The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail of Colombia

The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail of Colombia is probably the most diverse with nearly 1,400 bird species between the departments of Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño.

In this region, you have contact with the Western Andes mountain range, the Choco Region, and the Pacific ocean.

The most relevant birding hotspots of this route are the Choco Forest and the Andean Cloud forests of the western cordillera.

The diversity of this route is explained because it covers many different habitats such as paramos, wetlands, Andean cloud forests, tropical rainforest, coastal areas, dry forest and very nice bird-lodges and farms dedicated to bird photography.

The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail

The National Audubon Society of the United States was involved in the design of this route along with the government of Colombia and Calidris NGO to help the country reach its goal of becoming the world’s top birding destination.

The training of stakeholders linked to the birding offer in the region was the main activity, including local guides, owners of lodges, farms and nature reserves, and community-based tourism associations.

Among the places to be visited are included national parks, civil society nature reserves, and private reserves.

Birding Spots of The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail

You should know that in the past, this region was not a safe place. Nowadays, birding tourism and related stakeholders are becoming:

active drivers in conservation, economic development, and peace-building”

For that reason, there are still some destinations with difficult access, and poor hotel infrastructure, especially towards the Pacific region in Valle del Cauca and Nariño.

Itinerary

The following itinerary is just an example of the route you can take. However, if you want to see more options, visit the itinerary designed by us.

Remember that you can customize your trip with us. Don’t miss the opportunity to add other activities such as whale watching; a city tour in Cali, the city of salsa music; an urban birding day also in Cali; a stop in the beautiful city of Popayan in the department of Cauca; or visit the paramos and volcanic lakes of Nariño, among many other activities, either alone or with your family.

Given the wide offer of destinations on this route, here are the main stops in each department. If you want to know more about each destination, I recommend you to visit the entries we prepared for you about them.

You can also visit our Youtube channel ColombiaFrank, where you will find first hand information about many of these destinations.

Valle del Cauca

Western Andes Cloud Forests

Wetlands – Sonso Lagoon

  • Laguna Sonso
  • Gota de Leche

Choco region – Anchicaya

  • El Descanso km 55
  • Upper Anchicaya
  • Aguasclaras
  • Lower Anchicaya
  • Buenaventura*

Following the path of the Anchicaya River as it descends through the western Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean, the old road from Buenaventura, mostly abandoned, offers incredible birding.

One of the most famous places in this point is the restaurant El descanso km 55, read our entry about this place Best Set to Photography Tropical Rainforest Birds at Upper Anchicayá.

Among the more than 500 species that have been recorded along the road are about 50 species endemic to the region.

The Pacific lowlands of the San Cipriano Reserve

  • San Cipriano Reserve
  • La Delfina
  • Buenaventura*

The Pacific rainforest of San Cipriano is incredibly humid, very lush and home to Chocó endemics, including the Five-colored Barbet, Chocó Toucan, Chocó Woodpecker, Rose-faced Parrot, Stub-tailed Antbird, Bicolored Antbird, and Black-tipped Cotinga.

*From here you can continue to Buenaventura for seabird watching on the Pacific coast. This point was not included in the official route, but if you have time, you can visit it in a day trip.

Cauca

Paramos in Puracé National Park and the Central Andes

From Valle, the route goes into the south of the department of Cauca to observe the Central Andes and the páramo where you can see the Andean condor.

At the end of the day you can enjoy a bath in the volcanic springs of Coconuco, where the thermal waters have been diverted to a series of pools, each at a different temperature.

Dry Forest in the Patía Valley

Descending from the páramo, the itinerary concludes in the dry forest of the Patía Valley, located only 600 meters above sea level. The dry forest is a very different habitat where you can find Blue Ground-Dove, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Apical Flycatcher (endemic), and the Scarlet-backed Woodpecker.

Nariño Extension (Optional)

Birders with extra time and a thirst for adventure should continue south to the department of Nariño, a former conflict zone that is newly accessible to visitors.

Nariño is rather more rustic than Valle or Cauca, but features fantastic birding, especially in the rainforests of the Pacific slope.

Among the highlights is La Planada Reserve, which offers some of the best birding in Colombia. You can also continue on to the Rio ñambi Reserve and the Bangsias Reserve.

Another place that has emerged as an interesting birding destination in Nariño is Tumaco. However, the law and order situation still keeps it on the back foot for tourism development. We do not recommend traveling to this place alone.

As time goes by, the list of Colombian birding trails has grown and you can be sure that you will find fantastic birds in any region of the country.

Recommendations

  • Take waterproof clothing, waterproof boots, and waterproof backpacks to protect your equipment in case of rain.
  • Remember that this whole region has a high relative humidity, so be prepared to keep your equipment safe from excess humidity. In our entry How to Prepare for a Birding Tour in the Neotropics? you will find useful information on this subject.
  • Be always accompanied by a local guide.

If you want to know more about Colombian nature tours contact us and plan your trip with us.

References
  • Birdwatching in Colombia – Procolombia
  • Audubon Society Website
  • The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail
About the author

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism–environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.

Best Set to Photography Tropical Rainforest Birds at Upper Anchicayá

The Anchicayá is a Colombian river, in the department of Valle del Cauca, which originates west of Cali and flows into the Pacific Ocean, in the Buenaventura Bay. Like all rivers on the Pacific side, it has a high biodiversity. The Anchicayá basin is one of the richest places in Colombia for birding, and is considered the first in the world. This area is composed by a tropical rainforest that contains countless rivers and waterfalls of crystalline water and has a great variety of fauna and flora typical of the Pacific region and the Biogeographic Chocó. It is an area rich in primary forests that are characterized by their biodiversity in flora and fauna. The region is the third place with the highest rainfall in the world and the first in bird diversity. This is a very special area for birdwatching, with around 500 species recorded in several locations along the road, such as Agua Clara, the Danubio, Lower Anchicayá and Upper Anchicayá.

