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South-West Colombia is open for Visitors.

In May 2018, I had the pleasure to travel with Carla Black and Angel Rodriguez to Narino in south-west Colombia. Last year, we were in north-west Ecuador looking across the river into Colombia, wondering what might be growing there. This year we had a good look around and found some interesting plants. Narino department has had its issues with security in the past few decades and travelling there hasn't been recommended. With the peace agreement now in place, times have changed and we had only positive experiences in the time we spent there.

The main road that heads down from the high mountain city of Pasto to the coast at Tumaco is really the only road you can take to experience various elevations, a requisite for seeing plenty of different species. I spent a lot of time on Google Earth and looking at local maps for different roads to get out and about on. Once on the ground, we unfortunately realised that the routes I had found on those maps are really only tracks for horses or motorcycles. Our Colombian nature travel bible, 'Birdwatching in Colombia', mentioned three different protected forest reserve areas accessible from the road, and so we did our best to make contact with their park authorities prior to visiting. The highest at 1850m is La Planada Reserve (Fig.l). Thankfully we were able to make contact, with only a slight misunderstanding. We learned at the last minute there's a new road and we didn't have to walk 6 kilometres into the reserve with all our gear! We ended up staying for three comfortable nights, although the cold shower at that elevation meant you had to get in and out quick while you were still warm from the walking--as we did on the many trails.

As we drove into the reserve centre, I was already trying to get out of the moving car as we had driven past what I thought were red guzmanias and also flowering Guzmania pearcei growing alongside the entry road (Fig. 2). After booking in with our Awa hosts, I ducked back outside and discovered what I thought were the guzmanias were in fact Pitcairnia luteyniorum. A red flowered species with red bracts that was described from this particular locality back in the early 1980's.

Also growing at the 1850m elevation of the lodge, was Guzmania testudinis, a species we saw growing across the border last year at similar elevation. We took a long walk down to the river at the back of the reserve, down to below 1600m, and saw flowering plants of Guzmania wittmackii with orange bracts and yellow flowers. Also spotted in flower along the track were the orange flowered Pitcairnia bakeri and the white flowered Pitcairnia brongniartiana. Growing close to the creek was Pitcairnia derooseii, an attractive plant with orange red bracts and orange flowers. This plant was growing epiphytically up a tree to 2m high before it produced flowers.

Over the next couple of days we walked other trails around the reserve. La Planada means 'the plain' in Spanish and refers to a large flat area within the reserve that sits at around 1800m. Around this are some steeper ridges that proved to be rich in more plants. Walking higher we found more plants of Guzmania pearcei that had inflorescences, but sadly, no flowers open. The flowers themselves are huge for Guzmania, more than 40mm across and a green-yellow colour. The bracts and sepals made up for it, being bright yellow and red respectively, quite an attractant for their pollinating hummingbirds. Also spotted were Guzmania scherzeriana, the Colombian plants of this species appear different to the ones we've encountered in Panama, with more green on the bracts and being slightly smaller than the Panamanian clones. Whilst walking down hill at around 2000m from one of the higher spots in La Planada that looks out over the river valley that the main road down to Tumaco follows, we came across a yellow Aechmea with white flowers (Fig. 3). The grey-green foliage had noticeable petioles and reminded me of Aechmea tayoensis, albeit a bit smaller. This plant was probably only 1.0-1.2m across. We took plenty of images and our guides were happy to bring the flowering plant back to the lodge to plant it in the surrounding gardens. We spotted another three individuals as we walked back down toward the lodge so it appears to be common locally. After posting images to FloraPix, we discovered this plant is a new Ronnbergia species and has also been photographed by Alexander Hirtz across the border in north-west Ecuador, but it remains undescribed for the moment.

Our next stop was down the hill at the Rio Nambi Reserve near the town of Altaquer. This reserve is at 1200 -1400m elevation, in wet forest averaging 7m of rainfall a year. We spent the day with a guide walking the main trail that had been paved with small tree trunks, keeping us out of the mud, but they were on the slippery side (Fig. 4).

On the walk in we saw Guzmania testudinis again, as well as Guzmania graminifolia in bloom covering a large tree with its long caulescent stems. We had also spotted this species last year near Lita in Esmeraldas, north-west Ecuador. Also in bloom alongside the slippery path, was Pitcairnia spectabilis, a large plant with pink rachised spikes of greenish-yellow flowers more than 1.5m tall holding 50-70 flowers (Fig. 5).

Further along the trail we came across Pitcairnia elongata and as the name suggests it certainly has a long inflorescence up to 2m long hanging down from a large epiphytic plant (Fig. 6). The red bracts that surround the yellow flowers were very bright in the forest to attract hummingbirds for pollination. I noticed young buds that were yet to flower were covered in mucilaginous slime, no doubt to protect them from damage before they could produce their flowers.

