Birding The Grounds Of El Dorado Reserve

After getting a look at the lodge in the El Dorado Reserve, we really need a closer look at some of the birds you can see just by sitting on your balcony, the main verandah or wandering the garden.

FULL LIST OF ALL BIRDS SEEN

eBird Checklist #1

HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS

Look how they all are happy to share!

dscn2842 dscn2846 dscn2858 dscn2855

This one had me worried with that crooked neck but when I went to find the guide to check him out, he had flown off so hopefully he was ok.dscn2852 dscn2868 img_4838 img_4943 img_4956 img_4964 img_5286 img_5280

Blue-naped Chlorophoniaimg_5292 img_4975 img_4958 dscn2847 dscn2849 dscn2864

Band-tailed Guan just lept up onto the banana table.img_4941 img_4938

 

BIRDS SEEN FROM BALCONY & VERANDAH

It was a bit misty but I did my best!

img_4935 img_5310 img_5322 img_5032 img_5000 img_4995 img_4991 img_4925 img_4920 img_4916 img_4914 img_4908 img_4900 img_4895 img_4871 img_4856 img_4844 dscn2728 dscn2710 dscn2706 dscn2705

This adorable little Blue-naped Chlorophonia was building a nest just outside our room!dscn2704 dscn2701 dscn2700

A very elegant Masked Trogonimg_5332 dscn2870 dscn2878 dscn2875

Lodge Review: El Dorado Reserve, Colombia

The El Dorado Reserve is the flagship of the ProAves Conservation group and was founded over 10 years ago.  Their location high atop the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, in the western sector of the northern slope of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta provides access to many Colombian endemic birds such as the Santa Marta Parakeet.  This place is a must for any birding trip to Colombia!

I’d like to say that getting there is half the fun but nothing compares to getting from the lodge to the birding location further up!

A welcome sight after the bumpy ride!

DSCN2680 dscn2681 dscn2682

A restaurant with a view!dscn2683 dscn2684

Some nice handicrafts made by localsdscn2685 dscn2686

The verandah looks out over the grounds and you can see some of the hummingbird feeders.  I’ll have to so a separate post for the birds as there are so many.dscn2687 dscn2688 dscn2689

We had a jennian room with a private balcony.  The room was beautifully furnished and the view was amazing!dscn2690 dscn2692 dscn2694 dscn2695 dscn2696 dscn2698 dscn2699

We went back to the restaurant for lunch and to look for birds.dscn2712 dscn2713

The second story of the main building has another viewing terrace and a cozy lounge to relax and talk to other birders.dscn2714 dscn2715 dscn2716 dscn2717 dscn2718

The lounge is decorated with conservation posters.dscn2719 dscn2720 dscn2721

Amazing sunset!dscn2736 dscn2739

Educational video about ProAves and the El Dorado Reservedscn2741Dinner was quite tasty with local home-made food and delicious juice. dscn2839 dscn2840 img_4839

El Dorado Lodge is easy to book on their website.  I recommend pre-paying the transfers and the morning birding excursion so you can use your credit card as much as possible.  They can accept credit cards at the lodge but only if the signal is working.  This lodge is an amazing experience and the staff clearly love what they do and their contribution to conservation.  Highly recommended!

Getting From Santa Marta To El Dorado Reserve – Fasten Your Seat Belts!

The El Dorado Reserve is one of Colombia’s top birding destinations and once you get there, you are sure to see some amazing birds!  Getting there can be quite the challenge though, especially if you are on a budget.  The easy way is to book a transfer on the El Dorado Reserve website when you book your accommodation.  You can have them pick you up at your arrival airport – Baranquilla, Cartegena or Santa Marta but this won’t be cheap.  Rates from Santa Marta start at $140 one way but that does include up to 5 people so may be cost effective if you are in a small group.

The rock-bottom cheapest way to get there is to take a collectivo (shared taxi) from Santa Marta to Minca for 7000 COP (Around $2.50 USD), then hire a motorcycle taxi to take you to the reserve.  You don’t need to book these in advance, the round trip costs for 2 people are around 160,000 COP ($55 USD-ish).  But the road is long and in very bad condition so your spine and posterior may be the worse for wear!

We went middle-of-the road.  We got a taxi in Santa Marta for around 30,000 COP ($10.00 USD so only $5 more than the collectivo for a couple.  This went very smoothly and the road is excellent up to Minca.

DSCN2639

Gotta love a supermarket with a parrot as a logo!DSCN2640The only annoying thing was getting stuck behind trucks but the taxi passed them as quickly as he could do so safely. DSCN2641 DSCN2642 DSCN2643 DSCN2644 DSCN2645 DSCN2646 DSCN2647

Welcome to Minca!  Here’s a few pics as we passed through.  DSCN2648 DSCN2649 DSCN2651 DSCN2652 DSCN2650 DSCN2653

I decided that there was no way my dodgy back was going to withstand the road to El Dorado on a motorbike so I booked the one-way transfer from Minca to El Dorado to leave at 9am for $80 USD since I wanted to get there as early as possible to see more birds.  I held off on the return transfer hoping to meet other people there to share the cost.  (didn’t happen, we paid by ourselves)

The driver was ready and waiting as we arrived.  We stopped at a small shop to get some snacks & drinks, use the conveniences and we were off and running!  DSCN2654

The road started out not so bad…………………………….DSCN2655 DSCN2656 DSCN2888 DSCN2889 DSCN2890 DSCN2658

…………….but gradually got worse (albeit very scenic)…………………………DSCN2661 DSCN2662 DSCN2663 DSCN2664 DSCN2665

…………………….and worse (getting stuck behind trucks)…………………………DSCN2667 DSCN2668 DSCN2669 DSCN2670 DSCN2671 DSCN2672 DSCN2673 DSCN2674 DSCN2675 DSCN2677 DSCN2678

……………until we finally saw the sign for the lodge!  Arrived at last!  DSCN2680

So for this part of the trip we paid $160 USD round trip vs the $55 for motorcycle taxis but it was worth it to save our backs and derrieres!

A Stroll Around Santa Marta’s Historic Center

Although we didn’t have too much time to spend because we were expected in Minca to meet our ride to El Dorado, we still got up early and took a short walk around the area.  Our hotel, La Casa del Farol was 5 minutes from the main plaza.

DSCN2630 DSCN2631 DSCN2632 DSCN2633

There’s a bank with an ATM about 2 blocks from the main plaza.  I tried to get some cash using my Aussie NAB card and just like the last night in Bogota airport, the transaction was rejected.  Having no time to waste, I used another credit card to get a cash advance (with the intention to transfer money to pay it off as soon as we had internet again) so we wouldn’t be stuck in El Dorado & Minca (No ATMS).  It wasn’t until Jardin and more rejected transactions that I realized something was wrong with THAT one card and I would have to sort it out with the bank.DSCN2637 DSCN2634 DSCN2635 DSCN2636

Anyway, banking done for the time being, we found a taxi on the main plaza and negotiated the fare to Minca for around 35,000-ish.  Since we had to be there by 9am, we didn’t have time to haggle or use the collectivos for 7000 pesos.

The Marriott-SPG Merger Paves Way For Australians To Get United MileagePlus Via Amex MR: 38k Amex = 25k United

WHY BOTHER WITH HOTEL PROGRAMS

OK this is an eco-tourism blog so I don’t keep up with all the issues regarding elite status and 5 star hotels.  I prefer smaller independent hotels & eco-lodges.  But what I do need is airline miles to get to those amazing birding hotspots preferably through ordinary everyday spending.

The most popular program in Australia is American Express Membership Rewards and most Aussies in The Hobby are familiar with 40,000 Amex MR = 20,000 SPG = 25,000 AA or other SPG partner airline miles.  You can earn up to 3x MR per AUD (Amex Edge supermarket spend) which equates to 1.5 SPG per AUD.  Normal un-bonused spend gets 1 MR per AUD which equates to .5 SPG per AUD.

There is usually a lucrative promo in August or September to get 20% bonus when transferring to AA so you end up with 40,000 Amex = 20,000 SPG = 30,000 AA.

GETTING UNITED MILEAGE PLUS IN AUSTRALIA

The one elusive program for Aussies has always been United MileagePlus as the SPG ratio is 2:1 rather than 1:1 plus bonus 5000 for transferring 20,000 SPG points.

Since the Marriott-SPG merger went through yesterday, they have released details of how to link your Marriott & SPG accounts.  You can transfer back and forth at the rate of 1 SPG = 3 Marriott.

The sweet spot for airline miles collectors is the preferred rates Marriott has with United Airlines.  (HT: Dan’s Deals for this section).

marriott-ua

As you can see from the image, you can exchange 56,000 Marriott for 25,000 United MileagePlus.

With the new merger, that means that you can now transfer 38,000 Amex MR to 19,000 SPG which will get you 57,000 Marriott; that you can transfer into 25,000 United Mileage Plus with 1000 Marriott left over.

AMEX – SINGAPORE

Don’t forget that you can also transfer Australian Amex MR to Singapore Krisflyer at 1:1 but SQ does have pretty hefty YQ “fuel” surcharges whereas United doesn’t have this surcharge.  So if you are after a Star Alliance award, you need to weigh up your options on the SQ and UA award charts and see if the cheaper transfer rate directly to SQ is better or if you would rather spend more Amex MR to save the “fuel” surcharges.

RECAP OF AUSTRALIAN AMEX MR OPTIONS

Amex 40,000 = 25,000 AA or other SPG partner in batches of 20k SPG

Amex 38,000 = 25,000 UA via SPG/Marriott

Amex 40,000 = 40,000 SQ (or VA, CX, MH, EK, EY).  But watch the surcharges!

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

We still don’t know how long Marriott will keep SPG as a separate program.  We also don’t know if the Australian Amex MR will partner with Marriott if/when SPG disappears.  Conventional wisdom says the full integration of SPG to Marriott should happen around 2018 and we would be given fair notice so we can do any last transfers required.

Hotel Review: La Casa del Farol Hotel Boutique

La Casa del Farol Hotel Boutique is a very attractive small hotel in the historic center of Santa Marta, Colombia.  We were only here for one night as our main focus was getting up to El Dorado Reserve for birding but if we had more time, we would have enjoyed staying here.

The building is very nice and only 5 minutes walk from the main square.

DSCN2630 DSCN2629

Small pool in the courtyardDSCN2625

Breakfast areaDSCN2627

There were several courtyards with seating and some tables for breakfast.DSCN2626 DSCN2624

The rooms all have some kind of theme.  We got one with a Chinese theme which was very surreal after that late night arrival in Colombia, then waking up to THIS!  I had to remind myself that we were actually in Colombia!  The wifi was spotty, I could only use it from the room with the door open and laying on the bed nearest the door.DSCN2623 DSCN2614 DSCN2613 DSCN2616 DSCN2618 DSCN2617 DSCN2619 DSCN2621

Breakfast was really good, eggs cooked to order, toast, juice, sausage and Colombian coffee of course!DSCN2628

We really liked this small, atmospheric hotel and would choose it again if we ever come back.  You can book direct with the hotel on their website but I had some Orbucks in my account that I combined with a $50 off $100 purchase and ended up getting it for free!

The location is perfect, right in the historic center and walking distance to just about everything.  A taxi from the airport has a fixed rate of around 27,000 pesos.

Yellow-crowned Parrot (Amazona ochrocephala)

The Yellow-crowned Amazon or Yellow-crowned Parrot (Amazona ochrocephala), is a species of parrot, native to the tropical South America and Panama.  Subspecies include xantholaema, nattereri and panamensis.

IMG_4362a IMG_4365a IMG_4252

Sorry they are a bit blurry, I was trying to focus on them as part of a large group at the Napo clay lick.  They have quite a large range in in Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. I saw these guys at the large parrot clay lick near Napo Wildlife Center.  Also try looking for them at clay licks near Tambopata & Manu in Peru.

yellowcrzon

LEARN MORE ABOUT YELLOW-CROWNED PARROTS

Wikipedia

World Parrot Trust

Birdlife

Neotropical Birds

VIDEOS

This wasn’t easy as there are hundreds of videos of these birds as pets but few in the wild.  This pair in swift flight is very typical of how quick you have to be to get a decent shot.

This is in an aviary but at least it’s a nice close-up!

 

 

 

Planning A Birding Trip To Colombia

Planning our birding trip to Colombia was a much bigger challenge than planning the Ecuador trip.  Even though the countries are next to each other, there is a huge difference between the tourist infrastructures.  Ecuador has been a travel hotspot for years and places like Mindo, Napo, Southern Ecuador & the Galapagos are well equipped to handle travelers of all types and budgets.  But Colombia was off limit for many years due to safety concerns and has only recently been returned to birders’ itineraries.  Even now, there is a preference for organized package tourists.  Many of the large birding tour operators are going to Colombia but there is still a good market for us budget minded independent birders!  We just have to work harder to manage it!

IMG_4085a

SET YOUR BIRDING GOALS FIRST

With over 1900 bird species, Colombia has a lot to offer and unless you have unlimited time and money there is no way you are going to see it all.  Before you can choose which reserves you want to visit, you need to know what species are your priorities or which reserves have the biggest bird lists if you are looking to build up your life list.

My #1 target is to see as many parrot species as possible and lots of other bird species who live in the same habitats.  While I am not a “life-list ticker”, I do want to see as many different species of parrots in my life as I possibly can.  Therefore, when choosing between destinations within a country I consider these elements:

  1. Endemic species (can only be seen in one country such as Yellow-eared Parrot ( Santa Marta Parakeet).
  2. Species that I haven’t seen before.
  3. Species that are more easily seen elsewhere (Ecuadorian Amazon vs Colombian Amazon for example).
  4. How easily can I get to the reserve and is it in a safe location?
  5. Are some species just too rare that we probably have no chance of seeing them? (Sinu Parakeet – Pyrrhura subandina)?
  6. Can I hire guides in the reserves or nearest town?

So after looking at the 57 species of parrots that can be found in Colombia, I prioritized species that I hadn’t already seen on previous trips to South America and that I wasn’t likely to see in Ecuador, then I eliminated species that had no sightings on eBird and I was unlikely to be able to find.  Actually eBird played a HUGE part in planning this trip as I was able to get really good data on birds such as Fuertes Parrots which were being seen regularly near Santa Rosa and Rufous-fronted Parakeets which were being seen near Manizales.

This is a snippet of my planning spreadsheet for Ecuador, Colombia & Trinidad.  A yellow-filled box means that species is an endemic and needs to be prioritized.  Light green font indicates I have already seen the species elsewhere (but I am always happy to see them again) but I don’t need to make a special trip for that species.  Some birds are seen in both Ecuador & Colombia so I had to figure out which location would be easier logistically.  Just to get to this stage involved hundreds of hours of looking up each species on eBird, tracking sightings, cross-referencing species to get them down to as few sites as possible and making sure we can logistically get to the location.

ColParrot1 ColParrot2

ORGANIZING THE LOGISTICS

I was now down to 6 locations and less than 2 weeks to squeeze them all in.  I should probably say 5.5 locations as Minca is enroute to El Dorado.

  1.  Minca & El Dorado – accessed via Santa Marta airport
  2. Jardin – Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve – accessed by Medellin airport and a bus to Jardin.
  3. Rio Blanco & Surrounds – lots of species here, accessed by taxi or bus.
  4. Pereira – nearest city to accessible Fuertes Parrots.  I was trying for Giles Fuertes Reserve but told by ProAves that this reserve was not accessible to tourists.
  5. Chingaza Reserve – accessible by road from Bogota, planned to hire a taxi to get there.

I would need 3 flights.

  1. Quito to Santa Marta via Bogota (used Avianca Lifemiles).
  2. Santa Marta to Medellin (used Avianca Lifemiles).
  3. Pereira to Bogota (originally was going to use bus but found super cheap fare on Avianca).

This is what it all looked like on paper computer screen.

Colombia Plan

FINDING ACCOMMODATION

This turned out to be the easiest part.  Broken down by site:

  1. Santa Marta – flight got in at 9:30 so used an Expedia voucher for budget hotel.
  2. El Dorado – booked online via ProAves.
  3. Minca – booked online via Booking.com
  4. Jardin – got off bus from Medellin and walked into budget hotel on main plaza.
  5. Manizales (Rio Blanco) – must have advance booking so booked by email.
  6. Pereira – booked a backpacker place as I knew they would be able to find a cheap taxi to take us to Fuertes Parrots location at low cost.
  7. Bogota – was going to use Club Carlson bogo redemption but they closed their cheaper hotel so I used Orbucks from last year’s photo contest with 15% off promo code.

DSCN2215a

This is an extremely succinct version of all the work I put into organizing a budget birding trip.  It’s very time consuming, especially if you have target species to track down and are limited by both time and budget.  But the end result was worth it for my high success rate.  Birds highlighted in peach were seen on this trip.  Those preceded by a 9 were allocated to Colombian sites (1-6 were allocated to Ecuador).  Red font on white background (ahem – parrotlets!) were total dips for this trip and my lifetime.  Lilac background was a dip on THIS trip but seen previously elsewhere.  For Colombia, out of  15 allocated species, 11 were seen, 4 were dips but the Brown-throated Parakeet had been seen in Panama so not a life dip.  Lilac-tailed Parrotlets could also be seen in Trindad so there was a 2nd chance (which ended up failing).

Colombia targets

So how can you do a trip like this?  Join me for the fantastic ride through Colombia during the next few weeks!

Getting To Colombia With Airline Miles

Most frequent flier programs divide the continent of South America into northern and southern regions.  Colombia, which has an amazing bird list with over 1900 species recorded, falls into the northern region.  I already have a blog with my recommendations for which programs to join if you are new to the world of miles and points.

The major gateway cities for Colombia include Bogota (BOG), Medellin (MDE) and Cartagena (CTG).   It will be the same number of miles no matter which you choose.   Once you have been in the miles and points game for awhile, you will get a feel for which airline to use where but if you are just starting out Wikipedia will show you all the airlines that fly into Bogota, Medellin, Cartegena and any of Colombia’s airports.  To present examples below, I will be using Bogota as the example gateway airport.

ONE WORLD OPTIONS

From North America you can use American Airlines,  LATAM.

From South America you can use LATAM.

From Australia and New Zealand you can use Qantas or LATAM via Santiago.

From UK and Europe you can travel via the USA using BA or IB to get to the USA, then AA, LATAM to South America.

From Asia or Africa there are no direct flights so you will need to travel via the USA or Europe.

STAR ALLIANCE OPTIONS

From North America you can use United, Air Canada, Avianca-Taca or Copa.

From South America you can use Avianca-Taca or Copa.

From Europe you can use Avianca, Lufthansa or Turkish Airlines.

From Australia and New Zealand, Asia and Africa there are no direct flights, you can use NZ to Buenos Aires (EZE) or travel via the USA.  Depending on which program’s miles you have, this may require one or two awards.

SKYTEAM OPTIONS

From North America you can use AeroMexico or Delta.

From Argentina & Southern South America you can use Aerolinas Argentinas.

From Europe you can use Air Europa, Air France or KLM, or you can connect in the USA on Delta.

From Australia, Asia and Africa there are no direct flights, you will need to travel via the USA or Europe.

HOW MANY MILES WILL IT COST?

Every airline member of the 3 main alliances has it’s own frequent flier program.  They often have alliances with other airlines outside the program.  I have made some reference charts for the airline alliances and I strongly recommend that you check out the program of the airline in your country and the USA based partners of each program as the USA airlines tend to have the most lucrative bonuses.  Americans can get very generous credit card bonuses.  Details of credit card partners (and other partners) will be on each airline’s website, however often there are more lucrative sign up bonuses.  Details are usually posted in the Flyer Talk thread so I strongly suggest you read this thread and the Miles Buzz forum before you apply for any cards just in case a better bonus has been offered.  I don’t have any affiliate links and I recommend you do extensive research on your own when applying for airline credit cards.

USING ONE WORLD

AMERICAN AIRLINES

No matter where you live, frequent flyer programs based in the USA usually offer the best deals but it’s still a good idea to look at other members of the alliance.  Try to avoid carriers that charge a fuel surcharge.  Looking at AA’s award chart, we can see that Colombia is in South America Zone 1.

So let’s look at the chart.  AA no longer has all zones on one convenient chart so you need to look at the website for the region you are departing from.  You will notice there are taxes and fees with certain routes and that the awards are prices as one way trips.

We can see that a South Pacific to Central/South America award will cost 45,000 miles each way (90,000 round trip) in economy, 82,500 (160,000 round trip) in business class and 112,500 each way (225,000 round trip in first class.  AA doesn’t allow you to transit the USA on this award so you must fly on the only carriers that operate between Australia and South America-Qantas and LATAM.

If you are based in North America, economy will cost 30,000  each way (60,000 round trip), business class  is 57,500 each way (115,000 round trip) and first is 85,000 each way or 170,000 round trip.  You would be flying on AA or LATAM.

AVIOS (BA OR IB)

Avios can be a great bargain for shorter flights.  The awards are priced by distance flown per segment rather than zone to zone.

Avios

Avios chart

Using the Great Circle Mapper, we can see that a direct flight from Miami to Bogota would cost 10,000 Avios each way, a direct flight from LAX to Bogota would cost 20,000 Avios and a direct flight from NYC to Bogota would cost 12,500 Avios.  If you are using credit card miles, transferring them to Avios rather than UA or AA could save you some points.  If you need a connection from elsewhere in the USA to the gateway city, you need to pay for that segment separately with the Avios cost for the distance flown.  Example OKC-MIA is 1222 miles so you need to add 10,000 Avios to the total price of the ticket.

Avios BOG

QANTAS FREQUENT FLYER

For Qantas, it is easiest to use their points calculator to see how many points you need, then look for availability.  Not all itineraries can be booked online, sometimes you have to call them.  Using the example of Sydney to Bogota we can see that they route through the USA (probably because the Santiago route is very hard to get) and economy is 60,000 points one way.  If I were making this trip for real, I would be putting a lot more effort into finding a routing on QF through Santiago.  Although business class shows availability on the random date I chose, if you hover over the seat icon you will see that the DFW-BOG segment is in economy.  I am actually amazed that SYD-DFW has premium seats!  On the next screen you see the points plus taxes & fees that must be paid by credit card.

QF BOG1 QF BOG2 QF BOG3 QF BOG4

If you are based somewhere else, leave a comment if you don’t understand this part and I will help you out.  Meanwhile, here is a reference list for other One World carriers.

USING STAR ALLIANCE

United, Avianca and Singapore are probably the most common Star Alliance programs in use because of good credit card deals and buy miles promos.

UNITED AIRLINES

United Airlines is a USA based carrier that offers one way awards on its own flights and other Star Alliance carriers.  Due to the size of their award chart, I can’t paste it here so will link to it and give examples.  For example Orlando to Bogota has availability on several dates which I picked at random.  They are colour coded for economy, business/first or all three classes.  Make sure you scroll all the way down to see all the options.  Some routes are only 20k and others are a whopping 45k!  And beware of routes where it is cheaper to fly business class than economy!

UA BOG1 UA BOG2

AVIANCA TACA LIFEMILES

Lifemiles has some very attractive promos to buy and share miles.  While this doesn’t give you a free trip, it can greatly reduce the cost of a trip especially if you are after business or first class awards.  You need to be an existing member of Lifemiles when they announce  a promo so join now if you haven’t already.  Use their calculator to get an idea of award costs.  This will be a range which depends on class and any promos.

 

They have a Star Alliance Award chart and you can see that they divide the continent of South America into northern and southern regions.  Colombia is in the Northern South America region.  Australia and New Zealand are in the “Others” category.  The chart shows one-way awards.   I prefer to keep my Lifemiles for intra-South/Central America awards which can get pricy but are bargains using awards.

Avianca1 Avianca2

SINGAPORE AIRLINES

SQ miles have become much easier to get in recent years.  Americans can use Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You, Amex Membership Rewards.  Aussies can use the Australian Amex Membership Rewards.  Everyone can use SPG.  Just beware of the high fuel (carrier) surcharges when you use Krisflyer.  Personally, I would be happy to use SQ miles for intra-South America awards where surcharges are low or even non-exixtant but would use other programs to get from Australia to South America.  SQ has only one region for all of South America so their awards can be a bargain if you are traveling around the continent!

SQ South America

I don’t use all the programs that are out there but these are the most commonly used programs by travel hackers in the USA and Australia so do some research to see which one works for you!  Bear in mind that the tickets are not completely free, there is usually a booking fee of $25-50 and various taxes, but you would have to pay the taxes whether you pay cash or miles for the ticket in any case.

WHAT ABOUT JUST PAYING CASH (WELL, CREDIT CARD)?

No, it’s not blasphemy but sometimes it is a good idea to save your miles and simply pay for the ticket.  The 3 main Central/South American carriers – Avianca, Copa & LATAM have been very competitive lately ex-USA and releasing some very good deals.  These are a few examples but they expire soon so always check the airlines’ website for current specials.

Avianca Colombia Avianca Colombia2 Copa Bog Latam Bog

 

 

 

Quito To Santa Marta, Colombia Via Bogota With A Few Dramas

When you are flying to Colombia, Avianca Lifemiles are a great miles currency to have.  Flights are easily booked online and sometimes they have better award flight availability than their other partners.  I found this to be the case at the time I was booking this route.  For some reason, United was only giving availability in the early morning when I wanted to travel around mid-day to squeeze in one more morning of birding at Guango Lodge.

Lifemiles charges 11,000 miles one way for this routing.

AV8374 Quito (UIO) 16:45 Bogota (BOG) 18:25

AV9792 Bogota (BOG) 20:44 Santa Marta (SMR) 22:18

Theoretically, United should charge 10,000 miles but even on my test run these flights weren’t available and their connections were terrible on what was available.

Up until the day of departure I got several emails from Avianca trying to sell me upgrades on a per segment basis but I didn’t think it was worth it for such short flights.

The taxi from the bus stop at Pifo dropped us right outside the terminal and checking in was quick and easy.

DSCN2596

I would have been tempted by the Johnny Rockets as we don’t have them in Australia but there wasn’t time and I was desperate to get online.  The only stop we made was at the ATM inside as the currency of Ecuador is the USD and I wanted to withdraw some to use in the Caribbean Islands coming up.  DSCN2598

Typical over-priced airport shopDSCN2599

We used our last remaining Lounge Club passes from the Chase Ink (now discontinued) to access the lounge.  I had no internet access for the last 3 days and was dying to know more about the earthquake and check my emails.  DSCN2601

I was shocked to see the extent of the earthquake on the coast, it was really horrifying.  It didn’t seem to have affected the airport and all flights were going out on time.DSCN2602

We grabbed some snacks and drinks at the small buffet in the lounge.DSCN2603

Typical Avianca shorthaul flight, an A319.  It wasn’t full and we had an empty middle seat.  I was glad I didn’t pay money for an upgrade.DSCN2604

Beautiful Andean scenery enroute to Bogota.DSCN2606

We arrived at dusk and had just over an hour to make the connection.DSCN2607

We had to use a bus to get to a different terminal which was easy as we only had carry on bags.  I would have worried about checking bags with such a short connection.DSCN2610

I had one errand in the Bogota airport – use an ATM and withdraw some local currency – Colombian Pesos for things such as taxis, buses, food and anything else I couldn’t pay by card.  Much to my surprise, the NAB ATM card wouldn’t work in any of the different bank’s ATMs!  Not wanting to miss the flight, I changed a $50 note cash so we could get a taxi to the hotel.  At the time I just thought the line was down or banks were updating or something.

The flight brought a new drama.  We all boarded just fine but then as we tried to taxi away, something started beeping.  The pilot brought the plane back and although I didn’t understand the details which were in Spanish there was something wrong with the plane.  We were delayed about 2 more hours while they found another plane for us.

It was only about an hour flight and I was much relieved to see Santa Marta airport lights out the window and to watch the plane on the seatback air show get closer.  I was exhausted and just wanted to get to the hotel and get some sleep.  But all of a sudden, I felt the plane pull back and start gaining altitude and I saw the air show plane get further away from the airport.  WTF?  Why doesn’t he just land?  The crew were strapped in and no one around me spoke English.  The pilot did come on and say something in Spanish but it was way beyond my tourist-level basic Spanish.  We circled for around 15 minutes, then FINALLY descended and made a normal landing.  DSCN2611

We got off the plane as quickly as possible and joined the taxi line outside with pretty much the whole plane.  Taxi fares from the airport are posted and fixed rates.  Santa Marta is 27,800 at night but good luck trying to get change from 30,000 pesos!  Direct to Minca would have been 90,000 night rate, 80,000 day rate.

After around 20 minutes, we arrived at our hotel ready to drop from exhaustion!