Amazon, part 1. Animal encounters.

By Oren and Brae:

Last time we were in Colombia, one thing we really desperately wanted to do was go to the Amazon rainforest, but because we were at school there just wasn’t time. It was about the only disappointing thing about our 3-month experience. So, as soon as we started talking about returning to Colombia this year, the first thing that popped into my head was ‘AMAZON’!

After three action-packed weeks in Colombia, it was hard to believe that we still had one more humungous adventure waiting for us. Our final week in Colombia would be spent in the southern region of Amazonas. As our plane touched down in the town of Leticia, we felt so overwhelmed that we were here at last. It felt surreal after reading so many stories set in the Amazon, and watching David Attenborough talking about the unique plant and animal species that live here. We felt like the luckiest boys in the world, and we weren’t disappointed. During our week in the Amazon, every day was jammed full of moments when we found ourselves open-mouthed with wonder.

It was impossible to know where to start when we sat down to write this blog so in the end we’re going to write some top 5s. Here is part 1: Top 5 animal encounters.

Number 1: Maikuchiga monkey reserve

By Oren:

In my opinion, visiting this monkey reserve was one of the best parts of the entire trip. Before we went to the Amazon, we had heard all about a place  near Leticia called Monkey Island. Tourists can go there and when you arrive hundreds of monkeys climb all over you! You know how much I love monkeys, and the thought of getting so close to them was really tempting. But also we read that these monkeys might not have been treated that well, and they couldn’t escape from the island, so we decided we didn’t want to go there and support it. My Mum knew that was a hard decision for me so she continued to research and in the end she found out about a sanctuary further down the Amazon river that takes in injured monkeys and then releases them back into the wild. She tried for months to see if we could arrange to visit it to find out about the work they do and finally, a few days before our trip, the plans came together!

The sanctuary is run by the indigenous community of Mocagua, who are mostly Tikuna. When our boat arrived there (in the Amazon you get everywhere by boat, as there are hardly any roads), we were met by a guide who showed us the way through the jungle to reach the sanctuary. As we neared the small wooden building deep in the jungle where they do their work, we straight away looked up and saw a beautiful woolly monkey climbing in the branches above us. I love woolly monkeys especially because they look so graceful and intelligent, as well as being soooo cute and fluffy.

But the more we learned about the woolly monkey during the hours we spent at the sanctuary, the more I grew to love them! Although they had 4 different species of monkey there, the woolly monkey (which they refer to as ‘churuco’) is the main focus of the conservation work at the sanctuary. This is for several reasons. First, because woolly monkeys are particularly likely to be hunted for food because they provide a bigger meal than other monkeys. 😢 The indigenous communities have their own laws, and not the laws of the Colombian government, so even though the land where they live is a national park, they have the right to hunt animals to feed themselves. But because the woolly monkey was becoming an endangered species the local people decided themselves that they wanted to do their best to protect them. This means that in 2003-4 this community made their own law against hunting endangered monkeys, especially the woolly monkey. Thankfully this law has been stuck to and it is great to see that everyone in the community is respecting the wildlife. People who used to hunt monkeys now work at the sanctuary and they teach other people the importance of saving the woolly monkey. This has made them become known as ‘the community that protects its fauna’ and it is hoped that other communities will follow their example. Another reason that the sanctuary decided to protect the woolly monkeys that this species eats fruits whole and when they go through their stomachs the seeds are still intact. When they excrete them the seeds then grow into new trees which is great for the forest. A woolly monkey troop is much, much better than any reforestation programme.

One of the things the people told us was that their ultimate goal is to have no monkeys at the reserve! It seemed a bit confusing until they explained it. The monkeys that they take care of have either been injured or have been kept as pets by humans after being taken from their families in the jungle when they were babies. Also, if the police find a monkey being kept as a pet then they take it to the sanctuary to be looked after. It was really upsetting to think that only a few years ago they had 65 monkeys there because so many were kept as pets.😡  Now there are only 7, so it is so great to think that so many monkeys have been released back into the wild.

Before they are released, the monkeys are taken care of and taught to survive on a diet of things that they will be able to find for themselves in the jungle, rather than human food. While they are first in the sanctuary, they are still allowed human contact and one of the things I found most amazing is that the monkeys came and hugged you and used you as a climbing frame.  As well as the woolly monkey, there was a noctural monkey, some squirrel monkeys and a capuchin monkey. It was an amazing experience for everyone, but especially for me to get so close to these magical creatures. One of the monkeys even went inside my t-shirt; then it wriggled around, trying to find an exit. I loved every second of it! I learned so much that afternoon, talking to the people who worked there, and I didn’t want to leave. I found out that they sometimes let volunteers work there for a few months so you can guess what I am planning now!

