We visited parts of Colombia’s Caribbean Dry Forest (Departments of Atlántico, Magdalena, La Guajira and Cesar). From a birding perspective, especially the department of Magdalena encompasses probably the best-established birding routes in the Country. But other areas in this region are yet to be fully explored by birders, and more sites will be put on the radar in close future.
From a cultural point of view, the famous colonial city of Cartagena and the carnival of Barranquilla have been frequently visited by tourists for a long time. There are also interesting and low explored destinations as indigenous experiences with the Wayuu tribe in La Guajira and musical experiences in Valledupar, the city of Vallenato music a popular folk music genre of the Colombia’s Caribbean region. Vallenato literally means “born in the valley”, which makes reference to the city of Valledupar. Its name, Valle de Upar (Valley of Upar), was established in honor of the Amerindian cacique who ruled the valley; Cacique Upar… but let’s not get off topic.
The Caribbean Tropical Dry Forest
According to Colombia’s Instituto Humboldt, the tropical dry forest is a dense forest with palms and tall trees where epiphytes, ferns and vines abound. The tropical dry forests in Colombia were originally extensive. They covered much of the geographic valleys of the Cauca and Magdalena rivers, the Caribbean Coast, and the Llanos Orientales; today they are on the verge of disappearing. Only 8 % remain.
In the Caribbean region, the tropical dry forest is distributed in the sector of the Guachaca River, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta ecoregion (Magdalena) with 45,000 hectares. It also distributes in the sector of the Caribbean coastal plain in Montes de María and Piojó (at Atlántico and Bolívar Departments), Cartagena, Caracolcito, Ariguani-Cesar, Baja Guajira-Alto Cesar (in La Guajira and Cesar Departments). This region is known as the Pre-Caribbean Arid Belt and has an area of 6’046.376 hectares.
The Colombian Caribbean region is part of the “Endemic Bird Area Caribbean Colombia and Venezuela“, including tropical dry forests from the lowlands of the Guajira peninsula, Alto – Cesar, the bases of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the Bolivar and Atlantic departments in Colombia.
Importance of the Caribbean Tropical Dry Forests of Colombia
Although this is one of the most threatened ecosystems, it is also one of the least known. Many do not know that, for example, the passion flower used as a sedative, or the cactus and its tunas, cocoa, corn, beans and totumo are part of this biome.
According to studies conducted by the NGO Alliance for Critical Ecosystems (ALPEC), the remnants of tropical dry forests are key areas because of their great potential for the conservation of migratory birds. Because of their geographical location, these islands of natural habitat are strategic places for these birds as they are seasonal and refuge points on their way to the Andes or to the east of the continent. The tropical dry forests are the first forest ecosystem to be found by millions of terrestrial migratory birds (60 species) after their journey over the Caribbean Sea on the Colombian Caribbean coast.
Ecotourism has recently been used as an additional economic source by local communities that receive support from NGOs and government entities for their development. Infrastructure improvements (trails, observation towers, accommodation) have been made in some protected areas, and educational material has been produced. It is expected that the promotion and marketing of local artisanal products and ecotourism, associated with conservation, will ensure the functioning of protected areas to improve natural resource management and to protect the habitat of migratory birds in the long term.
Our Visit to the Caribbean Tropical Dry Forest for Birding
We had the opportunity to visit these places thanks to the collaboration of our local partners in each of the regions. We thank the support of the association Atlántico Birding, Yaneth Bautista, as well as the Government and the Secretary of Tourism in the Atlantic. Also we thank the support of Gabriel Utría in Magdalena, José Luis Pushaina in La Guajira and, last but not least, of Luis Ropero and Tomás Darío Gutiérrez in Cesar.
With the help of local authorities & guides, we first explored the reserves of Luriza and Los Charcones. Both are relatively close to the city of Barranquilla and host a number of interesting species of the northern Colombia’s dry forest biomes.
Both these reserves still lack a bit of infrastructure for visiting birders, but big efforts are undertaken by privates and the government to promote birding tourism at these places.
Usiacuri is a small picturesque town. It is known as the Nativity of the Atlantic Department. There, the crafts are made from iraca palm (Carludovica palmata) and are the livelihood of many families who, by weaving, sustain an ancestral tradition learned from the indigenous people who inhabited the region.
Usiacurí is located 40 minutes from Barranquilla along the Via Cordialidad. It is 95 meters above sea level and its average temperature is 28°C. A quiet place, which has recently been catalogued as a sustainable tourist destination.
