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.
| COST: 40000 - 50000 COP // $9.93 USD // €8.76 Euro
| TIME: 20-25 minutes from downtown Manizales to the Reserve
Now if Rodrigo happens to be unavailable, your other option is to grab a taxi - though it is likely they will only be able to take you as far as the reserve boundary due to there being an unpassable river crossing. The ride from downtown Manizales to the river should take around 15 minutes and cost around 20000 COP ($4.96 USD // €4.38 Euro).
From the river crossing it is a pretty easy 1.6 kilometers/1 mile walk to the reserve's entrance (here).
You will know you made it to the entrance to the reserve because there will be a metal gate blocking the road. Simply ring the doorbell and wait for one of the guards to come meet you. If you have spoken to the reserve ahead of time they should know you are coming and will let you in (the guard we met had our name written down).
Once through the gate, it is another 2.6 kilometers/1.6 miles up to the hotel along another dirt road (this took us about 45 minutes to walk).
If you do end up taking a taxi up to the reserve, consider letting the hotel staff know so they can (possibly) send someone to pick you up with a motorcycle along the road. Though if you do end up having to do the whole walk (around 4 kilometers total) expect beautiful scenery and great views.
If you take a taxi, make sure to tell them you are heading for the Rio Blanco Reserve and also show them exactly where it is (including the hotel location) on a map (there is another area close by that is incorrect). We recommend the app maps.me for this since it shows exactly where the gate is and where the hotel is in the reserve. Similarly, make sure to reach out to the reserve ahead of time to get the correct address.
💬 INSIDER TIP: our taxi driver was very confused about where we were heading when we told him we were staying the night at the Rio Blanco Reserve because he didn't know the reserve had a hotel. After asking a couple of other drivers and people about the hotel - and getting the response of it not existing - we all started to get a bit worried. Luckily, the last guy we met before reaching the dirt road up to the reserve confirmed the existence of the hotel (whew). Moral of the story: be confident and clear about the location of the reserve and its hotel. And if worse comes to worst, you may have to walk 5 kilometers to reach it.
\\ How to Stay in Rio Blanco
If you are looking to totally get away from the noise of the city and just be immersed in nature and wildlife - mostly birds - then we recommend spending at least one night in the Rio Blanco Reserve.
How to Book
Like we mentioned earlier, you do need to contact the reserve ahead of time to let them know when you want to come stay and the number of people in your party. You will do almost all communication with the reserve by email (in Spanish). Once all of the details have been sorted they will send you an invoice for the price of the room(s) and then you put in your credit card to pay online (they do NOT accept cash for the rooms at the reserve).
We didn’t really know what to expect from the Reserve’s “hotel.” All we knew was that the price per night (276,700 COP) was a bit more expensive than most places we had stayed at before in Colombia.
Much to our surprise, the hotel turned out to be absolutely incredible and 100% worth the price. It consisted of two buildings set up on a hill with views of the Manizales valley and the thick cloud forest. The first building was the kitchen/restaurant and dining area with a few smaller bedrooms. The second building - the one we stayed in - consisted of four big bedrooms each with its own large comfortable beds, private bathroom and patio.
But one of the best things about the hotel was the numerous bird feeders set up around the property that allowed you to see many different species of hummingbirds, wrens, tanagers and even squirrels and a small-sized mammal called a tayra (which looks a bit like a weasel).
| COST: 276700 COP // $69.02 USD // €60.50 Euro
| AMENITIES: private bathroom (with towels), a space heater (it gets quite cold at night), private balconies/seating area, incredible views and relatively strong Wi-Fi
\\ How Much Does Rio Blanco Cost
If you are planning to just visit the reserve for the day (not spend the night) we believe it is free to enter. But you still need to let the reserve know ahead of time the dates you are planning to visit.
As mentioned above, there is a restaurant available for breakfast, lunch and dinner (though we suspect you will also need to let the reserve know ahead of time if you plan to purchase food). All of the food we had was vegetarian (they do also serve meat) and absolutely delicious (seriously, it was so, so tasty). They also have coffee, tea and hot chocolate available.
What the Food Costs (per person)
| BREAKFAST (desayuno): 13000 COP // $3.24 USD // €2.84 Euro
| LUCH (almuerzo): 18000 COP // $4.49 USD // €3.94 Euro
| DINNER (cena): 18000 COP // $4.49 USD // €3.94 Euro
The breakfast included eggs, an arepa with cheese, fresh fruit, coffee and hot chocolate. While lunch and dinner included soup, rice, vegetables, faux-meat (super tasty), juice, dessert and more hot chocolate.
\\ What to Bring to the Rio Blanco Reserve
There are a few important things to bring with you to the reserve, especially if you are planning to head out and go birdwatching:
| Hiking Boots: we kind of spaced on this and only brought our trail running shoes. While we did pretty much stick to the dirt road, it would have been nice to have some boots for the really muddy areas and for a bit of extra support.
| Binoculars: as you would expect, birdwatching means looking at a lot of birds - some of which are relatively far away and hard to make out. Therefore if you have some binoculars with you, definitely bring them. You will be glad you did when you get an up-close view of a colorful mountain toucan :)
| A warm jacket/sweater: due to the reserve's high elevation - the hotel sits at 2,560 meters/8,400 feet - it gets quite cold at night. You will be grateful for your cozy jacket (and maybe a hat) the moment the sun sets and the temperature starts to drop.
| Sunscreen & bug spray: like almost everywhere else in Colombia, you will want to make sure to have both sunscreen and bug spray handy. The days can be pretty sunny and due to the elevation, the UV rays can be quite intense. Similarly, the reserve is mostly cloud forest so bugs - especially the horrible no-see-ums (a little biting bug) - are very prevalent.
Other useful things to bring with you a