 

Number 2: Dolphins!

By Brae:

As you can imagine, when we came out of the monkey reserve all the kids were grinning from ear to ear thinking about the cute little monkeys. When we got to our boat we were just waiting to get on when Tom said ‘all we need to see now is some dolphins and then this day will be truly perfect’. Suddenly, one second later, Justine shouted “DOLPHINS, LOOK OVER THERE!”. It was such an incredible and hilarious moment. We waited a few more moments and then up popped two beautiful, little, grey river dolphins. We watched them for a few moments before the boat set off and the dolphins swam alongside.

Seeing the grey dolphins really did make the day perfect but to make our Amazon adventure complete, I still really wanted to see the pink river dolphin. This is one of my favourite animals and you can only see it in the Amazon. Our guide Nicolas said that we could try to see some pink dolphins in Lake Tarapoto. So, the next day we went there and the whole place was full of dolphins! Grey dolphins were popping up here, there and everywhere, including babies and groups. Suddenly, I saw a pink dolphin break the surface of the water about 20 meters to the left of the boat. It was then that I really noticed the difference between the two species. For example, the pink dolphin is much bigger but its dorsal fin is a lot shorter. They grey dolphin comes much higher out of the water than the pink ones, who just swim level with the surface for a while so we could see them clearly but the photos didn’t really come out. Also, the pink dolphin can move its head very flexibly so that means they can go in and out of tree roots to hunt fish that are hiding in there.

The dolphins are hunted by jaguars, caiman and anacondas but luckily they are not hunted by humans. This is because the indigenous people believe that dolphins are mythical creatures that swim in the water during the day and at night they can turn into humans, come out of the water, party all night and then take beautiful women back into the water to live with them as dolphins! I’m not sure I believe in this myth but if it helps the dolphins to be protected from human hunters then I think it’s a good thing.

Number 3: Leaf cutter ants

By Oren:

While we were in Colombia last time, we really enjoyed watching trails of leaf cutter ants weaving through the jungle, and this time was the same. This time though we found out many more facts about these ants. For example, they don’t actually eat the leaves that they collect, as we had assumed. In fact, they collect the pieces of leaf and then take them underground and leave them until they grow fungus. It is the fungus on the leaves that feeds their young. We had already noticed that they sometimes carry the leaves for hundreds of metres, but I have now learned that each piece of leaf can be 20 times their own body weight, which I think is incredible!

We were becoming quite used to seeing and admiring these ants, but one surprising thing that we observed near the banks of the Amazon river is that the ant colonies were building their nests in the tops of trees, instead of underground. This is because they know that the nests might get flooded on the forest floor by the Amazon river in times of lots of rain. I could watch the ant motorways along logs and the forest floor for hours. Take a look at one that we saw:

Number 4: The turtle and the butterfly

By Brae:

One night, we stayed in a beautiful nature reserve, and my Mum found a bench by the side of the lake where she could sit and watch the wildlife. There were dragonflies, herons and fish jumping out of the water. After a while, she noticed some turtles, sitting in the sun on branches sticking out of the water. As she watched, she saw a butterfly gently land on the turtle’s head. At first she thought it was just by chance but the turtle seemed to shake it off a few times and each time it just came back and landed on the turtle’s nose! Eventually, the turtle got so annoyed it jumped into the water and the butterfly flew off to find another turtle. My Mum thought this was a strange and wonderful moment and when she came back to meet us for lunch she told us about it. Everyone else agreed that this was a mysterious encounter, except Oren who didn’t find it mysterious. Oren reads LOTS of nature books and he immediately said that he’d read about turtles and butterflies before and that the butterfly was drinking the salt in the turtle’s tears! Since we’ve got back to England we have looked it up and realised that he was right. Butterflies, like many other animals, need the mineral sodium in their body to survive and that is why this particular type of butterfly finds it in the salt of turtle tears.

 

Number 5: CAIMAN!!

