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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains

Monday 8 January to Tuesday 16 January 2024
with Fabrice Schmitt as leader
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White-whiskered Spinetail, a superb near-endemic on our Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains tour. Photo: Fabrice Schmitt

Colombia is well known for its diversity of habitats and high level of bird endemism. This is especially true of the isolated mountains of Santa Marta in northeastern Colombia and the Guajira Peninsula on the Caribbean coast, where an impressive number of species can be seen. They include the beautiful and sought-after White-whiskered Spinetail, Santa Marta Blossomcrown, Golden-winged Sparrow, Vermilion Cardinal, Santa Marta Antpitta, White-tipped Quetzal, Chestnut Piculet, and Lance-tailed Manakin. During our searches we’re likely to see some fine mammals such as the handsome Cotton-top Tamarin or the bright red Red-tailed Squirrel, as well as a number of interesting reptiles and showy butterflies.

We think of this nine-day tour, with its comfortable accommodation and marvelous natural surroundings, as a prescription for the late-winter blues, and the medicine is especially easy to take because our starting point, Barranquilla, is just a short two-and-a-half-hour nonstop flight from Miami. 

Day 1: The tour begins at 6 pm this evening in Barranquilla. Night in Barranquilla.  

I enjoyed the tour very much and can’t think of anything that should be changed. Fabrice is an excellent guide; very personable and has a great sense of humor. I am really looking forward to the Choco tour!

Karen Tadd, Feb. 2019

Day 2: We’ll begin in the wetlands east of Barranquilla. After crossing the wide Magdalena River, we’ll stop at an extensive marsh where migrants from North America are abundant and mix with the more exotic Brown-throated Parakeet, Straight-billed Woodcreeper and Yellow-chinned Spinetail.  The noisy Stripe-backed Wren is usually common, the omnipresent Red-crowned Woodpecker peeks from its holes in the palm trees, and the stunning Russet-throated Puffbird is sometimes seen hunting large insects and lizards in the open.

After a few hours of birding in this mix of shrubs and wetlands, we’ll drive to the Isla Salamanca National Park for a short walk in the shade of the mangrove. This rich habitat always attracts interesting species, including Bicolored Conebill, Bare-eyed Pigeon and with some luck the stunning Chestnut Piculet or the critically endangered Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird.

By now it will be hot so we’ll retreat to our cool vehicle and drive toward Santa Marta and then Riohacha, stopping for lunch on the way.  In the afternoon, just before arriving in Riohacha, we’ll explore the semi-arid vegetation of the Los Flamencos National Park.  The thorny and almost leafless vegetation here hosts an amazing selection of beautiful species. One of the most striking is the White-whiskered Spinetail, but the competition is stiff as other amazing birds occur as well, including Vermilion Cardinal,  Orinocan Saltator, and Trinidad Euphonia. Night in Riohacha.

Day 3:  In addition to thorn scrub, Los Flamencos offers mudflats and coastline, where shorebirds sometimes congregate in great number but the star of the mudflat is the bright Scarlet Ibis, found along with White Ibis and often some hybrids. In the same range of color, we’ll have a good chance of finding the lovely Roseate Spoonbill and a few Greater Flamingoes.  We’ll also bird the most arid part of the reserve, looking for any species we may still need, perhaps the extremely restricted Tocuyo Sparrow, Slender-billed Tyrannulet (or Inezia), or Buffy Hummingbird.

In the afternoon we’ll drive toward the splendid Tayrona National Park, arriving early enough to relax in our lodge on the shore of the Caribbean Sea.  In the late afternoon, we’ll offer a choice between some more birding or a swim from a beautiful white sand beach. Night La Jorara.

Day 4:  Tayrona is both beautiful and relaxing, and it’s a great birding destination. We’ll spend the morning looking for Crested Guan, Lance-tailed Manakin, Southern Bentbill, White-chinned Sapphire and White-necked Puffbird among others. We even have a chance of finding the extremely rare and endangered Blue-billed Curassow. During our morning’s walk through the forests of the national park, we’ll also be looking for mammals, including Colombian Red Howler Monkey and a Tayrona specialty, Cotton-top Tamarin.

