The Wonderful Northern Highlands of Antioquia, Colombia
I was visiting the northern highlands of Antioquia in Colombia. It is a place with very few visitors and is more of a transit region for those who go from the Country’s south to the Atlantic coast in the north of Country. As a child, I often traveled with my family through this region. In those days, the road was a dirt path. Now it is paved but is still very narrow and steep, with only one line in each direction. The traffic is slow due to heavy truck traffic.
Among my most vivid memories was the fantastic vegetation wrapped in a mist covering the canyon. Hundreds of small waterfalls gushed from the rocks that lined the road. The dense forest had gigantic trees, towering palm trees, and majestic white yarumo trees (Cecropia telealba) that broke the dark green harmony of those deep slopes. We never stopped in this area because it was dangerous due to the number of landslides and because it was cold and rainy, so we drove by.
Finally, the time came to discover this land’s secrets and enter the mysterious world I had imagined as a child. The kind invitation came from the “Salvamontes” Corporation, which, as its name in Spanish indicates, means “Saving the Mountains.” Its mission is to protect those endangered, high diversity places from deforestation and human-made fires.
The initial reason for my visit was the desire to see a small bird, which was believed to be extinct for many years and was rediscovered in this area in 2019, the Antioquia brushfinch (Atlapetes blancae). I was so happy to see it chirping and flying around as I entered the magical place where it had been hidden for so long.
Cloud forests are found in intertropical mountainous areas between 4,500 and 9,600 feet above sea level and are characterized by high levels of humidity caused by rain, mist, and springs. These Andean forests have high biodiversity and a high number of endemic species. The trees are small and covered with mosses and lichens, and bromeliads, orchids, and ferns are abundant.
Walking up the cloud forests, I found the paramos. These unique ecosystems are located at heights greater than 9,000 meters above sea level. Even though they are found only in the tropics of South America, they have cold weather throughout the year due to their altitude. Colombia has almost half of the paramos on the planet, Ecuador has a third of them, and the rest are found in Peru, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. Six out of every ten plant species found in the paramos are endemic.
The closest town to the reserves is Yarumal, whose name derives from the many yarumo trees that grew in its forests. Although many have disappeared, they are not yet in danger of extinction.
But inside the 23,500 hectares of protected forest, some other plants are in danger of disappearing forever. When we think of endangered species, we assume they are animals, but the flora is also in danger. There are only 32 Ventanas Magnolia trees (Magnolia polyhypsophylla), 40 of Magnolia guatapensis. 13 species of orchids are only found in these beautiful forests. Of the nine frogs that have been found in the Salvamonetes reserve, seven are endemic.
This place is unique because it has become an island at the far end of the central mountain range of the Andes, and its foothills connect with the valleys of the Magdalena and Cauca rivers and the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. It is also a refuge for migratory birds from the United States and Canada during their winter season.
Nobody could see its natural treasures for more than four centuries, and the forests were cut for mining exploration and to dedicate the land to cattle ranching and agriculture. The areas still containing primary forests are isolated due to their difficult-to-access topography.
Sometimes it is easier to understand the importance of a place if we make a simple comparison: The municipality of Yarumal has an area 1,380 times smaller than Canada, and each of them, and despite the massive difference in size, they both have 450 bird species registered. In the Northern Highlands of Antioquia area, 11 of these species are endemic. In Canada, there are none.
We do not know the significance of this astounding biodiversity. Colombia has a privileged and unique position on the Andes, with its glaciers, volcanoes, paramos, and cloud forests. The coasts in both oceans, the extensive plains in the Orinoco basin, the mysterious and unknown tepuyes, and the fantastic Amazon Rainforest. This incredible diversity can disappear if we don’t protect it!