Not just strictly for the birds in deepest Colombia
THE GREEN TOURIST
UPON hearing of my invitation to speak at the Colombia Bird Festival in Manizales, friends were worried. Some thought it a scam. Others warned of kidnappings and the prospect of nasty diseases. But Manizales, high in the Andes, has 12 universities — surely it couldn’t be too dangerous.
My journey didn’t start well. The itinerary was confusing and when I asked Natalia, my Colombian contact, for help, she mentioned Johannesburg, much to my consternation. Then my flight from Darwin to Sydney was delayed because of the first November cyclone in 40 years.
Otherwise the trip was a breeze. At Bogota airport, a mother pushed her English-speaking child forward to interpret for me. Another woman, Maria, shepherded me to the right terminal and then, realising my airline wasn’t flying, scored me a ‘‘staff seat’’ on another. She didn’t speak English either.
The flight to Manizales was a little scary; a glimpse of vultures high above was not reassuring. We landed safely and were welcomed to the tiny airport by smiling locals with ‘‘Welcome’’ writ- ten on their T-shirts. The comfortable suites and beautiful grounds at the Recinto del Pensamiento, my home for several days, were the equal of anywhere I’ve stayed.
The festival was the brainchild of Sergio Ocampo-Tobon, the so-called soul of Colombian birdwatching, and far from being a scam it had the wholehearted support of state Governor Julian Gutierrez- Boter, plus hotel chains and coffee-growers.
The speakers had an impressive range of skills. Blind since birth, Juan Pablo Culasso of Uruguay can identify thousands of different bird calls, and gave us a demonstration, all the while radiating gentle good humour. We gave him a standing ovation. Then there was Paul Betancourt, who studies macaws and makes the very best rum.
I talked of birds in Australia’s Top End and conservation and the challenges indigenous people face in dealing with such issues. Luis Fernando Jaramillo, who works with indigenous Colombians, took my hands in a heartfelt gesture of empathy.
Onmylast day, I walked up the rainforested mountain to a little house in a clearing. Streaks of emerald, garnet, peridot and amethyst buzzed around the red plastic bird feeders and potted purple and pink fuchsias on the porch.
Sparkling Violetear, Woodstar, Bronzy Inca and Amazilia tzacatl . . . the hummingbirds’ names sang with imagery, adding depth to their beauty. Smartly dressed tourists stopped in their tracks, dazzled speechless.
I returned to the hotel to find Natalia despairing over my homebound itinerary; I was in danger of missing a connecting flight. She arranged for me to return to Bogota by an overnight bus.
When I arrived in Bogota at 5am, Natalia’s friend, Veronica, and her husband were waiting for me. She’d stayed up all night, ringing the bus driver every two hours to ensure his only nonSpanish-speaking passenger was OK. They took meto the airport and saw me through the formalities.
The lovely city of Manizales reminds me of the Adelaide of my youth. I saw birds beautiful beyond description, made new friends and encountered the kindness of strangers. I’ll go back.