The Ultimate In Birding Tours

South America (and its islands)

BEST OF COLOMBIA – The Andes, the Choco & Santa Marta

Wednesday 2nd August – Thursday 17th August 2023

Leaders: Trevor Ellery and local bird guides

16 Days Group Size Limit 7


Birdquest’s Best of Colombia tours are a wonderful South American birding adventure. Our Best of Colombia tour is the single best two-week itinerary in the country, concentrating on Colombian endemics and other memorable birds, but without too much time taken up travelling. Right up there with Ecuador and Peru in terms of species diversity, Colombia is far richer than either in terms of the number of endemic birds.

To most people, Colombia conjures up images of the finest coffee in the world, emeralds, cocaine, and swinging salsa and merengue music, but for birders, it offers the richest avifauna on earth!

Colombia has had a complex history. Once encompassing all of adjacent Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador, the early republic soon shrunk in size, but even today we are still left with an immense country with an endless variety of scenery, habitats and bird communities.

Colombia has the enviable distinction of having the greatest number of bird species recorded for any country in the world: over 1870 species have been recorded to date! Upon entering from Ecuador, the mighty Andean Cordillera soon divides into three huge ranges, Colombia’s ornithologically-famous Western, Central and Eastern Andes. In between are the wide Cauca and Magdalena Valleys that eventually reach the Caribbean Coast. Here, one of the planet’s most awesome mountain ranges, the snow-clad Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, rises abruptly out of the ocean.

Only rivalled by Peru for the diversity of its avifauna, it is not only the sheer number of species that are impressive about Colombia, but also the extraordinary number of endemics found within its boundaries.

Faced with the impossibility of covering all of this vast country in a two-week tour, this very carefully crafted itinerary concentrates on the more readily accessible sites, with mostly easy walking conditions, for the numerous unique endemic species occurring in the Western and Central cordilleras and the isolated Santa Marta Mountains.

We will start our Best of Colombia tour in the scenic mountains around Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, where such exciting endemic and near-endemic species as Bogota Rail, Green-bearded Helmetcrest, Black Inca, Flame-winged Parakeet, Silvery-throated Spinetail, Apolinar’s Wren, Moustached Brushfinch, Rufous-browed Conebill and Turquoise Dacnis await us in the cloudforests and paramos.

Our next port of call will be the Upper Magdalena Valley and the temperate forests above Ibague in search of endemics like the shy Tolima Dove, Tolima Blossomcrown, Apical Flycatcher, Velvet-fronted Euphonia and Yellow-headed Brushfinch before we head to Otun Quimbaya. A morning at the latter may well yield such endemics as Cauca Guan and the elusive Chestnut Wood Quail, as well as the recently-described Stiles’s Tapaculo and the superb Chestnut-breasted Wren and Multicoloured Tanager. In the Santa Rosa area, we will look for the rare endemic Fuertes’s Parrot.

Continuing on to Manizales, we make an in-depth exploration of areas bordering Los Nevados National Park. These include the excellent Rio Blanco Reserve and the nearby Nevado del Ruiz, where, amongst others, we hope to find such endemic and near-endemic specialities as Black-thighed Puffleg, Rusty-faced Parrot, Black-billed Mountain Toucan, Brown-banded and Bicoloured Antpittas, Golden-fronted Whitestart and Flame-rumped Tanager, in addition to more widespread but nonetheless elusive species such as Paramo and Ocellated Tapaculos, and White-capped Tanager.

Next, we explore the very wet Pacific slope of the Western Andes of Colombia, known as the Chocó, where we visit the Montezuma region. Here we can find the stunning Gold-ringed and Black-and-gold Tanagers alongside other colourful Chocó endemics and near-endemics, such as Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Orange-breasted Fruiteater and Black Solitaire, and such additional specialities as Chestnut-breasted and Yellow-collared Chlorophonias and localized endemics like Parker’s Antbird, Tatama Tapaculo, Munchique Wood Wren and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer.

