Tolima, a Little Known Destination in Colombia with a Lot to Offer!

Tolima is a department in Colombia where music is its distinctive expression… until now. In recent times, nature tourism has drawn the attention as a new attraction.

Birdwatching and nature tourism are new there, and emerged after the signing of the peace process. With it, people began to see bird watching and nature tourism as an economic opportunity.

Where is Tolima?

Tolima is located in the center-west of Colombia, in the Andean region. Its capital city is Ibagué, and it locates on the eastern flank of the Central Andes, in the center of the department. It is known as the Musical Capital of Colombia.

Tolima department borders to the north with Caldas, to the east with Cundinamarca, to the south with Huila and to the west with Valle del Cauca, Quindío and Risaralda departments.

So, if you are in the coffee region, or in Bogota or Cali, it will be very easy for you to visit this region by car, or by plane.

Perales National Airport is located in the east of the city of Ibagué and is the main airport in Tolima. It is in the process of becoming an international airport.

Rare food alert: One of the most famous meals in Colombia is the lechona. The lechona borned in Tolima. This is a dish based on pork meat, stuffed with peas and rice, and mixed inside the pork itself.

Lechona dish served in a Bijao leaf.
Lechona dish served in a Bijao leaf, with lemon and arepa.

It is baked in the oven, leaving the pork skin browned and toasted. It is served with a portion of the skin, in a Bijao leaf, previously passed through the fire, as a plate. This leaf is similar to the banana leaf, but it is not edible.

What does it mean Tolima?

The are several stories about the name Tolima. One of them tells that the word comes from the Panche term tolima, tulima or dulima, which means river of snow or cloud.

Another story refers to an indigenous woman called Tulima, or Yulima. Yulima was an indigenous queen and priestess who protected a religious sanctuary. This place was very rich in gold deposits, near Machín Volcano and Nevado del Tolima.

The Spaniards assaulted her and took her as a prisoner. They led her in chains to Ibagué, in whose main square the conquerors burned her alive.

While she was dying she received blessings from Father Cobos to help her soul elevates to heaven. The department preserved her legendary name as a perennial tribute to her martyrdom.

Tolima as a Nature Destination

Tolima covers an area of 149,800 hectares. It extends from the upper Magdalena valley in the east to the Tolima snow-capped mountain in the northwest.

Thus, the department of Tolima has a huge variety of ecosystems and life zones. There you will find tropical dry forests at 2800 meters above sea level, to the paramo life zone, at approximately 5280 meters above sea level.

Machín Volcano, Toche, Tolima, COlombia

This broad altitudinal variation arises into a great variety of climates and topographic aspects. This variation, in turn, results in a high number of habitats for a wide diversity of species, birds among them.

Additionally, the mountainous landscapes of Tolima makes it a very good region to visit for hiking.

Los Nevados Natural National Park in Tolima.

Also, the Magdalena River, the most important river of Colombia, crosses Tolima from south to north enriching the landscape. The city of Honda was one of its main ports in the colonial past (watch the video below).

The natural wealth of Tolima has allowed the development of several important tourist activities. Furthermore, several national natural parks belong to the department of Tolima and are reserves of water, flora and fauna: Los Nevados National Natural Park, Las Hermosas National Natural Park, and Nevado del Huila National Natural Park.

Aquatic Tourism

There are several aquatic parks in the lowland areas of Tolima you can visit with your family.  Also, you can do rafting on the Sumapaz river in Melgar, Carmen de Apicalá, Coello, Flandes and Suárez.


In the north, at Mariquita, Honda, Ambalema and Falan towns, you can combine historical colonial tourism with water parks.

Sport Fishing and Water Sports

To the south is the Prado reservoir focused on sport fishing and water sports. This region also has a lot of indigenous history. There you will find Amerindian expressions in ceramics made by the Pijao communities.

Prado reservoir, Tolima, Colombia

The area also has incredible landscapes such as the Pacandé Mountain and the northern side of the Tatacoa Desert.

Hiking and Trekking

In the center of the department, Ibagué, Murillo and Líbano towns are close to Los Nevados National Park. There, mountaineering is the main attraction.

Snow-capped mountain of Tolima

Check our tour to Nevado del Tolima here.

Birdwatching in Tolima

More and more people is discovering the biodiversity of birdlife in Tolima. Today, Tolima is 14 in the eBird’ species list of departments of Colombia, with 809 bird species reported.

Besides this, it is 8th in the Top 10 departments with more checklists, with around 14300.

5th Tolima Bird Festival – La Rivera Route ©Cortolima

In Tolima, a Bird Festival is also held every year. The most recent version was in 2019, being the fifth one. This festival features cultural and academic activities, as well as bird watching tours.

