The Top 6 National Parks to Explore in Colombia


Monkey in green tree

COLOMBIA IS THE SECOND MOST BIODIVERSE COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, AND THERE IS NO BETTER WAY TO EXPLORE THE COUNTRY'S INCREDIBLE FLORA AND FAUNA THAN BY ADVENTURING IN ITS NUMEROUS NATIONAL PARKS. HERE ARE 6 GREAT ONES.

 

Many people seem to visit Colombia for its thriving culture and exciting cities, and while we totally understand that appeal (we were taken in by Medellin’s magic just like everyone else) we instead think what makes Colombia so exciting and rich is its outstanding biodiversity.


In fact, Colombia is ranked number two in the world in terms of biodiversity...behind Brazil - a country 648% larger. For example, as of 2016, more than 56,000 species were registered in Colombia, of which 9,153 are endemic (meaning they only are found in Colombia). In fact, Colombia occupies the first position worldwide in the number of orchids and birds, the second position in plants, amphibians, butterflies and fresh water fish, the third place in species of palm trees and reptiles and the fourth position in biodiversity of mammals. All of this put together has made Colombia one of seventeen megadiverse countries in the world (a couple of other ones? China, India, Australia, and the USA). How absolutely incredible is that?!


Luckily, Colombia understands its good fortune and has been establishing nationally protected natural areas since 1960, and as of 2020, it is home to 59 national natural parks. And all of these protected areas are grouped into the National System of Protected Areas, which in total, covers about 169,545 square kilometers (65,462 square miles) and represents more than 14% of the country's total area (!).


Now before we dive into some of the country's best parks, there is one important thing to note: that unlike national parks in the United States, some of the national parks in Colombia are actually closed to the public. This could be due to a number of reasons, including focusing on preserving the landscape from human impact, or local indigenous groups not wanting tourists visiting.


For example, Puinawai National Natural Park is currently closed to the public and because of that, and the fact that the park is pretty inaccessible, only 1% of Puinawai has been deforested (according to Colombia's national park services).


While numerous national parks are closed to the public, or at least have some restrictions in place, there are still plenty to explore (there are 59 national parks after all…). Below are a couple of parks to add to your list if you are looking to explore Colombia’s outstanding landscapes and biodiversity.



 

6 MUST-VISIT NATIONAL PARKS IN COLOMBIA

 


\\ Cueva de los Guacharos National Natural Park


Established in 1960, Cueva de los Guacharos National Natural Park is the oldest national park in Colombia. Similarly, besides being designated as a national park, it is also part of the Cinturón Andino (Andean Belt), a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve.


GOOD TO KNOW: the name of the park comes from the guácharo birds (oilbirds) which inhabit the dark caves of the park during the day and go out at night looking for food. Similar to bats, the birds are guided by a system of echo-location.


Cueva de los Guacharos National Natural Park is located in the western face of the Colombian Eastern Andean Range in the departments of Huila and Caquetá. The park covers an area of 9,000 hectares or 90 square kilometers (35 square miles) much of which is made up of cloud forests and paramo ecosystems.


The main point of interests in the park are the Caves of the Oilbirds, as well as one of the last remaining intact oak forests in all of Colombia. The oak forest is definitely worth exploring, as well as the other biomes that call the park home.


In Cueva de los Guacharos National Park, you can see monkeys, tapirs and pudus - the world’s smallest deer. Similarly, in 2005 the National Natural Parks System identified 300 species of birds within the park, including the eponymous oilbird, Andean cock-of-the-rock and the torrent duck.



Top Adventures


HIKING & BIRD WATCHING

There are four trails in the park, some of which do take you very close to the famous guacharos caves:


  • Roble Negro (6 hours, 3.9 km and high difficulty)

  • Camino de los Gigantes (4 hours, 2.7 km and medium difficulty)

  • Lluvia de Cristales (4 hours, 1.7 km and medium difficulty)

  • Cascada de Colores (6 hours, 3.1 km and high difficulty)


Learn more about the park here.



Green  forest and orange colored river
PC Mi Viaje


\\ Tayrona National Natural Park


Often rated as one of the best national parks in Colombia (and the second most visited in 2019), Tayrona National Natural Park is one of the best places to see the incredible biodiversity endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. The national park includes geography ranging from the arid sea, including 30 square kilometers (12 square miles) of maritime area in the Caribbean Sea, to 900 meters (2,952 feet) above sea level.