By Oren:

When we were at this same reserve, we stayed in rooms on stilts at the edge of the lake. We were told that lots of caiman lived in the lake and they could be up to 9 metres long. Think about that. We did, and when we could really imagine what 9 metres looks like we were pretty alarmed! At the edge of the water there was a platform with a sign telling you to wash your boots (people always wear wellies when walking in the jungle as it is very muddy and also the wellies protect you from the snakes). Below the sign for ‘boot wash’ there was another sign saying ‘beware caiman’! I didn’t really feel like washing my boots when I saw that and I definitely didn’t plan to go swimming.

Luckily though we soon discovered that there was an area in the lake where they had made a kind of safe swimming area.  That afternoon, we were going for a swim when our guide shouted to us come and look at something. We ran over and there it was: gliding through the water with no effort at all. And it was coming towards us! We were led to a platform where we could watch safely and our guide explained that the caiman had been coming out in the day for a few weeks now (caiman usually hunt at night) and that they had been feeding it. It showed signs that it had been injured in a fight and it had a bend at the top of its tail, but it still swam effortlessly. The caiman swam round towards the live fish that our guide was dangling from a rod just a few feet away from me. As we saw it cut through the water towards us I was filled with awe of how graceful it was, and how enormous! As it reached us, it lunged at the fish and seeing a 4 metre caiman leaping out of the water is an amazing sight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caño Cristales, part 2.

By Brae:

At last the day arrived when we would hike to reach the Caño Cristales river. Seeing the water was one of my favourite parts of our trip to Colombia, with shades of pink, green, blue, yellow and more. I really enjoyed looking at the river, as well as swimming in it, because it was so beautiful. The thing that I found really amazing was how clear the water was. If you were wearing goggles it was as clear as swimming in air, and even if you weren’t wearing goggles it was clearer than wearing goggles in a swimming pool!

   

One thing that made our day extra special was that we were allowed to go in a group of just the 5 of us, with our own guide (called Jose), and we didn’t see anyone else in the national park for the whole day, apart from right at the end! There are strict rules about how many people can enter the park each day and it’s really well organised. Each group is given a different route and a different start time. We did a 14km walk with 4 awesome swimming spots, lots of wildlife and the prettiest views you can imagine! We were chosen to do the longest walk in the park because before you go to Caño Cristales you have to fill in a form about how healthy you are, and then they will chose a walk appropriate for your group’s average health and fitness. We had to say that both me and Oren are very active 7 days a week and that brought our average fitness level up loads!

The dog thought it was an early start too!
The dog thought it was an early start too!

Because we were on the longest walk, we had to get up really early and catch the first boat to take us to the entrance of the national park. Just as we were setting off, a dog jumped on board with us! We were then told that the dog always goes to the pier and waits for the first group of the day and then it goes with them into the park.

When we got to the entrance, the soldiers searched our bags and my Mum had her lipsyl confiscated! To explain why, I’d better tell you where the colours in the water come from. There are some plants which don’t grow anywhere else in the world, and they only grow for a few months each year in the Serranía de la Macarena National Park. The plants grow underwater and this is what gives the water some of its amazing colours (as well as other plants, deep pools, reflections and sand).

Macarenia clavigera

Because the plants are so unique they are trying really hard to protect them. That means you can’t always swim where the plants are, and if you’re going to swim you can’t wear any sun cream, or insect repellent or any other soaps or creams in case it goes in the water and damages the plants. For this reason, my Mum didn’t mind about her lipsyl and so we boarded our jeep to start a 40-minute journey to the start of our hike. After the first few minutes bumping over roads eroded by water, we noticed that the dog was running along behind. We tried to ask our driver to stop and give him a lift, but they said the dog did the run every day too and would be fine. And sure enough it ran after the jeep for the whole way!

Vellozia macarenensis

As we finally set off walking, we were surprised by the unique landscape and flowers and how different the insects were. First we saw white flowers everywhere. It was another special plant that could survive the fires that happen there. You can see the burnt stems in the photo but it just starts growing again. At one point an insect landed on us and Jose was really amazed as it was something he had never seen before. It was like a cross between a bee and a butterfly. He took photos to show some university students who are studying the nature in the park. When you remember that this place was completely unexplored for a long time, we really thought that maybe we discovered a new species!! We also saw some grasses that we thought Nonna and Jesse would like.

 

We were lucky because it was cloudy in the morning which meant it wasn’t as hot as usual, but even so it was extremely hot. After we had been walking for about half an hour we came across our first glimpse of the river and it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Before we went to Caño Cristales we were not sure if it really was going to be as amazing as everyone said but when we got there it was even more amazing and beautiful.

