Travel Tips for Santa Marta Route
Spanish is spoken throughout. If you are traveling alone you will want to have a smattering of useful phrases at a minimum. Most tourist facilities normally have one or more staff members who speak English, including the airlines, larger hotels, and car rental agencies.
Weather and Clothing
You may well encounter a wide variety of weather during this trip. It’s hot on the coast and cool on Santa Marta Mountain. Rain gear (including rubber boots or the equivalent), as well as T-shirts are necessary. I like to carry an umbrella. One warm fleece type sweater is also worth having. Layer!
Expect food to be fairly basic – but good. Unless indicated otherwise by an experienced guide, stick to cooked foods and avoid water and ice.
If you are traveling independently, we suggest that you hire a car or small van. Travel is a mix of paved roads and rather difficult tracks – 4WD is necessary to climb Santa Marta Mountain to El Dorado Lodge. Bus transport is available (not to El Dorado Lodge), but not recommended unless you are a hardened backpacker potentially willing to wait for long periods in isolated areas. Road works are common e.g. to repair landslides. There are frequent military checkpoints along major roads – have your passport easily accessible. The soldiers are usually friendly.
There are two good field guides that cover the birds of Colombia; the classic (1986) Hilty & Brown “Birds of Colombia” and the excellent new “Birds of Northern South America” by Restall and others. Much of the information in Hilty & Brown is out-of-date by now with respect to taxonomy and distributions– the ever-promised update has yet to hit the presses. However, Guy Tudor’s illustrations are simply world-class. On the other hand, Restall’s book is new, smaller, and, helpfully, illustrates every subspecies, although the illustrations, particularly of tricky groups like flycatchers, are not as good as in Hilty & Brown. Waterproof binoculars are suggested, as well as at least one telescope per group, but not necessarily per individual. Bird recordings should be used sparingly and can be obtained from the Xeno Canto web site (though be sure to test the files before you leave, as we have found that some may temporarily jam your iPod). You can download an up-to-date checklist of Colombia’s birds at birdingcolombia.com.
Extra flash cards are available in cities, but the general rule is to take everything you need. British birders may require electrical adapters for battery recharge. Most areas have sockets that are compatible with regular U.S. electrical plugs.
Passports and Visas
U.S. and British travelers do not require visas for stays of up to 90 days in Colombia. You usually receive 60 days when entering at the Bogota airport; should you stay longer than 60 days you will need to visit an immigration (DAS) office in a major city to receive more time. A passport is required of course. Nationals of other countries should check with their Colombian Embassy or consulate regarding visa requirements.
Malaria can be a problem in the lowlands but is uncommon in this area. Yellow fever is also present; proof of vaccination is necessary to enter Tayrona National Park and possibly other areas. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel web site for up-to-date details as Malaria areas can shift, or with your doctor or vaccination center. Snakes are rarely encountered in the lowlands and absent in the highlands, and altitude sickness is unusual. Biting insects are actually not that bad, but beware long grass which can (and often does) hold chiggers.
The area is generally safe, but use the usual level of caution in crowds, or on isolated roads. Keep an eye on the media regarding any planned demonstrations, or talk to hoteliers to get the local information which is always the best. Although security in Colombia has improved dramatically in the past 6-8 years, there is still the possibility that things may change. Make contact with the reserves and lodges on the route ahead of time to double-check the security situation. With that caveat, take comfort in the fact that we have frequently visited all sites on this route and so have many many other birders!