5.0663° N, 75.4486° W
A QUICK GUIDE TO EXPLORING THE BEAUTIFUL RIO BLANCO RESERVE NEAR MANIZALES, COLOMBIA; INCLUDING HOW YOU GET THERE, HOW TO STAY IN THE RESERVE AND WHAT TO DO.
One thing you quickly realize about Colombia is that it has a hell of a lot of birds. In fact, it has the most bird species of any country in the world (around 1,954 species or about 1/5 of the total birds!). If you are like us and absolutely love heading out in search of birds then you will definitely want to add the Rio Blanco Reserve (Reserva del Rio Blanco) to your Colombian travel itinerary.
Below is everything you need to know about visiting this beautiful reserve; including, how to get there, where to stay and what exactly to do.
EXPLORING THE RIO BLANCO RESERVE
\\ What is the Rio Blanco Reserve
Located just on the outskirts of the bustling city of Manizales, the Rio Blanco Reserve (Reserva del Rio Blanco) is one of the most diverse areas in the world. The reserve encompasses 4,932 hectares or 12,187 acres and is home to roughly 380 species of birds; including, two types of mountain toucans, Golden-plumed parakeets, mountain tanagers and a couple of types of antpittas - a small bird that mostly lives on the ground (it has comically long legs).
The Rio Blanco Reserve is also home to:
| 60 types of mammals, including anteaters, armadillos and orange-colored squirrels
| 180 types of butterflies (mariposas)
| 40 types of orchids, all of them endemic (a species that is native to a single defined geographic location)
The reserve actually supplies 35% of the drinking water for the whole department of Caldas, of which the nearby city of Manizales is the capital. Because of this, the reserve is managed by a water company called Aguas de Manizales and not the Colombian government. The only real difference because of this - as far as what you will experience as a visitor - is that you do need to get permission to enter the reserve ahead of time (aka you cannot just show up).
To get permission you need to first contact the reserve at least two days in advance. We got their contact information straight off of the company/reserve's website (we simply Googled it). Luckily, they were super quick to respond to all of our questions and it was really easy to get the okay to enter.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we also decided to spend the night at the reserve, which we HIGHLY RECOMMEND! If you want to spend the night you likewise will need to contact them in advance (we did it 5 days out). They will give you the price (see below) and then send you a link through email to pay online. You HAVE TO pay online for the room - they do not accept cash.
Find more information on the booking process and lodging available in the reserve see below.
\\ Top Things to Do in Rio Blanco
One of the top reasons to visit Rio Blanco is to do a bit (or a lot) of birdwatching. The reserve is home to nearly 400 species of birds, including many that can really only be found within its boundaries. This includes such species as the Golden-plumed parakeet, Black-billed mountain toucan, Crimson-mantled woodpecker and over 5 species of hummingbirds.
In fact, the reserve is such a well-known birding destination that people from all over the world come to spot some very specific species (most notably the aforementioned parakeet and the Bicoloured Antpitta). While we were staying in the reserve we met five other birders - all from various countries - who had booked a birding-specific tour of the country. Similarly, the Rio Blanco Reserve is also a popular stop on the Central Andes Birding Trail.
While you can explore the reserve and go birding by yourself, they do also offer guiding services - either for a full-day or half-day. We decided to get a guide for the full day and we were so glad we did because during our 9-hours of birdwatching we probably spotted around 70 new types of birds, many of which we would have totally missed if we went just by ourselves.
Plus, at least in our case, our guide (Luz) spoke really good English and we could ask her questions about not just the various types of birds, but also the reserve itself, the overall area of Colombia (the Caldas department and the eje cafetero) and Colombia's incredible diversity.
| COST: a guide costs 60000 COP ($14.90 USD // €13.15 Euro) for a half-day & 100000 COP ($24.83 USD // €21.92 Euro) for a full-day
| TIMING: we learned that the birds are most active from sunrise (~ 6 AM) to around 10 AM and when it is cloudy out
| BRING: binoculars are a must, as are comfortable shoes for walking around in all day
If you want to explore Rio Blanco but don't really have any desire to look for birds you can also just simply hike around the area. The reserve encompasses 4,932 hectares (12,187 acres) - meaning there are plenty of areas to explore.
One important thing to note though is that the type of trails you will be hiking on will more than likely be dirt singletrack, so unless you stick to just the main road that crosses part of the reserve, expect thick jungle forest and rougher terrain.
Similarly, according to our guide (who grew up in the reserve), Rio Blanco is split into three sections: the lower, middle and upper. The lower section includes the river, the middle section is the cloud forest and the hotel area and the upper section is way up close to the border of Los Nevados National Park (and the páramo biome). According to her, only the lower and middle sections are really accessible to travelers and even then you would likely need a guide to make sure you don't get lost in the thick forest.
But that being said, there are luckily two trails in the reserve that are relatively easy to follow:
| El Robledal Trail: 7 kilometers/4.3 miles long, 2.5-3 hours
| Forest Trail: 3 kilometers/1.8 miles long, 45 minutes
\\ How to Get to Rio Blanco
Hire a Driver
Your best option for reaching the Rio Blanco Reserve is to contact and get a ride with Rodrigo, a local driver who has a Toyota 4Runner and who regularly picks up people heading to the reserve.
We were given Rodrigo’s number from the reserve's booking agent (via email). While he was out of town on the day we headed up to Rio Blanco, we did contact him for the ride back down to town. He was easy to reach via WhatsApp and was prompt in picking us up at the time we asked for. All in all, if we were to head up to the reserve again we would 100% get Rodrigo to take us.