Truly exceptional landscapes and a roll call of every birder’s most-wanted list in one of the most isolated departmental capitals in the country.
Mitú in Vaupés is by far the most isolated of Colombia’s thirty-two departmental capitals. A former rubber trading outpost in the heart of the dense jungles along the Brazilian border, it’s the only departmental capital in Colombia that cannot be reached by road. It’s also the setting for my final trip of 2017: a week-long sojourn into these forgotten forests in search of birds, birds and, if all goes well, even more birds.
Most people have never heard of Mitú, and many Colombians scarcely knew the place existed until it hit the news in 1998, when almost 2,000 FARC guerrillas seized and held the town for three days in what InSight Crime have described as the group’s “most daring and brazen attack.” Some 70 policemen and civilians lost their lives, as well as almost 800 guerrillas.
Much of Mitú was destroyed in the attack and subsequent military retaliation, and I see several burned-out buildings around the town during my week-long visit. The region still carries a heavy burden from years of guerrilla conflict, and landmines continue to be a major problem for Mitú’s indigenous communities; in fact, my birding guide Miguel still carries the literal scars of a mine he trod on more than ten years ago.
Yet, while Mitú is far from famous for tourism in Colombia, it is famous among birders like me. Surrounded by white-sand forests and dense, terra firme jungle, the region is an ornithological playground and the list of key species seen here is like a roll call of any birder’s most-wanted list: fiery topaz, tawny-tufted toucanet, pompadour cotinga, Guianan cock-of-the-rock and the chestnut-crested antbird.
I had booked the trip months before, and hadn’t really expected much of Mitú beyond the frankly outstanding birding, and it’s fair to say the town lacks any standout tourist attractions. Let’s put it this way, I’d be surprised to hear backpackers waxing lyrical about Vaupés in hostel common rooms anytime soon. However, that’s not to deny the natural beauty of the region. The landscapes are truly exceptional. Many of the trails we bird during the week I spend there include steep climbs up giant rocks – outlying outcrops of the ancient Guiana Shield; some of the oldest rocks on planet Earth – culminating in breathtaking 360° panoramas over hundreds of miles of continuous jungle, interrupted only by neighbouring rocks jutting out from the green sea like ancient islands. But there’s no time for awe-inspiring scenery: I’ve got a date with an antbird…
I’ve spent the past four days trawling with increasing desperation for this one bird – randomly playing its call from a little black speaker strapped to my belt, ears straining to hear even the faintest hint of a response from somewhere out in the jungle. I’ve listened to the call – a buzzing, churring song that would be hard to miss if you heard it – so many times that I’ve almost started to hear it in my dreams. But so far, so quiet. If the birds are out there, they’re keeping schtum.
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Lead-footed after another 4am start, I’m walking slowly along the Pueblo Nuevo trail – a popular birding site around an hour from the town – when my guide Miguel suddenly gestures into the undergrowth and mouths two words that make my heart soar: “chestnut-crested.” We move to the edge of the path, ears and eyes straining to pick up the faintest sound or movement from the tangled understory vegetation. This might be the moment I’ve been hoping for… or it may be another false alarm.
After a few minutes crouched on the path, quietly playing the antbird call and waiting for a response, Miguel stands up, a puzzled look on his face – “It must have been the other one, the spot-backed antbird.” Resigned to continuing the hunt, he sets off again down the path. But I’m reluctant to follow. Not for the first time in my birding life, I’m struck by a sense that the bird is out there.
I doubt I’ll ever really know whether I stuck around because I could actually hear the bird calling among the soft churrs and whistles emanating from the thick undergrowth around me, or whether I wanted to hear it so badly that I convinced myself that I could pick out its distinctive notes somewhere in the distance. But rather than follow Miguel down the trail, I stay firmly put and press play on my speaker one final time, hoping against hope that I’m right.
Suddenly the call noisily explodes in the undergrowth, just a metre to my right. I can scarcely believe it at first and I glance down at the volume button on my phone, but then there it is – a stunning male chestnut-crested antbird hops out from the viney tangles and perches on a thin vertical trunk just a few feet in front of me, crest bristling in annoyance at the perceived intruder, belting out the same buzzing series of notes that have seared themselves into my brain over the past few days, almost as if daring me to question it’s existence again.
I hurriedly raise my binoculars and let out a totally involuntary exclamation of hushed joy. I’m almost laughing under my breath as I lock eyes on this most desired of birds; a bird that not many people have seen, and about which so little is known. I really had started to wonder if it was even real, writing it off as a money-spinning trick designed to part innocent birders from their pesos. Yet here it is, flesh, blood and glistening chestnut feathers. It’s a joyous, cathartic moment, and quite possibly the best one of my long birding life!
Miguel and I spend the next fifteen minutes watching as a pair of the enigmatic birds circle us widely through the dense understory. Dipping and diving, they occasionally offer us a perch for a snatched look. And then – as suddenly as they arrived – they are gone, leaving nothing behind but a few distant echoed calls and the broadest smile that has graced my face all year. It’s nice to save the best until (almost) last.
I spend the rest of the day feeling like I’m floating; any tension I may have felt in the pursuit of Mitú’s many rarities seems to have lifted and my feet feel lighter beneath me in spite of five days of 4am wakeup calls, snatched field lunches of hastily cobbled together ham and cheese sandwiches, and long days of hot sun and hammering rain.
Birders will rhapsodise endlessly on the joy of birding, and there is no lack of books, blogs and podcasts delving into the subject. The truth is that it’s impossible to qualify what birding means to people. For some it’s the pursuit of knowledge, adventure and discovery, for others it’s an income, and many more people couldn’t tell you if they tried.
All I know is that I have just lived through a brief moment that I will never forget for as long as I live, and it’s entirely down to a 15cm bird that lives its entire life in distant, forgotten jungles, and follows ants all day. I have travelled to every one of Colombia’s 32 departments. I’ve seen giant mountains and sprawling jungles, huge whales and soaring condors. But I’m not sure any of them brought me more joy and excitement than the moment that song poured out of the undergrowth and I realised that I had finally found what I had been searching for. That’s the joy of birding. That’s why I travel Colombia – and why I may never stop.
Chris Bell is a freelance writer who has travelled to all of Colombia’s 32 departments. You can follow his off-the-beaten-track Colombian adventures on Facebook @ChrisBellTravel and Instagram @ChrisBellColombia.
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