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.

Know One of the Most Pristine Nature Destinations in Colombia: Rio Ñambi

The Río Ñambí Nature Reserve is a natural paradise the tropical forest inserted in the colombian biogeographic Chocó of Nariño. It has a great variety of birds, animals and species that invite you to connect with nature and enjoy the fresh air of this tropical rainforests.

Sustainable Destination

Rio Ñambi is owned by the “Los Colibríes de Altaquer” Ecological Foundation (FELCA), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of nature. FELCA arised in 1991 as a community initiative by a group of students and teachers of the school Santa Teresita de Altaquer, who, concerned about the growing deterioration of natural resources, undertake the task of conserving important areas of forest and teaching others the importance of assuming a responsible attitude towards nature.

FELCA protects the Río Ñambí Nature Reserve since 1992, being one of the first community conservation experiences in South America. Since then, FELCA has been working together with local, national and international institutions, through strategic alliances, to fulfill the objectives of the FELCA Foundation.

Today, the Rio Ñambi Nature Reserve is recognized as a good place for scientific research and ecotourism. It is one of the best destinations for academic practices for institutions of higher, primary and vocational education of the country and around the world.

Characteristics of Río Ñambi Nature Reserve

Rio Ñambi is located in Altaquer, department of Nariño, in the Pacific Region of colombia, Vereda el Barro municipality. It has an extension of
1,400 hectares, distributed along 1100 to 1900 meters above sea level. Temperature ranges between 18ºC and 24ºC.

It is located on the Pacific slope of the Nudo de los Pastos in the Andes mountain range, in the central area of the Biogeographic Chocó. It rains a lot in this region, with an average annual rainfall is between 7000 and 8000 mm, being September to June the wet season, and July to August the dry season. However, do not think is not going to rain, this is an annual cycle when it rains almost every day after 12 noon.

Pristine premontane rainforest at Rio Ñambi Nature Reserve

The reserve protects pristine premontane rain forest, and in succession, concentrating a large number of endemic and endangered species of Fauna and Flora. The Flora of Rio Ñambí presents a high diversity in comparison with others at a similar height on the eastern slope of the Andes. The canopy is between 25 to 30 m high with some emergent species up to 40 m such as Sapium glandulosum (Cebo); The undergrowth is very dense, consisting mainly of high density of orchids, bromeliads, and anthuriums and a great variety of palms. It is an area where several new plant records have been described for Colombia.

Regarding fauna, 25 species of reptiles have been found, and two have been recently described: the Carchi Andes toad (Rhaebo colomai) endangered, and the Campbell’s toadheaded viper (Bothrocophias campbelli) vulnerable. You can also find up to 160 species of Butterflies, and a new one of the genus Hesperocharis.

Thus, Rio Ñambi is home to an extraordinary biological diversity in plant and animal species, many of them considered endemic (species unique to a particular area), or at risk of extinction. Among them we can mention: Chocó vireo (Vireo masteri), a new species of bird for science, Clusia nambiensis a plant with showy and colorful flowers frequently visited by birds, the Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus), the jaguar (Pantera onca) and the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana), among others.

Rio Ñambi as an Area of High Ornithological Interest

According to BirdLife International, Río Ñambí and in general the whole surrounding area is very important for the research and conservation of birds worldwide. The Rio Ñambi nature reserve is an Important Bird Area (IBA) because it houses globally threatened species, at least two restricted-range species, and hold species largelly or wholly confined to one biome-realm, i.e., biome-restricted species. Of the 351 registered species 46 are within the Endemism Area (EBA 041), 23 have some degree of threat being one of the areas that harbors the largest number of globally threatened species in Colombia. From this set of species, 31 are hummingbirds being the most complex and diverse community of hymmingbirds in the world (Flórez 2004, Gutiérrez et al 2004).

Location

This beautiful reserve is located in the southwest of Colombia, in the village of El Barro, Altaquer district, Barbacoas municipality, department of Nariño. It is placed at km 155 on the San Juan de Pasto – Tumaco road.

What to do at Rio Ñambi Nature Reserve

This is a place intended primarily for bird watching. However, you can enjoy both of its rivers and waterfalls, walking along its paths and spend a night na alojamineto very basic, being attended by people from the community. It is an ideal place to simply enjoy and appreciate nature, be calm, or to take a refreshing swim in the crystal clear waters of the Ñambí River.

There is a cabin located 2.5 km far from the road which provides basic facilities for conducting scientific research, workshops and meetings in the middle of the primary forest. It also has a lodging capacity for 40 people, wich includes food and sanitary services. As many reserves in Colombia, services for tourism are not developed, so do not expect to find any luxury.