To get to all the places that we wanted to go, we had to jump over rocks and wade through the water. We also passed giant waterfalls and holes in the rock that had been made by the water. Some of them were like perfectly round, super deep swimming pools, and we even climbed through a hole to see another waterfall.

The first swimming spot was quite shallow apart from a large circular hole that was up to my neck. But the reason I liked that spot was because there was a waterfall that you could sit under and it was really nice and refreshing.

 

The 2nd swimming spot was also really cool because it had loads of awesome places to jump into a really deep pool. This one was in the shade which was a very big relief. We also had lunch there which was wrapped in a banana leaf that we had brought in our backpacks. It was a very nice packed lunch, with chicken, rice and some kind of delicious sauce.

My favourite swimming spot was the 3rd one. In the middle it was 8 meters deep and it was really fun diving down and picking up sand from the bottom. Over a wide area it was at least 3 metres deep so it got quite tiring because we were swimming there for about an hour, but luckily there were lots of stones to stand up on.

We spent the whole day hiking and it was perfect. We walked a bit and then just as I was getting hot and tired we’d turn a corner and come to a different branch of the river and a new place to swim. We were so glad that the next day we were told we could go and explore another part of the river called Cristalitos, because we didn’t want our experience to end. Cristalitos is a river like Caño Cristales but smaller, and our guide Jose knew a way to get there because he had part of the Cristalitos river on his own farm, which I found really amazing! So, first we got to see around Jose’s farm and he was growing lots of things like pineapples, coca, yuca and guanabana. He was also doing some conservation work to protect the turtles from the main river and we got to see lots of babies. When we reached Cristalitos river it was just as beautiful as Caño Cristales and we we had a lovely swim.

Too soon it was time to leave to catch our flight back to Bogotá. Our stay in Caño Cristales was definitely in my top three things of the whole trip.

 

 

 

Caño Cristales, part 1.

By Oren:

Caño Cristales is the name of an amazing multi-coloured river in a jungle region nearly 300km south of Bogotá. It is in an area called La Macarena, like the dance.

On this trip to Colombia, we were lucky enough to organise some amazing mini holidays within our big holiday, and this was one trip that we’d decided to go on that we were so excited about. Caño Cristales is known as the most beautiful river in the world, but it has only quite recently become a tourist location. It is really hard to get there as you can’t get there by road, as it’s in an area of jungle that goes on for hundreds of miles. Also, there used to be a lot of fighting nearby between the government and the FARC guerrillas and it wasn’t safe for tourists. Then when they were trying to negotiate peace in 1998 it became part of a huge area (over 42,000 square kilometers) that was called the demilitarized zone, and wasn’t controlled by the government any more. The FARC held control of it and it was an area where they grew lots of coca, and people didn’t go there.

Diana, our friend, has travelled a lot around Colombia but even she hadn’t been to Caño Cristales, so we were so happy she decided to come with us. You need to visit the national park with a local guide and we had been told by some people that maybe the guides used to be in the FARC or they used to work picking coca for them. But we also found out that tourism had brought new opportunities for the people to work there doing something legal instead of what they did before, and that now tourism was safe. Although we didn’t really know exactly what to expect, we had decided that we really wanted to go and it was worth it.

The person who organised our flight had told us to meet at the main airport  in Bogatá at 5am. Diana phoned to confirm the day before and it turned out that we had been told to go to the wrong airport! :oIt was very lucky that she checked. In fact, we were leaving from a military airbase and Diana was as surprised as us. She said that no-one ever went there and it was very unusual.

We took our bags to be weighed but it wasn’t only the bags that ended up on the scales. We had to be weighed too! I don’t know what they would have done if a really heavy person came! We had to wait quite a long time because our airplane was so small that it couldn’t fly in the rain and it was raining in La Macarena. When we finally got on the plane, it was teeny tiny; it only had about 15 seats!

After the flight arrived at the airport (I say airport, but it was actually a field with a tiny building in it!) we were reminded of the heat in Colombia. Bogotá is quite cool, especially at night, as it is so high in the Andes mountains, but the jungle of la Macarena was boiling. First, we went to our hotel and we had half an hour to organise ourselves before our guide, Jefferson, arrived. I went to tell him that we were almost ready but suddenly I went all dizzy and when I opened my eyes I was on the floor with a pain in my hip, elbow and head. I was quite surprised when I found out that I had properly fainted! Jefferson said it might have been because I had woken up early and had not eaten much breakfast. This was excellent news as now I can make the most of this excuse. If my parents ever don’t feed me enough I can tell them I might faint!

