Wrapping Up An Amazing Trip & Southwest Observations

After our brief visit to El Yunque, cut short due to car mishap, it was time to return the car and get to the airport for our Southwest flight to Orlando.  I am really glad that Puerto Rico is part of the USA and has the full CDW with no excess, otherwise I don’t know what would have happened with the ding on the hubcap.


San Juan’s airport is modern and easy to navigate.  The rental car return area is well-signed and thanks to the full CDW package there were no dramas on returning the car.DSCN4598

San Juan to Orlando is a domestic USA flight so there was only security to get through (no dramas or delays) and then we were free to explore the gift shops.DSCN4601

My husband watching my backpack while I shop.DSCN4599 DSCN4600

We are new to Southwest so a few observations that are probably nothing new to those who fly them often.

  1.  Do online check-in at exactly T-24.  Since these were award tickets booked with transferred Ultimate Rewards points, we each had our own record locator.  I had my ticket open in Firefox and hubby’s ticket in Chrome and was refreshing from 3 minutes beforehand until it allowed us to check in and get boarding positions.  We got A46 & A48, not bad for beginners!
  2.  Despite all this manoeuvering, there were at least 20+ wheelchairs queued up for preboarding.  A few regular pax tried to sneak ahead of us in the A line claiming not to understand (in Spanish) but I had enough Spanish skills to point them to where they were supposed to be and make it clear I wasn’t going to allow line cutters.
  3.  When we got on board, the first section of the plane was completely filled with the preboarded wheelchair pax, their companions and then the people ahead of us in line.  Despite all this, we could have had exit row except the FA wasn’t happy with my husband’s command of the English language (his first language is Maori) and chased us off.  We got aisles across from each other a few rows behind.  The flight was full.
  4.  I don’t know what they put in the water on Southwest but miraculously, there were only about 5 or 6 wheelchairs waiting for the disembarking pax to clear so they could disembark their assigned pax.

Here’s the gate area at SJU for Southwest.  We were there fairly early.


Anyway, we live in Australia and not likely to fly Southwest again so I am not going to dwell on it, but I wouldn’t have chosen this airline in the first place if there had been award seats available on AA or UA (there weren’t) so we did the best we could.

Well that wraps up the epic adventure to Ecuador, Colombia & the Caribbean.  In the end, we saw some truly amazing birds.  Many at a distance, but still they were there flying freely in all their glory!

Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber)

The Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber) is a species of ibis in the bird family Threskiornithidae. It inhabits tropical South America and islands of the Caribbean. In form it resembles most of the other twenty-seven extant species of ibis, but its remarkably brilliant scarlet coloration makes it unmistakable. It is 1 of 2 national birds of Trinidad and Tobago.

In this series of photos I took at Caroni Bird Sanctuary, we see them flying in formation, arriving at the roost area and settling in for the night.  The bright scarlet colour is amazing, especially when you have 1000’s of these birds all together!

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The Scarlet Ibis has a huge range over Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Trinidad and several Caribbean islands.  You are virtually guaranteed to see them in the thousands at Caroni Bird Sanctuary in Trinidad.





Neotropical Birds


There is no shortage of videos of this spectacular bird online, many of which were filmed in Caroni so you get the idea of my experience.  Not to be missed!

Hotel Review: Hotel Cosmos 116, Bogota

To finish off our travels in Colombia, we had a 2 night stay booked at Hotel Cosmos 116 in Bogota.  Since I had won some Orbucks in a photo contest the year before, I was able to use them to book both nights free using less than $100 Orbucks!

I was a bit intimidated by Bogota’s reputation for being dangerous so I did LOTS of homework before making my booking.  I looked on Trip Advisor and gave preference to a nice area with lots of restaurants within walking distance.