Moving on to the far north of Colombia, we will first visit the Santa Marta region, where we will climb the impressive Sierra Nevada in search of a veritable feast of endemics whilst simultaneously enjoying some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery! The most likely endemics here include Santa Marta Blossomcrown, White-tailed Starfrontlet, Santa Marta Woodstar, Santa Marta Screech Owl, Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner, Streak-capped and Rusty-headed Spinetails, Santa Marta Antbird, Santa Marta Antpitta, Santa Marta and Brown-rumped Tapaculos, Santa Marta Bush Tyrant, Hermit Wood Wren, Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada Brushfinches, Santa Marta Mountain Tanager, Yellow-crowned Whitestart and White-lored and Santa Marta Warblers are among the 20 or more endemics and near-endemics likely here.

We then descend to the arid littoral exploring the Guajira Peninsula. Here we will look for some restricted-range species only shared with neighbouring Venezuela, such as Chestnut Piculet, White-whiskered Spinetail and Vermilion Cardinal.

On our final day, we explore a mosaic of coastal habitats near Barranquilla in search of the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca and Bronze-brown Cowbird and the endangered endemic Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird.

Birdquest has operated Colombia tours since 1998.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels and lodges are of good or medium standard throughout. Transport is by small coach or minibus, and 4×4 vehicles where necessary. The roads are generally good.

Walking: The walking effort during our Best of Colombia tour is mostly easy, sometimes moderate.

Climate: At this season it should be mostly dry and often sunny. It can be quite hot and humid in the lowlands, whilst at higher elevations, it can be quite cool, especially at night. There may be some rain which at times can be heavy and persistent.

Bird Photography: Opportunities during our Best of Colombia tour are worthwhile.


  • One of the absolute best Neotropical itineraries for endemics and overall diversity
  • Residing in a series of birder-friendly lodges, many with great birds right in the garden!
  • Seeing the fantastic antpitta feeders around Manizales, including the stunning Crescent-faced Antpitta and rare Brown-banded and Bicolored Antpittas
  • Exploring the high paramo around Bogota, with Bogota Rail, Noble Snipe, Apolinar’s Wren and the superb Green-bearded Helmetcrest
  • Watching the rare Tolima Dove, Tolima Blossomcrown and Yellow-headed Brushfinch around Ibague
  • Seeing the rare Cauca Guan and with luck the amazing Hooded Antpitta and Fuertes’s Parrot in the central Andes
  • Having a great chance of the much-wanted, jay-like White-capped Tanager
  • Seeing the endangered, macaw-like Yellow-eared Parrot
  • Spending time at possibly the best Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek in the world
  • Enjoying a series of wonderful hummingbird feeders, with gems like the amazing Rainbow-bearded Thornbill to keep us company!
  • Watching the amazing Sword-billed Hummingbird at close range
  • Finding the brilliant Buffy Helmetcrest on the amazing and active Ruiz Volcano
  • Seeing the rare Gold-ringed and Black-and-gold Tanagers in the Choco alongside an amazing variety of other specialities
  • Spending time in an Oilbird cave, with endemic White-mantled Barbets and Antioquia Bristle-Tyrants nearby
  • Amazing scenery in the Santa Marta mountains, where the snow-capped peaks rise from the ocean to over 5000m (16405ft)
  • Seeing the amazing Santa Marta endemics from the newly described Santa Marta Screech Owl to the superb Santa Marta Antpitta and the brilliant White-tailed Starfrontlet
  • Encountering the specialities of the dry Guajira Peninsula, including Chestnut Piculet, the lovely White-whiskered Spinetail and the stunning Vermilion Cardinal
  • Finding many other charismatic favourites such as Torrent Ducks, quetzals, mountain toucans and so much more
  • Watching a bewildering variety of tanagers including the amazing endemic Multicolored Tanager


  • Day 1: Evening tour start at Bogotá.
  • Days 2-3: Bogotá region.
  • Day 4: Drive to Ibague.
  • Day 5: Ibague area, then drive to Otun Quimbaya.
  • Day 6: Otun-Quimbaya reserve, then drive to Manizales.
  • Day 7: Rio Blanco reserve. Overnight Manizales.
  • Day 8: Nevado del Ruiz, then drive to Montezuma area in the Choco.
  • Days 9-10: Montezuma area.
  • Day 11: Drive to Periera airport and fly to Barranquilla via Bogotá. Drive to Minca.
  • Day 12: Minca area, then drive to El Dorado lodge near San Lorenzo.
  • Days 13-14: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Overnights at El Dorado.
  • Day 15: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, then drive to Riohacha.
  • Day 16: Guajira Peninsula, then drive to Barranquilla airport for late afternoon tour end.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.


Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

We also include these flights: Periera-Bogotá and Bogotá-Barranquilla.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)

2023: provisional £4670, $6590, €5530, AUD9020. Bogotá/Baranquilla.

Single Supplement: 2023: £460, $650, €540, AUD890.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

There are only a limited number of rooms at San Lorenzo (El Dorado). There is no single supplement at this location, but singles are provided free of additional charge if available at the time (they often are, but not always for everyone who wants one). At Montezuma there are also relatively few rooms and it is possible that not all those requesting singles will be able to have them. Any unexpected sharing at Montezuma will result in an appropriate refund.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.


Best of Colombia: Day 1  Our tour begins in the evening in Bogotá, where we will stay for three nights. An airport transfer will be provided.

Best of Colombia: Days 2-3  Built on a flat, high mountain plateau, the bustling city of Bogotá is a great base from which to explore an excellent variety of natural habitats in Colombia’s Eastern Andes.

During our exploration of the Bogotá region, we will explore some high paramo, where we have a great chance of finding the splendid endemic Green-bearded Helmetcrest and near-endemic Bronze-tailed Thornbill. Here, in the thin mountain air, Tawny Antpittas bound across the turf, Buff-winged Cinclodes creep around the wetland edges and endemic Bogota Rails and Apolinar’s Wrens frequent the marshland. Another typical inhabitant here is the distinctive Noble Snipe, and we shall have an excellent chance of seeing this localized bird.

Other species at these high altitudes include Andean Teal and Andean Duck. During the boreal winter, we could encounter a Merlin.

We will also visit some feeders where the delightful, restricted-range Golden-bellied Starfrontlet can often be seen, as well as Lesser Violetear.

On our second day, we will explore an area of high elevation forest in Chingaza National Park where we have an opportunity to see the colourful endemic Flame-winged (or Brown-breasted) Parakeet, the endemic Silvery-throated Spinetail (which betrays its presence with its staccato vocalizations more typical of Cranioleuca spinetails) and the near-endemic Pale-bellied (or Mattoral) Tapaculo.

Other specialities we may well encounter while exploring this diverse park include such near-endemics as Longuemare’s Sunangel, the uncommon Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Coppery-bellied Puffleg,  Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Conebill and the pretty Golden-fronted Whitestart (here of the nominate white-cheeked race), and also the localized Golden-crowned Tanager.

The monotonous calling of an Andean Pygmy Owl may well lure in a mob of nervous little birds, and amongst these, or in the busy mixed feeding flocks, we will look for Pearled Treerunner, White-browed Spinetail, Black-capped and White-throated Tyrannulets, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Rufous Wren, Black-crested Warbler, Black-headed, Black-capped, Black-eared, Superciliaried and perhaps Oleaginous Hemispinguses, and the brilliant Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Blue-backed Conebill and Plushcap. Black and Bluish Flowerpiercers vigorously pursue their nectar thievery in the company of many other passerines in the flowering shrubs.

Thick bamboo fills many of the forest glades and strange but distinctive calls may lead us to the highly distinctive local form of the Rufous Antpitta, while other birds of interest in this splendid area include Andean Guan and Ash-coloured Tapaculo. We may also find the interesting Red-crested Cotinga, the uncommon Andean Siskin and the rather more widespread Hooded Siskin.

