COLOMBIA, Eastern Andean Range

COLOMBIAN CLOUD FOREST

Wild camping trip to the remote Andean forests with a mission of recording sounds

by Jan Brelih

PUBLISHED MAY. 28, 2022 | HUILA, COLOMBIA

The cloud forests of the Colombian Andes are a very unique habitat hosting one of the world’s richest biodiversity. This wet environment with variable altitudes is home to a remarkable number of endemic species that are found nowhere else on the planet. The mountainous terrain isolates a large number of known and still unknown plants, animals, fungi, and microbes species. Although its remoteness, a big part is being lost due to human agricultural activities. Just in the past few decades, about 75% of this precious habitat has been lost. This is a journey to the Cueva de los Guacharos national park’s protected zone, which has remained largely untouched due to its extremely difficult access.

Table of Contents

Rec 01/ Colombian Spider monkeys deep inside the cloud forest

Intro / December 2021

After my first visit to the Cueva de los Guacharos national park headquarters (part 1), I returned to Los Robles farm where I reorganized myself. This time the idea was to go off-trail, over the mountains, to again reach the other parts of a national park.

 The finca owner came up with a suggestion that their neighbor can accompany me on my adventure. I’ve been told there should actually be still one old path leading towards the national park used for transporting wood a long time ago. I liked the idea and agreed to it. Not only was it safer but it was also great to have some companionship.

Next day, my new guide came to pick me up. We took the motorbike to a nearby starting point. I wasn’t sure how he’d be able to join me on such a trip regarding his experience and equipment, but I was pleasantly surprised. Obviously, he did not have the privilege of modern equipment like I did, but he was ready to go!

Over the mountains

We arrived at the end of a village road and start to hike on a muddy path leading up the steep mountain. After half an hour, we made a break at the remote old logging house. From here on, the path practically vanished, leaving only a very old overgrown trail. Now, it was a real deal. With his machete, my friend was leading the way going for many hours. We got a bit lost a few times but always managed to get back on the right way. With the rain and backpacks, we were soon fully wet.

Once we reached the top a mountain, you could already see the unexplored depths of Cueva de los Guacharos national park in the distance. Now, we still needed to descend 400m down to the wild valley. It was an steep descend thought the forest ending with following the mountain creek downstream.

Inside the national park of Cueva de los Guácharos

After 5 hours over a steep and muddy mountain terrain covered in dense cloud forest growth, we arrived. Following the crossing of a small river, we were officially inside the Cueva de los Guácharos national park. It was now late afternoon, and it was time to find and set up camp. I was considering where the best place would be to record the sounds; after all, that was the main reason for going to this remote area.

We were in a little valley near the river at the moment. It would have been easier to stop here and camp, but the sound of a rushing river was too loud for a clean recording of the forest soundscape. After looking at the map and the surroundings, I decided to go deeper, up on one of the hills.

It was me now leading and trying to find the way through the forest. We were pretty exhausted and walking up uphill again, with me stopping every few minutes to observe this biodiverse garden of plants. After another half hour, we finally arrived at the top of a hill, which seemed to be an ideal spot for setting up our camp.

Wild camping in the cloud forest

We’ve set ourselves a camp with still some daylight left. Even the rain stopped. It was good to have a safe shelter, but there was no time to rest. As soon as I have set up my hammock, changed wet clothes, and had a snack, I unpacked my recording equipment, took my tripod and went look for a spot to set up the sound recording.

Sound recording deep in the undisturbed forest of Guacharos.

I left the microphones recording and return to the camp. Meanwhile the guide has shown me that monkeys came close to our camp. I was excited to see for the first time in my so far travel in Colombia. I took out my camera and carefully walked through the dense vegetation to get closer to them and film them. They’ve spent the last half hour jumping around the trees here, producing a gentle sound. I knew that the microphones in the distance are capturing everything.

Now, it would be great to have a fire. To dry our clothing and enjoy this distant, ancient, and mystical place. Everything was soaked, and it seemed nearly impossible to start it. My friend had some skills, but he was just a farmer, so we worked together. He began gathering dry branches, and I was in charge of converting them into the fire. We split some wood in half and created shavings out of it. There was no way we could pull this off. Until I used the collected pine resin that I brought from Slovenia. The resin worked very well and, after about 1.5 hours, we had a real fire! With the night approaching, we had a meal his wife prepared and wrapped in a banana leaf.

Day 1 / late night / recording sounds

It was now night and time do recording of some nocturnal sounds. While we were at the camp eating, we heard an own hooting in the distance. I quickly took the mics and went walking closer towards the source of the sound. With my flashlight, I was making my way through the thick and pitch black cloud forest. The owl has started to make a sound. After setting up the mic I was returning to the camp but ended up kind of losing myself and totally lost the orientation. Luckily my guide was at the camp so I screamed at him to hear where we are. It is so very easy and quick to lose yourself in this environment, even so much more in the total darkness.

Rec 02/ Cloud forest night ambience with owl

Mic setup system deep inside the Andean forests.

End of day 1

It felt good to be here in this moment, it made all the effort worthwhile. My friend has even brought a coffee that they grow on their farm. We prepared it on fire in my metal pot and then sipped it while relaxing on the forest floor. Although we did not speak the same language and couldn’t communicate much with words, there was a special bond. A strong sense of two friends, teammates, existing together in this magnificent and remote location.

I believe he genuinely enjoyed it. He seemed joyful and at ease to be here. We have sit around fire for hours late into the night. Finally, it was time for me to hop in my cozy hammock and for him to go into his tent. An end to a successful day.

Day 2 / early morning / recording sounds

I awoke at 5:30 a.m., still in the dark, after a serene night’s sleep. I jumped out of my hammock, got dressed, took my recording gear, and start making my way thought the  thick vegetation to another part of this hill. After about 100m, which is a lot for this environment, I found a good location with potential bird sounds and minimal noise from a distant river down in the valley. When everything was in place, I marked a location on my phone maps and returned to my hammock.

The equipment used:

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

Rec 03/ Cloud forest morning ambience

Deep inside the PNN Cueva de los Guacharos surrounded by steep mountain slopes and different attitude eco systems.

Returning back

I went to get my microphones after approximately 2 hours. Who knows what they captured! After that, we packed up and cleaned up our camp to leave it in the most original state we found it.

Roaming through the thick cloud forest vegetation following my Colombian friend.

We, descended from the hill, crossed again the small river and continued up the steep mountain. At the last section, he lead me to another part on the way back. It made the return far more difficult but at the end it was worth it. We reached the area with ancient, huge Colombian oaks (Roble Negro) still preserved standing. We were back on the finca Los Robles grounds after a few hours. Despite the fact that our trip was only two days long, it was intensive and full of discoveries and learnings.

Big ancient oak trees (Roble Negro) outside the national park.

Until next time...

I was happy to have the opportunity to do my journey together with such friendly local person. I gave to the neighbor and his family some money and stayed at Ros Robles finca for a few more days before heading to another remote part of Colombia. It was a a pretty emotional goodbye as I left. See you again my Colombian family!

Having a pitaya (dragon fruit) after 5 hour hike over the mountains. I ate 6 of them.

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