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The hotel is very modern in design and decor.dscn3549

The best part is the lounge & spa on the top floor.  It took a while for the jacuzzi to heat up but it was so worth it for the relaxation.  There is also a small gym.dscn3550 dscn3551 dscn3552 dscn3553 dscn3554

The room is attractive and modern looking and the wifi worked great.  There is a small fridge and you can buy drinks and snacks at the supermarket across the street.dscn3498

This small restaurant is right next to the hotel and has authentic Colombian fast food, half of which I didn’t understand but a friendly diner helped us make our choices.  dscn3548

All things considered, we really enjoyed our stay here and would be happy to come back if we ever visit Bogota again.

Lodge Review: Kolibri Hostel, Pereira

For an independent birder who was basically “winging it” in Colombia, we had specific needs when we arrived in Pereira.  Our target bird was the Fuertes Parrot in a remote area near Santa Rosa de Cabal but we would need hired transport, preferably at backpacker prices.  So that is why I chose a backpacker lodge for this part of the trip.  The Kolibri Hostel was well recommended on Trip Advisor and it turned out to be a very cool hostel with friendly staff who speak English well and were very helpful.

The decor in the public areas is very cool, lots of unique artwork which I love!


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Friendly staff who understand the needs of budget travelers and booked our car & driver at a good price.  dscn3418

Upstairs there is a common use kitchen and a few bathrooms & toilets which are shared.  We had a double room with use of shared facilities.  dscn3417 dscn3411 dscn3410

I want these hummingbird decorations!dscn3409

Basic room which was fine for the night.dscn3408

Nice verandah with view over the city.  dscn3412 dscn3413 dscn3414 dscn3415 dscn3416

A few birds seen from the verandah below the hostel.

Blue-grey Tanager

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Blue-and-white Swallow img_6629


More hummingbird decorations!dscn3425

Clean, modern bathroom.dscn3424

Seriously, for less than $20 you can’t beat it!  The car they booked for us was around 150,000 COP iirc so around $50 USD-ish which was an excellent value and they have some cool handicrafts for sale at the front desk, especially beaded bird earrings so I went a bit nuts.  Credit cards are accepted.

A Visit To Colombia’s Páramo

Up to now, we had visited some mountainy areas in Ecuador and Colombia but none were REALLY high up.  Quito is at 2850 metres and the El Dorado Reserve in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is around 2600 metres.  On previous travels long ago I had been to Lhasa at 3700 metres and we have both been to Cuzco at 3399 metres.  I can recall spending one day in Lhasa pretty woozy then acclimating and being ok.  In Cuzco we were out of breath a bit but otherwise fine.

On this trip, we had flown into Medellin 1495 metres and traveled overland via Jardin to Manizales at 2160 metres and barely noticed anything.  I knew that many tourists use Manizales as a base to make day trips to the Nevado del Ruiz and some had complained of altitude sickness but they were going much further up than we were.  I was targeting a couple of parrots found in the Páramo  – the Rusty-faced Parrot and the Rufous-fronted Parakeet.  I had good data from eBird on where people had been seeing them and Albeiro from Rio Blanco Reserve had organized a car & driver for us and explained to the driver were we were going and why.

The driver picked us up around 5am so we could get to the birding area by dawn.  It was beautiful scenery throughout the whole trip.


It wasn’t far but it was uphill all the way and we were going very slow to listen for the birds.  It was extremely foggy the whole day which pretty much ruined my chance to get bird shots, especially if they were in flight.   After slowly driving along the area where others had reported Rusty-faced Parrots, we finally heard the calls and saw a pair fly overhead and off to the bush without stopping.  This was as good as we were going to get.dscn3255 dscn3256

At this point, I was shocked to see how high we were – 3400 metres!  Shortly afterward we took a turn towards the Termales del Ruiz.dscn3257 dscn3258 dscn3259 dscn3261


The fog was getting worse – bad news for birders.img_6140 img_6149 img_6152

I just about freaked out when I saw this sign!img_6153 img_6160

From this point up to the Termales del Ruiz is the area where you are most likely to see Rufous-fronted Parakeets. So we drove slowly along listening anxiously but nothing could be heard.