Rio Ñambi Nature Reserve Cabin

Hiking and Adventure

The reserve has interpretive trails of the numerous natural events and outstanding ecological processes of the tropical rain forests. You can follow the trails starting from the main cabin: the Regugio trail and the Sonoro trail, around the house and near to the river, and the main trail, which is the only access to the main house from the road.

Among them you can visit the forest, enjoy local flora and fauna and take a bath at several waterfalls and pools along the Ñambi river. The Río Ñambí Nature Reserve has waterfalls and natural pools named as “Las Calaveras”, “El Charco”, “La Paila” and “La Piedra del Río Peje ” where you can enjoy a refreshing bath or practice torrentism. You will be able to rappel down the waterfalls, with all the security measures, using ropes, harnesses, gloves and helmets, and with the help of a professional guide.

The forest also has many lianas, typical of these habitats, which are very resistant. You can hang from them like Tarzan or George de la Selva in the middle of this rain forest, or as the locals say make the Howler monkey jump. This activity is done with all the necessary security measures and is one of the main attractions for young and old.

Birding at Rio Ñambí Nature Reserve

After La Planada Nature Reserve, Rio Ñambí is one of the most appreciated places in Nariño to watch birds. It is also an important hotspot in the world to observe birds thanks to the fact that it concentrates a great diversity of bird species in only 1,400 ha, being home to 44 endemic species and 31 species of hummingbirds (Find a complete guide of the Rio Ñambi hummingbirds here).

The forests of Rio Ñambi are characterized by being largely constituted by a primary forest forming a canopy between 25 and 30 m high. Fortunately, the slope of the terrain allows you, in some moments, to be at the height of the canopy or at least half of the height of the forest. And so, you will be able to observe species that would otherwise be no less than gray spots under a white background.

The reserve also has several facilities for birders along the way, such as drinkers and feeders, photography sets, feedlots, and observation balconies.

Among the 350 bird species you can find in the Rio Ñambi reserve, BirdLife international recognizes 60 which gave the IBA criteria for the reserve, which makes them, in turn, of great ornithological interest for birders and scientists. Significantly, including the endangered Baudo Guan (Penelope ortoni), Banded Ground-cuckoo (Neomorphus radiolosus), Great-billed Seed-finch (Sporophila maximiliani) and the vulnerable Dark-backed Wood-quail (Odontophorus melanonotus), Little Woodstar (Chaetocercus bombus), Cloudforest Pygmy-owl (Glaucidium nubicola), Plumbeous Forest-falcon (Micrastur plumbeus), Bicolored Antvireo (Dysithamnus occidentalis), Long-wattled Umbrellabird (Cephalopterus penduliger), Scarlet-breasted Dacnis (Dacnis berlepschi), and the Yellow-green Tanager (Bangsia flavovirens).

Among the restricted distribution species you can find: Purple-bibbed Whitetip (Urosticte benjamini), Choco Trogon (Trogon comptus), Choco Tapaculo (Scytalopus chocoensis), Nariño Tapaculo (Scytalopus vicinior), Choco Tyrannulet (Zimmerius albigularis), Choco Vireo (Vireo masteri), Choco Poorwill (Nyctiphrynus rosenbergi), Choco Daggerbill (Schistes albogularis), Choco Toucan (Ramphastos brevis), and Choco Woodpecker (Dryobates chocoensis).

Nocturnal Treks

Night trips are made in order to find frogs, fluorescent fungi, nocturnal birds and some insects and spiders. The main attraction is the possibility of meeting a beautiful Crystal Frog (Espadarana prosoblepon).

Crystal Frog (Espadarana prosoblepon) © Creative Commons Licence

Orchids Tour

The reserve has an orquidiarium for scientific reserach. There are around 130 species of Orchids registered at Rio Ñambi nature reserve.

Travel recommendations

To give you the best in Reserva Natural Rio Ñambí experience must bring:

  • Light luggage. Access makes it difficult to carry very large or heavy luggage.
  • Health insurance.
  • Mosquito repellent.
  • Cellular 100% charged.
  • Batteries for charging equipment, electricity in the place is minimal.
  • Bring your own medicine cabinet since there isn’t one there.
  • Cash.
  • Camera and accessories.
  • Waterproof hiking boots.
  • Raincoat.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Binoculars.

References

  • Fundación Ecológica Los Colibríes de Altaquer FELCA Website
  • BirdLife International (2020) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Reserva Natural Río Ñambí. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org 
  • Tourist information system of the department of Nariño, SITUR Nariño Website.
  • Kahuari Travel
  • Voces de Nariño Blog
  • Colparques Organization Website

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.