Colombia Off The Beaten Path Tips by traveldave
Colombia Off The Beaten Path: 41 reviews and 33 photos
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated mountain range in northeast Colombia that rises abruptly from the Caribbean Sea. Attaining an elevation of about 18,700 feet (5,700 meters), the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta make up the world's highest coastal range. In fact, this is the only place in the entire Caribbean region where snow is visible. The tallest peak is either Pico Cristóbal Colón or Pico Simón Bolívar. Surprisingly, it is either one of these peaks that is the tallest in Colombia, and not a peak in the Andes Mountains, as one might think. The remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain make access to the mountains very difficult, so the true elevations of these peaks has not yet been determined.
The mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta cover an area of about 6,564 square miles (17,000 square kilometers) and are entirely surrounded by lowlands on three sides and the Caribbean Sea on the fourth. They are isolated from the northermost peaks of the Andes Mountains, and are geologically not part of that range. Whereas the Andes Mountains were created by the collision of two continental plates, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is volcanic in origin, and is actually much older than the Andes Mountains.
Because the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is isolated from other mountain ranges, it is an evolutionary "island" that prevented the exchange of genes between the plants and animals that reside there with those of the plants and animals of the Andes Mountains. Therefore, over thousands of years, many of the plants, animals, birds, and insects that are found in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta evolved into separate species. This makes the mountains attractive to birdwatchers, because there are 16 to 21 endemic species of birds (depending upon taxonomy) that are found here and nowhere else in the world. These mountains in fact have the highest concentration of continental range-restricted birds in the world. During my visit, I saw all but two of the endemic species of birds.
Access to the mountains is very difficult for travelers. The only way into the mountains at the southern edge of the range is via a single dirt track. However, this region is still inhabited by lawless people involved in growing and producing cocaine and other drugs, and they use deadly force to keep out not only casual visitors, but the police as well. In addition, native peoples are suspicious of outsiders and deny access to their territory. Therefore, visitors can only go into the mountains via a very rough dirt track on the north side. This road ascends to the San Lorenzo Ridge, and is only navigable by four-wheel-drive vehicles. The trip takes about three hours from Minca, the nearest town. And in order to view the snow-covered peaks of the main sierra (pictured here), it is advisable to reach the top of San Lorenzo Ridge at dawn, as the mountains usually become covered in clouds later in the morning and are not visible for the rest of the day.
Isla de Salamanca National Natural Park comprises a narrow coastal barrier between the waters of the Caribbean Sea and Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, a large, shallow, saline lagoon. The lagoon lies east of where the Magdalena River empties into the Caribbean Sea, and the varied habitats formed by the riverine estuary and the brackish waters of the lagoon combine to create an important area for many forms of wildlife, many of which are endangered.
The 217-square-mile (562-square-kilometer) park was created in 1964 to protect the area's coastal mangroves and abundant bird life. The flora of the park is dominated by 29,653 acres (12,000 hectares) of mangrove swamps made up of three species: red mangrove, white mangrove, and black mangrove. The park also contains areas of tropical dry forest and riparian forest. Forms of wildlife recorded in the park include 33 species of mammals, 98 species of invertebrates, nine species of amphibians, 35 species of reptiles, 140 species of fish, and over 200 species of birds. The park is one of the most important habitats for migratory birds in the entire Caribbean region. And one of the world's rarest hummingbirds, the sapphire-bellied hummingbird, was discovered in the park, which may be the only place in the world where this bird can be found.
Because of the importance of the park's habitats to endangered species and migratory birds, it was designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention.
Isla de Salamanca National Natural Park is bisected by the main highway between Barranquilla to the west and Santa Marta to the east. However, access is limited because thick mangrove swamps line the sides of the road. Visitors can visit the park through the Los Cocos Administrative Center. Trails and boardwalks allow visitors to penetrate the mangrove swamps where they can easily see many species of birds. However, during my visit other types of animal life were hard to find, the only exception being lizards and skinks.
Located in the mountains east of Bogota, Chingaza National Natural Park protects 131,917 acres (53,385 hectares) of high Andean forest, sub-paramo, páramo grasslands, and fog forest. These habitat types are endangered, and are only located in the Andes Mountains in parts of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
The elevation of the park ranges from 6,500 feet (1,981 meters) up to 13,000 feet (3,962 meters). Most of the landscape consists of páramo grassland and fog forest, although taller canopy trees grow at lower elevations in the park. The mountainous park is the source of nine rivers which provide fresh water to the nearby city of Bogota. The Bogota Water Company in fact owns 40 percent of the park.
Despite the fact that this area is a national natural park, and is supposedly protected, deforestation still occurs here, mainly from local people cutting trees for firewood. Commercial logging also occurs in the park.
The forests contain around 2,000 species of plants, over 150 species of birds (including the near-endemic coppery-bellied puffleg and rufous-browed conebill), and several species of endangered mammals such as the spectacled bear and red brocket deer.
The Bogota Savanna is a high plateau that was once covered with vast wetlands, or humidales, that were home to innumerable species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and plants. During the last century, as Bogota grew, the wetlands of the Bogota Savanna were largely replaced with the urban sprawl of the city. Even now, the wetlands are quickly disappearing. In 1960, there were 123,553 acres (50,000 hectares) of wetlands, and by 2000, there were only 1,977 acres (800 hectares) left. What were once large tracts of wetlands are now reduced to seven small protected areas within the urban area of metropolitan Bogota.
These wetlands are important because they perform hydraulic regulation functions for the Bogota Savanna ecosystem, including absorbing excess water from nearby rivers, collecting rainwater, and acting as natural water-filtration systems. In addition, they are home to two endemic species of birds, the Bogota rail and Apolinar's wren. Both birds are critically endangered as they are found nowhere else in the world. If these tiny remnants of wetlands disappear, the birds become extinct.
Despite work to save the humidales, some are better protected than others. I visited two humidales, including one that was in a poor neighborhood. There were no fences to keep people out, and the wetlands were therefore filled with trash, and the water was heavily polluted.
On the other hand, La Conejera wetlands, pictured here, are under the protection of La Conejera Foundation. The wetlands are surrounded by a tall fence, and there is a guard at the gate who only lets in groups or individuals who have permission from La Conejera Foundation to enter. (La Conejera Foundation organizes guided visits). I went with a local bird guide, so I was able to enter the wetlands even before the normal hours of operation. The guard even accompanied us, helping to point out birds.
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