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At this point we stopped for about half an hour.  I could hear what seemed to be parrot calls in the trees but none of them came out where we could see them.


Spectacular view of Manizales!dscn3272 dscn3273

This is the Hotel Termales del Ruiz where we stopped for a short visit.  There is a fee to go inside the property to see the hummingbird feeders and I didn’t have enough cash for everyone so I went in to grab some photos while Ina & the driver hung around outside.  I’ll put this birding walk on a separate post due to large number of photos.dscn3274

Ina was starting to feel the effects of the altitude by this time so we had to go back down the mountain.  Surprisingly, all I got was a bit out of breath but nothing serious.  Ina got pretty woozy.dscn3320 dscn3323

Not sure what this is, I was just happy to see a bird close enough to get a photo of!dscn3324 dscn3329

The road is pretty bad so if you come here, make sure you have a 4×4 or at least high clearance.dscn3326 dscn3327 dscn3333

At this point we were almost back to Manizales when we got a call from Albeiro letting us know the Golden-Plumed Parakeets were hanging around the lodge area so we high-tailed it back to Rio Blanco.dscn3340

Lodge Review: Rio Blanco Reserve, Manizales

The Rio Blanco Reserve just outside Manizales is a highlight of any birding trip to Colombia.  Although it sounds complicated to get there, it really isn’t but you do have to organize it in advance (details below).

We were dropped at the reserve by our guide from Jardin, Diego who communicated with the locals to get the directions here in Spanish.  If you are starting in Manizales, the local taxis probably know how to get here.  The gate will be locked and they only open it to people who are pre-booked.  It’s a good idea to reconfirm by email a couple days ahead so they remember you are coming.

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An attractive hostel is situated in rolling green countryside with spectacular views from the terrace.  dscn3155 dscn3153

This was our room which was a decent hostel style.dscn3152 dscn3145

We arrived pretty late in the afternoon so just time enough to see a few hummers and watch the sunset.  Excellent meals can be booked at the same time you make your overnight booking and you should do this as there are no other places to eat nearby.dscn3148 dscn3151

We got an early start the next morning to bird the Rio Blanco trail.  Ina was tired and stayed behind to relax and watch hummingbirds on the verandah.dscn3223 dscn3224 dscn3219

The dining room has some nice informational posters and bird art (unfortunately not for sale).  Take the time to learn about the amazing birds you will see here!dscn3233 dscn3232 dscn3228 dscn3227 dscn3226 dscn3225

There is a spectacled bear in an enclosure just outside the hostel area.dscn3221



Send an email to reservarioblanco@aguasdemanizales.com.co  with your names, dates and if you want a day visit or overnight accommodation.  Specify if you want a guide who speaks English (costs a bit extra) or are happy with a Spanish speaker (probably Albeiro who knows the birds very well).  Use Google Translate to translate into Spanish and paste this translation into the email but keep the English for your records.  They will reply in Spanish and you can easily keep using Google Translate to communicate with them.  You will pay on arrival in cash at the hostel.

Rates as of April 2016:
COP $ 70,000 per person (not including food).  The food was reasonably priced, somewhere in the 20-30,000 COP range.  Half day guided birding COP $ 30,000 for 2 people or full day $ 60,000 for two people.

We had already booked the next day in Manizales so we could have some spa time for R&R and I could organize a driver to go to the Paramo the next day.  It turns out that Albeiro can organize this driver (who is familiar with the needs of birders) so we could have stayed an extra day.

Want to see the birds?  Stay tuned!

Birding The Yellow-eared Parrot Area

Looking back, I can’t believe this birding excursion booked at the last minute turned out as well as it did.  I had been in contact with a highly recommended guide who lives in Jardin, Colombia named José Castaño.  Unfortunately, he was booked for the time we were there but fortunately he was able to put us in touch with his friend Diego Guerrero, who is also a birding guide from Jardin.  We had barely checked in at the Valdivia Plaza around 8pm-ish and called Diego to see if he could take us birding the next morning.  He and his friend Paula came to the hotel and we formulated a plan to bird the area near the Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve (the reserve proper was closed) and then take us to our next destination – Rio Blanco Reserve near Manizales.

They picked us up VERY early and we started driving to Ventanas, the location of the Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve.  As dawn broke, I was worried to see how foggy it was.  Thankfully the parrots are noisy and Diego soon located a small flock near the roadside and we pulled over to watch them for as long as possible.  The fog made the lighting terrible but we could still make out the yellow ears.

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I was being so cautious of spooking the parrots that I wouldn’t let anyone open a car door and was just poking my camera out the window and hoping they would stick around until the sun came up.  They may very well have done just that but a motorcyclist came up behind us and roared past scaring off the birds.  I was really upset as I watched them fly off, but glad that we got to at least see them!dscn3022a dscn3023 dscn3024

We drove on a bit past the entrance to the reserve proper and arrived at a finca (Colombian farm).  The scenery was gorgeous!

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The finca has lots of hummingbird feeders and we setted in to see some real beauties such as Tourmaline Sunangel,  Collared Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet, White-bellied Woodstar and the amazing Sword-billed Hummingbird who was happy to show off his extremely long bill!
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There were lots of other birds on the property as well.
Black-billed Mountain-Toucan


Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager

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“Turn around so I can id you!”img_5929a
Speckle-faced Parrots flying overhead.

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Rufous-collared Sparrow img_5535a

Great Thrush


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Masked Flowerpiercer
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After we left the finca and were driving through the mountain, Diego spotted a
White-capped Tanager near the road – quite a coup as they are apparently difficult to find!
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Typical road near Ventanas.dscn3091

Andean Motmot, a nice find a bit further down the road.

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We had a great day of birding and got some pretty cool species in addition to the targeted Yellow-eared Parrot, the Sword-billed Hummingbird was amazing, the White-caped Tanager a nice suprise and that Andean Motmot was gorgeous!


I can highly recommend Diego Guerrero as an excellent birding guide.  He doesn’t speak English but he knows the birds and will point them out in a book.  His friend Paula does speak English well.  Here are his contact details.

Diego Guerrero

311 752 6550

digruz23 at gmail.com

Morning Birding Trip – El Dorado Reserve Mountain Top

The highlight of a visit to the El Dorado Reserve is an early morning birding trip with the local guide to the top of the mountain where many endemic birds can be seen.  With luck, this would include the Santa Marta Parakeet.

It’s an early start from the lodge, about 5am-ish as it takes about a hour to reach the top due to a very bad road.  Here’s what that part of the trip looks like.

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This is the most common place where people see Santa Marta Parakeets because they have nesting boxes there but they can be seen anywhere in the reserve and occasionally even are seen near the lodge.  Unfortunately they didn’t show up this morning.dscn2767 dscn2770 dscn2769

Some Scarlet-fronted Parrots were hanging around the area.  Notice how misty it was-very frustrating for photography.dscn2773 dscn2776

We walked around the trails for a while while the guide pointed out birds, many of which were endemics.  I have a full bird list here.dscn2785

Band-tailed Pigeon


Mountain Elaenia

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Santa Marta Warbler


Black-capped Tyrannulet

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Cinnamon Flycatcher

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Scarlet-fronted Parakeet

These guys always stayed together and I was calling them “the 3 amigos”.

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Scaly-naped Parrot

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Golden-olive Woodpecker


This is what the walking trails were like.dscn2822

Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager

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We headed back down the mountain very slowly, still watching for Santa Marta Parakeets.  The guide would listen, hop out and scan the trees with his binoculars.dscn2824

Just when we were about to give up, he spotted 2 flying to a tree and told us to come quickly.  I barely had time to try a couple of Hail Mary shots (which failed) before the birds flew off.img_5275 img_5274

The mist closed in and it started to rain so I knew we weren’t going to get another chance.  At least we caught a glimpse which is better than nothing.  We went back to the lodge for lunch.dscn2825