Other widespread species we may well encounter include Sickle-winged Guan, Band-tailed Pigeon, Scaly-naped Amazon, Chestnut-collared Swift, Long-tailed Sylph, Tyrian Metaltail, the colourful Glowing Puffleg, Bronzy and Collared Incas, Masked Trogon, White-throated Toucanet, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Merlin, Azara’s Spinetail, Montane and Lineated Foliage-gleaners, Blackish Tapaculo, Mountain Elaenia, White-banded, White-throated and perhaps Tawny-rumped Tyrannulets, the delightful Rufous-headed Pygmy Tyrant , Streak-necked, Slaty-capped, Flavescent and Cinnamon Flycatchers, Smoke-coloured Pewee, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Barred Becard, Blue-and-white and Brown-bellied Swallows, Sharpe’s Wren, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, the musical Andean Solitaire, Glossy-black Thrush, Black-collared Jay, colourful Hooded, Blue-winged and Buff-breasted Mountain Tanagers, Grass-green, Blue-capped, Blue-and-black, Beryl-spangled and Flame-faced Tanagers, White-sided, Bluish, Glossy and Masked Flowerpiercers, Grey-browed, Pale-naped and Slaty Brushfinches, Plain-coloured Seedeater, Citrine, Three-striped and Russet-crowned Warblers and Northern Mountain Cacique.

Widespread birds likely in more open habitats as we travel around the Bogotá region include Western Cattle and Great Egrets, Bare-faced Ibis, Black and Turkey Vultures, Roadside Hawk, American Kestrel, Southern Lapwing, Eared Dove, Ruddy Ground Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Sparkling Violetear, Tropical Kingbird, Cattle Tyrant, Great Kiskadee, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow (during the boreal winter), Bananaquit, Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Yellow-backed Oriole, Shiny Cowbird and Eastern Meadowlark.

Best of Colombia: Day 4  West of the capital, the western slope of the Eastern Andes still harbours some very ‘birdy’ patches of cloudforest. One of these is one of the few sites where one of Colombia’s rarest endemics, the colourful Turquoise Dacnis, can sometimes be found, though it is by no means common here. Another of the country’s specialities that occurs here is the flashy but scarce endemic Black Inca, and whilst looking for the latter species we are likely to encounter several other hummingbirds such as Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Andean Emerald, Steely-vented Hummingbird and White-booted Racket-tail.

Oak trees, not found in any other South American country, are sometimes inhabited by parties of noisy Acorn Woodpeckers, while active mixed flocks nervously flit through the canopy and mid-levels, and often include Red-crowned and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Ash-browed Spinetail, Lineated and Montane Foliage-gleaners, and Brown-capped Vireo. Warblers often join the flocks and, as well as the resident Tropical Parula and Slate-throated Whitestart, during tours in the boreal winter we may well find wintering Black-and-white, Tennessee, Blackburnian, Mourning and Canada Warblers, as well as Swainson’s Thrush. Colour is added by the bewildering array of tanagers, which include Fawn-breasted, Golden, Flame-faced, Blue-necked, Bay-headed, Scrub, Beryl-spangled, Black-capped and Crimson-backed.

Other species likely here include the endemic Moustached Brushfinch as well as White-throated Toucanet, Azara’s and Pale-breasted Spinetails, Sooty-headed and Golden-faced Tyrannulets, Yellow-bellied and Mountain Elaenias, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Whiskered and House Wrens, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, Brown-bellied and Blue-and-white Swallows, Black-billed and Great Thrushes, Streaked Saltator, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Saffron Finch.

We will also explore some shade coffee lower down where, in the brushy borders, we should see the zebra-striped, near-endemic Bar-crested Antshrike, which occurs here in close proximity to the similar but more widespread Barred Antshrike, and we should also find the endemic Colombian Wren. Other species at these lower elevations include White-tailed Kite, White-tipped Dove, Slaty Spinetail, Vermilion Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. Here also we will look for flowering trees frequented by ‘hummers’ such as Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and White-vented Plumeleteer, and, if we are fortunate, we will find one of the rarer species such as Short-tailed Emerald. We may also come across the smart Stripe-breasted Spinetail.

During the late afternoon, we will explore some dry habitat in the Magdalena Valley, where we will have our first chance to find the endemic Apical Flycatcher and Velvet-fronted Euphonia, while other new birds could well include Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, White-bellied Antbird, Pale-eyed Pygmy Tyrant, Black-striped Sparrow, Grey Pileated Finch, Grey Seedeater and Black-faced Grassquit.