Closer to the creek where we would turn around to begin the walk out of the reserve, we came across one of the most fantastically patterned Guzmanias I have ever encountered. The plants themselves were more than 1.2m across with heavy dark bands 40mm across laid over a green plant. The effect is incredibly ornamental and reminiscent of the stripes on Vriesea hieroglyphica. As I was looking at the sterile plants, I thought they reminded me of Guzmania pseudospectabilis that we have seen previously around Colombia and Ecuador.

Jeffrey Kent, on seeing the images thought these striped plants was more likely to be Guzmania danielii, the 'yellow form' of this species (Fig. 7). On all matters Guzmania I'm more than happy to defer to Jeffrey's years of fieldwork, 50 odd trips over 30 years, although I know he has well and truly added to that record recently as Colombia becomes a safer destination. Hopefully one day someone will photograph these large, heavily striped Guzmanias in bloom. On the walk out of the reserve we came across another caulescent Guzmania from the old genus Sodiroa. This plant was larger than G. graminifolia and had thinner leaves than G. pearcei. Without flowers we will never know, but as we travel these areas we seem to be seeing more of this intriguing group.

We stayed four nights in Altaquer in the boarding-house-style accommodation run by the reserve's administrator's mother. We were one big happy family, with easy access to their little grocery shop in the front, including the

The highlight of the walk proved to be a flowering Pitcairnia with lm long, pink bracted, pendulous inflorescences (Fig. 9). The flowers on this plant were at the top of the inflorescences, well above where they would have normally been amongst the coloured bracts on Pitcairnia stevensonii or Pitcairnia elongata. We busily took plenty of images, as it wasn't something I recognised from the recorded species file I carry with me in the field. Hopefully someone who collects botanical specimens will get there in May to get this plant into a herbarium and further study.

As we wandered out and back up the steep hill I found a Lemeltonia that had finished flowering. On the other side of the highway we spotted what may prove to be another new Guzmania species. Sadly it was after lunch and the rain was in full intensity making photography virtually impossible. I had Angel holding his and my umbrella above me as I made futile attempts to photograph the plant which was probably 7m above the ground growing on a tree trunk. The plant had plicate foliage, adapted to survive heavy rain and had an upright red spike with yellow sepals. Sadly it wasn't in flower and my images were terrible but enough to raise hope with taxonomists that it might be something new. Another plant that will need more fieldwork in the future.

Our third day in the area took us for a drive from Junin towards Barbacoas. Many interesting plants have been catalogued on this route, and there are still some patches of forest, especially where the paved road runs through the Pro-Aves Reserve El Pangan. We didn't get to visit the reserve, but the roadside was fascinating. We were warned against even taking photos by a passing motorist and sometime reserve ranger! We calmed his fears and were happy to know that the forest is well cared for. Beyond this zone, the area is heavily intervened, and we were fortunate to walk through another patch of forest ringing an active logging operation.

Starting at the top end of the road we were able to spot Guzmania kraenzliniana and Guzmania kressii, two species we have seen elsewhere in Colombia but they were growing much lower here at 1000m, although I was struck by how wet the forest was and how much moss and epiphytes dripped from the trees. Alongside the road we spotted a red-flowered Pitcairnia that had two strange, black horned protuberances from its red sepals. Ronnbergia morreniana with its spotted foliage was also found growing in the roadside cuttings. This plant has fantastic foliage, often being a bright, light-green in high light and covered in purple spots, but sadly no purple flowers to be seen.

As we drove below the town of Buena Vista, where we had a quick stop for coffee, we saw a huge flowering Guzmania hollinense. This individual had purple bracts on a massively tall inflorescence, well over 2m tall. I have seen them with purple foliage on previous trips, but this purple bracted individual is a first for me. We ended up turning around at 424m elevation at the logging operation, as we weren't really seeing anything different and we needed to get back up what was a very rough, rocky road. Where we turned around, Carla and I went into the forest for a last look and found a couple of golden frogs, which for me was also a first experience. They may be a new Cochliostema species, an ornamental genus of only two known species within the family Commelinaceae. The large trees we walked through were loaded in pattern-leaved forms of Guzmania musaica, sadly not flowering but they looked fantastic with their patterned foliage forming large colonies on the trees.

Following our first day's successes in Narino, we had some time left in our two-week trip, and felt that we should climb back over the Andes and drop down into the Amazonian drainage in the Department of Putumayo. This meant a full day's drive up and over to the mountain town of Sibundoy.

At 2200m, we saw masses of blooming Tillandsia humboldtii as we crested the mountain range and began our descent into Sibundoy (Fig. 10). This species has long, arching red inflorescences that measure up to 0.5m in length, so they really stand out from the green roadside forest. Also spotted were Pitcairnia lehmannii and Racinea tetrantha. We bundled up in blankets on the porch of the hostel and settled in for another cold evening. We had clear skies and the stars were amazing. Us heliconia hunters weren't prepared for the chilly high elevations!

