ANNOUNCER: Colombia Wild and Free was made possible in part by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.
♪ NARRATOR: This is the story of two landscapes that could not be more different.
♪ The Andes are a wilderness of breathtaking mountains, volcanoes, lakes, rock formations, and stony deserts shaped by wind and water.
Magical mountain forests, with a spectacularly diverse animal population lie below the freezing high plateaus.
♪ ♪ [wings flapping] ♪ On the far side of the cold peaks, the slopes of the Andes are covered in dense tropical forests.
♪ A very different world is found in western Colombia.
♪ The wild coasts of the Pacific.
This coastline with its forests, sandy beaches and mangroves is one of the most diverse landscapes on Earth.
[waves crashing] Hidden natural wonders lie off the coast, in the rocky inlets and mysterious depths of distant islands.
♪ ♪ [whale singing] ♪ ♪ ♪ [waves crashing] Colombia'’s northwest is the most remote region in the country.
This coastline can only be reached by plane.
the Western Cordillera section of the Andes acts as a barrier between the Colombian highlands and the craggy Pacific coast.
A few years ago, this area was the realm of mercenaries and drug dealers, and considered the most dangerous region in the country.
♪ Now, the gangs have withdrawn into the mountains and peace has returned.
♪ [waves crashing] During the summer, thousands of humpback whales gather in the coastal waters between Colombia and Panama.
♪ ♪ [blowing water] ♪ [whale singing] The whales have spent months following the coastline north from the Antarctic.
[waves splashing] Now the females give birth to their calves in the warm Pacific waters.
[whales singing] ♪ ♪ [water splashing] Over thousands of years, the ocean waves have carved the coastline into a craggy, magical landscape.
♪ [birds chirping] ♪ [water crashing] This fjord is located in the Utría National Park.
The inlet is protected from the turbulent Pacific by rocks and lined with mangrove forests.
♪ ♪ [birds calling] The tea mangroves that make up much of these forests are only found along South America'’s Pacific coast.
[bird calling] The forests are home to a wide range of mangrove crabs, which seek out the safety of the trees when the tide is high.
[bird calling] [water burbling] [sound of insects] When the water recedes, a dense forest on solid ground is revealed.
The perfect hunting grounds for yellow-crowned night-herons [water dripping] and green vine snakes.
[ground scraping] [sound of insects] The mangrove crabs descend from the trees.
[wood clicking] [ground clicking] They have just three hours to eat their fill before the tide comes in again.
The Latin name of these crabs translates as the beautiful mangrove crab.
[water burbling] They can survive under water, but there'’s a reason they escape into the trees at high tide.
♪ [crabs scuttling] ♪ The rainforests on the steep slopes are uninhabited by humans, but are home to a breathtakingly diverse range of flora and fauna.
Many of these species have yet to be scientifically examined.
♪ Admittedly, the brown- throated sloth is no longer much of a mystery, but it'’s rare to see a mother with her baby.
[sound of insects] [birds in distance] The males disappear after mating, but the mother and her offspring are inseparable.
[bird calling] [sound of insects] [birds in distance] The young sloth spends six months hanging on its mother'’s stomach, attentively watching every move she makes, [bird chirping] Witnessing sloths in action is difficult.
The animals spend up to 18 hours a day sleeping in the treetops.
[sound of insects] [birds in distance] Young leaves and shoots make up a large part of a sloth'’s diet, with certain plants, like Cecropia trees, being particularly popular.
[chewing leaves] [sound of insects] Once again, the mother acts as an example.
[chewing leaves] [monkeys grunting] Occasionally, a strange chorus rings out among the trees.
[monkeys grunting] [leaves rustling] It is the sound of groups of red howler monkeys communicating with others in the vicinity.
This particular group has settled in a mango tree on an abandoned farm.
[sound of insects] In the midday heat, a few monkeys engage in a little grooming, most, however, just lounge about.
[monkeys grunting] [monkeys grunting] One enthusiastic acrobat practices using its prehensile tail.
[sound of insects] [birds in distance] [sound of insects] [birds in distance] The siesta can last for hours with minor interruptions.
[monkey grunting] Red howler monkeys have a strict hierarchy, and the monkey at the top frequently reminds the others of his status.
[leaves rustling] South America is home to 12 different species of howler monkey.
[monkey grunting] All of who share one common, unusual characteristic: They are the only South American primates able to see color.
[monkey grunting] This trait is common in so-called old-world primates in Africa and Asia, but not here.
As yet, experts have been unable to explain why most New World primates have monochromatic vision.
The mango tree reveals why it can be useful to see the difference between red and green.
