After more than two months and 5,000 miles across southern Africa, we returned to our home in Santa Cruz, California for a couple months before leaving for the magnificent South American country of Colombia.
There is arguably no other country in the world as diverse as Colombia. From the arid, sultry Caribbean coast to the soaring, trisecting Cordilerra of the Andes and their densely populated valleys between, to the grasslands of the Llanos in east and the rain drenched forests of the Choco on the Pacific to the vast lowlands of the Amazon – all packed into a country about two and a half times the size of California. And it is not just its geography that is diverse. Culturally you’ll find Afro-Caribbean culture in the north, the cattle/cowboy “Llanero” culture in the east, remote Amazonian tribes and descendants of the Incas in the south, and ethnicities representing virtually every part of the world in-between.
And then there is the phenomenal natural diversity that is Colombia. With nearly 2,000 species and with many occurring nowhere else, Colombia is the epicenter of bird diversity. California has about six species of hummingbirds. Colombia has more than one hundred and thirty, with names that suggest the living gems that they are: Ruby Topaz, Amethyst-Throated Sunangel, Golden Bellied Starfrontlet… Orchids? Thousands of species of mindblowing beauty and diversity, with new ones being discovered all the time. There are lowland rainforests of several types, cloud forests in the Andes, the Paramo ecosystem with its weird and wonderful plantlife high above the Andean treeline, the grasslands and riverine forests of the Llanos inhabited by such weird and wonderful creatures as the giant anteater, capybaras and river otters so large they’re called “river wolves” in Spanish. And then there is the vastness that is the Colombian Amazon, which still contains uncontacted tribal bands.
Is it safe?
With the exception of some parts of the remote southeast (Amazon) and southwest (Choco), our direct experience and extensive conversations with the locals says “yes”. As many know, Colombia has suffered under an armed insurgency by several quasi-Marxist paramilitary organizations (and the armed militias fighting them) for nearly fifty years, most notably the FARC (in Spanish: Fuerzas Armadas Republicanas de Colombia) and the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion National). Over the past five years, a combination of ramped up military operations (funded extensively by the U. S.), a successful disarmament program and formal political negotiations now taking place in Cuba have created a much welcomed peace. Most notably, both aforementioned organizations have vowed to stop the kidnappings-for-ransom they used to fund their activities. I can tell you that our experience was not only safe, but every village and small town we stayed in was clean (more like immaculate in some cases), with settings ranging from picturesque to stunningly beautiful and full of friendly people that were very happy to see us. I was somewhat surprised that we were not once approached by local people asking for money (“begging”). Not once in five weeks anywhere in Colombia.
Where did we go, what were our interests?
Anyone that knows us, knows that we are passionate about the natural world, especially tropical forests and their phenomenal, interconnected diversity. And a big part of our visit to Colombia was to support the efforts to conserve Colombian biodiversity by a group called Fundacion ProAves (and others), who have bought and preserved critical habitat all over Colombia – in some cases, the last intact bits (as in the El Paujil, preserving some of the last of the lowland forest of the Magdalena Valley). As with most reserves, many promises are made, generally along the lines of: “in the long run, you will receive more income from ecotourism than by cutting these forests down for more cattle pasture”. And as with all promises, sometimes there is a gap between the promise and the immediate reality on the ground. In our many years of visiting places such as these in dozens of countries over four continents, we’ve discovered one thing more than anything else really counts: showing up. When people come from far away and let local people know by our actions that we have, in fact, come from very far away specifically to see their forests, animals, plants and flowers and to meet them, it impresses. So does the money directly spent on-site that goes into the local economy, but I would argue the showing up is most important. So that is what we did. Specifically, we visited and spent time at five of the newly founded ProAves reserves, along with a huge cattle operation experimenting with ecotourism in the Llanos, and several other places, both public and private. And as usual, getting to these places was an adventure in itself involving transport on foot, horseback, four wheel drive, and boat/canoe. Along the way, one invariably meets a variety of fascinating people from all over the globe. How about a retired Major in the Royal Marines, an Afghanistan vet who is also….an Ornithologist. His story shall follow. What will also follow in the weeks to come are stories, short videos and photos of those places and person.