Olivaceous Piculet Woodpecker at Dona Dora birding. Photo by Sylvia Guarino

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Almost 50 years ago, at age 28, I did a long solo journey through South America. I traveled by bus and train for the most part, exploring almost every country on the continent, seeing both the cities and the small towns as well as tiny villages not even on the map. It took nearly 12 months and left me with hundreds of memories, mostly pleasant and some not so pleasant.

I was so enamored with the beauty in and friendliness of the people in Colombia that I returned several times over the next couple of decades. These trips were typically standard vacations, a week or two spent at seaside resorts or mountain retreats.

Then in 2017, my life changed when my husband, Joe, discovered that he needed a quintuple by-pass. A non-smoking, trim, active guy with no dramatic symptoms, we were startled by the news. Although the surgery went well, it did impact on our normal lives temporarily. For several weeks, he was not able to do the daily 4 to 5-mile walks we had enjoyed throughout our marriage.

I did them alone, but I was bored. So Joe, a professional photographer his whole career, suggested that I take a camera to keep me company, saying that seeing life through a focused lens opens up new opportunities and revelations.

Birds Galore in Cali, Colombia

Crimson-rumped Toucanet at San Felipe Birding. Photo by Joe Calaminici
Crimson-rumped Toucanet at San Felipe Birding. Photo by Joe Calaminici

I did take my camera. And shooting wildlife was the jewel in the crown. I was seeing birds with new eyes. They were fascinating, even my backyard birds that I had long taken for granted. My head was spinning with possibilities, especially as I recalled hearing and seeing so many birds on my trips to Colombia. My reading and research confirmed that Colombia was bird-rich and the photos I found were extremely enticing.

Feeling fine but not really game for the adventure then; Joe did not want to do the trip. So I went alone. Having researched the best places to start as a new birder and having drilled down through the birding guides willing and able to take just me there; I was set to go.

I spent 10 days in the colonial and adorable town of Jardin exploring the surrounding area. It was a delightful exploration. Joe came back with me the next year, and we made several other trips to birding sites in Colombia, all reaching their potentials for great birding.

Visiting Cali, Colombia

Black-capped Tanager at San Felipe Birding. Photo by Sylvia Guarino
Black-capped Tanager at San Felipe Birding. Photo by Sylvia Guarino

But in February 2024, we decided to visit Cali, Colombia, having previously avoided it because of reputed criminal activity. The best things I had heard of the city were raves about the great Salsa Clubs.

But those alone would not have been a strong enough draw, despite our interest in music and dance. I was a bit torn on the decision to go there, as all the research was pointing ONLY to Salsa. Cali is well known as the Salsa Capital of the world, a well-deserved title.

But it is also a hot spot for fantastic birding and bird photography.

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The city itself abounds in birds, and it is less than an hour from several superlative birding sites in the hills and mountains. The city of Cali has more species than any other city , 562 versus 542 in the previously “proclaimed” winner of Quito, Ecuador.

Cali is also a city of literary romance highlighting the works of native son Jorge Isaacs and other Colombian authors. The charming beach locations throughout the country always emphasize the romantic ambiance; but we found equally romantic ambiance throughout Cali and the countryside, all underlined by the beauty and song of birds.

Private Tour of Cali, Colombia

Red-headed Barbet at La Florida birding. Photo by Sylvia Guarino
Red-headed Barbet at La Florida birding. Photo by Sylvia Guarino

It was our first time in Cali, and also the first tour of its kind for the agency we used, Impulse Travel. It was a private tour, just my husband and I, and we alone chose the accommodations. But Impulse Travel handled the logistics of driver, guides, entrance fees and itineraries. I would not hesitate to recommend them or this style of birding, which we now prefer.

We had guides during the day, but they were locals returning to their own homes at night. We have liked all the guides we have used for all the trips and would also recommend each and every one; however, having some time alone is a nice topping to a very full day of walking and birding.

This is a perspective of older birders, but it is also fairly inclusive. My husband and I, 2 years from 80, are in very good physical shape and hiked the sites surrounding Cali with younger people…. while noting that very easy birding can be done in the area.