After lunch we’ll wend our way towards the village of Minca in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. On the way, we’ll look especially for the restricted-range Black-backed Antshrike, but also Pale-eyed Pygmy-tyrant, Chestnut-capped Warbler, Panama Flycatcher, and Bicolored Wren.  With some luck we might even find a flock of Military Macaw, and the bright red morph of Red-tailed Squirrel would be a brilliant addition to our mammal list. Night above Minca.

Day 5: We’ll bird all morning around the charming little village of Minca. Its location at the intersection of arid habitat, coffee plantation, and the first patches of humid forest helps explain why it holds so many interesting species. Our main targets will include  Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Golden-winged Sparrow, Scaled Piculet, Rufous-and-white Wren, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Rufous-breasted Wren, Swallow Tanager, Keel-billed Toucan and our first Santa Marta endemic, the Foliage-gleaner!

We’ll have lunch at our countryside hotel, where besides the great food, we’ll enjoy great birds such as Steely-vented Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, Black-hooded Tanager, Black-chested Jay or Blue-naped Chlorophonia coming to the feeders as we enjoy an after-lunch cup of Colombian coffee. 

After our time at the feeders and on the hotel grounds, we’ll begin our drive toward the El Dorado Lodge. The last part of the road is rough and high-clearance four-wheel vehicles are necessary to reach the lodge. Night at El Dorado Lodge.

Days 6-7: The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated mountain massif that rises directly from the Caribbean up to about 18,700 feet.  Around 30 range-restricted species occur in these mountains, and we have good chance of seeing more than 20 of them! There are also many endemic subspecies, reflecting colonization, then differentiation, from the main Andean chain.

We’ll stay at El Dorado Lodge run by the Colombian NGO ProAves. It’s a magical place where you can have a drink on the terrace with an impressive view of the Caribbean coast while watching Sierra Nevada and Santa Marta Brush-Finches, Band-tailed Guan or White-tailed Starfrontlet coming to the feeders. Another endemic, the very recently described Santa Marta Screech-Owl, is often heard from our cabins.

Away from the lodge we’ll visit higher elevations along the San Lorenzo ridge where we’ll look for Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Warbler, Santa Marta Bush-tyrant, and Brown-rumped Tapaculo. In the mixed species flocks, we may find a few Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager, Yellow-crowned Whitestart, Rusty-headed Spinetail, and the handsome Black-capped Tyrannulet. We’ll also pay special attention to the hummingbirds as we have chance of seeing Mountain Velvetbreast, Santa Marta Woodstar and the endemic subspecies of Tyrian Metaltail.

At lower elevations, we can find the stunning White-tipped Quetzal not far away from Golden-breasted Fruiteater, as well as Santa Marta Tapaculo, White-lored Warbler, Black-hooded Thrush, and the superb Santa Marta Blossomcrown. Nights at El Dorado Lodge.

Day 8: Unfortunately, we’ll have to leave our wonderful mountain home and drive back to Barranquilla. On the way, we’ll have a full morning to bird in the Santa Marta foothills, covered by patches of shade-grown coffee and rainforest, looking for any last species we may still be missing. The trees will probably be full of boreal migrants, including the common Tennessee Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and perhaps rarer ones such as Golden-winged Warbler or Olive-sided Flycatcher. Among the resident species, we’ll have a great chance to find our last Santa Marta endemic, the Antbird, as well as Yellow-backed Oriole, Rusty-breasted Antpitta, and Spectacled Tyrannulet. We’ll arrive in Barranquilla in the late afternoon. Night in Barranquilla. 

Day 9: The tour concludes this morning in Barranquilla. 

Updated: 28 February 2023


  • 2024 Tour Price : $4,290
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $490


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Questions? Tour Manager: Erin Olmstead. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

Maximum group size is eight participants with one leader.

Note that single accommodation may not be available at every lodge if we have a high number of singles on the tour.

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