After exploring this area we will continue on to Ibague for an overnight stay.

Best of Colombia: Day 5  This morning we shall visit some relict patches of drier woodland above Ibague. Here we will try to find the endemic and highly localized Yellow-headed Brushfinch and, if we are lucky, the very rare Tolima Dove and Tolima Blossomcrown. We also have a good chance of finding the lovely Velvet-fronted Euphonia and the shy Yellow-throated Brushfinch, as. well as the superb Grey-throated and Crimson-rumped Toucanets, Northern White-crowned Tapaculo, Moustached Puffbird, Collared Trogon and Andean Solitaire.

Afterwards, we continue northwestwards across the paramo to Otun Quimbaya for an overnight stay.

Best of Colombia: Day 6  This morning we will visit the Otun-Quimbaya Reserve where we shall find ourselves listening for the pre-dawn calls of the endangered Cauca Guan, for it was at this site that this previously thought-to-be-extinct cracid was rediscovered during the 1990s. As the sky lightens we should locate this Colombian endemic as well as Sickle-winged Guan, whilst the booming calls of lekking Red-ruffed Fruitcrows (which are surprisingly common here) fill the air. If we are in luck we will encounter the furtive and very difficult Wattled Guan.

Dense brush at the forest edge holds the inconspicuous and recently-described Stiles’s Tapaculo, whilst almost pure whistles from the forest understorey indicate the presence of Chestnut-breasted Wrens, perhaps more numerous here than anywhere else in the species’ range. It is also an excellent place for hearing, and with luck seeing, the secretive Chestnut Wood Quail, and even the rarely seen Hooded Antpitta, which is being seen with increasing regularity at this site.

As mixed foraging flocks start assembling, we shall carefully scrutinize these for the localized Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet and Rufous-breasted Flycatcher as well as Golden-olive Woodpecker and Red-faced Spinetail, and amongst the tanager flocks, we may well find the magnificent endemic Multicoloured Tanager. Other species we may well see include the impressive Golden-plumed Parakeet, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Slaty Antwren, Marble-faced and Variegated Bristle Tyrants, Slaty-capped and Cinnamon Flycatchers, and Inca Jay.

Along the river, we are very likely to find a superb pair of Torrent Ducks, which we will also take the time to look at. This stunning duck is another flagship species for many South American countries and highly evocative of the tumbling rivers of the Andes. We may also find Black Phoebe, Torrent Tyrannulet and White-capped Dipper.

Later we will drive to the town of Manizales for a two nights stay.

Best of Colombia: Day 7  Protecting an important watershed for the city of Manizales, the important Rio Blanco reserve holds some of the rarest and most threatened species in Colombia. In particular, we will be keen to find the rare Rusty-faced Parrot and the skulking and hard-to-see Brown-banded and Bicoloured Antpittas.

In recent years, Brown-banded Antpitta has become easier to see as it visits a feeding station alongside Chestnut-crowned and Slate-crowned Antpittas. Other skulkers include Chestnut-naped Antpitta, the amazing Ocellated Tapaculo (which can be hard to see) and Spillmann’s and Ash-coloured Tapaculos. We shall also be alert for the jay-like calls of a party of stunning White-capped Tanagers, one of the oddest members of its family.

Another feature of the reserve is the amazing set of hummingbird feeders where, as well as the ubiquitous Tourmaline Sunangel, we should see the more drably-cloaked Speckled Hummingbird, the aggressive Buff-tailed Coronet and the tiny White-bellied Woodstar.

Other species that we will hope to see here include the endemic Flame-rumped Tanager as well as Plain-breasted Hawk, Long-tailed Sylph, Masked Trogon, the superb Black-billed Mountain Toucan, the delightful Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Tyrannine and Black-banded Woodcreepers, Streak-headed Antbird, Chestnut-naped Antpitta (with luck), Blackish Tapaculo, the drab and elusive Dusky Piha, Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant, Black-capped and White-tailed Tyrannulets, Smoke-coloured Pewee, Pale-edged and Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Mountain Wren, Citrine and Russet-crowned Warblers, Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers, Capped Conebill (here with a white cap), the colourful Grass-green Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Grey-hooded Bush Tanager, Grey-browed Brushfinch and Black-winged Saltator. We will also seek out bamboo specialists such as Black-eared Hemispingus and Plushcap.

