6 wildlife experiences to have in Colombia (2023)

28 October 2022

Colombia is one of the world’s most biodiverse destinations, with more species of orchids, birds and butterflies than anywhere else on Earth. Here's what to see where...

4 mins

1. Go whale watching in the Colombian Pacific

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The Choco can be reached by just a short-hop in a light plane from Colombia’s second city, Medellin, but arrival in the hub town of Nuqui is like landing on a different continent. Choco is a predominantly Afro-Colombian community, composed of dense jungle that plays home to the iconic poison dart frog, named after its use by the native Embera people.

It’s also the only Colombian department with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean and, accordingly, it is defined by surfing, watersports and marine wildlife. With no shortage of local tour operators, you’ll find you’re accompanied by leaping dolphins on most boat trips down the coast of Choco, but if you’re here between June and November, you’re likely to see something very special. Each year humpback whales make the8,000km journey from the frigid waters of the Antarctic to give birth in the warm, equatorial seas of Choco’s Pacific coast, making this a whale-watching wonderland when these magnificent creatures breach and play with their calves.

2.Scuba dive in the barrier reefs of San Andres and Providencia in the Greater Colombian Caribbean

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In the Caribbean Sea, 775km northwest of the mainland, San Andres and Providencia is a department of Colombia made up ofan archipelago of islands and cays, offering around ten celebrated dive sites and scores of diving centres.Here the waters swim with such a kaleidoscope of underwater vibrance, and the reefs are in such immaculate condition that it’s known as the Sea of Seven Colours. In the year 2000, the entire archipelago was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Flights arrive on the largest island, San Andres, where — among other top spots — you’ll find The Blue Wall, a bucket-list, drift dive site that sees the current sweep advanced divers along a steep, underwater cliff that teems with sponges and tropical fish. For a slower island pace, and clear, calm, warm waters all year round, Providencia and Santa Catalina Islands offer the perfect place for new divers and experts alike to dive in an ideal environment. Visibility is crystal clear, allowing ample opportunities to spot shipwrecks, stingrays, barracudas, groupers, exotic fish, and even dolphins and sharks.

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3. Go birdwatching in the Colombian Andes and the Greater Colombian Caribbean

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With 1,954 avian species, Colombia has the highest bird diversity of any country on the planet, making it a dream destination for birdwatchers.

Here you can reliably spot the varicoloured gorget of the rainbow-bearded thornbill (found only in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), and the improbable beak of the sword-billed hummingbird (the only species of bird with a beak longer than its body), which lives exclusively in the Andes Mountains. Colombia, however, is also home to at least 82 species that can be found nowhere else on Earth.

Geologically distinct from the Andes, and described by the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology as the most irreplaceable ecosystem on the planet, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM) is the world’s tallest coastal mountain range. Located in Colombia’s Caribbean region, it's the single best place for birders to visit. Here you’ll find endemic species such as the Santa Marta parakeet, Santa Marta antpitta, Santa Marta bush-tyrant, Santa Marta mountain-tanager, and the Santa Marta brush-finch, among many more. Around 635 bird species, including 70 endemic taxa, have been recorded in the SNSM, which represents around 35% of all of Colombia birdlife in just 1.48% of the country’s territory.

4.Discover mammals in the Colombian Amazon Orinoco and the Greater Colombian Caribbean

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America’s only true big cat, the jaguar, theoretically ranges from Southwestern USA to the north of Argentina. Threatened as it is by poaching and habitat loss, however, today this iconic cat is found mostly in the Amazon basin. The Amazon rainforest covers approximately 40% of southern Colombia, and the country is a pioneer in jaguar conservation and tourism, by training local guides, creating wildlife corridors, and working with communities to protect the world’s third largest cat. The drier, summer months are the best time to see jaguars, when they are drawn to sources of water, and Amacayacu National Natural Park is one of the best places to see them. Boat trips into the park depart from the port city of Leticia, while tours of Amacayacu are lead by indigenous Ticuna guides. Jaguar sightings are never guaranteed, but the area also offers a great chance to see pink river dolphins, which — according to legend — transform into handsome men at night to charm the local women.

In the Colombian Amazon Orinoco, look out for theCapybara, which you may recognise from the Disney movie Encanto. These charming creatures are the biggest rodents in the world.

Over on the Caribbean coast, in theTayrona National Park, you can spot a tiny mammal.At a mere nine inches in height, the cotton-top tamarin is one of the planet’s smallest primates, but despite their diminutive stature, they’re not so hard to spot.They’re not only clever, mischievous and gregarious, but they also each sport an incredible fan of white hair from their heads to their shoulders, making them reminiscent of tiny ‘80s rock stars, and they are just as shy and retiring.These adorable creatures are found only in Colombia, restricted to the primary and secondary forests of the country’s northwestern area, making Tayrona NP one of the few places you can see them.

5.Head out on a butterfly tour in the Western Colombian Andes

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Colombia is home to 4,059 types of butterfly, which is about 20% of all the species in the world.With 350 endemic varieties, Colombia also has the highest number of unique butterfly species on Earth, which makes the country a paradise for fans of these fan-winged insects, and there are many tour operators that will take you to find them.

Butterflies are best spotted at the sunniest time of day, between 11am and 2pm. With butterflies distributed widely across the country, where you choose to look for them is up to you, although the Eastern Ranges of the Colombian Andes is the richest area with over 1,800 known species.The morpho genus and the prepona genus are some of the most iconic and sought after in the country, but the native Diaethria Phlogea — best known as the 89/98 butterfly, due to its idiosyncratic wing markings that look like bubble-number doodles — has to be the country’s most recognisable.

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6. Find the rarest reptiles and amphibians in the Colombian Pacific

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Perhaps the most popular reptile on the Pacific Coast in Colombia is the sea turtles which come to these sands to lay their eggs. On a hatchery tour on Cuevitas Beach, you can see the eggs and even see the release of new born sea turtles and watch them scuttle down to the ocean.

It’s not just turtles that the Pacific Ocean is home too, and those willing to dive and snorkel will be rewarded with sightings of myriad fish including snapper, marlin, barracuda, tuna and more.

Back on dry land, head into the rainforest to spot more reptiles. On a walk to Las Cascadas de El Tigre, not only will you see the incredible waterfall, but with a good guide you may spot snakes and frogs along the way. Don’t miss a trek through the rainforests of the Choco in search of the poison dart frog. These rare and poisonous frogs get their name from the indigenous Embera people who used to use the poison from the frogs in their blowpipe darts.

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