On our first day there, we were not allowed in the National Park to see the river so instead we set off in a tuk-tuk along a dusty path and we tipped and swerved to avoid puddles.We finally arrived at a beautiful farm where we would spend the day, but first of all everyone’s priority was to feed me! Part of the meal was meat from the cows on the farm and it was nice but it was so incredibly tough and chewy that it made my teeth hurt for the next few days! I still ate it though because I didn’t want to faint again, did I?😉

After lunch, we set off down a track to explore the farm – it was sweltering hot and there were brown mounds of earth in the cattle field, like tall, pointy mole hills. I wondered what they were and it turned out that they were termite nests. As I was admiring the nests I hardly noticed that we had arrived at some trees at the edge of the field and after a few more steps, we found ourselves in a tropical jungle! It was so unexpected as it didn’t look like a jungle from the outside. Inside, Jefferson pointed out plants and told us about them, like the walking palm for example. The roots are all above the earth and as it grows new roots the whole tree can slowly, slowly move across the ground! Just then Jefferson looked up and we followed his eyes. My breath was taken away yet again as, yes it was, it was monkeys! They were just hanging around and jumping around the treetops. I was so astonished to see them just a few footsteps away from the cow’s field; it was amazing! Even though I have now been lucky enough to see monkeys in the wild quite a few times, I will still treasure this memory forever.

I was still feeling amazing as we emerged from the jungle onto the boiling cattle ranch again. Then I looked ahead and saw a train of horses galloping towards us. Our ride had arrived! As we strode along the track I admired the varied landscape; all around us there were different views. The flat-topped mountains of the serranía beneath an endless sky, forests and jungle stretching out and grassy rolling hills reaching to the horizon. It was magical. We rode our horses up a hill and just took it all in before returning to the stables. On the way back, you could tell that the horses were eager, as it was hard to control them as they galloped along the home stretch. I say all of our horses were eager, but my Mum’s horse had ground to a halt early in the walk so our guide just tied her horse to his one! The same happened to my Dad’s horse later on and it was funny to watch them getting pulled along, while Brae and I galloped ahead! We charged rapidly through a lake, getting ourself soaked all up our legs. I could tell that my horse was happy to be at the stable again – maybe he wanted to get the heavy load off his back!

One of the things that was amazing about the farm was that they had a special friend there. It was a small green parrot. The people on the farm had raised it from a chick and it had decided to stay with them. Brae first spotted it perched on the shoulder of one of the chefs, like a pirate. It then flew over to us and started investigating our watches with its tiny beak, as if it was trying to steal them! One of the best things it did was a backflip off Brae’s watch! After it had got bored it discovered the fun of licking condensation off bottles and was amused by that through our whole lunch. When we returned from our horse riding it flew over to us and landed on my head. I was so happy and everyone took photos but then I felt something warm and slimy sliding down my back. I wasn’t happy then, as you can see by these photos.

                   

Overall, it was an incredible day and I loved every bit of it (except fainting!). It was a great start to our Caño Cristales adventure. But, after all that you still haven’t seen the beautiful river yet! Now you know how we felt with the suspense building. Would it be as stunning as we imagined? Find out in Caño Cristales, part 2!

Paso del Mango

By Brae:

Over the last three days we stayed in a place called Paso del Mango, near Minca. It means ‘the place of the mango’ or ‘mango way’. For a while we didn’t know why it was called Paso del Mango, but it soon became clear!  On our first day, we set off on a path beside the river to visit a nearby farm where they grow ‘cacao’ to make chocolate, and after about 5 minutes walking the floor became a carpet of mangoes!

You might remember that when we lived here before, as we walked to school we occasionally used to step over a mango or two that had fallen from a tree, but this was on a whole other level! I’ve never seen so many mangoes in my life, the smell was overwhelming and it was impossible to count them.

As we looked up at the enormous, beautiful trees laden with fruit, at first it
was really cool, but after a while I was just busy trying to find a bit of path where I could put my feet without squashing ten mangoes at once. Lots of things about Colombia have been unexpected, new experiences. For example, I never thought mangoes would be the cause of me arriving late for our tour of the chocolate farm.

