Two years ago, I decided the finer things in life did not include a fancy house or car. I put my broker in charge of my nest egg and quit the 8-to-5 daily grind. I set a goal to see, smell, taste, touch, and hear South America – on foot as much as possible.
Starting with a birdwatching trip to Panama, my love affair with tropical birds began. Averaging 10,000 steps a day, I added 300 plus birds to my “life list” near a volcano in Ecuador. Next came a three-week birdwatching trip in Colombia averaging 20,000 steps per day. I went back for “more Colombia” a few months later, birding through the Andes and Santa Marta. My feet have never been the same, and I have learned that next to taking a hot shower, pulling off wet, muddy boots after a long hike is the best feeling in the world.
Many birdwatching expeditions involve a luxurious resort with stylish rooms, private bathrooms, incredible views, and a zillion bird feeders. A local guide carts you around paved roads in a comfortable van on a short day trip. Meals are a picnic lunch or served at the resort.
Colombia is different. A birding trip in the Colombian Andes starts at one city and may end up 800 kilometers away. The itinerary changes by the hour – because birds do not follow itineraries. The guide touches base with fellow birding buddies around the clock and follows the birds in a four-wheel drive vehicle bouncing on roads fit for a Jeep Jamboree event. Once at the hot spot, I walk – and walk and walk – with binoculars stuck to my face and shriek “Wow” at an amazing spectacle every five minutes.
On this whirlwind trip from bird hot spot to hot spot, the bonus jewel is the journey in between.
I see a very real Colombia: authentic, colorful, captivating.
After birding for an hour or more, I engulf a tailgate breakfast of drinkable yogurt, granola bars, exotic tropical fruit I cannot pronounce, and, of course, the finest coffee in the world.
Lunch is chicken and rice wrapped in a leaf eaten on the side of the road or chorizo with potatoes and plantains served in a family restaurant in a busy market. At the end of the day, a cold Colombian beer hits the spot with grilled trout in the locals’ favorite café on the town square.
I try very hard not to be “the ugly American,” so I smile to everyone I meet — in gas stations, restaurants, on the sidewalk. My grin is always returned with a genuine smile and sparkling eyes. Strangers I talk with for 10 minutes will hug me when I leave. Colombians are the warmest people I have ever met.
Colombians are very proud of their country. They don’t talk much about the past, but they never miss an opportunity to talk about their food, children, salsa dancing, or the national soccer team. Mohawk haircuts, skinny jeans, and wholly ruanas are in.
Shiny new cars share the road with farmers on horseback herding cattle, long tourist buses, and heavy equipment trucks. Chickens and dogs have pedestrian priority. The remaining road space is filled with motorcycles. Somehow, the traffic flows as smoothly as their lifestyle.
Nothing opens until 10:00 am, midday siestas are mandatory, preparing afternoon coffee is a ritual, and music with an easy rhythm never stops playing inside homes painted all colors. There is an immense importance to family, which puts everything else into perspective.
The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, passing through seven countries in the west of South America. The range splits in Colombia, dividing the nation into three parallel cordilleras. The Oriental hugs the Pacific Coast, the Central is home to the coffee region, and the Occidental passes through the capital where Bogotá is perched 2,700 meters closer to the stars.
With each slope on each mountain range having different weather patterns, and thus different bird habitats, some simple math shows why Colombia is arguably the best birding location in the world. Those six slopes (one of each side of three cordilleras) stretch up to 5,000 meters high and each creates an enormous valley that is home to unique birds. And in addition to all these Andean microclimates, there are the Caribbean Coast, Pacific Coast, Amazon rainforest, and Los Llano plains that extend East towards Venezuela. All of this is packed into a country the size of Texas and California combined. It is mind-boggling.
But back to our feathered friends. Due to all this diversity, Colombia has over 1,900 species of birds – more than any other country in the world. According to the Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia, 87 birds are endemic. The scenery is also breathtaking. The birds are beautiful and plentiful, from the graceful Andean condor to the smallest hummingbird. The guides are also outstanding. Combined, you have all the necessary ingredients for a rewarding birdwatching experience.
Today, I live in a small village high in the Colombian Andes and spend my time hiking, birding, and writing. And as much as I look forward to relaxing with my feet up after a long day, I never tire of walking on steep muddy trails heading towards stunning birds. Colombian dirt is on my boots forever.