Colombia in the Time of COVID*

Spangled cotinga, courtesy of Manakin Nature Tours.

What a pleasure and thrill it was last month to resume my long break in international birding travel. This was my third trip to Colombia, the country with more bird species than any other. This time, the destination was the jungle of Guainia, in eastern Colombia. What a trip! 

Sponsored by ProColombia (the country’s tourism agency) and Swarovski Optik, and guided by Manakin Nature Tours, there was no doubt that I’d be seeing some amazing birds way-off-the-beaten path, and having the adventure of a lifetime.

I was nervous, however, about getting there. I’ve been super careful about COVID. I got both of my vaccinations as soon as I was eligible back in March and April after testing positive (but asymptomatic) in February. All along, I’ve been so cautious. I’ve rarely been around anyone other than my partner since March 2020, and I’m ready to mask whenever I’m nervous about the proximity or density of people around me. A round-trip adventure to remote eastern Colombia would require six flights, and many hours waiting in airports—sometimes crowded airports. 

Would it be safe to eat or drink on the planes? How sanitary is the ventilation in airport restrooms? How thoroughly are the planes cleaned between flights? What if the person sitting next to me on a flight is unmasked, or wore their mask improperly?  I’m generally not an anxious person, but I was anxious. 

What a surprise and relief it was that in Cleveland, Miami, Bogota, Inirida, and Dallas, masking in airports seemed to be the norm! In the dining areas, social distancing was easy. Your experience may vary, but mine was surprisingly comfortable. It seemed that most everyone on the planes and in the airports was as cautious as I. 

In Colombia, indoors and out, people wear masks more consistently than here in the States. Bogota, especially, was dominated by mask-wearers. Once our group arrived in the jungle, however, we were outdoors most of the time, and so didn’t mask. We consistently dined in open-air restaurants—and my traveling companions were all vaccinated. 

Capuchinbird. Photo courtesy of Manakin Nature Tours.

I’m not going to write too much about the birds, even though the birding was fantastic! I plan to write this up for an upcoming issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest, so I can’t give too much away now. But I will tell you that we got great looks at capuchinbird—a bird that really does resemble a capuchin monkey (with a bill)—and Amazonian umbrella birds—with some of the funkiest plumage I’ve ever seen. We also saw several species of wild macaws, and had great looks at a spangled cotinga. And as my list of lifers grew, my COVID anxiety vaporized, and, for the most part, became a nonissue. (Although my anxiety left, COVID, obviously, is still here.)

Screaming piha. Photo by H. Bottai / Wikimedia.

Birding is a potent anti-anxiety medication, but with only positive side effects. Even the loud song of the screaming piha was a tonic to my soul. Birding does that to me—returns me to a happy place, and that’s true in my local patch—a cemetery near my house—as well as in the mega-biodiverse jungle of eastern Colombia.

Soon after arrival in Inirida, the largest city in Guainia, I was handed a Swarovski NL Pure 8×32 binocular to use for the duration of the trip. Whoa! My own binoculars are arguably the best birding binoculars—Zeiss Victory SF 8×42—so my standards for optics are pretty high. I’ve grown accustomed to top-shelf bins. But these NL Pure 8x32s were so light, and fit so easily in my hand, they were like an extension of my body. 

Since I occasionally answer phone calls to Redstart Birding I was grateful for the opportunity to do some serious birding with this new model. NL Pure 8×32 bins are Swarovski’s new, top-of-the-line model, and this trip celebrated their debut in Colombia. The NL Pure is magnificent, and the 8×32 is small, lightweight, and brilliant. It was a joy to use them. The ergonomics are amazing—one-handed birding is possible! The field of view is jaw-dropping, making it super easy to find even the most camouflaged and secretive birds. What a treat it was to spend several days using these binoculars to see such crazy-cool birds.

Distant Amazonian umbrellabird. Check out the crazy wattle and “umbrella”! Photo by Manakin Nature Tours.

Watch for my full report of the trip in an upcoming issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest, but for now, I’ll conclude by saying that four days after I got home, I took a PCR COVID test—that’s the more accurate one, with results that usually take 72 hours—and I tested negative, thankfully. 

It is possible to travel safely during COVID—if you’re cautious. I genuinely was. And oh, was it worth the risk!

*This is a reference to Love in the Time of Cholera, a delightful novel by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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