Maybe you won’t be surprised that when we were in Paso de Mango we ate and drank a lot of mangoes: mango juice, mango salad, even pasta with chicken and mango. And the chickens in the chocolate farm ate mangoes from the floor for their snack.

Free diving (again)

By Oren and Brae:

One of the most amazing things about our first week in Colombia is that all of the days out we have done have been with old friends that we met when we were last here. Because we were here for two months we made lots of good friends, and this time we arranged to meet up with them when we were doing activities, which was so much more fun and made us feel more at home straight away. It also helped that we were treated like VIPs by our friends, and we got to do things with them that we never would have discovered on our own (like Chengue beach)!

As some of you may know, last time we went to Colombia we arranged a trip to go free diving with our friend Maryline and her boyfriend Camilo. Maryline has now moved to Portugal but we still managed to get in touch with Camilo and his cousin Jose. Last time we went diving at a beach called ‘Playa Blanca’ and we liked it so much that we decided to go again.

We had to meet up with Jose and Camilo early so we could dive before any other people got to the beach. We had to wake up at five o’clock in the morning and I wasn’t very pleased when I had to get up.  We met them by a little pier where the fishermen were selling their catch. Jose said that we were going to walk over the mountain to get to the beach (last time we took a boat). We were all a bit tired but we wanted to get to the beach before anyone else so we set off.

As the sun was coming up, and we started climbing the hill, Jose said that he was surprised that we walked so quickly because when he had taken some friends from University with him they had been crying and praying on their knees for God to save them at the point we were at, but we weren’t even tired! Soon we took a track leading off the main path into the shrubs.  Jose said that he was going to show us a plant that would make our hand swell up really badly for 20 minutes if we touched it. When he pointed to a really innocent looking plant in the midst of bushes with massive spikes on we were a little surprised, but we made sure we didn’t touch any. It is strange that people in different countries must all have different knowledge about plants. In the UK, everyone knows what a nettle looks like so you can avoid it, but I guess if a Colombian person came to visit they would have no idea. We certainly had no idea about the Colombian poisonous plants.

Finally, we arrived and excitedly put on our flippers and got into the water. Even though we had already done free diving before it still took my breath away when you first looked down into the water. The fish were incredible; I’d forgotten how many different coloured fish you were able to see.

 

I soon asked Jose if I could dive under water and he said yes but later he told my mum that he was only expecting me to go down about one or two metres  so he only took a small breath before he came after me. When he saw me disappearing into the depths though he was very surprised. He had to come to the surface, take a big breath and chase after me! I think that all my surf life saving training has helped me improve at diving and be more confident in the water.

By Brae:

We saw so many things in the sea like puffer fish, star fish, sea urchins, dory fish, diamond fish, an octopus and much much more. Jose taught us how to pick up sea urchins so we didn’t hurt them, and which ones not to pick up. I was really proud that I was able to dive down 8 meters to pick up a star fish. I could do so much more than when we went last time.

 

 

When we finally got out of the sea Jose were asked if we wanted fish soup with rice and patacones for lunch. We said yes they got out a big sauce pan from the back of their dive hut and took it to one of the restaurants to ask them to fill it up enough for 8 people. My mum asked if she could go with them but they said no because they would charge them more if they knew it was for tourists.

Dream come true. Again!

By Oren:

We are currently staying in a place called Paso del Mango in the Sierra Nevada mountains, not far from Minca. It is tropical forest here and today when we were in the jungle walking, suddenly my mum said, “Oren come quick. Quickly!”. At first I wondered what she had seen, and then as I saw the look on her face it dawned on me. Was it monkeys? It was!!!!!!!!  

When we were planning our trip to Colombia this time, I didn’t really expect to see monkeys, but I thought if we did see them it would be in the Amazon. I definitely didn’t expect to see them today, only an hour away from the city of Santa Marta!

When we spotted them they were balancing on some giant bamboo on the other side of the river. Even though I couldn’t see them very well it was still the best feeling ever! We used our binoculars to look at them and my mum tried to get some pictures (she only got a couple of blurry ones though). I thought things couldn’t get any better, but they did…

After a 5 hour walk, we were returning home along the same path, all a bit tired, and I was in the lead. A mango dropped out of a tree and I looked up to see where it had come from. That was when I saw them. Seven howler monkeys were in the tree directly above us.