In Usiacurí there is a monument called the Weaver Muse (Musa Tejedora), a monument made of stainless steel that commemorates the town’s artisan tradition and is inspired by the poem La Araña (The Spider) by Julio Flórez.
Usiacurí must be visited on foot, because in its streets you can find its inhabitants walking on donkeys, or simply passing by a house where the crafts are being woven, or observing the landscape and the greenness of the forest.
You can visit the mineral wells of Usiacurí, very close to the main square of the town. This is a natural trail surrounded by dry forest that borders a stream that leads to the healing wells that made Usiacurí famous in the early 20th century. The waters of these mineral wells cannot be drunk, but they can be used for various medicinal treatments. Bird watching is also possible on this trail.
You can enter the Iraca palm handicraft shops where local artisans sell multicolored products such as bags, chests, hand fans, baskets, placemats, necklaces… which the inhabitants of Usiacurí make with their own hands, and which you can buy to help the local economy and keep this beautiful tradition alive.
Finally, we recommend visiting the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which stands on a hill and from where it is possible to observe the geography of the whole town. Also visit the house museum of the poet Julio Flórez, who died in the village and went to live there in search of the medicinal waters.
Regional Integrated Management District Luriza
The name of the protected area honors the spring that crosses it and has the same name as the “Luriza” village.
It is located in the municipality of Usiacurí, 6 kilometers from the center of Usiacurí town. It has an extension of 837.17 hectares where approximately 17 families live. This a magical place is surrounded by giant trees and howler monkeys with mineral water wells. The Luriza Natural Reserve is an ideal destination for bird watching and hiking.
The management plan of this area, among its conservation objects, contemplated the artisan tradition as one of the main activities to protect. These artisan activities depend on the fibers of species such as the iraca palm (C. palmata). This species used to be in decline due to over-exploitation, but today it is protected. Other objects of great importance for conservation are the Carreto tree species (Aspidosperma polyneuron), the typical bird communities of the Tropical Dry Forest, the bodies of water, and the ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants.
Birding at Luriza
The access trail is steep in the beginning, leading through scruby area with scattered trees. Black-crested Antshrike, White-whiskered Spinetail & Glaucous Tanager were spotted. By the time we made it to the lower parts of the reserve it was already past 9 a.m. and hot. The forest in this area is taller, in better condition and there are trails that run along a nice creek and elsewhere into dry forest.
Without doubt birding potential there is great. Endemics like Chestnut-winged Chachalaca and Chestnut Piculet both occur. Every now and then the attractive Lance-tailed Manakin called from the forest undergrowth. These dry forests host a variety of good Tyrant-Flycatchers, too. Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Venezuelan Flycatcher, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher to name but a few.
We heard the beautiful song of Rufous-and-white Wren, eventually we coaxed one out into view. We were offered a nice lunch at a newly established “visitor center” run by local families.
The next day we travelled to the town of Piojó. Piojó is a town with an agricultural economy. The municipality was founded long before the arrival of the Spaniards by the indigenous people of the Mocaná tribe. Before the Spanish invasion, the region was ruled by Cacique Phión, which gave rise to the current name, Piojó.
The territory has the highest elevations in the department of Atlántico, with Cerro de la Vieja standing out at 530 meters above sea level, which corresponds to the last extensions of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Civil Society Nature Reserve “Los Charcones”
The Civil Society Nature Reserve “Los Charcones”, is the first and only one in the department of Atlantico, registered and recognized by Natural National Parks of Colombia as a Civil Society Nature Reserve. Know more about Colombian Civil Society Nature Reserves here.
Los Charcores Nature Reserve is located two kilometers from the rural area of the municipality of Piojó, and 46 kilometers from the urban area of the city of Barranquilla, on the highway to the sea. It has a total of 42.98 hectares of Tropical Dry Forest, with water alternation, and relics of secondary forest in good state of conservation. It is located in the middle of a topography full of mountains, hills and rocks. It has excellent trails and natural pools up to 7 meters deep.
Its main water supply is the underground water of the Municipality of Piojó, a system called ‘Lagunaje’, where freshwater and springs flow. Without a doubt, a jewel of nature of unquestionable landscape, environmental and ecological importance.
Protecting this relict of the forest was the initiative of a group of citizens from the municipality of Piojó concerned about the situation of poverty, low quality of life, lack of opportunities and stagnation of progress of its inhabitants. They took the decision to the implementation of the creation of the reserve, with the aim of preserving the environment, and in turn provide the opportunity for sustainable development to local communities.