In fact, some of the birding sites require little to no walking. Just step out of your car at Dona Dora, an amazing birding site, and walk a few steps. There, you can sit with coffee, breakfast or lunch and watch dozens of colorful birds land nearby or buzz by your head, wings flapping at a rapid pace.

Birds of Cali

Velvet Purple Hummingbird at Dona Dora birding. Photo by Sylvia Guarino
Velvet Purple Hummingbird at Dona Dora birding. Photo by Sylvia Guarino

Birds you can easily see at Dona Dora include Andean Cock-of-the Rock, Velvet-Purple Coronet Hummingbirds, Golden Tanagers and Olivaceous Piculet Woodpeckers among the dozens that visit. The icing on the cake is that the birders and bird guides are happy to share their sightings at Dona Dora. If you are uncertain about an ID, just ask.

Perhaps more amazingly, another very nearby site at KM18 is San Felipe Birding. San Felipe Birding can and does accommodate blind birders. (Birding by ear)

San Felipe Birding is the most beautiful property anywhere we have visited as birders, and one can enjoy the beauty both day and night by renting one of the new and very attractive cabins on the stunning property. Spanking clean and decorated with lovely art by local artists, the cabins are delightful.

As are both the indoor and outdoor dining areas. And of course, the birds are numerous and diversified including, among many, Glistening Green Tanagers, Black-capped Tanagers, Crimson-Rumped Toucanets and Social Flycatchers.

If you are targeting the endemic and enchanting Multi-colored Tanager; the bird can be seen here but is also a frequent visitor right down at the road at the La Florida birding site, where both the male and female Red-headed Barbet are also frequently seen.

Birds in Close Proximity

Tawny-bellied Hermit Hummingbird. Photo by Joe Calaminici with Gabriel Borerro of Zen Wild Expeditions
Tawny-bellied Hermit Hummingbird. Photo by Joe Calaminici with Gabriel Borerro of Zen Wild Expeditions

With all of these birds afore-mentioned; the distance between you and the bird is most often less than 20 feet so you can get some tight and crisp photos fairly easily.

And Cali has perfected the art of easy, pleasant birding. Almost anywhere you go, the sightings are quick, there is hot coffee or a cold drink readily available, help is only an elbow away and good food is almost always an option right on site.

Where to Stay in Cali

Additionally, extremely comfortable accommodations are not needles in a haystack. San Felipe holds the title for this of the birding sites, but if you want to stay right in Cali, the hotel Casa Movich del Alferez is the winner. We have never had a more comfortable accommodation anywhere.

Our beautiful suite included an additional half bath, a real bonus for 2 people rushing to get out at the same time in the early morning. And all you need to do to start seeing the birds of Cali is to step out onto your patio. There, you will see Macaws flying overhead and Blue-Gray as well as Palm Tanagers in the trees surrounding the Movich.

But keep your eyes open for birds everywhere. Whether stopping for lunch at the museum Hacienda El Paraiso (named as the most romantic place in the whole country) , browsing the stores in the bohemian and artsy neighborhood of San Antonio, or walking along the river in downtown Cali, just look up and you will see some nice birds, a few a bit unusual.

As to criminal activity, we took the same precautions we would in any big city, anywhere.

We saw none.

We heard of none.

We would return.

And I can’t wait.

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Author Bio: Sylvia Guarino is a retired marketing consultant who has been traveling her adult life but birding less than a decade. Loves of her life include her husband Joe, cats, opera, art, good food and exercise.

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2 Comments

  1. I found this piece to be beautifully written. The descriptions leave the reader feeling that they simply must go and experience this fantastic place. It sounds very colorful and exciting day and night. I feel there is something for everyone who visits Cali, Colombia. The bird photos are absolutely fantastic! Crisp, clear, and their ability to catch these action shots are nothing short of amazing. Both Joe Calaminici and Sylvia Guarino are truly very talented photographers.
    They have truly brought Cali, Columbia to life for the reader. I hope to read and see more of their work.

    1. Hi Laurie.

      Thanks for your kind comment.
      If you are a birder; you will love the birding near Cali.

      But even if you have no interest in birding; there is ample reason to do this trip. Beauty everywhere!

      Happy travels!

      Sylvia