Scientists found done extensive studies of the park and have counted about 108 species of mammals, including Mantled howler monkeys, oncillas (a wild cat), deer, and more than 70 species of bats. Similarly, Tayrona National Natural Park is the last place in the world where the endangered cotton-top tamarin lives.


The park is also home to 300 species of birds. Including, montane solitary eagles, military macaws, black-backed ant shrikes, white-bellied antbirds and lance-tailed manakins. There are also approximately 31 species of reptiles, and 15 species of amphibians. Finally, there are more than 770 species of plants. Talk about biodiversity.


GOOD TO KNOW: Tayrona is one of three national parks in the Colombian Caribbean with coral reefs on its territories, the other two are Old Providence McBean Lagoon and Rosario and San Bernardo Corals (near Cartagena).


Top Adventures

HIKING

  • Kogui or Knowledge Trail, from Cañaveral to Arrecifes (low difficulty, 1 hour)

  • Arrecifes – Boca del Saco Trail through Arrecifes Beach, the natural pool and Cabo San Juan del Guía (low difficulty, 2 hours)

  • The stone road to Pueblito from Cabo San Juan del Guía (high difficulty, 3 hours)

  • Calabazo – Pueblito – Cabo San Juan del Guía Trail (high difficulty, 4 hours)

SNORKELING & SCUBA DIVING

You can snorkel in Playa del Muerto “Playa Cristal”, Granate and the Tayrona natural pool. You can also go scuba diving at Isla Aguja and Granate. All diving trips, equipment rentals and diving courses are managed by the diving schools of Taganga, a small village of fishermen near the national park.



Learn more about the park here.



Tropical beach cove and mountains in Colombia
PC MedellinGuru


\\ Uramba Bahía Málaga National Natural Park


Even though it is one of the newest Colombian national parks (it was created in 2010), Uramba Bahia Malaga National Natural Park is already a popular ecotourism destination. The park is located in and around Málaga Bay along the Colombian Pacific coast and near the municipality of Buenaventura.


The park has a high level of biodiversity and is a favorite spot for reproducing humpback whales. Which in turn has made it a popular whale-watching destination not only in Colombia but around the world. Most of the natural areas within the park is pristine, with the exception of the areas around a few small towns like Juanchaco, Ladrilleros, and La Barra.


Uramba Bahia Malaga National Natural Park is home to a wide array of ecosystems; including wet tropical forest, transitional forest, flooded forest, mangroves, estuaries, beaches, and ocean.


Top Adventures

WHALE WATCHING

The main animal of interest in the park is the humpback whale, which uses the waters to raise calves between June and October. It is said that this area has the largest concentration of breeding humpbacks along the Colombian Pacific coast.

HIKING & BIRD WATCHING

There are a few trails you can explore within the park. And like almost all national parks within the country, you have a high likelihood of seeing various birds, plants, butterflies and mammals.


Learn more about the park here.


Blue boat on ocean by forested land
PC elturismoencolombia


\\ Tinigua National Natural Park


This national natural park is one of the most important parks in terms of conservation and ecological integrity in all of Colombia. This is mostly because the region contributes to the conformation of a natural corridor from the top of the eastern Andean mountain range all the way to the Amazon.


Tinigua National Natural Park is also important when it comes to hydrology and water flow, for the park conserves four water basins of the Guayabero River, Guaduas River, Perdido River and the Duda River. And all four help form the Guaviare River and the Orinoco river basin. And if that wasn’t enough, Tinigua is also home to numerous giant rocks that are not only beautiful but also contain petroglyphs (including zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures) which are a remnant of the historic indigenous settlers from the Tinigua and Guayabero ethnic groups.


The park is mostly made up of humid forest (86% of total land) and is home to animals such as otters, mountain lions, panthers, woolly monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, collared peccaries, sloths, turtles, caimans and anacondas. There are also numerous birds including green macaws, yellow parakeets, loggerhead parrots and Blue-billed curassows.