Birding at Los Charcones
This reserve reaches slightly higher elevations than Luriza, is larger and a bit more varied. While eating some breakfast outside the reserve, we logged some Keel-billed Toucans, Prothonotary Warblers and Grey Kingbirds. Our group visiting the site quickly expanded to about 20 or so, mostly non-birder people, much to the chagrin of our local guide. He did his best to show some chosen few (including me) a family group of Chestnut-winged Chachalaca. A pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamar posed for pictures.
Then totally unexpectedly, the local guide’s enthusiasm for the reserve and exploring spirit broke through with him. He dragged parts of the party through pathless, thorny scrub forest to show us some remote parts of the reserve. As the morning processed and the sun bashed mercilessly on us, some people “rebelled” to go any further and insisted to get back! What a relief… We saw many Crested Oropendolas flying by, but nothing else.
Once we crawled back to the ridge, we persuade our local guide to do one of the established trails of the reserve where we could focus on some birding. There we logged Pale-tipped Tyrannulet, White-bellied Antbird and a vocal Striped Cuckoo. The non-birders of our group, opted from some refreshing (and well deserved) dip into water pools.
A delicious soup and typical dishes of the region were offered for lunch and a little siesta in a hummock rounded off this unexpectedly adventurous visit to Los Charcones.
The most known birding destination in the department of Magdalena is Minca, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We will talk about it in another blog, since it no longer corresponds to tropical dry forest.
Vía Parque Isla Salamanca
However, we can visit the tropical dry forest in the Vía Parque Isla Salamanca. This area, together with the Flora and Fauna Sanctuary of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, was declared in 1998 as a Ramsar Site of world importance. In November 2000, it was also declared as a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Both constitute the core zone of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta Lagoon Complex Biosphere Reserve because they are representative of the Magdalena River delta, considered a strategic ecosystem.
The island of Salamanca is an extraordinary group of beaches, marshes and forests that occupy the old estuary of the Magdalena River. The coastal mangroves are one of the last refuges for the critically endangered South-American Manatee. It is crossed longitudinally by the road that connects the cities of Barranquilla and Santa Marta, so its lake and mangrove landscapes can be perfectly appreciated on the way. It is for this reason that it has been given the category of “Via Parque”, unique in the System of National Natural Parks of Colombia.
Birding at Vía Parque Isla de Salamanca
The next day we dawned at Salamanca Island Road Park (Spanish: Vía Parque Isla de Salamanca) national park. It’s only about a 40-minute drive from Barranquilla. This small site offers some easy access to a mix of habitats. It encompasses the typical dry forest of the area along with access to mangroves, via wooden boardwalk.
A Northern Scrub-Flycatcher sang, and on a small pond we compared Greater– and Lesser Yellowlegs, alongside a Spotted Sandpiper side by side. We were shown a singing Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird, a taxon of much debate. Some consider it to be a hybrid with Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, others claim it to be a plumage stage of latter species. Hopefully, further studies will clarify its taxonomic status soon. Despite seeing the bird at close range, we were unable to discern any colors because of bad light, thus incapable of checking the few known identification criteria. But according to the park guard the individual we saw, was one of the Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird’s known steak out perches.
In the mangroves we observed Golden-green-, Red-crowned-, Red-rumped-, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, an obliging Pied Water-Tyrant, Prothonotary-, Yellow Warbler, Bicolored Conebill. Aquatic birds abound too. We spotted 5 Heron-species, Limpkin, Woodstork and Large-billed Terns. Russet-throated Puffbirds are always a treat to look at.
Mid-morning, we visited a small marsh near Palomino where we found a typical scatter of that habitat. We were looking for Northern Screamer but no cigar…
La Guajira Department
East of the Santa Marta Mountains & famous Tayrona National Park, the Guajira Peninsula extends to Colombia’s most northern point, bordering Venezuela. This (together with the Tatacoa Desert) represents the country’s driest area. Tropical Dry forests – in parts the area appears almost like a desert – are the main habitat there. Several near-endemic species only to be found in this part of the country, are the main targets.
Most of the Guajira Peninsula and the areas interesting for birders lie within the territory of the Wayuu-tribe – the largest indigenous tribe in Colombia. Their territory extends well into Venezuela. The communities here are among the poorest in Colombia. It is advisable to visit all sites with the aid of local guides. Several of them have been trained by the Audubon Society and are among the most experienced local guides in Colombia!
Birding at Camarones & Flamencos Flora and Fauna Sanctuary
With the help of Jose Luis Pushaina, a local birding guide, we started the day early at Camarones. In a fruiting tree we saw Trinidad Euphonia and Green-rumped Parrotlet.