I was so happy and shocked that I almost forgot to get everyone else to come and see. This time I could see them so clearly even without binoculars. Time went really fast but we stayed there for at least half an hour watching them move around in the branches above us. There were at least two babies – sometimes gripping tight to their mothers, and other times trying out their strength by swinging and climbing. It was unbelievable how lucky we were to see so many up close, and our guide said that it was very unusual for howler monkeys not to run off at the first sight of people.

This reminded me that people also told us how lucky we were the last two times we saw monkeys in Colombia.  We seem to have a special connection – somehow our experiences have been extra special, with monkeys staying near us for ages and ages allowing us to watch them in a really relaxed way. This time I was struck by how similar the movement and behaviour of the howler monkeys was to the documentaries I have seen of orangutans.  We watched the dominant male scratch his spine along a branch and the younger ones playing and hanging just by their tails.

It was such a magical moment and even if we don’t see monkeys in the Amazon I will still be more than satisfied. It was incredible.

Insects

By Oren:

One of the foods we didn’t try during our trip was a delicacy that they eat in some parts of Colombia that we only found out about when we got back. The dish is fat bottomed ants! We didn’t try this but when I read about it today it reminded me that we spent lots of time looking at live ants in Parque Tayrona and other places in Colombia. In Tayrona there were loads of enormous termite nests and ant colonies around the place we were staying and there were millions of red ants in each one! Brae and I spent a long time watching them and we saw where they went to get food, how they cut up the leaves and where they lived. They had cleared little pathways in the undergrowth in between their food source and their nest and we spent time following their paths. We made a film of their activities (and at the end you can see a glimpse of the amazing Blue Morpho butterfly we saw, but they were very difficult to film).

When we were in Tayrona we walked for hours every day to see the wildlife and we watched the birds and mammals mostly, but when we couldn’t see any we were happy to watch the bugs. One example is that when we went to get our breakfast one day we saw a praying mantis! Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 22.26.10It was really cool because I didn’t think we were going to see one and I have read a lot about them. They are the predators of the insect world, so I guess that makes them the insect equivalent of a lion or a shark! We also saw, on our morning walk, a dung beetle rolling dung to its house, but it kept on going round in circles!

Lots of people don’t like bugs so they probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the insects, spiders and lizards that filled our cabin at night! We tried to tell ourselves that we had to get used to it because we were in the middle of a jungle and the insects lived there and we were their guests.

 

 

Valle de Cocora

By Oren:

One of the things my mum and dad had been reading about when they were first planning our trip to Colombia was a walk in a place called the ‘valle de cocora’. They really wanted to do it but they didn’t know because they had read about gap year students who hadn’t been able to do it because the last bit is up a mountain, and it is a really long walk. Despite this they wanted to do it so much so Brae and I rose up to the challenge…

pueblos-2
Milk delivery, passing us as we waited for our guide

About half way through the walk there is a humming bird place called Acaime so we were looking forward to it. We had booked a guide but when we arrived he wasn’t there so we asked some people where he was and they said that he was drunk so he was very late. After we heard that we decided that it would be best to go on without him.

After we set off the view changed a lot and we were enjoying it because it was beautiful. We also passed over lots of rickety broken bridges along the path.

salentoB-4

salento-5  salentoB-2

salento-7  salentoB-3

After we had been walking for about two hours we reached Acaime and my feet were hurting a bit so that was a relief. We thought it would be an enclosed area where there were a few humming birds quite a long way away, but it was way better than that. The sanctuary was in an open space in the middle of the jungle where they had some feeders with nectar in. The nectar made so many different birds from the jungle come down to feed and you could stand just about a metre away from them! There were literally loads of shimmering humming birds flitting around like lightning on the feeders and on all the branches and flowers around us!!!

salentoB-8

salentoA-14  salentoA-12

salentoA-13

salentoB-6  salentoA-11

salentoB-12

salentoA-9

After we had stayed for nearly an hour and a half we decided we should probably go but our minds were still full of colour and light.

After Acaime we had to re-trace our steps a little bit and we came to a mountain path which was the next part of the route. It was an extremely steep bit and we struggled. Brae didn’t though because he went as fast as a mountain goat, but because of my altitude sickness I went slowly. When we reached the top it was a relief because we were all tired by that point. We looked at the view over the valley but we couldn’t see much at first because of the clouds (we were so high we were right inside them). We had a big rest up there and then we set off again on the downhill part of the journey.