[monkey grunting] The red howler monkeys can immediately tell that the green fruit are not ripe yet, and will therefore only pick the red ones.
With little to be gained here, the group returns to the rainforest.
[bird singing] [running water] The forests along the Pacific coast are home to zoologic treasures that are popular with both scientists and unfortunately, poachers, poison dart frogs.
This particular species, solanensis, was only discovered in 2018 and is already considered endangered.
[sound of insects] The frogs can reach prices of up to $2,000, and are therefore now hard to find here.
[sound of insects] [running water] Prices like this represent immeasurable wealth to the poor coastal inhabitants, and many roam the forests on the hunt for what are, quite literally, natural treasures.
[frog jumping] [leaves rustling] [sound of insects] The Condoto stubfoot toad is even more venomous than the poison dart frogs.
Its body contains tetrodotoxin, the same toxin as pufferfish.
[ambient sound] [sound of insects] The amphibian is most commonly found in the undergrowth along the coast, but only in Colombia.
[scrapping stick] Outside the conservation areas, population numbers are declining rapidly.
♪ The calm waters of the Utría National Park are a nursery for humpback whale calves.
♪ [water splashing] ♪ The calves are born in June and July.
They weigh a ton at birth and are extremely thirsty, requiring around 12 gallons of mother'’s milk a day.
♪ [water splashing] Female relatives help to rear the calves, allowing the mothers to take a well-deserved break.
♪ [water sounds] Humpback whale gestation takes around 12 months, and females can only give birth every two years.
♪ [water sounds] [blowing water] In the fjord, the calves are safe from orcas and sharks, and can practice diving and leaping.
[water splashing and crashing] To the calf, this is the equivalent of learning a language.
Whales use the sound waves generated by these leaps to communicate with others over long distances.
[water splashing] The adult humpbacks fast during their visit to the north, but reward themselves with tons of krill once they return to their summer quarters in the Antarctic.
[water sounds] [whales singing] ♪ The tide begins to come in again.
♪ [water flowing] The last of the mangrove crabs return to the trees, ♪ as the seawater returns to the mangrove forests.
♪ At high tide, water levels rise by 10 to 13 feet.
♪ The forest floor now looks very different.
♪ The fish search for food and hunt among the roots.
♪ ♪ And this is why the crabs prefer the safety of the trees at high tide, they are protected from the attentions of the hungry fish.
[clacking] There'’s competition for the best places.
[clacking] Some crabs are forced to abandon their perch, while others fall into the water.
[water gurgling] ♪ The racer mangrove crab suddenly finds itself in dangerous territory.
♪ ♪ The crab puts up a brave fight, and completes the challenging obstacle course.
The safety of the surface is near.
♪ ♪ Another crab is not so lucky.
♪ ♪ [fish attacking] ♪ ♪ [fish attacking] The pufferfish are the most skilled crab hunters in the mangrove forests.
♪ ♪ [fish attacking] ♪ ♪ [fish chewing] The successful bullseye puffer has to defend its catch from its hungry relatives.
[water swishing] The coastline is often obscured by clouds, creating an atmosphere of mystery.
♪ [waves crashing] This beach would appear to be deserted, but it is actually teeming with life.
Just below the surface, an entire generation of turtles is about to emerge.
♪ During the night, hundreds of olive ridley sea turtles have hatched from eggs buried up to 15 inches deep in the sand.
♪ Like all freshly hatched sea turtles, they are driven by a single goal: To reach the water.
Two months earlier, female turtles laid several thousand eggs along the beach.
Not all the eggs have developed, and only a fraction of the minuscule heroes will survive the early years in the ocean.
[waves crashing] ♪ [waves crashing] Fortunately, the olive ridley turtles are flourishing along the Colombian coasts and in Central America, and local populations are increasing.
♪ ♪ [waves crashing] ♪ The turtles are merely seasonal guests.
Ghost crabs inhabit darkness below the sand all year round.
♪ [waves crashing] When the tide is out, they emerge to search for food.
[waves crashing] Their powerful sense of smell leads them to a dead houndfish.
[flies buzzing] The crabs work with surgical precision.
[flies buzzing] [clicking] These scavengers provide an important hygienic service.
[flies buzzing] [clicking] The tide comes in again, and it is time to return to subterranean safety.
♪ [waves crashing] The protected waters of the Utría fjord are also home to one of the few coral reefs along this coast.
♪ The currents are too strong for corals along the rocky coastline, but cauliflower corals have been able to settle in the calmer waters, and they, in turn, have attracted a colorful explosion of reef fish.
Among them are various species of pufferfish, the feared crab hunters of the mangrove forests.
