Mar 10

Colombia BirdFair 2017: “Birds are the future of Colombian tourism”

andean cock of the rock jardin colombia


I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I love birds. I am a birder: I have been known to stand in the pouring Pacific rain for over 3 hours waiting for the arrival of a small bird in a distant tree. True story: it was the endemic Gold-ringed Tanager, found only in the Choco biosphere cloud forests of the Western Colombian Andes – and, before you ask, yes, it was 100% worth the 4:00am wake-up, hike through the wet forest, and long wait…I know, birders are weird, huh!?


gold ringed tanager las tangaras colombia
Yep, 3 hours in the rain for this little bird – you know what…totally worth it!


But I digress: these days it seems that it’s not just me obsessing over tanagers and toucans – Colombian tourism is finally waking up to the massive potential that Colombia has to become the world’s No. 1 bird tourism destination over the next few years. Of course, there are many operators and guides who have known this for years, and many hardy birders who have made the trip to search for some of Colombia’s world record 1,930+ species. However, the powers-that-be in tourism have come around to the notion that birding tourism is basically the best kind of tourism that a country can ask for: it creates jobs, attracts environmentally conscious tourists with money to spend, promotes conservation, and, if managed properly, can be a long-lasting source of tourism income. Put it this way, the birding industry in the US last year was worth more money than Colombia’s entire oil industry! And it did a hell of a lot less damage to the environment as well. This year is Colombia’s Year of the Bird. And there was no better place to experience the magic of Colombian birding, and the bright future it has, than at the annual Colombia Bird Fair in Cali


colombia birdfair cali 2017
The Colombia BirdFair 2017


The third annual Colombia Bird Fair, an event inspired by the pioneering British Birdwatching Fair held annually at Rutland Water nature reserve in the UK, was also my first. As an avid birder I attended primarily for the amazing daily field-trips out to some of Cali’s spectacular neighbouring birding sites. Cali is undoubtedly Colombia’s birding capital: Valle del Cauca has over 850 recorded species, and Cali itself boasts around 400. Just walking along the river flowing through the city centre can be an excellent morning’s birding. I had trips scheduled to San Antonio cloud forest, Alto Anchicaya (the old road to Buenaventura), and Chicoral (there were also trips available to Laguna Sonso, Rio Pance, Topacio, Villa Maga etc.). These birding trips more than lived up to my expectations: I added 18 new species to my Colombian bird list (a strong number in three days for a list of some 750 species), enjoyed the company and expertise of some wonderful Colombian and international birders, made some news friends, and got to visit some parts of Colombia that tourists rarely see. This is part of the magic of birding in Colombia: the chance to visit parts of the country that barely see tourism and are, in spite of this, some of the most beautiful and wild places there are. The birding section of the Fair was an unqualified success.


colombia birdfair cali 2017
The hardcore birders celebrating 113 species for the day at Chicoral (Photo: Matthew Gable)


The real treat, as it turned out, was everything else – following the days birding, the attendees congregated at the Hotel Spiwak in Cali for a series of conferences, lectures, and dinner. I honestly hadn’t expected this part to end up being my highlight: the speakers – Wade Davis, Chris Wood of eBird, Bridgette Baptiste, and Luis Miguel Renjifo – delivered wonderful and varied lectures, the dinner was excellent, and the company was even better. I imagine this is how ComiCon feels to sci-fi nerds: this was basically 400-odd people just like me, all congregated in the same place, talking about the same thing. It was bird-nerd heaven! What was even better was the remarkable diversity of attendees: people from many different countries, with many different relationships to birds. There were birders, ecologists, environmentalists, biologists, humanitarians, writers, bloggers (*ahem*), tourists: it was like a tropical Glastonbury for birders.


colombia birdfair cali 2017
We’d definitely look mad to any passing strangers! (Photo: Matthew Gable)