My dad had told us that on the walk down there were palm trees that were sixty metres tall, but we didn’t believe him. Sixty metres is about 30 tall men standing on top of each other! When we got to the bit where the palms were supposed to be we saw some that were thirty metres tall so we said to him: “Told you that they weren’t sixty metres tall”, but then we turned a corner and saw palms that really were around sixty metres tall! It was hard to see the tops of some of them because they were so high.

salentoA-4
You can see how small the cows look!

salentoA-5

salentoA-2

I felt amazing that I did it and I felt that I could do anything now I have completed the walk, but I was exhausted. My mum and dad were really happy and proud of us.

Colombian animals update : MONKEYS!!!

By Oren:

A few weeks ago we went to “Parque Tayrona”, one of Colombia’s national parks, so we could see some extraordinary landscapes and wildlife. They don’t allow cars in the park so we had to walk to where we were staying. It was an hour and a half’s walk but we got a horse to carry our heavy bag so we were able to really enjoy the hike.

We walked for about an hour up some steep slopes through the jungle without seeing hardly another person. We were quite lucky because it was early morning and a bit misty and cool for the first time in months. Suddenly, we turned a corner and my Mum spotted a little monkey clambering around in a tree! tayrona-7

If you know me, you will know that I LOVE monkeys and have been dreaming about seeing them in the wild for my whole life. I managed to get a glimpse of it and I thought: ‘it’s going to go now but at least I saw it!’, but instead, it stayed right where it was! It was sitting in a tree and picking and eating berries when I spotted another one near it, then another, and another, until there were twenty monkeys hopping around in the trees above our heads!! I felt so overwhelmed I basically couldn’t speak. I felt so happy right then and I will never forget that moment when I first saw them. We stayed there for ages and the monkeys seemed really calm and they came very near us and carried on picking and eating the berries. After about half an hour of watching them, a few more visitors caught up with us and saw us watching the monkeys, but when they arrived the monkeys started jumping up and down and running off to hide. When the people left, the monkeys became more relaxed again and carried on eating and came back close to us! I think that the monkeys didn’t mind us which made me feel very special. tayrona

We spent three more days in the park keeping a look out for more but we didn’t see any. We asked people working in the park and they said we were really lucky to see so many and maybe it was because it had rained the day before for the first time in months. The monkeys we saw were capuchin monkeys but there is also a kind of monkey in Tayrona called the ‘mico Titi’ and they only exist in that jungle in the whole world! Because they don’t live anywhere else in the world they are critically endangered. The third kind of monkey in Tayrona is a howler monkey.

After seeing the capuchin monkeys I thought things couldn’t get any better and I knew that I would leave Colombia knowing I’d completed a dream. But during our last week staying on the coast we decided to go to a place called “Don Diego” because we wanted to go down the river on a tyre again, because we enjoyed it so much the first time on a different river. The other reason that we went was because we had been told that going to Don Diego river was the best chance to see some howler monkeys. Even though I had seen monkeys in “Parque Tayrona” I still wanted to see some more (obviously!).

We had been floating down the river for a while and we were just getting over seeing about ten kingfishers when we went under a bridge and the guide pointed out some shadowy shapes sitting in a tree. As we got closer we saw that they were monkeys!!!!!!!!! We stopped the tyre and got out on the bank just underneath them so we could get some photos, without disturbing them.
don diego-10don diego-13 Howler monkeys are completely different to capuchins. They are much bigger, dark red and they were just hanging around quite lazily, instead of rushing around like the capuchins. We got a great view because they were on a bare branch without leaves hiding them. We carried on down the river and found out that it wasn’t just that tree that had monkeys in it, and it wasn’t just one more, it was that nearly every tree we passed had monkeys in! Around the next corner, we spotted a huge group sitting in a tree (there must have been about 15 or 20) and the guide, who had been doing this for years said that he hadn’t seen that many monkeys in one tree ever before!!!don diego-16

Of all the nature experiences I have had in my life these two will be the most memorable, and no one can guess how happy I was to see them.

You can find more Colombian animals here.

More Colombian animals update

By Brae:

As you can remember in Minca we saw an amazing lizard that ran on water. But in parque Tayrona we saw even more amazing lizards.tayrona-3

For example we saw a lizard that was black with yellow stripes! We also saw a lizard with a blue head yellow body and green tail and we saw one that was black with a bright blue tail!

tayrona

We did not manage to get pictures of all of them but here are the ones that we could. We promise we have not changed the colour lizards were! Me and Oren spent hours watching them and seeing where they went.

tayrona-2

You can see more Colombian animals here.