Tolima Birdwatching Routes

Private and public entities work together to protect and conserve the birds biodiversity of Tolima. Thus, since 2018, the Chamber of Commerce, the Ornithological Association Anthocephala, and Cortolima developed a total of 33 birdwatching routes in Tolima.

13 of these birding routes are near to Ibagué and the Río Viejo wetland in San Luis.

The main routes established in Tolima include:

  • Toche Canyon,
  • Combeima Canyon,
  • The northern route (Honda, Mariquita, Fresno and Falán),
  • Las Hermosas in Chaparral,
  • San Antonio,
  • Planadas,
  • Galilea forest,
  • Murillo – Armero route,
  • Roncesvalles,
  • Falán – Mariquita,
  • Clarita Botero en Ibagué
  • “Raúl Echeverry” Botanical Garden in Líbano, and
  • San Jorge Botanical Garden, among others.

One of the most important routes that you should not miss is the Toche Canyon Route. The Toche Canyon locates between the cities of Cajamarca and Ibagué.

Wax Palm at Toche, Tolima

There there are ten species of parrots, among them the Indigo-winged Parrot, the Yellow-eared Parrot and the Golden-plumed Parakeet. These species live in the ecosystem offered by the most conserved forest of wax palm in the country.

Top Birds of Tolima

Here’s a taste of what’s to come in a future post. The most representative bird species in Tolima are:

  1. Tolima Blossomcrown – Anthocephala berlepschi 
  2. Tolima Dove – Leptotila conoveri
  3. Indigo-winged Parrot – Hapalopsittaca fuertesi
  4. Yellow-eared Parrot – Ognorhynchus icterotis
  5. Velvet-fronted Euphonia – Euphonia concinna
  6. Crested Ant-Tanager – Habia cristata
  7. Yellow-headed Brushfinch – Atlapetes flaviceps
  8. Rufous-fronted Parakeet – Bolborhynchus ferrugineifrons
  9. Indigo-capped Hummingbird – Amazilia cyanifrons
  10. Apical Flycatcher – Myiarchus apicalis
  11. Brown-banded Antpitta – Grallaria milleri
  12. Buffy Helmetcrest – Oxypogon stuebelii
Tolima Blossomcrown – Anthocephala berlepschi at Ukuku Lodge, Tolima

Find the Tolima birding routes and highlights in our entry Tolima Birding Routes: from the Andean Snows to the Magdalena Valley.

So, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Tolima! In future posts we will tell you how we did during our visit.

For more information about birding trips to Colombia and the birds of Colombia, visit our entry The Complete Colombia Birdwatching Guide: Tourism & Conservation.

If you want to know more about the most incredible natural destinations in Colombia, plan your trip with us!

  • Tolima Regional Autonomous Corporation –
  • Anthocephala, Ornithology Association of Tolima.
About the author

Sara Colmenares

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.

Brief Guide to the 7 Macaws You Can Find in Colombia

Macaws are the largest birds of the Psittacidade family (their size ranges between 50 to 100 cm). They are noisy and have striking and suggestive plumage.

They are New World birds and are believed to have played an important role in pre-Columbian cultures throughout the continent.

Many of these birds are found in the paintings of ancient civilizations such as the Aztecs in Mexico. It is believed that they were associated with time and fertility. They also symbolized the sun for the Maya and Aztec cultures.

The circadian and seasonal periodicity of parrots and macaws seems to have been considered as a reference parameter for the development of certain activities, mainly those related to agriculture.

They were highly prized birds for their bright and colorful plumage. They were traded by the indigenous people to be used in their rituals as ritual attire, crowns and fans, among other ritual stuff.

Brief Taxonomy of Macaws

Macaws are composed of 19 species (including extinct and critically endangered species) distributed in 6 genera:

  • Anodorhynchus
  • Cyanopsitta
  • Ara
  • Orthopsittaca
  • Primolius
  • Diopsittaca

Among these, only two genera are found in Colombia: the genus Orthopsittaca and the genus Ara.

Macaws are in Danger of Extinction

Most macaws are considered in danger of extinction. Several of them are vulnerable and endangered. Others are critically endangered, while five or more species are already extinct.

Sadly, the species that are now extinct are the Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) (EW) and the Cuban Macaw (Ara tricolor) (EX).

If you need to better comprehend the threatening categories I recommend you read our entry Bird-watching Tourism Helps to Reduce Bird Extinction Risks in Colombia.

The main causes of their rapid disappearance have been the rapid increase in deforestation, hunting and illegal capture for the pet trade.

Threatened Macaw Species in Colombia

There are two species of macaws categorized as endangered: The Military Macaw and the Great Green Macaw.