♪ An interesting symbiosis occurs here: The butterfly fish follow the significantly larger rainbow chub, extracting nutrients from the waste the chub leave behind.
♪ The chub welcome the attentions of their entourage.
The butterfly fish also remove parasites and patches of dry skin.
♪ The surprising abundance of fish here is due to a strict ban of fishing in the waters that are a part of the national park.
♪ The sunken fishing boat dates back to the days before the ban was enacted.
The national park was founded in 1987.
Since then, fishing has been limited to local fishermen and small boats.
♪ The wreck is inhabited by a giant grouper.
This particular fish weighs well over 200 pounds.
♪ The underwater giants rarely emerge from their hiding places.
Rather than hunting actively, they prefer to lurk unseen, then suck in their prey.
♪ The grouper is accompanied by colorful golden trevallies who seek out the larger fish for protection.
♪ Another giant grouper appears.
Clearly the wreck is large enough for two.
♪ The groupers, reefs and humpback whales contribute to the unique nature of the untamed Pacific coast, just one of the fascinating regions in wild Colombia.
♪ Colombia'’s geography seems to be a microcosm of the entire planet.
Just an hour'’s flight east from the tropical Pacific lies the longest continental mountain range in the world, the Andes.
In Colombia, the Andes are divided into three different mountain ranges.
The highest is the Cordillera Central with volcanic mountains, more than 17,000 feet high.
♪ An Andean condor circles high above the peaks of Los Nevados.
Three volcanoes tower above the others.
Two of them remain active and unpredictable.
♪ Above the treeline, at elevations above 13,000 feet, lies the páramo.
♪ This magical world is cold, damp and home to some exceptional plants.
♪ The greatest of these is the Espeletia.
Locals refer to these shrubs as frailejones or big monks.
[wind blowing] Many locals find the páramo disturbing.
Place names refer to biting cold, murderers, thieves and the living dead.
In addition, many mountain regions remained under control of FARC, Colombia'’s largest guerrilla army for many, many years.
[wind blowing] [birds chirping] The young Espeletia plants add a dash of color to the páramo.
In a few hundred years, these very flowers will grow to the size of trees.
♪ The Andes are a gigantic water reservoir.
♪ The streams and rivers provide millions of people with drinking water and feed the dense forests that grow at lower elevations.
♪ The mountain forests of the Andes begin just below 12,000 feet above sea level, and are home to the legendary Andean condor.
♪ ♪ Condor breeding pairs stay together all their lives.
A long time.
If the birds are able to avoid hunters and other dangers, they can live up to 50 years in the wild, [bird chirps] but life is difficult for the king of the Andes.
Despite introduction of strict conservation measures, only an estimated 150 Andean condors remain in Colombia.
Many farmers fear the birds of prey, as they are said to carry off calves and even children.
These are merely myths, but they have left their mark on the people here.
♪ The cool cloud forest gradually changes as it descends into the valley.
The first palm trees appear, and the climate becomes subtropical.
♪ [hummingbird buzzing] The flowers attract large numbers of hummingbirds, which feed on their nectar from sunrise to sunset.
♪ Like its relatives, the shining sunbeam hummingbird can beat its wings up to 50 times a second.
It'’s able to hover in the air and even fly backwards.
♪ Well-hidden in the dense vegetation, its mate guards the eggs.
♪ The viridian metaltail is a true mountain bird, living near the treeline and up to 12,500 feet.
♪ ♪ ♪ A majority of the Andes'’ animal species avoid the inhospitable higher elevations, and remain near the protective forest.
♪ A buck looks for food along the boundary between the mountain forest and the páramo.
[footsteps] White-tailed deer are masters of adapting to their surroundings.
There are 26 different subspecies across America, from the Yukon in Alaska all the way to Bolivia.
This particular subspecies has adapted to the challenging climate of the Colombian Andes.
[rustling] Their winter fur is much thicker than that of its lowland relatives, and it has a warming undercoat.
The ears are also covered with fur.
[rustling] [fly buzzing] Protected from the elements, the deer will often look for food up to 13,000 feet above sea level.
Farther down the mountain, animal sightings become rarer.
The trees are covered in moss, lichen and epiphytes, an ecosystem aptly named the Elfin Forest.
[birds chirping] An Andean guan hides in the undergrowth, looking for fruit and seeds.
[bird calls] The bird seems unaware that not far above a giant is awaking.
[birds chirping] [bear grunts] A spectacled bear is about to start its day.
[rustling] Spectacled bears are found throughout the Andes, from Venezuela to Bolivia, but they are rarely seen.
The bears are so shy that very little is known about their behavior in the wild.
[bear grunts] The bears are traditionally found in damp mountain forests between 3,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level.
As human settlements, streets and fields encroach on their regular habitats, some bears have begun to establish their homes on fallow land and at lower elevations.
The bears spend the nights in trees, where they occasionally build themselves nests to sleep in.
Males weigh up to around 330 pounds and can be extremely aggressive.
Their only potential enemies, aside from humans, are jaguars.
Fortunately, the big cats tend to avoid the cold mountain forests.
[tree creaking] The solitary animals roam territories that cover just a few square miles.
[footsteps] Spectacled bears spend their days leisurely looking for food.
[tree creaking] Although they have been known to kill fully-grown cows and tapirs, much of their diet consists of plants, particularly bromeliads, bamboo and cacti.
[breeze blows] [bear grunts] [bird chirps] [footsteps] [bird calls] [wood cracks] In the central Andes, the bears face two great dangers: The first is the increasing destruction of their habitat.
The second is natural, rather than man-made.
♪ The Nevado del Ruiz is unpredictable.
A so-called stratovolcano, it is particularly dangerous because gases and lava don'’t escape slowly, but rather explode under pressure.
The volcano last erupted on the 13th of November, 1985, spewing 35 million tons of glowing rock into the atmosphere.
Clouds of hot gas and debris enveloped the glacier.
The destructive force of the eruption has burned itself into the landscape for centuries to come.
A river of molten ice caused huge landslides at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour.
Just before midnight, the first of the three gigantic mudslides hit the town of Armero on the banks of the Rio Magdalena.
Armero was completely erased.
♪ Three quarters of the population, more than 20,000 people, lost their lives.
♪ The remains of the town are now a pilgrimage site.
♪ The mudslides carved a deep gorge into the mountain.
[wind sounds] Decades have passed since the tragedy occurred, but pioneer plants are only now beginning to establish themselves here.
[wind shuffling leaves] Colombia'’s volcanoes have two distinct faces.
One threatens death and destruction, while the other promises generous harvests.
The nutrient-rich volcanic ash is effective at storing water and is a powerful fertilizer.
The families who have settled in the shadow of Nevado del Ruiz live off the proceeds of animal farming and a vegetable that only grows above elevations of 10,000 feet in tropical Colombia, the potato.
Potatoes originated in the volcanic soils of the Andes and were cultivated here at least 8,000 years ago.
Carlos Albeiro is the farm'’s foreman.
The owner of the farm lives in a distant city and rarely journeys to the mountains.
Harvesting the potatoes and transporting them is a challenging job for the day laborers.
♪ ♪ [girl biting] ♪ ♪ [mule huffing] ♪ Just a few years ago, goods, travelers and their luggage were all carried over the Andes on mules.
[mule walking] [chatter] Now a row leads from the potato collection point into the valley.
The mules are unable to compete with the large powerful trucks, and the men have little to do.
[chatter] [mule huffing] ♪ The waters from the fertile fields and moist cloud forests flow down into tropical forests at lower elevations.
[water falling] The forested slopes in the eastern Andes lie within the catchment area of the Amazon River.
♪ This young bird will eventually become a formidable hunter.
The harpy eagle is among the largest eagles in the world and is almost certainly the most powerful.
♪ Like the young harpy eagle, macaws make their homes in the treetops of the rainforest.
♪ This female harpy is almost fully grown.
Before long, she will weigh around 18 pounds, and have a wingspan of approximately six feet, and will spend the days hunting monkeys and sloths among the trees, ♪ if any trees remain.
The rainforest in the north of the Caquetá province has vanished.
Just 10 years ago, this land was covered in lush vegetation.
Now all that remains is a flat expanse of dead trees and animal pastures.
♪ Local farmers bought the land from the government and razed the forest to create grazing land for their cattle.
The state has now stopped the sale of land, but illegal clearing continues.
♪ In Colombia, 800 square miles of rainforest are destroyed every year.
Some people here are making fortunes off the land, while the majority is poor and lack electricity, running water and roads.
[eagle screeching] The young eagle is hungry, but her parents now only feed her every three days.
The time has almost come to strike out on her own.
Finally, the father appears with some food.
[eagle screeching] Bizarrely, the young harpy also owes its existence to violent guerrilla forces.
The region remains in the iron grip of the FARC rebels, who have even passed environmental laws.
Without these regulations, experts believe that these remaining small islands of forest would have disappeared altogether.
The eagle'’s parents have reared several generations of harpies in this very nest, but there are now few monkeys or sloths for the eagles to prey on.
Where will the young harpy hunt in the future?
10 years ago, this tree was surrounded by rainforest, now everything for 60 miles around has been destroyed, and the pastures continue to carve their way further into the Amazon wilderness every day.
Nearby, a chestnut-eared aracari struggles with a nut.
These few hectares of forest provide an excellent opportunity to witness the local bird life, because the birds have nowhere else to eat, establish nests or rest.
Eventually, the parrots and other birds will leave this region for good.
[birds grunting] ♪ [leaves rustling] [wings flapping] [leaves rustling] ♪ The harpy is almost ready to take wing, but a little practice is still necessary.
[wings flapping] ♪ [wings flapping] Once she leaves the nest, the parents will continue to provide food until she learns to hunt on her own.
The wind whistles, calling to the harpy, and she finally follows the call.
♪ The deforestation is not only an environmental disaster, it is also pointless.
The soils contain few nutrients and are not suitable for rearing cattle.
♪ The farmers are aware of this fact, but politicians walked out on them.
And by now, animal husbandry is a global problem, which breeders, governments and consumers must solve collectively.
♪ It is raining along the Pacific coast, as it so often does, but something has changed.
Summer is drawing to an end.
[waves breaking] ♪ The whale calves are well nourished and slowly leave the protective inlets with their mothers.
♪ [whales singing] [water splashing] Solitary animals and families gather along the coast.
In just a few weeks, they will begin the long journey to the Antarctic.
[water splashing] [blowing water] The wild Pacific coast marks the natural western border of Colombia, in a manner of speaking.
A lonely outlier of the country is located 310 miles away, Malpelo Island.
♪ The rocky island is of volcanic origin and is guarded by the army.
Researchers and divers require permits to visit.
♪ [birds chirping] Despite the sparse vegetation, Malpelo attracts seabirds including brown noddies, masked and red- footed boobies.
The nests are spread out around the cliffs and the 1000-feet- high plateau.
♪ [birds calling] However, the greatest treasures are to be found under water.
The island is surrounded by one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.
♪ With a little luck, visitors are greeted by a white-spotted eagle ray welcoming committee.
♪ [water sounds] More than 10,000 square miles of ocean around Malpelo are protected, and the massive schools of mullet, blue and gold snappers show just how effective a fishing ban can be if it is firmly enforced for two decades.
♪ This explosion of life is also due to the unusual topography of the sea bed, which is up to 11,000 feet deep in some places.
♪ [water sounds] Steep underwater cliffs, tunnels, and strong currents all help to transport large amounts of nutrients towards the surface.
♪ [water sounds] This abundance of food impacts every aspect of the ecosystem.
Beginning with the smallest organisms and fish that live along the coral reefs near Malpelo.
♪ [water sounds] A well-camouflaged frogfish sits motionless next to a cave inhabited by a fine-spotted moray eel.
♪ The eels would appear to like each other.
♪ [water sounds] ♪ [water sounds] Moray eels very rarely leave their caves.
One of the few reasons to do so is courtship.
The mating ritual is an elegant dance that is very rarely seen.
♪ [water sounds] The sandy seabed is also home to colorful creatures, like this jawfish.
♪ ♪ [fish belching] [water sounds] The triggerfish is one of the seabed'’s more aggressive inhabitants.
A female drives off a goatfish that has drawn too close to the offspring.
♪ Triggerfish blow circular holes in the seabed to spawn in.
♪ Everything has to be perfect.
A small stone that rolls into the hole is immediately removed.
After the eggs have been laid and fertilized by the male, the female spends a few days cleaning and defending the hollow.
♪ The nutrients from the deep not only keep the reefs and their inhabitants alive, they also attract large fish.
♪ The whale shark filters the plankton from the water that rises from the cold depths below.
[water sounds] Other sharks are also attracted by the prevalence of fish to feed on.
♪ Whitetip reef and silky sharks are frequent visitors here.
♪ They are hunted in large numbers outside the protected areas as their fins are in great demand.
♪ Large schools of scalloped hammerheads circle the outermost rockfaces of the island.
Even experienced marine biologists are left speechless by the diversity and population densities here.
♪ [birds chirping] ♪ Far away to the east, one of the longest animal migrations in the world is about to begin.
♪ A whale beats its fluke against water to gather its pod.
[splashing] ♪ In October, the last humpback whales leave the Colombian coast for the Antarctic.
♪ The journey there and back is 3,800 miles, the longest mammal migration on the planet.
♪ ♪ [water splashing] ♪ The calves seem eager to reach their icy territory in the south.
[water blowing] Next year, they will return to their birth place, ♪ to Colombia, the unchained paradise.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