When to visit
Where to stay
Key Nariño birds
Nariño birding sites
Laguna La Concha
Kilometer 42 and Finca Maragricola
Tyrian Metaltail is found at higher Nariño elevations
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/500 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/500 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Nariño is a wild and mostly unexplored department in Southwestern Colombia, right on the border with Ecuador. Though is was for a long time an active conflict area and stronghold for the FARC guerillas, the department - mirroring Colombia as a whole - has recently stabilized and opened to international tourists. Nariño encompasses habitats from Andean páramo to lowland rainforest, and more than 1,200 species of birds have been recorded in the department, a municipality about the size of Maryland. However, Nariño's great birding doesn't come easily, and extra planning is required to overcome challenges stemming from a general lack of infrastructure. This post will highlight the areas I visited in the summer of 2018, and I hope the accounts of my travels will streamline logistics for future Nariño visitors. I'd also suggest visiting the Birding Nariño Facebook Page (run by Nariño birder Cristian Flórez-Paí). It has some additional information and offers a forum for visitors to connect with local birders.
To fully understand Nariño, we must first understand something about the Andes. Almost everyone knows the Andes run north through Chile and along the western reaches of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. What fewer know is the range trifurcates into 3 distinct cordilleras soon after crossing into Colombia. That unusual geography - coupled with Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast - has facilitated a very high degree of localized speciation in the Colombian mountains. That all but a few of Colombia's 78 endemic bird species are confined to the mountains (Andes or Santa Martas) or the valleys they define speaks to this phenomenon.
As good as Nariño's birding is, it's not a good place to look for those endemics for two reasons - one arbitrary and one geographic. First, human drawn lines have juxtaposed Nariño and Ecuador, so Nariño shares virtually all of its birds with that neighboring country. Second, the Andes haven't trifurcated in Nariño, so the region hasn't experienced the same high degree of speciation as have other mountainous areas in Colombia. The single cordillera that will split to yield the Western and Central branches is labeled as 'WestCentral Andes' on the above map (the eastern branch splits off farther northeast, in Huila). However, what Nariño lacks in Colombian endemics it more than redeems with Chocó Bioregion endemics, regionally specialized species inhabiting the Pacific slopes of Colombia and Ecuador. Accessing Nariño's Pacific slope is fairly straightforward (with a few caveats), so it's as good a place as any to observe Chocó birds. I'll have more to say about the Chocó in the 'Key Nariño birds' section below.
Nariño is best visited in conjunction with Valle and Cauca, the departments just to the north, for several reasons. First, Pasto's airport doesn't handle international traffic and will require a connecting flight to reach. Second, rental cars aren't available at Pasto's airport; individual people or couples who want to explore Nariño without joining a tour or hiring a driver will have a hard time doing so from a Pasto arrival point. Third, there is dynamite birding in Valle and Cauca, and visitors to Southwestern Colombia are going to want to spend some time in those departments. Cali has a great airport, and it's easy for birders to rent cars at that international gateway. My suggestion would be to spend 6-7 days around Valle/Cali (Post #144) before heading south to Cauca/Popayán (Post #145) for 3-4 days. From there it would be easy to continue south into Nariño/Pasto for an additional 4-5 days of birding.
While renting a car in Cali is a totally viable option, many visitors hire a driver with his own vehicle instead. The daily rate varies with the size of of the vehicle and includes the gas and the driver's lodging and food since he'll be traveling with you. It might sound expensive, but it's hardly more than renting a car. Contact Jovani Flórez at Solutions in Colombia (firstname.lastname@example.org, Whatsapp +57 311 227 1259 or +57 320 835 9104). They are the 'go-to' for Colombian birding transportation and have experience carting birders all around the country.
When to Visit:
Short Answer: December through February, July and August
Long Answer: Rainfall is the primary consideration when planning a visit to Cauca, Colombia, or anywhere in the tropics, and the graphs below show the average monthly rainfall in Pasto (2,500 meters, 8,300 feet) and Tumaco (sea level). This data was obtained from this website. It's actually really cool, so check it out for more information.
