel Guide to The Lost City Trek – Ciudad Perdida – in Colombia.
- Birdwatching in Minca and surrounds. If you are looking for birdwatching tourist information in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta visit our post: Colombia’s Prime Birding Destination: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
- Note: Natural National Parks of Colombia and the four indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kakuamo remind us that in the high parts of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, including the lagoons, the páramos and the snow-capped mountains, tourism activities are NOT allowed due to the fragility of these ecosystems and the cultural importance. Entering these sectors constitutes an environmental infraction, according to the provisions of Decree 622 of 1977 – included in Decree 1076 of 2015
Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta Biosphere Reserve, declared by UNESCO in 2000
The Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, together with the Salamanca Island Parkway – VIPIS, constitute the Nucleus Zones of the UNESCO-declared Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar Wetland of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta Deltaic Complex.
Both recognitions highlights the importance for conservation of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta at a national and international level. Know more about Ramsar Areas of Colombia in our entry Wetland Destinations in Colombia: Ramsar Areas of Colombia.
This Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta Biosphere Reserve is located in the Caribbean region of Colombia, in the Department of Magdalena. It covers the municipalities of Ciénaga, Pueblo Viejo, Sitio Nuevo, Remolino, Salamina, El Piñón, Cerro de San Antonio, Concordia, Pivijay, El Retén, and Aracataca.
The Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta Flora and Fauna Sanctuary is formed by progressive accumulations of sediments from the Magdalena River. In turn, it is made up of mangrove ecosystems, swamps, rivers, canals, and marshy areas. It is part of a water complex of more than 100 swamps that present different levels of sedimentation and salinity.
- Community-based tourism.
- Note: It is not recommended to camp, nor to spend the night nearby because of the mosquitoes. There is also no place to stay. It is recommended to visit during the day, and stay in Barranquilla or Santa Marta.
Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, declared by UNESCO in 2000
The Seaflower Biosphere Reserve has become one of the most representative icons of marine protection in Colombia.
Conserving this set of ecosystems in the San Andres Archipelago is important for food security. Its economic valuation, because of the environmental services it provides, is estimated at more than $267 billion a year.
This reserve is located in the department of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina Archipelago.
Seaflower is the largest Biosphere Reserve in the world with 180,000 square kilometers. It has all the marine and coastal ecosystems representative of the tropical zone: coral reefs, mangroves, reef lagoons, sea grasses, wetlands, beaches, open sea, and tropical dry forest.
- 78% of the Colombian coral areas are in Seaflower.
- It has the third-largest barrier reef in the world.
- It has 57 species of coral, of which 90% are on the Red List of threatened species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (UICN).
- Also, Seaflower has 407 species of fish, of the 600 estimated to exist in the Caribbean, and is home to 157 species of birds, of which 55% are threatened.
- Its white beaches, attractive for tourism, owe their beauty to the calcareous contributions of coral.
- It is estimated that its waters annually produce about 156 tons of lobster and 182 tons of fish through traditional fishing.
Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Natural Park
The Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Natural Park is the only nationally protected area in the Oceanic Caribbean of Colombia. It was declared a protected area in 1995, and became part of the “Seaflower” Biosphere Reserve in 2000.
Old Providence McBean Lagoon is formed by a small hill known as Iron Wood Hill, and the McBean Mangrove. In its marine portion, the Barrier Reef stands out, protecting the coasts of Providence Island, which is the second largest in the Caribbean with 32 km in length, after Belize.
This great coral reef, together with the reef lagoon that forms in front of the McBean mangrove, gives the sea a spectacular range of colors that go from deep blue to a translucent aquamarine green. It is thanks to this unique coloring that the Sea of Providence is known as “The Sea of Seven Colors”.
- Hiking and Aquatic Circuits.
- Coral reef watching.
- Marine life watching.
- Cultural immersion and Community-based tourism.
- Mindful diving, diving with a purpose (Read our entry The Top Post-Covid-19 Destinations for Conservation Lovers in Colombia).
If you want to know more about the most incredible natural destinations in Colombia, plan your trip with us!
- Borsdorf, Axel, Mergili, Martin, & Ortega, Luis Alfonso. (2013). La Reserva de la Biósfera Cinturón Andino, Colombia: ¿Una región modelo de estrategias de adaptación al cambio climático y el desarrollo regional sustentable?. Revista de geografía Norte Grande, (55), 7-18.
- La reserva Seaflower y su importancia para Colombia. Semana Sostenible Magazine. 27 de octubre de 2020
- Comisión Colombiana del Océano, CCO, Website
- Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia Website
About the author
Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.