Pre-dawn, armed with a spotlight, we shall go in search of White-throated Screech Owl, Rufous-banded Owl, Rufous-bellied Nighthawk and Band-winged Nightjar.

If we are fortunate we will see one or two of the rarer or more difficult species such as Scaly-naped Amazon, Yellow-billed Cacique and the bamboo-loving Masked Saltator.

Best of Colombia Day 8  This morning we will explore the high temperate zone at Nevado del Ruiz, which is situated at above 9800ft (3000m), where patches of forest give way to the paramo. Here, our primary targets are the endemic Buffy Helmetcrest and the endemic and very localized Rufous-fronted Parakeet (which is often hard to find).

In the more open areas and around a wetland we shall look for Andean Teal, White-tailed Hawk, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Andean Tit-Spinetail, the localized Stout-billed Cinclodes, the attractive Many-striped Canastero, White-chinned Thistletail, Grass Wren, Pale-naped Brushfinch, and a variety of seedeaters including Plumbeous Sierra Finch, and Paramo and Plain-coloured Seedeaters. Tawny Antpittas are often very tame here and we should see this endearing species well.

Of special interest are the fabulous hummingbird gardens surrounding the hotel at Los Nevados where we will spend the night. Here, a number of colourful hummingbirds, including Viridian Metaltail, Golden-breasted Puffleg, the lovely Buff-winged Starfrontlet and the dazzling Shining Sunbeam, occur alongside Great Sapphirewing and the formerly tough-to-see, near-endemic Black-thighed Puffleg and gorgeous Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, and sometimes even the scarce Purple-backed Thornbill.

Afterwards, we will head down to the humid Chocó region for a three nights stay in the Montezuma region.

Best of Colombia: Days 9-1o  No ‘best of’ Colombia birding tour would rate as such without visiting the Chocó! As well as being very birdy, the Chocó region of Colombia is one of the wettest areas on our planet, and we are bound to have some rain during our visit.

As well as holding a number of Chocó endemics that are shared with Ecuador, this area is also home to the fantastic Gold-ringed Tanager, and we should have little trouble finding this stunning endemic. We also have a good chance of finding its close relative the Black-and-gold Tanager.

While at Montezuma we will walk a series of forest trails and work our way along a little-used track through the mossy forests. We should see a number of colourful and exciting hummingbirds, such as Tawny-bellied Hermit, White-throated (or Choco) Daggerbill, White-tailed Hillstar, Empress Brilliant, Collared Inca, the near-endemic Brown Inca, Velvet-purple Coronet and the exquisite Violet-tailed Sylph.

Mixed flocks are a feature of the area and hold such goodies as Red-headed Barbet, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, the skulking Rufous Spinetail, the smart but localized Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, the retiring Uniform Treehunter, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Ornate and Handsome Flycatchers, Black Solitaire, the stunning, near-endemic Glistening-green and Purplish-mantled Tanagers, Silver-throated, Lemon-rumped and near-endemic Rufous-throated Tanagers, Dusky-bellied Bush Tanager, the near-endemic Black-chinned Mountain Tanager, the delightful, near-endemic Indigo Flowerpiercer and Tricoloured Brushfinch.

We should also come across at least several of the scarcer species of the area, which include Pacific Tuftedcheek, the little-known Bicoloured Antvireo, the endemic Parker’s Antbird, the elusive Yellow-breasted Antpitta (easy to hear!), the sluggish Olivaceous Piha, the gorgeous Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Club-winged Manakin, Beautiful Jay, the endemic Crested Ant Tanager and the stunning Yellow-collared and Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonias.

We should also find such more widespread species as Band-tailed Pigeon, Broad-winged Hawk, Chestnut-collared Swift, Glossy-black Thrush, the gorgeous Golden-headed Quetzal, Andean Motmot, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Barred Becard, Streak-necked Flycatcher, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Sharpe’s Wren, Capped Conebill (the subspecies here has a blue cap and so does not appear capped!) and Blue-capped Tanager.

