THE BOTANIC GARDEN

Well- that was some weather we had last week. Things have just about thawed out in Norwich, and this last post from Colombia has me itching for some warmer days and longer evenings. This the final one from last year’s enormous odyssey, which signals that it must be time to start planning next year’s 😀. Until then, a move to Cambridge has presented me with a whole host of new museums, pubs and green spaces to explore, and a very cool new job to get to grips with. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

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TURBACO

If you’re visiting Cartagena, make sure you set aside at least half a day to get out to the botanic gardens. They’re not particularly well known, a bit of a faff to get to, and not particularly exciting as far as botanic gardens go. Great sell, I know- so why do I recommend them? Because Cartagena’s botanic gardens (out by the nearby town of Turbaco) are at the edge of some bona fide tropical forest, and the wildlife that’s there has spilled over into the garden grounds and has gotten used to the people and open spaces. That means geckos, lizards, and a good chance of seeing the humbug-like yellow-striped poison dart frog. Best of all, the gardens are part of the territory of a large troop of red howler monkeys- and I wouldn’t be much of a primatologist if that didn’t propel the gardens to the top of my Cartagena wishlist.

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Bearing in mind that we were in Colombia for a conference, I had to wait until it had finished before we had the time to make the day trip- and though we’d heard promising reports of the monkeys doing their famous roaring calls in the mornings, I tried not to raise my hopes too high. We paid the small entrance fee and wandered in- and, within the first 10 minutes, not only had we seen several Dendrobates truncatus- one of the most gorgeous and striking poison dart species I’ve ever seen, but a very special lizard with a miraculous reputation. Basilicus basilicus goes by the common name of Jesus lizard, because, as the title suggests, it can walk on water. They manage it by slapping their feet down hard on the surface of the water, trapping a tiny pocket of air that allows them the few microseconds they need to push forward. The garden was awash with juveniles, and, had I been aware of what they were at the time, I may have spent a little bit more time by the streams, trying to catch one in action.

Those monkeys, however, were still on our minds- and thankfully, the apparition of the Jesus lizards was indeed a good omen.

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As with most monkey sightings, the first sign they were there was the sight and sound of large branches crashing into each other, way up in the canopy. We picked up the pace, hoping we’d get a glimpse of the troop before their wanderings took them out of the range of the paths. We did better than that- once we reached the swaying branches they were right on top of us, and even came down into some baby Cecropia trees a mere 15m above our heads.

Let me say this- they were absolutely wonderful. A gorgeous, russet red colour with blondish highlights at the tips of their tails, we saw a mixture of males, females, and tiny juveniles clinging to their mother’s backs as they climbed nonchalantly through a maze of near vertical branches. Those prehensile tails (you can see in the pictures that they have tiny patches on them without fur, making them grippy like the palms of their hands and feet) allowed them to free up their hands for foraging, and/or look at us upside down; but my favourite bit of the encounter was watching them jump across the gaps in the canopy. They were supremely confident, launching themselves from the edge of one crown into the next, seemingly impervious of the huge, potentially fatal drops if they were to get it even a slight bit wrong. I take my hat off to them- and to the Turbaco Botanic Garden, for providing such an enormous treat.

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N.B. As mentioned, the botanics are a bit of a pain to get to. They’re not technically in Cartagena but in the nearby town of Turbaco. We hired a taxi via our hotel to take us out there and come back for us after a couple of hours- there’s nowhere to get a taxi back from the gardens unless you’ve booked one in advance.

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