COLOMBIA, Eastern Andean Range

Cueva de los Guácharos

Independent sound recording journey to the remote Andean forests

by Jan Brelih

PUBLISHED MAY. 28, 2022 | HUILA, COLOMBIA

Cueva de los Guacharos is Colombia’s oldest, yet little-known national park in the country’s south, right at the start of the Amazon rainforest. The name comes from one of the large caves in which Guácharo (Oilbird) birds inhabit. The park spans 9,000 hectares (90 kilometers) between 1800 and 3000m. This size may not seem like much until you consider its topography. It has a mountainous terrain that contains numerous caves and canyons caused by the rivers. Given its challenging accessibility, some areas of the park remain officially unexplored, with surely many caves yet to be discovered.

Table of Contents

Intro - December 2021

I traveled by bicycle into the Colombian countryside to reach Cueva de los Guácharos national park and record the sounds of this unique habitat holding one of the last preserved oak forests in the country. With all of my gear packed and ready to go, I needed to figure out how to reach the national park’s entrance using the information I had managed to gather. Two multi-day sound recording trips to different locations of the national park were made. Here you can read about the first part of it.

Rec 01/ Guacharos afternoon forest ambience

Reaching the area

The town called Pitalito was the starting point of my journey. I got up early to give myself enough time to bikepack 23 kilometers across the hills to reach the village of Palestina. Normally, you can get there by a local jeep transport from Pitalito.

An empty road led me through a much calmer countryside, with coffee farms spread all across the hills. After Bogota and the Andes mountains, there was finally some sunshine and warm weather.

I reached Palestina around noon, restocked my supplies of (very basic) food and water, and then continue uphill on dirt roads for another 15 km to the Cueva de los Guacharos national park.

Along the route, I came across a lovely family-owned finca. The owner got to know about my sound recording mission and invited me to stay there for as long as I wanted. I didn’t hesitate to take this offer after cycling all day over these steep hills in the heat. I ended up staying for few days taking a break from intense travel, immersing and learning about their life and planning my trip. It was also a great place where I could leave some of my stuff behind.

Entering the national park of Cueva de los Guácharos

I now knew the route to the park’s entrance. When I arrived, there was a house functioning as an entry checkpoint. People were surprised to see me there by myself as tourists typically come in groups or on guided tours. They were a somehow hesitant to let me in, but in the end, they did. There was a trail leading you to the park HQ positioned inside the park inside the protected area. That was my destination.

My intention was to use this as a base for at least a few days, recording sounds in various areas across this pristine ecosystem. After four hours pretty hard hiking through the forest, up and down the steep slopes, I arrived to the Centro de visitantes Andaqui PNN Cueva de los Guacharos as its marked on the map. I paid the entrance ticket and the camping fee to the local guide there. After that, I set up my camp and took a moment to appreciate having arrived successfully to this unique place.

These are the last mountains before the Amazon rainforest. The mountains are mainly undisturbed and wild, but the Amazon, which is located on the east side, is not. The brighter green to the east is supposed to be the Amazon rainforest, but it is long gone, destroyed & replaced by cattle ranches.

Into the Guacharos cave

Not long after my arrival, the guide and a girl working as a volunteer invited me to join them on a visit to the one and only – Guacharos cave. I was still pretty exhausted, but I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. For good reason, the cave can only be visited with a guide. I finished my rest, packed all my sound recording equipment and camera, and we went. It was about half an hour walk on the trail from the base camp.

The section where the cave ceiling has sink and collapsed. You emerge here after following a small and tight tunnels formed by the water. 

The dense jungle flora completely hides the cave entrance. You won’t even notice it until you’re almost there. The only thing that can give away its location is the sound of rushing water coming from inside. It was visited in 1799 by the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Just imagine what kind of expedition that was.

Entering the cave, you’ll find yourself in a different world with Guácharo birds and a much lower temperature. Although also outside the temperate is not tropical as we are located at 1900m. We followed a guide with our flashlights penetrating deeper inside reaching the rushing river. From there, we needed to cross it by jumping from one rock to another. We can say this is not visited by clumsy people.

Once we reached the other side, there was another hidden hall. From there, we continued going into one of the many small tunnels. After about 5 minutes of squeezing and climbing though the tunnel, we have reached the area where The section where the cave ceiling has sink and collapsed.

The Guacharos (Oilbirds) are the most unique characteristic of this place.There were hundreds of them soaring around inside the cave, producing a very unique sound. Oilbirds are fruit-eating birds that stay inside the cave during day and leave at night in search of food. I have set up and left my microphones on a tripod and positioned them under the flying birds. After adjusting the suitable recording level via the headphones, we have continued our way deeper into the cave.

Rec 02/ Guacharos cave – Oilbirds

Recording the sounds / day 2

I got out of my hammock early and headed into the forest, following one of the hidden trails. I was mesmerized by all the biodiverse habitat. After about a half-hour walk, I reached a location where I set up the mics to record. I actually wanted to avoid the sound of the rushing river so that the recording would be free of background noise. That was not truly possible, so I accepted it as a natural aspect of the environment.

The equipment used:

Recorder / Sound Devices MixPre-3 II
Microphones / AT4022 Omnidirectional Condenser Microphone

Sound recording
Sound recording deep in the undisturbed forest of Guacharos.

Unexpected early departure

On my return, a guide who brought tourists on a horse (!) came to tell me that the park management knows about my arrival and that it is not allowed to come here without a guide, therefore, I need to return back. Basically, I got kicked out. That was pretty shocking, they would only let me stay if I would pay more money. In all the information on the official PNN website nowhere is stated that! I was also allowed to pass the official checkpoint. That was my first realization that Colombian national parks are much different from the ones I had experienced in Southeast Asia.

The staff, on the other hand, were really friendly and did not agree with the decision that I should leave. A guide we went to the cave with was returning from the park with his wife and a horse, so they said that I can join them.

Not wanting to ride a tired horse, we only strapped my backpack on it and I went walking along. After 5 hours, we reached the same point I’ve been at two days ago. I went back to my friends to the farm. It was time for a change of plan.

The national park headquarters. Centro de visitantes Andaqui PNN Cueva de los Guacharos. The camping grounds were great but overall everything was pretty neglected.

Reorganising - Part 2

After my return to the farm and began to consider other options on how to reach and capture the sounds of this habitat. I decided to go on with my plan of visiting the national park from the opposite side, which I had been actually considering before already. The area was completely wild and seemed very promising on the map. I’ve arranged for their friendly neighbor to join me and guide me to the national park. We were positioned very close to it on the other side.

Speaking with the local farmers, I found out there is an old trail that goes all the way into the park over the mountains. It was used a long time ago to transport timber from these forests with horses.

Speaking with the local farmers, I found out there is an old trail that goes all the way into the park over the mountains. It was used a long time ago to transport timber from these forests with horses.

Cueva de los Guácharos / Part 2 (Click here)

The national park HQ located in the middle of the forests. A very nice location with good camping grounds. Unfortunately, in general the place was pretty neglected.

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