Providing road conditions permit, we will also explore another area, high up on a ridge shrouded in clouds. This area is very good for three rare and localized endemics; Tatama Tapaculo, Munchique Wood Wren and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer. Also in the area are Green-and-black Fruiteater and the skulking Tanager Finch.

Best of Colombia: Day 11  This morning we will drive to Periera airport and take a flight to Bogotá where we catch an onward connection to Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia.

From there we shall begin our ascent to Minca, situated in the semi-arid foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, for an overnight stay. As with the Chocó, no ‘best of’ Colombia birding tour could omit the Santa Marta mountains. We have even had to extend our stay in these wonderful mountains as the number of endemics and the time required to find them has increased!

We shall work our way through the lower elevation habitats below Minca; a patchwork of dry woodlands choked with dense vine tangles, fields, pasture and small plantations of shade coffee, where flowering trees often act as a magnet to a variety of hummingbirds, and we shall watch especially for the tiny, near-endemic Coppery and Red-billed Emeralds.

Other birds in this zone include the near-endemic Black-backed Antshrike, the splendid Golden-winged Sparrow and the stunning Rosy Thrush-Tanager (now treated as a monotypic bird family), as well as Scaled Pigeon, Rufous-and-white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Golden-fronted Greenlet, American Redstart (during the boreal winter), Swallow Tanager, Crested Oropendola, the colourful Blue-naped Chlorophonia and Black-striped Sparrow.

Best of Colombia: Day 12  After some early morning birding around Minca, we will make our way up to El Dorado lodge, near San Lorenzo, for a three nights stay, concentrating for the rest of the day on the Santa Marta endemics.

Best of Colombia: Days 13-14  With the snow-capped peaks of Simon Bolívar and Cristóbal Colon towering up to 5800m (19,000ft) above sea level and lying just 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the coast, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia is the world’s highest coastal range. Nowhere else on earth is the distance so short between palm-fringed tropical beaches and windswept icy peaks. Between these two extremes, the mountain’s slopes are covered in lush forests showing an extremely high degree of endemism. A montane ‘island’ separated by a wide lowland gap from the Andes, this roughly triangular massif is home to more than 20 endemic bird species and an impressive number of often highly distinctive endemic subspecies. Though large parts of the mountains are currently inaccessible, the San Lorenzo road at its north-western corner allows the visiting birder to see the majority of the area’s endemics, in addition to a wealth of other birds.

As we climb up to El Dorado and as human influence diminishes and forest starts to predominate, we should soon find our first Santa Marta endemic, perhaps the attractive Santa Marta Brushfinch. On reaching lower subtropical elevations we shall start looking for four endemics that primarily inhabit this zone, the secretive Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner and Santa Marta Tapaculo and the somewhat easier Santa Marta Antbird and White-lored Warbler. We will also keep a lookout for Sooty-capped Hermit and listen for the exquisite Rusty-breasted Antpitta, which we have a reasonable chance of seeing in this area.

The tall forests and shrubby edges are home to a number of other interesting birds, such as Red-billed Parrot, the spectacular White-tipped Quetzal, Yellow-billed Toucanet, Santa Marta Toucanet (currently treated as an endemic subspecies of White-throated), Keel-billed Toucan, the distinctive local form of the Tyrian Metaltail (a good potential split), the striking Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Black-hooded Thrush, Black-headed Tanager and Southern Yellow Grosbeak.

Higher still, we shall concentrate on the Santa Marta endemics above San Lorenzo. In dense bamboo thickets, Rusty-headed Spinetails deliver their relentless squeaks, whilst in vine tangles higher up in the trees, Streak-capped Spinetails eagerly forage for insect prey. We shall watch tubular flowers for the exquisite but elusive White-tailed Starfrontlet, and we will keep our ears open for the soft squabbling calls of a flock of quietly foraging Santa Marta Parakeets, masters at blending in with their surroundings. The ‘bob-white’ song of the omnipresent Santa Marta Antpitta will soon become a familiar sound, but we shall have to work hard to glimpse this phantom of the forest floor. Equally secretive are the endemic and highly distinct local races of the Rufous Antpitta (now a proposed split as Sierra Nevada Antpitta) and near-endemic Black-fronted Wood Quail, though the endemic Brown-rumped Tapaculo and the recently-recognized endemic Hermit Wood Wren should prove less difficult.