You can see rainfall patterns are very similar in the mountains and on the coast. This is nice as you don't have to play elevations against one another during your visit. The paramo at 11,000 feet (nearly 3,000 feet above Pasto) will probably be driest December-February (during the true Andean summer), so that's one consideration. Also remember that Nariño will probably be visited in conjunction with Valle and Cauca, and those are best visited December-February. They are also nice July-August, but weather at very high (páramo) elevations is more variable July-August than it is December-February. Beyond those considerations, two others factors need be considered. First, the inter-Andean valleys in Valle and Cauca are hottest during July-August, so that might dissuade some travelers from visiting in that window. Second, the North American neotropical migrants are present October through April, so total trip lists will be higher December-February than they will in July-August.
Where to stay
Pasto is a modern city and has many suitable accommodations, but lodging options decline steeply from that central point. There are some decent beach hotels in Tumaco, but that incredibly poor and run-down city offers visitors nothing beyond lodging. La Planada - perfectly positioned halfway down the Nariño's Pacific slope - is a very minimal ecolodge requiring travelers to make significant comfort sacrifices (more on this later). Rather than present all the lodging options here, I'll cover them in the context of the birding sites discussed below.
At writing, there are no local birding Guides in Pasto, but that will surely change as demand for them increases. The Audubon Society is working to train locals to serve as guides as you read this. For now, it would be easy to hire a Cali-based guide and have him/her accompany you south to Nariño after time in Valle and Cauca. I've worked extensively with Ibagué-based Hernan Arias and highly recommend him. He knows all the birds, had amazing ears, is familiar with the entire country, speaks English fluently, and is an all around great guy. You can contact him at email@example.com or at +57 318 385 3676.
Violet-tailed Sylph is a Chocó endemic found in Pacific Nariño
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/400 at f/5.6, ISO 1600
As Narino has been historically under-birded, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of the the distribution of birds in the department. There is some coverage in eBird, but not so much to know what's surely present versus surely absent at most sites. I've done my best to synthesize information from eBird and various field guides, but what I present here is far from infallible!
Though Nariño hosts some Colombia endemics on edges of their usually more interior ranges (Colombian Chachalaca, Apical Flycatcher, e.g.), birders should not focus on endemics in Nariño; any Colombian endemic found in the department will be more easily found in Valle or Cauca anyway. Beyond a handful of high elevation páramo species that can be found outside Pasto (see Páramo Bordoncillo below), birders should concentrate on the many Chocó endemics inhabiting Nariño's Pacific slope.
Dusky Chlorospingus - a Chocó endemic
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/4, ISO 2000
Páramo Bordoncillo (eBird Hotspot)
An hour above Pasto and right on the Nariño-Putamayo border, Páramo Bordoncillio (3,200 meters, 10,500 feet) offers great high-elevation birding - with a few access caveats. Road 10 is in great shape, and birders can just pull off at the trailhead (which is frustratingly unsigned). From there, a rudimentary and dreadfully maintained track leads through some cow pastures before assuming a pitch so steep that only those birders in very good shape will be able to continue, especially with the very thin air at that elevation. There are certainly birds on the lowest reaches of the trail, but climbing higher into the habitat will increase the chances for Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Glowing Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, Tawny Antpitta, 5 species of tapaculos (Ash-colored, Spillman's, Blackish, Páramo, and Ocellated), White-chinned Thistletail, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Pale-naped and Slaty Brushfinches, Golden-crowned Tanager, Blue-backed Conebill, and Scarlet-bellied, Hooded, Lacrimose, and Buff-Breasted Mountain-Tanagers. Most prized at Bordoncillo are Chestnut-bellied Cotinga and Masked Mountain-Tanager, two species with very restricted ranges within the mountains of Colombia and Ecuador. Bordoncillo is technically private and there is supposedly an entry fee, but I'm not sure how one contacts the people who run/own it. There is a very small dwelling at the trailhead, so maybe by knocking on the door (better know Spanish)?!?! These are the sorts of organizational challenges Nariño presents, particularly as many of the best birding sites are on private land owned by people without modern communications (cell phones, webpages, emails).
Just down the hill from Bordoncillo at 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) is Laguna de La Concha, a great place to add a few water birds to your Colombia list. I'd recommend focusing on the northern shore. Birders will find a road (Via Laguna de la Concha) that runs through Puerto del Encanto (photo below) and out into the marsh. Yellow-billed Pintail, Andean Duck, Slate-colored Coot, and Andean Gull, Grassland Yellow-Finch are always in the area. It's also possible to hire a boat for a ride, but it's doubtful that will add many birds that can't be seen from shore. Likewise, a quick visit to the Santuario de Flora Isla Corota might be fun but is more for the experience than for any specific birds. Pastures and secondary woodlands surrounding the lake hold Andean Guan, Green-tailed Trainbearer, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Azara's Spinetail, Sierran Elaenia, Red-crested Cotinga, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Slaty Brushfinch, and a variety of other High Andean birds. Birding-wise, the lake is worth 3-4 hours, at most. Overnight stays will be more geared to relaxation.
There are a number of lodging options around the north end of the lake, but Waira (Facebook page, Airbnb listing) is great for groups of 2-4 people. Jorge (photo below) is quite the character. He is super friendly, speaks English fluently, and is a ton of fun. He even has his own boat to run guests around the lake. From Puerto El Encanto, his place requires 25 minutes on a bumpy dirt road, but that could be done in a standard car at a slow speed.
Cumbal is 2.5 hours southwest of Pasto and less than 5 miles from the Ecuadorian border. Though it's quite small, there is at least one basic - but decent - hotel in town, and from that base birders can explore Laguna Cumbal (3,400 meters, 11,150 feet) in the shadows of Volcan Cumbal (4,700 meters, 15,400 feet). Given its remote proximity, Cumbal hasn't received much coverage, so it's difficult to know exactly what birds are present. Regardless, the small and undeveloped lake is really beautiful and worth hiring a boat to explore. A 15-minute ride will carry visitors to Santuario de Capotes (fun video), a small environmental facility from which the páramo can be intimately explored via a series of hiking trails. Birders might find Shining Sunbeam, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Purple-backed Thornbill, Viridian Metaltail, Cinereous Harrier, Tawny Antpitta, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Cinereous Conebill, Black-crested Warbler, or Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. There is lodging at the facility, but it's very basic and probably best suited to the most adventurous. It's also possible to bird some of the rural roads to the south and west of the lake. Those run mostly through pastures and secondary habitat and offer a nice complement to the birding right at the lake.
View of Laguna Cumbal from west, Cumbal Páramo at Capotes
The FARC is gone from Cumbal, but not forgotten...
Reserva La Planada (eBird Hotspot, website)
La Planada was my favorite place I visited in Nariño, but it comes with a few caveats. Importantly the birding isn't one of those, and nearly 300 species have been eBirded from the expansive reserve at 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) on Nariño's Pacific Slope.
There is lodging at La Planada, but it is very basic. My room had only a bed, pillow/blankets, and a light bulb. I didn't care as I am a minimalist by design, but at least one of my travel companions remarked at the lack of curtains/privacy. The bathrooms are separated from the bunkhouse and require clothes and shoes to reach, a particular headache in the middle of the night. The bunkhouse also requires a 400-yard walk down a rather rough trail - with luggage. I was fine with my backpack, but access will a pain for anyone with a rolling suitcase. There is a very basic 'restaurant', but guests eat whatever the staff is having (eggs/chicken, rice, plantains, and not much else). The access road is also steep and in pretty poor shape, and I suspect that reaching the reserve/lodge would impossible without high-clearance and very difficult without 4-wheel drive.
Yes, the accommodations at La Planada are basic, but visitors will be rewarded with wonderful habitat and birds. I really like minimal places like this, but I realize it may not be for everyone. I just want people to know what to expect before they arrive.
Río Nambi (eBird Hotspot)
Just 25 Km down/west on Highway 10 and 600 vertical meters (2,000 feet) below La Planada is Río Nambi (1,200 meters, 3,900 feet). There's not much to it, just a rather poorly-maintained trail leading into the habitat from the roadside. There's no visitor's center or information kiosk at the trailhead, but there is a fun mural on the side of a shed showing some of the reserve's birds, Toucan Barbet and Indigo Flowerpiercer among them. The trail leaves from that spot.
Other residents include White-whiskered Hermit, Velvet-purple Coronet, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Scarlet-and-white Tanager, Moss-backed Tanager, and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia, all Chocó endemics. Beyond those, birders might encounter more widespread species such as Golden-headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Broad-billed Motmot, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Zeledon's Antbird, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Golden-winged Manakin, Dusky Chlorospingus, Common Chlorospingus, and nearly 300 others.
