30 August 2017

Colombia’s Páramos: What Are They and Why You Must See Them

Posted in Blog

Colombia is famous for beautiful beaches, snow-capped peaks, isolated Amazon jungles, and many other gloriously biodiverse ecosystems. However, the country is the home of one type of environment that may be less familiar to travellers, yet is one of the most biologically important ecosystems on our planet. We’re talking – of course – about the páramo.

Paramo Colombia

What is a Páramo?

The páramo can sometimes be a tricky ecosystem to explain to those who have never travelled in Colombia: there really isn’t an equivalent environment anywhere else on earth. Unique to the northern Andes of South America and some isolated regions of southern Central America, páramos are broadly defined as the ecosystem existing above the continuous forest line, but below the permanent snowline.

What is certain is that páramos are evolutionary hot spots and, according to some scientists, may be among the fastest evolving regions on our planet. And the good news for people planning to visit Colombia is that the majority of páramos in the world occur in this country (in fact, the páramo was immortalized on the new Colombian 5.000 peso banknote, further highlighting the importance of this ecosystem to the country).

Where to Experience the Páramo in Colombia?

The obvious first stop for potential páramo enthusiasts is the largest páramo in the world, which conveniently lies just a couple of hours south of Bogotá: the Sumapaz Páramo. This vast landscape was declared a national park in 1977 as it is an important biodiversity hotspot, as well as a key water source for the vast city to its north. Once considered a sacred place by the local Muisca indigenous people, Sumapaz has been the location of important scientific expeditions by such figures as José Celestino Mutis and Alexander Von Humboldt. Today the area is a popular spot for hikers and birders in particular.

Paramo Colombia

Another key páramo ecosystem, and another national park, lies to the east of the Colombian capital: Chingaza. Being slightly closer to the capital, Chingaza is more popular with tourists, who visit the beautiful park to hike to the lovely Siecha lakes, camp overnight in the wilderness, or attempt to spot some of the park’s many species of birds and mammals.

However, according to the real páramo-fanciers, neither of these two parks are the most beautiful of the páramos in Colombia. That distinction goes to the Ocetá Páramo in the Boyacá department – the home of the highest percentage of Colombia’s páramos - which is regularly declared “the most beautiful páramo in the world.” Tourists can journey to this remote region in a full-day hike from the pretty colonial town of Monguí.

What to See in the Páramo?

Páramos can often appear somewhat featureless and bleak from a distance, but they in fact are biodiversity hotspots, sheltering a wealth of beautiful and endemic species of plants and animals. The most famous páramo residents are the rarely-spotted Spectacled Bear and the majestic Andean Condor, as well as the more commonly spotted White-tailed Deer. The most iconic plant of the ecosystem is the beautiful Frailejon, or Espeletia, a remarkable sunflower-like plant which grow at a rate of around 1 cm per year!

Paramo Colombia

Birders in particular will fall in love with Sumapaz and Chingaza in particular: endemic species such as the Green-bearded Helmetcrest, Apolinar’s Wren, Bogota Rail, Silvery-throated Spinetail, Pale-bellied Tapaculo, Flame-winged and Brown-breasted Parakeet can all be spotted in these national parks. A good day’s birding in these páramos can easily yield 50 or more bird species, many of them completely unique to the area.

Páramos might not be the most famous natural wonder to occur in Colombia, but their beauty, biological importance, and uniqueness surely make them one of the country’s most impressive hidden wonders, and an environment well-worth exploring. And the good news is that the most beautiful examples of this incredible ecosystem can be found during  just a day trip from Bogotá itself. How’s that for convenient!

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Paramo Colombia

Chris Bell

About the author:

Chris Bell is a British travel journalist who has been exploring Colombia for four years as the editor of the award-winning Colombia Travel Blog. He has visited 30 of Colombia's 32 departments (those last two are just around the corner), and was named by El Espectador newspaper as "the Englishman who teaches you to travel in Colombia." His main passion, aside from exploring Colombia, is birding - his Colombia list is already approaching 800 species. Chris' 2017 goals: 32 departments and 1,000 species! You can follow his Colombian adventures at colombiatravelblog.com.