The next day we began our drive to Mocoa along one of the steepest roads I have ever travelled, down into the Amazon basin. The side slope is so steep that the road is just barely one lane wide, with frequent turn-outs, and constant backing up when meeting oncoming traffic. Along the way at the higher elevations we spotted Pitcairnia brunnescens, Tillandsia schimperiana and what may have been Guzmania kressii or Guzmania squarrosa. The plants were on trees alongside the road but were impossible to get to due to the steep slope. While waiting for some trucks to manoeuvre around each other on the skinny road, we spotted a red brocket deer standing motionless on a scree fall happily watching us as we waited to get moving again. In the large trees alongside the road we then saw colonies of a Tillandsia with pink multi-branched spikes. The consensus from experts is that these were Tillandsia reversa, a species described in 1927, but it is likely these individuals were the first to be photographed (Fig. 11). Something that has proved common with Colombian plants finally getting rediscovered after their initial description. In the trees alongside the T. reversa, we saw the bright yellow-branched inflorescences of Guzmania hirtzii making a fantastic show (Fig. 12).

Further down the hill we noticed another Guzmania flowering that had branched globular spikes, absolutely loaded in mucilage with the yellow flowers poking through the protective layer of slime. This is likely another new taxa, deduced from discussions with Jose Manzanares about it (Fig. 13).

After losing more altitude, we came across a plant I had seen years ago on the FCBS website that really excited me. It is aMezobromelia that looks close to Mezobromelia capituligera. It has a large upright spike to 1 m tall with red bracts and yellow sepals and flowers (Fig. 14). Photos were taken and when I posted it to FloraPix later that night, we discovered it is also likely a new species of Mezobromelia.

Colombia continues to amaze at the diversity in plants that are easily spotted alongside the road, which makes finding them so easy and comfortable, rather than slogging through the forest for days at a time, although that has its own attractions too. Mocoa was the location of a terrible tragedy 14 months before our visit and Carla was there 48 hours before they had a disastrous landslide that killed more than 250 people in the pre-dawn after torrential rain caused massive landslides. We drove past fields of rocks, some larger than cars or even small houses that had come down the hill and devastated suburban areas. Where we stayed, our host was up at 4am, radioing the river heights after a night of heavy rainfall. Angel told us that the flowing river is a good sign as a reduction in flow can signal a slide has blocked the flow, potentially causing a dam that could break and cause an even larger slide. The protection of the forest surrounding the town has become a priority since the disaster.

On a brighter note we were privileged to see a magnificent flowering example of Aechmea manzanaresiana in full flower on the drive into the accommodation that our guide from Sibundoy had suggested for us. A member of the Platyaechmea group, A. manzanaresiana has a large, dark orange-red inflorescence that glowed amongst the green of the surrounding forest. That evening, at 750m, we were happy to be back in our own habitat. The next day we sat around in the morning waiting for the rain to ease. It was the wet season after all. By lunchtime we decided we were going to have to head off and get wet to see anything, or we wouldn't get the chance. We walked on what was allegedly an ancient Incan path. To us it looked more like a logging track, but we slowly gained altitude in what was nice forest, albeit wet with the constant rain and roaring creeks and rivers tumbling down the steep terrain. There, we spotted Aechmeapenduliflora blooming in the trees.

Leaving Mocoa and heading towards the town of Pitalito, we saw some nice clumps of flowering Tillandsia heterandra growing on trees in a disturbed area. The plants were still at pre-flowering stage, but had large, branched, pink spikes forming. This road really deserves more of a closer look one day. Sadly, we had our return deadline looming and as we drove past trees loaded in bromeliads, I had no idea what I was looking at. Large TV (Tillandsia/Vriesea) style plants with pendant maroon spikes were spotted and thinking we would see more I told Angel to keep driving, as I didn't want to hold up the long drive ahead of us that day to get back to Cali and our respective flights home. We did stop occasionally, as I simply couldn't pass some plants that were in bloom. One we stopped for turned out to be potentially Tillandsia archeri (Fig. 15).

This is a closely related plant to Tillandsia turneri, a higher elevation species we have seen in other regions, but T. archeri has more distinct branches. Oh the joys of taxonomy!

We drove through Huila state and then back into Cuaca and started to gain more elevation, as we were to cross the range through the Purace National Park. This high elevation has a lot of preserved elfin cloud forest that is crossed by a dirt road and the high volumes of trucks meant that progress was slow. A terrible thing when there was a timeline that we had to meet, but by the same token it allowed us to peruse the vegetation closely, resulting in me stopping the car when I spotted something in flower. Racing out and as quickly as I could shooting ten quick images, then jumping back in to the car and getting going before we were overtaken by a slower truck. Outside the park we stopped for Guzmania multiflora with bright orange flower spikes and what appeared to be yellow sepals.

