Emerald Bellied Puffleg

Colombia's National Parks & Reserves

Emerald Bellied Puffleg

Covering nearly 143,000 square kilometers and representing more than 11% of the country’s total area, Colombia’s 58 nationally protected areas are home to a diverse array of flora and fauna. From protected coral reefs off the Caribbean coast and the 18,700-foot altitude of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range to the tropical rainforest of the southern Amazonía Region, the country boasts an impressively broad range of ecosystems to explore. International Expeditions' nature-based Colombia tours are an in-depth way to explore Colombia's rich nature while adding an impressive number of species to your "life list."


Situated in the Cordillera Central, the highest branch of the Colombian Andes, this national park was shaped over the centuries by continuous glacial activity. There are eight volcanoes there, but the 17,400 feet high Nevado del Ruiz volcano dominates the landscape. Home to 1250 species of vascular plants and myriad trees, the park also offers a cornucopia of beautiful birds (including the Bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird (pictured right) and the endangered Yellow-eared and Fuertes’s Parrots) and mammals (including the Mountain Tapir, Spectacled Bear, Cougar, and more).


On the outskirts of Barranquilla, where the fresh water of the Magdalena River meets the salt water of the Caribbean Sea, Salamanca Island Road Park was created in 1964 to protect the abundant bird life that inhabits the coastal mangroves there. Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000, the park boasts an impressive array of wildlife despite its dry, arid climate, including 33 mammal species, 35 species of reptiles, 9 species of amphibians, 140 species of fish, and nearly 200 species of migratory and endemic birds, many of which are endangered.


Located in western central Colombia, this 489-hectare nature sanctuary was established in 1996 and provides much of the water to aqueducts throughout the famed Coffee Triangle, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Long inhabited by the legendary goldsmiths of the Quimbaya culture, the Andean rainforest is also home to massive trees, bromeliads, orchids, birds, butterflies, spectacled bears, tapirs, deer and the more frequently spotted howler monkeys, whose distinctive, booming shrieks often echo throughout the park around sunrise and sunset.


A perennial favorite amongst avid birdwatchers, this central Andes nature reserve is operated by Fundacion Ecologica Gabriel Arango Restrepo (FUNDEGAR) and owned by a local water company. Several hiking trails provide opportunities to spot species such as the Rusty-faced Parrot, Golden-plumed Parakeet, Rufous-banded Owl, White-capped Tanager and Black-billed Mountain Toucan. But their feeders virtually guarantee you’ll see hordes of hummingbirds and Chestnut-crowned and Brown-banded Antpittas (pictured right).


Reaching an altitude of 18,700 feet, but located just 42 km (26 miles) from the Caribbean Sea, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Encompassing around 6,600 square miles and isolated from the Andes, the range serves as the source for 36 of Colombia’s rivers. Established as a national park in 1964 (making it the nation’s second oldest) and as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979, the Sierra Nevada was named the most irreplaceable park in the world for threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Its tropical rainforests are home to 44 of  Colombia’s 340 endemic species, and there are 440 different species of birds (including the Andean Condor, Santa Marta Parakeet, and the Black-fronted Wood-quail). There are also numerous mammals, such a brocket deer, otters, tapir, cougar and jaguar. 


Located less than an hour by boat from Cartagena, the Rosario Islands are an archipelago of more than 40 islands established as a National Park in 1977 in order to protect the most important coral reefs off of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. There are daily tours that take visitors to the largest of these islands, Isla Rosario (which has a small aquarium) and Isla Grande (which has a free private bird sanctuary). But the main attraction here is snorkeling and diving amongst the vividly colored coral and tropical fish.

Want to learn more about ecotravel in Colombia? Watch a webinar on IE's trip led by Colombia Expedition Leader Greg Homel.

All photos ©Greg R. Homel/Natural Elements Productions

Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.