The Southern part of the department of Huila holds the oldest and one of the best-preserved protected areas in Colombia-. It is an amazing place where various endangered species are still preserved and protected, such as the Oilbird. We are talking about the Cueva de Los Guácharos National Park (Oilbirds Cave).
The Oilbirds, or Guácharos
For reference, Oilbirds (Steatornis caripensis) are birds that spend all day in the depths of the caves and go out at night to hunt food, usually insects, fruits, and aromatic plants.
Same as bats, Oilbirds also use a quite precise natural echo localization system. Hence, they make a series of short and squealing sounds that serve as waves that are used for their localization.
According to the American Bird Conservancy about the Oilbird:
“it is named for the young birds, which are so fat that indigenous people and early settlers once collected and rendered them down to oil for lighting and cooking”.
Discovering the Cueva de Los Guácharos Natural National Park
Cueva de Los Guácharos NNP was named after the Oilbird, which is called Guácharo in Spanish.
The Cueva de Los Guácharos NNP was created in 1960 and belongs to the “Biósfera Cinturón Andino”, Andean Belt Reserve declared by UNESCO in 1979.
Find out more about Colombian Biosphere Reserves in our entry Next Travel Ideas? Visit the Biosphere Reserves of Colombia.
It totals an area of 90 square kilometers and is located at the western flank of the Cordillera Oriental, between the departments of Huila and Caquetá. Also, the Cave of the Guácharos is very close to the Magdalena River.
Lastly, Cueva de Los Guácharos is considered part of “Andean Amazonian” transition ecosystems, having a great role as a water regulator, among other ecosystem services. Due to its unique characteristics, it is a nest and transitory refugee stop for a large number of migratory birds.
Cueva de Los Guácharos Park is between 1200 meters and 3800 meters above sea level and its temperatures vary between 19 °C and 26 °C, with very humid climatic characteristics.
How to get to the Cueva de Los Guácharos National Park
Take a 1.5-hour flight from Bogotá to El Contador Airport (PTX) at Pitalito city. From Pitalito, take a 1-hour ride to Palestina, and an additional 1-hour car ride to La Mesura.
Once at Mesura, look for Cedar where the National Natural Parks access point to Cueva de Los Guácharos is located.
At this point, you can choose to take an 8.5 km hike (3.5 to 5 hours long) or take the transport service available to the accommodation area.
Bear in mind that Satena (Colombian national public airline) is the only one flying to Pitalito Saturdays and Mondays.
What to do in the Cueva de Los Guácharos National Park
Cueva de Los Guácharos National Natural Park has community-based ecotourism operators that provide lodging services in cabins and shared bathrooms for up to 50 people, a camping area for up to 24 people, restaurant service, horse rental, and guiding.
You must know that it is not possible to access or hanging around the park without the accompaniment of a local guide.
Hiking and Trekking
Within the area of the park, there are many canyons and labyrinths. The Cueva de Los Guácharos has caves formed by the chemical and mechanical action of the Sauza River and its tributaries.
Hiking is the most exciting activity in Cueva de Los Guácharos Park. You can hike only until the glacier edge along 4 trails:
- Black Oak Trail with a 4-hour round trip (3.9 km) and high difficulty.
- Giant’s Way Trail with a 2-hour round trip (2.7 km) and medium difficulty.
- Rain of Crystals Trail with a 2-hour round trip (1.7 km) and medium difficulty
- Waterfall of colors Trail with a 5-hour round trip (3.1 km) and high difficulty.
This activity allows you to admire the 2 caves of Oilbirds, the caves of calcareous formations, and the 2 natural bridges over the Rio Suaza. Also, the Cristales waterfalls, and the Lindosa waterfall.
Along the trails, you may spot the wonders of Cueva de Los Guácharos, among which stand out native species such as the Spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), the Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistopheles), the cougar (Puma concolor), the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), and the mountain tapir, also known as the Andean tapir or woolly tapir (Tapirus pinchaque).
Regarding flora, you will be able to appreciate almost extinct species in their natural state such as black oak (endemic), white oak, copper, black cedar, cumin, hayuelo pine, and the Colombian pine.
Birdwatching, and the Oilbirds Caves
Cueva de Los Guácharos is a permanent habitat for more than 300 species of birds including the Oilbird, the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana), and the Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata colombiana).
Do not forget that depending on the season different migratory birds that inhabit this territory may be observed.
Where to stay in the Cueva de Los Guácharos National park
The park has a Visitor Center called Andakí. The community-based ecotourism operator, Fundación Cerca Viva, provides lodging for 50 people in multiple accommodations (cabins), distributed in 5 bedrooms with bathrooms.
Additionally, the park also offers a VIP cabin with accommodation for 8 people and a private bathroom.
There is also a classroom for environmental education activities.
Best time to visit Cueva de Los Guácharos
The dry season (December to late February) is climate-wise the most preferable choice, however, it is also a peak season for national tourists so be prepared.
Worth noting is that usually between March and April Oilbirds’ offspring begin to hatch, which is considered a very attractive natural phenomenon.
The entrance fee to Cueva de Los Guácharos varies depending on the nationality and age of the visitors. These are the entrance fees for 2021:
- Colombians, foreigners holding a residence permit, and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru (ages 5 to 25): COP 15,000
- Colombians, foreigners holding a residence permit, and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru (over 25 years old): COP 19,500
- Non-resident foreigners (over 5 years old): COP 51,500
- Children under 5 years old and Colombians over 65 years old have free entrance presenting their IDs.
What to consider when visiting the Cueva de Los Guácharos National Park
- Book reservation in advance with an authorized ecotourism operator.
- Wear suitable clothing for cold and humid weather.
- Take reusable water bottles along.
- Keep away from making any marks on trees, stones, or infrastructure available.
- Noises or sounds that disturb the environment are not allowed.
- Return ALL garbage and dispose of it at the waste disposal sites.
- Admission of children under 5 years old, pregnant women, people with heart or respiratory conditions is not recommended.
- Tours inside the park must be taken with registered and authorized guides.
- Avoid taking night walks on the trails.
Feeding, bothering, or hunting animals, littering, pets, horses alcoholic drinks and drugs, making bonfires, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.
- National Parks Website
- Local guides
About the authors
Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.