Since 1955, the company CELSIA, from the ARGOS Group, owns two hydroelectric power stations: The Alto Anchicayá hydroelectric plant, located 85 km west of Cali, and the Bajo Anchicayá plant located within the perimeter of the Los Farallones Natural Park. The reservoirs are located along the Anchicayá River. When you go birding on this road, the observation points are distributed and referenced around these two reservoirs, and they are known as Low Anchicayá and Upper Anchicayá. The upper Anchicayá is the nearest point from Cali.

Birding at Upper Anchicayá: El Descanso

El Descanso is a must for those who like bird photography. It is a unique place thanks to its location on the road that leads from Cali to Buenaventura through the Anchicayá River basin, in the Valle del Cauca department. As I mentioned before, it is one of the most important hotspots for bird watching, where the western mountain range of the Colombian Andes merges with the tropical rainforests of the biogeographic Chocó. On this road you will find a gradient that goes from the Andean cloud forest to the seashore in the Pacific sea.

In the area known as Alto Anchicayá, or upper Anchicayá, Dora Londoño offers tourist services for bird watching, together with her children, her grandchildren and her husband. She was a victim of the war in Colombia, who had to leave her place of origin to save her life. In Anchicayá she found refuge for her family, and has lived there for more than 20 years.  Initially, Doña Dora had a small cafeteria on her farm called El Descanso, next to the old road that leads from Cali to Buenaventura, at kilometer 55. In her cafeteria she offered lunches, cheese empanadas, coffee and her famous puff pastries. Her clients were the engineers and workers of the local reservoirs, who constantly went by. Doña Dora feels immense gratitude for that time, and for her first clients, who made it easier for her to settle in this place.

Doña Dora making her famous puff pastries at El Descanso

Over time, other types of customers began to arrive at their cafeteria. This family did not know that there were people willing to paid trips to come to Colombia to watch birds. They would never have thought of such a thing! For them, birds were part of their daily lives, and they did not pay much attention to them.

The Bird Photographers

Groups of people with very large cameras and binoculars, dressed in camouflage clothes began to arrive. Doña Dora asked the guides who were with them about who they were or what they were doing. She found out that they were birders. They used to sit and have a coffee at Doña Dora’s while they rested from their long journey along this road. One day, next to the house, one of the trees was bearing fruit, and a large number of birds began to arrive to eat from the tree. And it was that just at that moment there was a group of bird watchers in the cafeteria. They quickly got up from their chairs, leaving the coffee and the flakes, to follow and photograph these birds in the tree. And so the story began.

El Descanso farm is on the edge of a mountain covered by a dense cloud forest, in the tropical rainforest of the Biogeographic Choco. There is nothing but the mountain bordering the road and the house. One day, one of the guides suggested to Doña Dora that she give the birds food to attract them. Despite her incredulity, she began by putting bananas on a board, then papaya and sugary water. With this, not only did the birds arrive, but more tourists! In time, and by applying visitor’s recommendations, she set up a garden behind her house, with sticks and logs, drinking troughs and feeders, and began to make improvements with the money that tourism left her.

Attracting the Birds

She remembers that the first birds to arrive were the Mal-casados, or the badly married, common name of the White-lined tanagers. Then the Primaveras ones (Clay-colored Thrush), the Clarineros del Pacífico (Blue-winged Mountain Tanager), and the last one, the most difficult to attract, the Compás (Toucan Barbet) because it is a bird that usually do not exposes easily.

Malcasados – White-lined Tanager – Tachyphonus rufus

Clarinero del Pacífico – Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager – Anisognathus somptuosus

Compas – Toucan Barbet – Semnornis ramphastinus

Sustainable Destination

Family unity and constant commitment have brought this tourism project to fruition. Thanks to the support of her husband and sons, and with the help of several bank loans, she has managed to finish building her house, support her family and keep the birds. She build a third floor with an observation tower, which is more as a terrace, which gives direct view to the canopy, and where she has installed some drinking troughs to attract hummingbirds. His plans in the future are to offer a basic rural accommodation service, with hot water bathrooms. One of the attractions of the place is also the beautiful murals with birds painted by one of Dora’s sons, Erbert Sanchez. His aim is to fill the house with these murals, and to highlight the beauty of the rainforest birds that visit the gardens.

Gardens at El Descanso Farm, Doña Dora, especially disposed for bird photography.

Terrace, at El Descanso Farm, Doña Dora, especially disposed to attract hummingbirds.

Murals, at El Descanso Farm, Doña Dora.

All this has been paid for by the money left over from the birders’ visits. She knows that developing a tourist destination is a process that requires love and a lot of commitment. It has only been four years since she has positioned herself as a destination with a constant flow of birdwatching tourists, before that, it was all effort, patience and dedication, for almost two years.  Today they have been affected by the pandemic crisis, and any economic assistance is very important to them. If you are interested in helping you can contact them through their Facebook page.

Find a checklist of the birds you can observe in and around El Descanso, in Upper Anchicayá. This checklist is generated with data from eBird (ebird.org), a global database of bird sightings from birders like you. If you enjoy this checklist, please consider contributing your sightings to eBird. It is 100% free to take part, and your observations will help support birders, researchers, and conservationists worldwide. Go to ebird.org to learn more!

 

About the author

Sara Colmenares

Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.