Luckily, not all the endemic birds require so much effort, and we will scrutinize mixed flocks for the lively Yellow-crowned Whitestart, the smart Santa Marta Warbler and the handsome Santa Marta (or Black-cheeked) Mountain Tanager.

Amidst striking mountain scenery, where we can look down on the hot and dry Caribbean coast far below us, we will also search for Santa Marta Bush Tyrant and the uncommon Santa Marta Blossomcrown, as well as more widespread species such as White-rumped Hawk, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner and Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant. We may also see a few of the other difficult species, which include the rare Andean Condor, Military Macaw, Mountain Velvetbreast, the difficult Flammulated Treehunter, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush or Yellow-tailed Oriole.

An endemic that needs just a little luck to see is the tiny Santa Marta Woodstar, but the endemic Black-backed Thornbill is more difficult to find.

At night we will make a concerted effort to see the recently-described, endemic Santa Marta Screech Owl as well as the much more widespread Mottled Owl and Band-winged Nightjar.

(There are three other Santa Marta endemics which are beyond our reach. The very rare endemic Santa Marta Sabrewing has been recorded exceedingly rarely in the San Lorenzo area, but as it has never been reliably recorded on any birding tour to the area, we are not going to hold out any hope for that one! Occurring only at high altitudes, far beyond any roads and so requiring an expedition to see, are the endemic Blue-bearded Helmetcrest and Santa Marta Wren.)

Best of Colombia: Day 15  After devoting most of the day to the birds of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, we shall descend to the town of Riohacha in the Guajira peninsula for an overnight stay.

This evening we will mark the upcoming end of the tour with a celebratory dinner.

Best of Colombia: Day 16  East of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the arid Guajira Peninsula juts out into the Caribbean Sea, becoming progressively drier towards the east. Here we shall search for a number of specialities only shared between this part of Colombia and adjacent Venezuela. Arguably the most striking of these is the eye-catching Vermillion Cardinal, but they also include Russet-throated Puffbird, the tiny Chestnut Piculet, the ubiquitous White-whiskered Spinetail, Slender-billed Inezia and the harder-to-find Tocuyo Sparrow.

Bare-eyed Pigeons constantly fly back and forth, and more widespread species inhabiting the arid desert scrub include the near-endemic Caribbean Hornero and the restricted-range Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Buffy Hummingbird, Orinoco Saltator and Glaucous Tanager, as well as Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, White-tailed and Harris’s Hawks, Scaled Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Brown-throated Parakeet, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Black-crested Antshrike, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Yellow-breasted Flatbill and Tropical Gnatcatcher.

The nearby lagoons hold an impressive number of wetland species such as American Flamingo, Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Great Blue, Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White and Scarlet Ibises, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Royal, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns, and sometimes Cabot’s Tern. During tours in the boreal winter, we may possibly see a vagrant Herring or Lesser Black-backed Gull amongst the wintering Laughing Gulls.

Other species which we may well see today, or elsewhere in the Santa Marta region, include the endemic Bronze-brown Cowbird as well as Blue-winged Teal (boreal winter), Zone-tailed Hawk, Purple Gallinule, American Coot, Common Ground Dove, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Bicoloured Wren, Red-eyed Vireo, Trinidad Euphonia, Greyish Saltator and Great-tailed Grackle.

After our visit to the Guajira Peninsula, we will drive to Barranquilla airport, where our Best of Colombia birding tour ends in the afternoon.

(There are quite a few international flights that serve Barranquilla, and also domestic flights to Bogotá. We will be pleased to supply internal flight tickets to Bogotá on request.)


by Trevor Ellery

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Other shorter South America birding tours by Birdquest include: