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Considering Columbia

One of four living species of Tapir, Mountain Tapir can reach up to 550 pounds. Females, like this individual that I spotted on the Otun-Quimbaya trail, are larger than males. Mountain Tapir are unique among Tapir species in that they are the only member of the family found outside of tropical lowlands. The other three species are the South American, Bairds and Asia’s Malayan Tapir. If you encounter one, enjoy the moment but be cautious. While usually shy, Tapir can be aggressive if provoked.
Photos by Justin Harris

Considering Columbia

A male Masked Trogon sits on a branch near the Otun-Quimbaya visitor’s center.

Considering Columbia

Encountering Mountain Tapir at Otun-Quimbaya is a matter of luck and chance. Finding Red Howler Monkeys, though, is typically much easier. Among the largest species of monkey in the world, they are also among the most boisterous. Listening for their loud calls is an effective way of locating Howlers. Often, they can be completely quiet and you will catch them in the trees immediately above you.

Considering Columbia
Considering Columbia

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow are not crows, but members of a diverse and often-bizarre family of birds known as the cotingas. They are relatively slow-moving and this makes them an excellent target for wildlife photographers.
Photo by Justin Harris

Considering Columbia

Unforgettable nature encounters await bold adventurers in this tropical locale
Sunday, February 18, 2024

April 19, 2023 — Trail near Otun-Quimbaya National Reserve.

Tapir! Tapir! Tapir!

I sent the message on my WhatsApp with an enthusiasm and disbelief that I can barely put into words. Of course, I was out of reception, and so it took several hours before the message was actually sent. I had, quite unexpectedly, spotted the large female Mountain Tapir in a clearing, as I turned around after encountering a troop of Red Howler Monkeys. It is quite ironic how you often encounter something when you are not expecting to encounter it, especially when you have tried to find it several times, without success.

In a year and a half of backpacking through Latin America, I’d taken several tours in the hopes of finding a wild Tapir, although I had yet to meet my quarry. The meeting was a brief one. I stood still and took two portrait shots of this — the largest animal in the Andes — with my Nikon P900s camera. Then, the shy creature turned and slowly ambled back into its forest home. In total, it lasted less than a minute, but it was impactful and improbable enough to leave me with memories to last a lifetime. And, other than a cheap bus ticket, I had not spent a penny — or a peso — to meet this endangered species.

You won’t find the Department — or State — of Risaralda on any backpacker’s itinerary for Colombia. Risaralda and its largest city, Pereira, are a hidden secret that take a backseat to Cartagena, Medellin and Tayrona National Park. Nature lovers will be well rewarded for taken this path less traveled. A 40-minute bus ride from Pereira takes you to the town of La Florida. It is a unique destination; rich in delicious local cuisine, street art and incredible wildlife. Before and after my unexpected meeting with this 500 pound beast, I came with the purpose of encountering lots of new and intriguing bird species. In this respect as well, the Otun-Quimbaya trail in the mountains around Pereira had certainly delivered.

Otun-Quimbaya is a cloud forest; a unique biosphere that is markedly similar to rainforest. However, they lie at higher altitude and the moist conditions are conducive to cloud formation; hence the name. As a birding and nature enthusiast, I find the cloud forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to be a cross-section. They are magical places where temperate and tropical wildlife share the same space; making conditions ripe for incredible wildlife encounters. I got extremely lucky that day with that Mountain Tapir, but there’s plenty of other wildlife to beguile the imagination. Torrent ducks and White-capped Dippers rule the fast running streams around La Florida. In the tangled undergrowth, red-headed barbet and the elusive multicolored tanager make their presence felt. So, too, do the bizarre Red-Ruffed Fruitcrow and the Cauca Guan. The large, ground-dwelling Cauca Guan are an endangered species, indigenous to certain parts of Colombia. Yet, while walking through this trail of surprises, hikers can reasonably expect to encounter between 15 and 20 of these birds in a single day. Keep a look out for green toucans, as well. Incredible scenery and immense waterfalls also contribute to making La Florida and Otun-Quimbaya a place where magic truly happens. Make sure to pay them a visit should you visit Colombia with your camera and binoculars in tow. Trust me: You will not regret it.

Justin Harris is an educator, world traveler, wildlife photographer, nature enthusiast and citizen-scientist.

This article is part one in a three-part series about travel in Colombia.

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