An undescribed Phlegmariurus (Lycopodiaceae) endemic to eastern and northern Colombia. Parque Nacional El Cocuy, Boyaca, Colombia.
Colombia is a special country, for a lot of reasons: wonderful people, vast wilderness areas, and astounding biological diversity, to name a few. The exceptional species richness mirrors the topographical complexity of the country, a fact to which anyone who has traversed the Colombian Andes in car or bus can attest. Like seeming every other group, the ferns and lycophytes of Colombia are diverse and remain understudied- time to get started!
This was my third trip to the country, and my first to the Cordillera Oriental, the massive range the borders Amazonia on its eastern flank. I had received an invitation to speak in a symposium at the IX Congreso Colombiano de Botánica, which was held in the town of Tunja, which is about halfway between Bogotá and Bucaramanga. The meeting was a great opportunity to meet with Colombian colleagues, and Tunja was a pleasant (if chilly) town with a rich history. In addition, I got the opportunity to be involved teaching a short course for Colombian students on fern taxonomy and identification with Alexandre Salino, David Sanin, and Michael Sundue.
After the meeting, I had the opportunity to go on a series of collecting trips. We started with a series of day trips to paramos and montane forests near Tunja, and then headed north to Parque Nacional El Cocuy, about 11 hours to the north by bus. Through a chance encounter in Tunja, myself, David Sanin, Gabriel Peñaloza-Bojacá, and William Bravo Pedraza received an invitation from a park ranger from El Cocuy to visit the park and do field work there. I had known about Cocuy for several years - it is well-known for its glaciated 5000m+ peaks- but only a few botanists had conducted fieldwork there. Until very recently, regions of the park had been occupied by guerrilla groups and was considered simply too dangerous to visit. Even now, only a small fraction of the park remains open to visitors, due to ongoing conflicts between park officials, local farmers, and the Uwa people, who still live on park lands. When we arrived in the principal park jumping-off village of Güicán, the effects of the park's closure on the local economy was evident, and there seemed to be little hope of change in the near future. As we learned in more detail later in our trip, these conflicts are uniformly complicated, tense, and never quick to resolve themselves (for a quick read on the issues, see this).
After negotiating with the park manager for permission to visit the park, we were notified that we could spend three nights in the park, collecting along a series of trails that meander below the glacier-capped peaks. We would sleep in the guard cabins, and would have to bring all of our food and supplies with us - the entrance to the park was an hour from Güicán, and we were headed another hour inside the park. Thanks to the help of a woman in the curiously-still-open tourism office, we were able to get the phone number of a local farmer who would load us and our gear in the back of his pickup and take us to the cabins. After a long but pleasant ride, we arrived, paid the man, and threw our gear into the cabin. We were well above treeline and surrounded by paramo filled with Colombia's emblematic frailejones (Espeletia spp.). In the distance we could see the snowy summit of Ritacuba Blanco (5330 m) and a few other white peaks.
Over the next three days, we would cover some 60 km of trails, collect perhaps 200 ferns and lycophytes, and get lost a few times. We spent the entire time above 4000 m, and reached 4800 m on our longest ascent - a 10 hour, 24km trip to the Laguna Grande de la Sierra, mostly in freezing rain and fog. We made a number of very special collections, including a likely undescribed Serpocaulon, endemic Phlegmariurus, and a mystery Sceptridium. Unable to dry our collections in the mountains, we packed them all with us back to the herbarium of the Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica in Tunja.
After a few days working in the national herbarium in Bogotá, David, Gabriel, Sandra Urbano and myself took an overnight bus to Pasto, the capital of the southern department of Nariño. We arrived after a nearly 22 hour bus ride, and found a decent hotel near the town center. Nariño is unlike much of the rest of Colombia that I have seen, and this pleasant small city has a spectacular backdrop: the Galeras volcano. After a short collecting trip to cloud forests above the nearby Laguna de la Cocha, we headed west towards the town of Ricaurte, on the road to the Pacific port town of Tumaco. Our goal was to visit the Reserva La Planada, a large tract of mid-elevation forest in the southern fringe of the Chocó. Both David and myself had seen numerous collections of odd and likely undescribed ferns from La Planada, and we all were intrigued by the reserve's story - after years as a hotbed of FARC activity, it finally was back in the hands of the Awá people, who had lived in the region for centuries. According to the few people we knew who had ventured to La Planada, it was a special place.
The trip to the reserve is difficult, and required a lot of negotiation and re-negotiation with taxi drivers. The road from Ricaurte to the reserve is steep and made mostly of mud, so only 4x4s can make the trip (and ensures that their services draw a high premium). Instead of pay the high cost of a ride, most Awá either ride mules or walk to Ricaurte from their village, a 3 day trek into the forest. Eventually we arrived, and were surprised to see a rather large and well-developed biological research station at the end of the road. We met with the director, a non-Awá Colombian named Marcos, and a young Awá man named David who was the leader of the community. They were exceptionally gracious hosts, and within 15 minutes, several women appeared in the station's kitchen and were preparing us meals. By the end of our meal, another group of Awá had prepared rooms for us and a young man was introduced to us as our guide for the next three days.
The diversity and sheer numbers of ferns at La Planada is astounding. As we followed our guide on seemingly non-existent trails through the forest, we found one pteridological oddity after another: a new Serpocaulon, an epiphytic Dennstaedtia, a 1.5m tall Elaphoglossum, a Parablechnum with 4 meter-long leaves arching over the road. The botany was only outdone by the rain; it rained 7 inches in the 3 days we stayed at the reserve, It was so wet that I did not press my collections until I was back in Pasto.
With only a few days left until I was due to fly home, I left the rest of the group in Pasto (they were headed for Florencia) and took another long bus ride toward Medellín, where I spent the remainder of my trip working in the herbarium at the Universidad de Antioquia and eating empanadas.
Discussing local botany with campesinos in PNN el Cocuy.
Market in the town of Arcabuco
Paramo in PNN el Cocuy
Isoetes from the paramo at PNN el Cocuy
Navigating across Laguna de la Cocha
Elaphoglossum bakeri, an exceptionally large terrestrial elaph.