Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Wild West of the Andes, Colombia


I have totally lost count of what day we are on now. From Medellin on 3rd April (which is in the Central cordillera of the Andes) we drove down into the Cauca Valley. This is the second biggest river in Colombia and runs down and north to the Caribbean coast. Unlike the Magdalena Valley, the Cauca Valley is narrow with the Andes reaching up high on both sides.

We then drive up to the top of the Western Cordillera and were meant to carry on down the western side in our mini bus but had news of heavy rain and landslides. Our jeeps therefore met us early and much higher up the road. Having piled our suitcases into one, the second jeep arrived together with two young ladies. This was going to make things a little full, so Miles our guide, insisted that they sat in the back section. Instead they sat on the roof rack, giggling every time the jeep hit a bump, until an army road block insisted that they got down. I am sure this was more so that the soldiers could chat then up than for their own safety. The journey was slow with numerous land slides across the road, some very recent. It was there after dark when we arrived at Las Tangaras, our next lodge.

We had a great day's birding the next day, seeing all the Colombian endemics in the area, which is part of the Choco. The main endemics were Gold-Ringed Tanager, Choco Vireo and Alto Pisones Tapaculo, which was so recently discovered that it is yet to be described! Birdgirl made friends with the lodge managers two sons, Andres and Manuel, the best that they could with little language in common.

It was not until the next morning that we saw the full beauty of the lodge, set in a valley with a river on three sides and surrounded my mountains. We managed to see another endemic, Crested Ant-Tanager before heavy rain set in, giving us a good soak before having to set off for our next destination.

The very heavy rain continued as we travelled across very muddy and hole filled roads back up and over the Western Cordillera. We stopped for another endemic bird on enroute, but strangely it did not want to show itself in the rain.

Our drivers were very concerned that we would get stuck between landslides and so hurried us along, but not before we sent a soaking and shaking Miles back to the jeep to warm up. We had several more hours soaking and cold before arriving in Urrao for a late lunch. We soon cheered with egg and chips with hot chocolate all around, before another 45 minutes in the jeeps to meet our horses.

At the bottom of a big hillside, already high up in the Central Andes, we were met by Luis, the forest guard from the Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve. All on our horses, we set off. At first Digby's horse lead, then it was Birdgirl's horse all the way up the mountainside. This was real Wild West riding as I imagined it. No riding hats, stirrups made from metal and big metal knobs on the front of the saddles to hold on to when going down a steep bit. We all loved it but Birdgirl was in her element, laughing all the way up, along steep tracks, across grassy hillsides and across fast flowing streams. The lodge itself was set in the most amazing surroundings, high in the mountains.

The next day we again took the horses to get up to the top of the tree-line and "Paramo" habitat. These were extremely narrow, rocky and steep mountain trails and I was not looking forward to the decent by horseback. We had to walk up the final part of the trail to 3,300 m, which I found hard due to the altitude, feeling sick and unfit. We saw many more endemics: Fenwick's Antpitta (or various other names - but that is a long story), Dusky Starfrontlet, Paramillo Tapaculo (which Birdgirl missed the first but saw another with a lot of perseverance) and Chestnut-Bellied Flowerpiercer. The return down was as exhilarating! Birdgirl lead the way, her horse taking shortcuts down the mountainside did not phase her and she was laughing with pleasure. I, meanwhile, had less faith in my horse, whose eagerness to avoid mud seemed to take it to drops which made me shout out as we descended. Lorna, you would have been proud of me!

No satisfied with a full morning, we spent the afternoon walking through a very steep and muddy mountain forest trail, being rewarded with Rusty-Faced Parrot at the top. The walk up the final stretch was chest-bursting, every few steps at that altitude burning. This was our favourite lodge, sharing the same building as Luis, his wife Flora and 9 year old son. Birdgirl was their first child guest and they were all very welcoming. Again, Birdgirl made a friend!

The next morning, we could not go far birding as there had been heavy rain overnight. The river that we had crossed the previous day was now a raging torrent. Giving up on much chance of birding, we left early, again on horseback. Much one handed horse-riding went on, full wild west style, down the mountainside. Birdgirl did at one point show off with no hands and Digby did lots of holding on to the front of his saddle, other arm out straight, whilst his horse went down steep bits. Lots of fun was had by all and we are agreed that we will all be going to Tynings Stables on our return.




Smiling is so uncool!
The next morning, we could not go far birding as there had been heavy rain overnight. The river that we had crossed the previous day was now a raging torrent. Giving up on much chance of birding, we left early, again on horseback. Much one handed horse-riding went on, full Wild West style, down the mountainside. Birdgirl did at one point show off with no hands and Digby did lots of holding on to the front of his saddle, other arm out straight, whilst his horse went down steep bits. Lots of fun was had by all and we are agreed that we will all be going to Tynings Stables on our return.

We were then met by jeeps to be taken back to Urrao, where we met out mini bus and driver, Carlos and taken to Jardin in the Central Andes, via the endemic Greyish Piculet.

Jardin is a beautiful old Spanish town, complete with old square and buildings around it. Our hotel is on the main square, with an old balcony overlooking the square and original features everywhere.

Birdgirl caught up with e-mails from all her friends tonight and said this evening that she is missing them all and home, as well as her sister and little niece....

4.45 am start tomorrow.

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