Monday, March 9, 2015

When the hunger hits

After an emotionally-charged farewell to Carmen, who had hosted me for two days, I took to completing the mountain ascent. Unable to stop thinking about the humbling experience staying at Carmen’s, I somehow missed the next milestone, Santa Elena. In so doing I also missed the turn-off to Medina, my gateway to the Llanos. Here’s another good reason why living in the moment is important - opportunities are less likely to be missed! I had gone too far to turn back so took my only other option, straight ahead! Fortunately some good birds made up for the minor inconvenience, such as Golden-faced and Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Montane Woodcreeper (finally ticked, after a number of previous doubtful sightings) and the striking Inca Jay. I met with a few groups of this exquisite species, which were rather common and usually located by their characteristic calls. 

View over the Del Guavio Dam on the way to Gachala.

Pastures and the Del Guavio Dam on the way to Gachala.

Conserve the Black-and-chestnut Eagle, it says.

Still unknown to me, I had taken a rather unconventional route. At the very top of a mountain pass I encountered some roadworks; they were laying a large concrete slab across a narrow stretch of the road with sheer sides. Bugger! I was for sure not going to turn back. Fortunately some of the workers carried my bike across the wet, freshly-poured concrete, and so was soon on my way again. However, I should have guessed from the looks I got that I would be in for a fun ride down the other side of the mountain… 

Freshly-poured concrete, an obstacle for only a minute.

Forest everywhere!

The road snaked its way through pristine forest covering the mountains and valleys beyond - magnificent beyond words! I camped a little further downhill hoping to do some forest birding the next morning, anticipating that the rain would abate by then. All started well at sunrise, with several new species making appearances, such as Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Pearled Treerunner, Three-striped Warbler, Rufous-crowned Tody-flycatcher, and Azara’s Spinetail. Then the rain resumed, and continued uninterrupted for some time as I continued the descent in a rather soggy state. Trying to keep my binoculars from fogging up was a challenge, as usual under such conditions. When the rain finally trickled off giving way to some sunshine, I used the opportunity to dry the essentials, my hammock and sleeping bag. My first pair of Streak-throated Bushtyrants passed by not longer after. Then the unexpected happened rather unexpectedly…

A Burnished-buff Tanager, a rather common species.

The road gradually began to dwindle into a trail, with the descents becoming steeper and more rugged. It then became clear to me that the route I had taken was not a regular road at all. I was in the middle of nowhere, and there was absolutely no-one else about. I had no idea how far I was from the nearest town, with the magnificent forest still stretching in all directions. By now I had run out of food (my worst nightmare!), and started to feel the first of the hunger pangs. For now the forest began to look more intimidating than inviting. I was caught between trying to enjoy the forest birding, while also trying to make progress to get to the nearest shop stocked with something edible. Added to that, cycling became risky on the trail, so I eventually resorted to pushing my bike. I ended up walking alongside my bike for more than half a day, as it was several kilometers before it was safe enough to cycle again. I was absolutely ravenous by now.

Despite the deprivation, the birding was rather good towards the mid-slopes of the mountains, with Red-headed Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Russet-backed Oropendola, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Warbler, Scaled Piculet, Magpie Tanager and Long-tailed Tyrant providing short-term relief from the hunger. I also had brief but convincing views of an unmistakable Cerulean Warbler while it gleaned branches in the canopy above me. The Cerulean Warbler is said to be the fastest declining Neotropical songbird species, and faces numerous threats - one being the dwindling winter habitat in the Northern Andes. The Cerulean Warbler Bird Reserve near Bucaramanga is the first of its kind to protect such habitat.

A Sooty-capped Hermit singing persistently from the same spot.

Once I reached the lower slopes, I got acquainted with more lifers including Giant Cowbird, Sooty-capped Hermit, Thrush-like Wren, Chestnut-eared Araҫari, and Yellow-billed Nunbird. And it was not until the next afternoon that I found something to graze at a roadside shop, having survived the past two days on half a cup of rice and an onion! Fortunately I had my camping stove handy, so I was able to conjure the most amazing rice dish I have ever made! Everything always tastes better when one is hungry! Another lesson learnt; always keep something edible and non-perishable stashed in a pannier for emergencies!

A stream flowing through the foothills.

I reached the foot of the mountains where a small river meandered its way through a spectacular valley. Here I spotted Little Blue Heron and Whistling Heron rather quickly, two species I would see regularly during my visit to the Llanos. It was essentially my first glimpse of the bird life of the Llanos. The valley also produced White-chinned Jacamar, Rufous-breasted Wren, Speckled Chachalaca, Red-breasted Blackbird and Black-faced Tanager, amongst others. 

Woodland and river on the way to San Pedro De Jagua.

Cattle Egrets were seen together with Little Blue and Whistling Herons.

More country side scenery nearing Medina.

Peculiar hills on the way to Medina.

After passing through the small town of San Pedro De Jagua, I finally reached Medina. It had felt like I had done a round-trip to get here! I spent a night and a day in this quaint town to get some urgent laundry done. Believe me, it was about time! And just when I thought I was on my way again, I was waved to a halt by Maximiliano who was sitting on his porch. And so it was that I ended up spending another two nights in Medina, and had the privilege of getting to know another Colombia family. I also learnt a few important phrases in Colombian Spanish, most notably: ‘Tinto con pan’ (black coffee with bread), something we enjoyed sharing frequently.  And so I got to spend more time in the company of fine Colombians, and an earnest invitation to spend Christmas with the family…

A tantalizing glimpse of the Llanos painted on a wall.


  1. Stunning! Wish I were there as well.
    Carry on with the adventure Eric!!

    1. Hi Luyang. Thanks for the comment. Sometimes I wish we were all back at Anjali ordering take-out! Hope you are well otherwise. All the best, Eric