Top Adventures


HIKING

You can only hike in the Raudal Angosturas I area, home to the famous petroglyphs. While you can do the hike year-round, it is recommended to explore the park in the drier seasons (December - March, August - September). Along the hike, you can see the petroglyphs as well as various wildlife and plants. The trail is rated as low to medium difficulty.


GOOD TO KNOW: before setting out on the trail, you do need prior authorization from the park.



Learn more about the park here.



Colorful bird  in tree



\\ Bahía Portete – Kaurrele National Natural Park


Famous for being the northernmost national park of mainland South America, Bahia Portete - Kaurrele National Natural Park is located along the Caribbean coast of the La Guajira peninsula in Bahía Portete. The park was established in 2014 - making it the most recently designated national park in the country.


The park encompasses an area of 14,080 hectares or roughly 34,800 acres, some of which is made up of the desert of La Guajira. Overall, the temperature is pretty hot and humid - the average temperature ranges between 28 and 30 °C (82 and 86 °F).


The area was designated a national park in hopes of protecting the marine and littoral ecosystems of the La Guajira peninsula. The local indigenous communities of the Wayuu, Kamushiwoü, Alijunao, and many more, contributed to the planning and development of the national park.


Learn more about the park here.



Blue rocky coastline in Colombia


\\ Puracé National Natural Park


Located in the Andean Region of Colombia, and just southeast of the popular city of Popayán in the Cordillera Central mountain range lies Puracé National Natural Park.


The park gets its name from the Puracé stratovolcano, which is one of the country’s most active volcanoes. Similarly, the park is also important for being the place where four of Colombia’s most important rivers originate: the] Magdalena River, the Cauca River, the Japurá River and the Patía River.


Puracé National Natural Park was established in 1961 and was the first national park in the Cauca Department. During the 1990s the FARC guerrillas used the park as a base camp, but by 2002 the park was cleared of all forces.


While Puracé is the only active volcano in the area, it is not alone. In fact, there are two other volcanoes, both of which are higher in elevation: Azúcar, which sits at 5,000 m (16,000 feet) and Coconuco at 4,600 m (15,100 feet).

The park, like all of Colombia, is highly biodiverse. Within its boundaries, you can find over 200 orchids as well as nationally threatened species such as the Colombian Pine, Andean Oak, and the Wax palm tree. It is also home to over 160 species of birds, including hummingbirds, ducks, and various birds of prey (including the Andean Condor). Similarly, you may have the chance to see animals such as spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, cougar, pudús, woolly monkey, howler monkey, gray-bellied night monkey, and the tufted capuchin monkey.


Finally, the national park serves as an indigenous reservation for the Cocunuco ethnic group, and in the Pilimbalá sector, you can find a Cocunuco settlement offering comfortable lodging and typical food.



White covered volcanic crater in Colombia
PC Wikipedia

Top Adventures

HIKING

One of the best hikes in the park is up to the Puracé crater, which can take 3.5 hours to hike from Pilimabala or 2 hours from the old military base. The hike is around 7 kilometers long if starting from Pilimabala. Read more about finding the trailheads here.


Other hikes include:

  • Orquídeas Trail (800 meters long, low difficulty)

  • The Volcanic Chain Trail (6.5 km, high difficulty)

  • San Nicolás waterfall Trail (2 km, medium difficulty)

CULTURAL HERITAGE

The national park overlaps with the indigenous reservations of Puracé and Palerará, as well as nearby reservations of Cocunuco, Guachicono, and Poblazan (plus many more). Therefore you do have the opportunity to observe (respectfully) the various indigenous cultures. A good place to start is the Cocunuco settlement.


Learn more about the park here.



Waterfall in open lush forest
PC TripAdvisor

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world and therefore it is a great idea to head out into its numerous national parks to get a view of its many animals and plants. Luckily, you have 59 national natural parks to choose from, including these 6 amazing ones.


If you are an adventurous traveler like us then you should already be planning to spend a good amount of time exploring all of the incredible natural places Colombia has to offer. For as the late Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said in 2014, "Biodiversity is to Colombia, what oil is for the Arabs."


Find a list of all the national natural parks in Colombia here.


 


EXPLORE MORE NATIONAL PARKS


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EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, USA | The Ultimate Guide

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK, USA | The Ultimate Guide

LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK, USA | The Ultimate Guide



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