It was a true pleasure to discuss Colombian birding and ornithology with such varied and passionate people. There isn’t space to mention everyone here doing great things for Colombian birding, but I would be remiss to not mention a few: Juan Ortiz of The Colombian Project, a travel company offering some of the most imaginative and well-planned tours going; Carlos Mario Wagner, the brains behind this Bird Fair, who worked so hard over the course of the weekend that he was barely able to talk by the end!; Diego Calderon, one of Colombia’s best bird guides, and one of the organisers of Colombia’s Global Big Day in May; John Myers of Audubon, who are investing heavily in amazing birding trails throughout Colombia; Jose Luis Pushaina (cheating a bit here, I already knew him…), a Wayuu bird guide and role model for community birding tourism. The list could keep going…What I’m getting at is that there are so many wonderful individuals and groups working hard to conserve Colombia’s amazing biodiversity and put Colombia where it belongs: at No. 1 in the world bird tourism industry. And the Colombia Bird Fair brings them all together in one room! As I said on Facebook in a general post addressed to all of the people involved in the Bird Fair and Colombian birding: “Colombia will be a better country as a result of your hard-work.” This might seem dramatic, but I truly believe it. A strong birding tourism industry will bring investment, income, jobs, and much needed environmental protection to one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. 

I was also able to head out on an excellent birding day trip to a place called Pericos (a stunning Pacific jungle site just off the main road to Buenaventura, located just before San Cipriano) with some of volunteers at the Fair, biology students at Cali’s Javeriana University (another group of inspiring young people) – this place is barely known about, but it was unbelievable, for nature and birding. I added 12 species to my list in one day, and couldn’t believe the beauty of the place and how little known it is. This highlights the birding tourism potential in Colombia: Google ‘Pericos’ and you’ll hardly get a hit, but it was some of the best birding I have experienced in the country! With any luck it’ll be on the Field Trip schedule for next year’s Bird Fair…


lanceolated monklet birding colombia
The rare and rarely-seen Lanceolated Monklet at Pericos – one of the many incredible species to be seen at this little-known birding site


I realise that this might seem like a niche industry for a bunch of people with very unique interests but, if I have learned anything from birding in Colombia and around the world, it also happens to be one of the best types of tourism there is – as I mentioned above, birders are just about the best tourists you could ask for in a country. The Bird Fair might not be everyone’s cup of tea but in terms of the Colombian tourism industry it might well be the most significant event of the year. Put it this way, at Anato the following month (Colombia’s biggest tourism event), birding tourism was overwhelmingly the theme – it was mentioned in just about every talk I attended, including by President Santos himself. This is the achievement of the organisers of the Colombia Bird Fair and others like them: putting Colombian birding on the lips of the most powerful people in government and tourism. That’s something that seemed hard to imagine a few years ago, but now seems completely natural: why wouldn’t the country with the highest number of bird species in the world pursue a strong, long-term strategy to bring birders to the country?!


colombia birdfair cali 2017
A stunning male Crested Quetzal in Chicoral: a lifer for me and just one of 1,930+ reasons to visit Colombia!


The Colombia Bird Fair will be back next year (in Cali as always), with new speakers and new field trips – I’ll be there, and I’d strongly urge anyone with a passion for birds, nature, the environment, or even just Colombia to join me. And there are many other regular birder events throughout Colombia before next year – I would especially recommend anyone with an interest signs up for the Putumayo birding event in November. And, if my New Year’s Resolution works out, I’ll be attending with 1000 species on my Colombia bird list…


Filled under: Colombia Travel Blog

3 thoughts on “Colombia BirdFair 2017: “Birds are the future of Colombian tourism”

  1. michele carson on

    I am so happy you enjoyed the Valle del Cauca and the birds. I see so many at my farm on any given day. Like you said, all you need to do is wait and they come to you. I sit on my outside lake house and many come to my pine trees. Of course I have over 30 species of Hummingbirds at my Bed and Breakfast Villa Migelita also. Perico’s is incredible and so is San Ciprano. All of the world needs to come see the birds and beauty of Colombia! Michele

  2. Juan on

    Thanks Chris for a great read about a great event and of course the mention, thanks so much – we do what we can :-). Hope you get to a 1,000 birds, I have the same aim but I doubt it’ll be this year, will be fun trying through! Take care. J

  3. Carlos Mario Wagner-Wagner on

    Que buena nota Chris, gracias por acompañarnos, te esperamos en Colombia BirdFair 2018. Gran abrazo


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