Little later we’ve seen the regional endemic birds Buffy Hummingbird, Chestnut Piculet (national endemic), Orinocan Saltator, Vermillion Cardinal & Glaucous Tanager alongside with White-whiskered Spinetail, Slender-billed Tyrannulet and Russet-throated Puffbird.
Access to the beach at the hamlet of Camarones provided us with views of Scarlet Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, American Oystercatcher Semipalmated Plover and Semipalmated–, Least Sandpiper, Sanderling, Willet, Black Skimmer, Royal-, Caspian- and Sandwich Tern. In the afternoon we checked a large brackish lagoon where – depending of the time of year – large numbers of American Flamingo gather. They commute between here and their breeding site in the Venezuelan Maracaibo-Basin! We tried for Tocuyo Sparrow, too. But no luck at this time of the day.
There’s a new communal-based project in Camarones hosting visiting birders. The recently opened Mar Azul lodge is the first and so far only site, where birders can stay overnight within the park’s limit. It’s right next to the sea and they set up feeders where Buffy Hummingbirds, Vermilion Cardinal, Orinocan Saltator, Yellow Oriole & more visits!
Ten kilometers from Valledupar, in the direction of Patillal, is one of the great attractions of this department. It is neither a colonial monument nor a modern building, but something even more relevant: the natural reserve of the civil society Ecoparque Los Besotes. Established in 1993 by the lawyer and historian Tomás Darío Gutiérrez, the ecological park is the result of an extraordinary, almost individual, effort by a man passionate about nature.
In its 20 years of life, the park has known a successful growth and has always maintained a philosophy of independence and rigor. This has facilitated that 92% of the territory is dedicated to conservation, and that the secondary regeneration forest, which comprised approximately 40% of the area, takes more than 10 years to recover naturally.
Key plant species that can be found at the park are Caracolí (Anacardium excelsum), Camajón (Sterculia apetala), Ceiba blanca (Hura crepitans), Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra), Guaímaro (Brosimun alicastrum), Indio desnudo (Bursera simaruba), Guayacán (Bulnesia sp) and Pivijay (Ficus sp).
Among the fauna, the following stand out: Jaguar (Pantera onca), Puma (Pantera concolor), Tiger (Felis pardalis), Tapir (Tapirus terrestris), Red brocket deer (Mazama americana), Taíno (Tayassu tajacu), Cattle monkey (Alouatta seniculus), Capuchin monkey (Cebus capuchino), Night monkey (Aotus lemurinus). The following threatened mammal species have been recorded: Panthera onca (NT), Tapirus terrestris colombianus (VU), Aotus lemurinus griseimembra (VU).
Birding at Ecoparque Los Besotes
We visited and toured the park with our local guide Jose Luis Ropero. The more than 1000 hectares distributed between the townships of Los Corazones and Rio Seco, offer a dense and varied vegetation of Tropical Dry Forest, that hosts more than 250 species of birds (migratory and native) throughout the year.
The 14 kilometers of trails that run through the park like small veins allow visitors to travel through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta massif, between Mount Murillo and Mount Los Besotes, and access points almost 2,000 meters high on the top of the Condor. Each of these trails offers unexpected gifts for visitors: viewpoints, observatories, forests, hills, streams and waterfalls that fill visitors with joy and amazement.
The presence of the Blue-billed Curassow (Crax alberti), the Military Macaw (Ara militaris) and the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) is noteworthy. Another species are Lance-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia lanceolata), Whooping Motmot (Momotus subrufescens), Tocuyo Sparrow (Arremonops tocuyensis), among others.
Within the unique registry of protected areas in Colombia (RUNAP), Los Besotes Ecopark has the category of Regional Natural Park. It is also recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International.
IBAs are sites of international importance for bird conservation:
- They are practical tools for biodiversity conservation.
- They should provide, where possible, all the requirements for the bird populations for which they have been identified.
- They are different in character, habitat or ornithological importance from the surrounding land.
- And. IBAs are part of an integrated and broader approach to biodiversity conservation, BirdLife’s conservation strategy, which also includes species and habitat protection.
If you want to know more about birding trips in Colombia, stay tuned or contact us!
- National Parks of Colombia Website
- Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute Website
- Critical Ecosystem Alliance ONG Website
- BirdLife International ONG Website
About the authors
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.
Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. Jérôme has been focused in bird identification. He also travelled many countries, starting in Switzerland. Then he traveled exploring south America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.