The Nambi trail was very muddy and slippery when I visited, but it was wide and easy to follow. It's 3Km (I think) to the research station at the top of the reserve, but I'd suggest birders stick to the lower reaches. The facility/restaurant at the top isn't a 'must-see', and there's no great view from it as there is from La Planada. So, if you have the time and energy it might make a nice - but long - walk. Otherwise bird to the first rest hut and then turn around.
Cristian Flórez-Paí, the Nariño birder who runs Birding Nariño Facebook Page, is currently constructing a small ecolodge, Aves y Flores ('Birds and Flowers'), just down the road from Río Nambi. When completed, it will be a great place from which to explore Nambi, La Planada, and sites lower on the Pacific Slope. Cristian is a really good resource, and I know he would be happy to answer whatever Nariño birding questions you might post on the Facebook page (brush up your Spanish!).
Kilometer 42 / Pueblo Nuevo
This spot and the next (Finca Maragrícola) are private properties very low on the Pacific Slope (basically at sea level) that are just opening to foreign birders. There is frustratingly little information as to how to access either spot, so I am going to provide what information I have. The locations of both spots, as well as La Planada and Río Nambi, are shown on the map below.
As there isn't an eBird hotspot for the area, here is a link to my full checklist. Despite repeated attempts to track down the identity of the owner, I have only unearthed a phone number with no name to put to it, +57 315 765 9949 or +57 323 456 1782. The birding at Km 42 was really good, but these are the sorts of frustrations one routinely experiences on Nariño's Pacific slope. Nothing is organized or easy. Those interested can also try to contact Cristian though the Facebook Page. So, yeah, you really have to want to bird the area to make all the logistics worthwhile. Hopefully this will improve moving forward, but it is what it is for now.
Finca Maragrícola (eBird Hotspot)
This site offers similar low elevation birding to Km 42 but is slightly better organized, probably because the land is minimally administered by some university. It too is a dirt road leading away from the Highway 10 roadside and into some habitat, and nearly 260 species have been eBirded along its ~3Km length. My visit yielded Little Tinamou, Greater Ani, Pacific Parrotlet, Pale-legged Hornero, Masked Water-Tyrant, and White-bearded Manakin. The back reaches of the road explore some watery impoundments, and on those we found White-cheeked Pintail, Purple Gallinule, White-throated Crake, Wattled Jacana, and a nice mix of waders and shorebirds. Angel Guevara (+57 317 758 9154) is the contact person for Maragrícola if you want to arrange a visit. The birding at Maragrícola is really good, and - assuming you can get permission and the logistics squared away - is super easy to reach from Tumaco (20 mins). NOTE: Maragrícola and Km 42 (Pueblo Nuevo) get very hot and humid by late-morning, so ideally they should be visited on consecutive mornings from a Tumaco base.
Without sugar coating it, Tumaco is incredibly poor and will be of zero interest to birders. Because of a general lack of tourism infrastructure everywhere on the Nariño's Pacific Slope, the city is a necessary stopover if you want to visit the coastal reaches of the department. I'd suggest overnighting at the Hotel Los Corales on the beach. It's a bit of a pain as you will need traverse the entire city to get into or out of town, but there just aren't other options.
Staying on the beach will offer at least some diversionary birding in the time between visiting Km 42 and Maragrícola. We found Royal Tern, Blue-footed Booby, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Ringed Kingfisher, and a few others waterbirds in front of the hotel. The Tumaco airport isn't far away and offers chances for Chestnut-throated Seedeater and Peruvian Meadowlark, two species that barely make it into Colombia/Nariño from Ecuador and countries south. I would bird Nariño's Pacific slope as a one-way endeavor and fly out of Tumaco to get back to Cali or Bogotá.
Chestnut-throated Seedeater in Tumaco
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
So, that's what I have to offer on Nariño at this time. It should be clear to everyone that Nariño presents great birding but logistical challenges to match. Those hurdles will be lowered as more people visit the department, and birders who visit in the meantime will provide the economic incentive to make those improvements. As I said, I'd couple 4-5 days in Nariño to 10-12 days in Valle and Cauca. That would make for a wonderful sampling of Southwestern Colombia and easily net between 300-400 birds, depending on enthusiasm levels.
This concludes this series of Colombia posts. I may put together a combined Huila/Tolima post at some point, but I have some other writing that is more pressing at this time! Please share this around. I think it's a really good resource, and I hope people will find it useful!