Within the Park we stopped again and photographed Guzmania lychnis, a plant I have seen previously in central Colombia again at high elevations (Fig. 16). It has a stunning red inflorescence with white flowers held above steel-grey foliage, truly an architectural plant but likely will never make it into cultivation due to its high elevation growing conditions. We then stopped and snapped flowering individuals of what might be Guzmania gracilior, with purplishbrown bracts and yellow sepals on a thin, upright spike to 700mm tall. Growing close alongside them were Guzmania bakeri, again another species with tall, thin flower spikes, this time to lm or more of red-orange bracts (Fig 17).

We also spotted Guzmania squarrosa in flower there. This high elevation forest would make a great place to spend a couple of days exploring in future, as we only saw what was just alongside the roadside. I'd bet there would be plenty of Tapir and Spectacled Bear roaming this strange, high elevation cloud forest. We then gained more altitude and popped out into real paramo with the strange Espeletias from the family Asteraceae.

From then on we found ourselves on paved roads that turned into toll highways and we were certainly back in civilization. A quick stop for lunch at a restaurant recommended by a local taxi driver, which had the best 'Sancocho' of the trip, a meat and vegetable soup. Those cab drivers certainly know where the best food is to be had, then finally we were at Cali airport and ready to head home. Only a 1.5 hour flight for Carla and Angel, although then a 7 hour car drive! For me, 21 hours in the air and lots of time between flights, but a 20 minute car ride and home at 11:30pm, then work the next day at 6:30am!

As we were spending our last couple of days driving around southern Colombia we have already made a plan for next year. We thought 7m of annual rainfall wasn't quite enough, so next year we are headed back to the pluvial forests of Choco in western Colombia, where they can receive up to 13m of rain per year

Literature cited.

Beckers, J. & Florez, P. 2013. Birdwatching in Colombia. 274pp

Bruce Dunstan (1)


Caption: Figure 1. Mountain forest view from La Planada Reserve, Ricaurte, Narino. The snow-capped and cloud-covered volcano, El Cumbal, can be seen in the background. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 2. Guzmania pearcei--La Planada Reserve, Ricaurte. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 3. Anew, petiolate Ronnbergia species La Planada Reserve, Altaquer. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 4. The author Bruce Dunstan, on a slippery, tree-trunk paved track in the Rio Nambi Reserve, Altaquer. Photo by Carla Black.

Caption: Figure 5. Pitcairnia spectabilis--Rio Nambi Reserve, Altaquer. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 6. Pitcairnia elongata--Rio Nambi Reserve, Altaquer. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 7. Probably the 'Yellow Form' of Guzmania danielii--Rio Nambi Reserve, Altaquer. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 8. Pitcairnia bakeri--La Nutria Reserve, El Diviso. Photo by Bruce Dunstan beer fridge. What could be better! From our comfortable home base, the next day we visited La Nutria Reserve, an Awa Indian reserve named after their river otter, close to the town of El Diviso. This region is very famous for the amount of plants that have been described in this area. We spent another day walking the forest, at about 700m elevation, with local guides who pointed out plants that had meaning in their culture. As we got away from the road and the trees got bigger, we saw plenty of Pitcairnia spectabilis and at this locality the plants had maroon reversed foliage which was very attractive, with a darker rachis on the flower spikes. Pitcairnia bakeri was also growing there too (Fig. 8). Also spotted in bloom, were tree loads of Guzmania scherzeriana, Guzmania rosea and the large multi-branched spikes of Guzmania regalis. This species was also spotted near Lita in Ecuador last year. As the name suggests, it is a regal sight in the forest.

Caption: Figure 9. A spectacular new, pendulous Pitcairnia species--La Nutria Reserve, El Diviso. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 10. Tillandsia humboldtii--Sibundoy, Putumayo. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 11. Possibly Tillandsia reversa--Sibundoy-Mocoa, Putumayo. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 12. Guzmania hirtzii--Sibundoy-Mocoa, Putumayo. First sighting of this species in Colombia. Photo by Bruce Dunstan

Caption: Figure 13. An unknown globular Cuzmania species--Sibundoy-Mocoa, Putumayo. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 14. An unidentified Mezobromelia species--Mocoa, Putumayo. Photo by Bruce Dunstan

Caption: Figure 15. Tillandsia archeri--near Mocoa-Pitalito. Photo by Bruce Dunstan

Caption: Figure 16. Guzmania lychnis with white flowers rather than the usual yellow.- Purace National Park, Cauca. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.

Caption: Figure 17. Guzmania aff. bakeri--Purace National Park, Cauca. Photo by Bruce Dunstan.
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Title Annotation:IN THE WILD
Author:Dunstan, Bruce
Publication:Journal of the Bromeliad Society
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:3COLO
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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