If you have read our previous posts, you know that our rich culture and our multiethnic past has resulted in a varied and almost endless cultural legacy. Today, however, we would like to address our natural heritage, just as magical and amazing as the cultural one and to which, in fact, it is inevitably tied.
Colombia is one of the few members that make up that elite group of mega-diverse countries on the planet. This makes us proudly hold some records on biodiversity: we are the country with the largest number of birds and butterflies, for example. This great biodiversity is mainly preserved in 59 protected natural areas that represent a little more than 10% of the country’s area and which have been designated as Natural National Parks.
From rainforests and mangroves, to deserts, snow peaks and reefs, the range of protected ecosystems in Colombia is impressive. Plus, many of these areas host local indigenous or Afro-descendant communities, therefore taking their importance to the cultural level as well. Without further ado, here’s a small sample of some of Colombia’s natural treasures:
“The water source“
– Area: 766 km2
A 3-hour car trip from Bogotá gets you to leave all the hustle and bustle of our concrete jungle behind and trade it for the mysticism and tranquility of the Andean landscape. Chingaza National Park, in the middle of the Andean mountain range, is not only the source of 80% of the water serving our capital, but it’s also home to our emblematic spectacled bear, one of the largest felines in the Americas, the puma, and the king of the Andean skies, the impressive condor, among many other species. In addition, the park is a key conservation site for a very scarce ecosystem on the planet, the páramo. Colombia houses about 50% of all the páramos in the world and is one of only six countries fortunate enough to have these water factories.
The park’s historical significance not only lies in that it has been key for Bogotá’s vital resources, but also in the impact it has left on our cultural heritage, as it was home to the Muiscas for over 10,000 years. The mythical imprint of this indigenous group is still felt on the countless stories and legends that tell their close relationship with nature and the sacred lagoons, many of them places of spiritual devotion.
“For a more responsible kind of tourism“
– Area: 150 km2
Only 20 mi from Downtown Santa Marta, about 40 minutes by car, you will find one of the hidden gems of the Sierra Nevada and the Colombian Caribbean coast: the Tayrona National Natural Park. In addition to having a unique landscape –featuring gigantic water-breaking rocks that seem to be taken from a science fiction story–Tayrona has countless and incredible beaches and inlets that attract tourists from around the world, looking to sunbathe under a coconut trees, and biodiversity and hiking enthusiasts, thanks to its biodiversity.
The park is shelter for a wide variety of plants and animals, and even for some indigenous communities that still live there. The jaguar and the anteater, for example, are some of its largest land animal species. On the other hand, thousands of birdwatchers arrive at the park every year after the amazing variety of bird species (about 350); not to mention the marine species that dwell in its waters. Hence the importance of its conservation –easy access and tourist infrastructure make it one of the protected areas most affected by tourism.
3. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
“Snow and Caribbean waters in one place“
– Area: 3,830 km2
Snow in the Caribbean? Sounds unlikely, doesn’t it? But it is possible… in Colombia. With a maximum altitude of 18,700 ft., just 24 mi from the Caribbean coast, and distributed among three departments, the Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada really is a unique place. Not only is it one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world, it is also a very important river source and a site oozing the purest forms of pre-Columbian mysticism.
With enough tenacity, an excursion through the park allows you to be on all the climate zones existing in the country, depending on your current altitude: from the warm Caribbean beaches to the summit’s coldest glaciers. For the four indigenous ethnic groups that still inhabit these lands, which descend from the same family and are still related, the snowy peaks are the center of the world. Thanks to this native presence, the Sierra Nevada still houses settlements that are have become true treasures and which in many cases are only accessible after long hours of hiking.
4. Los Nevados
“Coffee to fight the snow“
– Area: 583 km2
Rising like an impressive row of snow-capped volcanic peaks, Los Nevados National Natural Park is bordered by three of the largest coffee-growing cities, Manizales, Pereira and Ibagué. Thanks to its varied altitude, the park features cloud forests and páramos at the lowest zones, and authentic glaciers at the highest. This variety of climate zones offers explorers and hikers some of the most beautiful views of the Andean mountain range, as well as unmatched atmosphere of calm and good energy. Its hydrological importance lies in the páramos, which supply water to much of the region and to several indigenous communities that still inhabit its territory.
If you dare to climb these majestic peaks, do not forget some basic tips to avoid altitude sickness as you climb: stay hydrated, stop occasionally to adapt to each climate zone and wear appropriate clothes and shoes to protect you from the cold. Ah! And remember to bring a lot of sunscreen, you’ll be closer than ever to the sun.
5. Serranía del Chiribiquete
“A natural and cultural enigma“
– Area: 43,000 km2
Considered one of the most unexplored places in the world, the Serranía del Chiribiquete National Natural Park is the largest protected area in the country and the largest protected tropical forest national park in the world. It is located in the northwestern end of the Amazon basin and was the last territory to be designated Natural National Park. In 2018, it made it to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites (both natural and cultural), given the importance it has for biodiversity and for the preservation of ancestral cultures. On the striking walls of its tepuyes –some of the world’s oldest geological formations– more than 70,000 cave paintings have been found, perhaps made by the Karijonas, an extinct indigenous tribe, displaying jaguars, plants and rituals. The park got its name from these findings, actually, since the beautiful translation of Chiribiquete is “the mountain to paint”.
With the signing of the Peace Agreement and the withdrawal of the guerrillas, Chiribiquete has experienced a media and scientific boom thanks to its natural and cultural wealth. Although access is still highly restricted, it is possible to make aerial visits with authorized tour operators. Despite being a place designated for conservation, deforestation, illicit crops and livestock farming threaten thousands of unique species and habitats.
6. El Cocuy
“White pearls made up of ice and snow“
– Area: 3,060 km2
Colombia’s National Parks Institute describes the Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy as white pearl beads that shine in the sunlight when viewed from above. We couldn’t agree more with this description. Located in the country’s mid-eastern part of the country, the park features the largest glacier mass in Colombia, which is made up of 25 icy and snowy peaks that stretch along 18 mi. The Cocuy is rich in páramos and Andean forests, so there is a lot of frailejones, a unique kind of plant, only found in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, capable of withstanding the páramo’s extreme altitudes.
The park is home to the third highest peak in the country, the Ritacuba Blanco, at about 17,750 ft. above sea level, and it certainly boasts the most impressive summit of the range. El Cocuy has six different indigenous settlements, whose inhabitants see the snowy peaks as sanctuaries and places of worship for their ancestors. Unfortunately, climate change threatens this majestic place with the loss of the white layers that cover its peaks.
7. Old Providence McBean Lagoon
“A seven-color water park“
-Area: 16.5 km2
In case you were thinking that everything was jungle and mountain in our national parks, let us introduce you to the Old Providence McBean Lagoon Natural National Park. This park is the only protected area located in the ocean and one of only three national parks featuring coral reefs. Stretching almost 20 mi, the coral barrier is the second largest in the Caribbean and protects part of the third largest reef in the world. In fact, the colorful reefs found in this park have led its waters to be named the “sea of seven colors.” There is no doubt that Old Providence McBean Lagoon is one of the best places to dive on this side of the world.
The park is located northeast of Providencia Island, in the San Andres, Santa Catalina and Providencia Archipelago, Colombia’s only island department. The area stretches almost 4 mi2 and was designated national park in 1995 to offset the damage caused by hotel activities that threaten its ecosystem.