9 Facts About Macaws

  1. After eating the macaws go to special places to consume clay and mud to eliminate the toxins consumed.
  2. The macaws feed silently to avoid the attention of other macaws of different species, thus protecting their food.
  3. Macaws are very selective when choosing the clay they will consume.
  4. Macaws are left-handed, they pick up objects such as food with their left paw, and hold on to walls and trees with their right.
  5. Macaws can have psychological diseases.
  6. Ceramic pieces have been found in which macaws are depicted.
  7. Some indigenous tribes related these birds to the sun.
  8. They are animals capable of learning different tricks.
  9. They can learn human attitudes by observing people.

Macaws of Colombia

There are no endemic species of macaws in Colombia. These birds are shared with Central America, the Amazonian and Orinoquia biogeographic regions.

Red-bellied Macaw

Orthopsittaca manilatus 


This bird is distributed up to 700 meters  (2296 ft) above sea level throughout the eastern plains region of Colombia and the Colombian Amazon.

In Colombia, you can observe the Red-bellied Macaw in Vichada, Guaviare, Guainía, Caquetá, Putumayo, Vaupés, Meta and Casanare.

Blue-and-Yellow Macaw

Ara ararauna


This bird is distributed up to 1500 meters (4921 ft) above sea level. In Colombia it is found in two regions separated by the Andes Mountains. Thus, it is present in the valleys of the upper Magdalena and Cauca rivers; and in the region of the eastern plains associated with the Guyanese shield and the Colombian Amazon.

In Colombia, you can observe the Blue-and-yellow Macaw in the north of Chocó, in Antioquia, Córdoba, Sucre, and Cartagena departments  to the north. And in the eastern region, in places such as Caquetá, Cundinamarca, and the natural bird reserve El Paujil in Santander.

Military Macaw

Ara militaris


This bird is distributed up to 2000 meters (6561 ft) above sea level, and in Colombia it is found in different small regions distributed fragmentarily throughout the national territory.

In Colombia, you can easily observe the Military Macaw in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Serranía del Perijá and the Eco park Los Besotes, in Cesar.

Great Green Macaw

Ara ambiguus


This bird is distributed up to 1000 meters (3280 ft) above sea level, and in Colombia is found in the high Chocó and Darién. It is an endangered bird; it is believed that there are about 1700 individuals in the Colombian Darien.

It is found in regions of difficult access. In Colombia, you can observe the Great Green Macaw in the Urabá Antioqueño and Córdoba near the Paramillo National Park and the Campo Alegre nature reserve. There have also been records of this species in the Utría Ensenada.

Scarlet Macaw

Ara macao


This bird is distributed up to 1500 meters (4921 ft) above sea level. The plumage of this bird is very special, since it has the colors of the Colombian flag yellow, blue and red. Not in that order, but it has them.

It represents joy and Latin flavor. Unfortunately, it is one of the most hunted for illegal sale, precisely because of its cheerful and colorful plumage. Miraculously, it is not an endangered bird.

In Colombia, you can observe the Scarlet Macaw in almost all the Colombian territory, and especially in Risaralda, in Casanare, in Chiribiquete and surroundings, and in Vaupés.

Red-and-green Macaw

Ara chloropterus


This bird is distributed up to 800 meters (2624 ft) above sea level. The plumage of this bird is very similar to that of the Scarlet Macaw, but the difference in the plumage is that instead of yellow, it has green.

In Colombia, you will be able to observe the Red-and-green Macaw in almost all the Colombian territory, except for the Andes. Especially in the Northern Colombian Caribbean Birding Route, in Antioquia, and in the eastern plains and the Amazon. This bird is one of the few macaws seen in urban habitat in the city of Medellín.

A special place to go to see it is the Matavén Forest in Vichada. Find out more about this destination in our entry The Top Post-Covid-19 Destinations for Conservation Lovers in Colombia.

Chestnut-fronted Macaw

Ara severus


This bird is distributed up to 1100 meters  (3608 ft) above sea level. It is the most widely distributed macaw in the whole Colombian territory. It fights for the first place with the Red-and-green Macaw. But the Chestnut-fronted Macaw beats it!

It will be the most common Macaw in your birding trip around Colombia. In Colombia, you will be able to observe the Chestnut-fronted Macaw especially anywhere, haha, early in the morning or at sunset.

However, to photograph it you will have to visit places like the natural bird reserve El Paujil, in Santander, in the Matavén jungle in Vichada, or the city of San José del Guaviare.

If you want to know more about the most incredible natural destinations in Colombia, plan your trip with us!

  • NAVARIJO ORNELAS, María de Lourdes. Guacamaya: símbolo de temporalidad y fertilidad en dos ejemplos de pintura mural. Estud. cult. maya [online]. 2012, vol.39 [citado 2021-02-04], pp.173-193. Available here. ISSN 0185-2574.
  • Illustrated Guide of the Colombian Avifauna. By Fernando Ayerbe (More about guides in our entry Birders Library: The Colombian Birding Field Guides Books)
About the author

Sara Colmenares

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.