Colombia’s tropical location, two ocean coasts, and four mountain ranges have endowed the nation with innumerable ecosystems that shelter nearly 2,000 species of birds, making it the richest country on Earth in terms of avian life. Now that Colombia is moving past decades of political conflict, it’s extraordinary landscapes increasingly attractive to birders. The National Audubon Society has partnered with the government of Colombia and Calidris, our BirdLife International partner, to help the country reach its goal of becoming the world’s top birding destination. The project is part of a process in which birding—and birders themselves—are becoming active drivers in conservation, economic development, and peace-building.
The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail, the third of four Audubon birding routes, explores Cauca, Valle del Cauca (Valle), and Nariño, three Colombian departments with nearly 1,400 bird species between them. Many of this region’s best birding habitats, which had been off-limits for decades, are now open to birders who want to experience the Southwest’s extraordinary avian life. Audubon has engaged with local partners to develop bird-focused ecotourism as a means of boosting local commitment to conservation and protecting essential habitats. The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail includes Audubon-trained professional birding guides, small businesses and support services, and sites such as national parks and private reserves.
This itinerary is part of a process in which birding—and birders themselves—are becoming active drivers in economic development and ecotourism.
Southwestern Andes Highlights
Birders and tour operators can follow the 11-day itinerary exactly, or use it as a starting point to create individually tailored excursions. Though designed mostly around birdwatching, this route also offers a wonderful sample of Colombian landscapes, people, and culture. The itinerary won’t overwhelm birders who are first-time travelers to Colombia, nor will it bore those who have visited the country before. We invite you travel the Southwestern Andes, experience Colombia, see hundreds of amazing birds, and become an active participant in a valuable conservation project!
For a detailed itinerary, contacts, and additional information on the Southwestern Andes Birding Trail, click here.
Valle and the Western Andes
The trip begins in Valle, where you’ll spend the first few days exploring a variety of elevational habitats in the Western Andes above the bustling city of Cali, the salsa-dancing capital of the world. You’ll find colorful tanagers, iridescent hummingbirds, and a mix of antbirds, puffbirds, motmots, and quetzals. With the advent of peace, the wealth of birding at the Río Bravo Reserve is just being discovered. At nearby Yotoco, more than 300 species of birds have been recorded, including the endangered Cauca Guan.
Laguna Sonso, Cloud Forest, and Araucana Lodge
Birders at Laguna Sonso, a wetland formed by the slow meander of the Cauca River, have recorded nearly 400 species. Above it, the beautiful Andean cloud forest begins at around 2,000 meters (~6,600 feet). You’ll bird at the reserve attached to charming and secluded La Minga Ecolodge, which has a wonderful porch, complete with hammocks. From it you can watch hummingbirds and tanagers come and go from the various feeders; if you’re lucky the Multicolored Tanager may put in an appearance.
Upper Anchicaya Slopes
Following the path of the Anchicaya River as it flows down the Western Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean, the mostly abandoned Old Buenaventura Road offers incredible birding. Included in the 500+ species that have been recorded along the road’s length are many Chocó endemics. The world-famous biocorridor claims more than 50 endemic birds, and with effort you’ll find a number of those in the upper, most accessible portions of the Anchicaya Valley.
The Pacific Lowlands at San Cipriano
San Cipriano’s Pacific rainforest is incredibly wet, very lush, and home to lower-elevation Chocó endemics—among them are the Five-colored Barbet, Chocó Toucan, Chocó Woodpecker, Rose-faced Parrot, Stub-tailed Antbird, Bicolored Antbird, and Black-tipped Cotinga.
Puracé National Park and the Central Andes
From Valle, the route moves south into Cauca to sample the Central Andes and the associated páramo, a high-elevation habitat that is as beautiful as it is unusual. Of the many páramo birds you may, the Andean Condor—the New World’s largest bird—might be the most prized. Puracé National Park’s many trails traverse a landscape dotted with unusual frailejone plants. Among them are high-altitude specialists such as the Many-striped Canastero, White-chinned Thistetail, Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. End the day with a swim at the volcanic hot spring in Coconuco, where thermal water has been diverted into a series of swimming pools, each a different temperature.
The Patía Valley
Dropping from the páramo, the itinerary concludes in the Patía Valley’s dry forest before returning north to Cali for departure. Situated at just 600 meters (~2,000 feet), the dry forest will be a dramatic departure from the route’s other habitats, and it hosts many species that we haven’t yet encountered. Leisurely walking the dirt roads that crisscross Finca Versalles, look for Blue Ground-Dove, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Apical Flycatcher (endemic), and area’s signature bird, the Scarlet-backed Woodpecker.
Optional Nariño Extension
Birders with extra time and a thirst for adventure should continue south into Nariño, a former conflict area that is newly accessible to visitors. Nariño is significantly more rustic than Valle or Cauca, but presents fantastic birding, particularly on the humid Pacific Slope. Among the highlights is the legendary La Planada Reserve, which offers some of the best birding in Colombia. The view from the mirador (lookout) at the top of the preserve is beautiful, and it’s possible to imagine what much of the country looked like before the arrival of humans.
Guide Spotlight: Diana Deisy Tróchez
I’m an artisan and educator, and a member of the Misak indigenous group. I was raised in the Guambia indigenous reservation, and I work at the las Delicias Botanical Garden. The community created the garden as a center for education and conservation, and research of native trees and orchids. It’s also a means to rescue our culture. We want to preserve our mother tongue, our clothing, and our botanicals for future generations.
We’re working with the local government and families to conserve nearby natural areas on private properties that are vulnerable. We’re also trying to build community tourism, with an emphasis on birding. We knew the names of birds in our native language and often in Spanish, but not in English—which has been one of the primary benefits of our Audubon training.
I’m grateful that I was selected to train with Audubon because the project has changed my life. At the workshops I interact with people from other cultures, and learn the best ways to carry out conservation. Once I’ve finished, I’ll have the opportunity to replicate these techniques in my community and educate more people. We work with students from pre-school through university, but it is the young ones who are our greatest hope. If we can reach them, they’re the ones who will save these beautiful places in the long term.