Blue-winged Mountain Tanager at Finca Alejandria
Valle del Cauca Introduction
When to visit
Where to stay
Key Valle birds
Valle birding sites (this is far from exhaustive)
Dapa-Chicoral and La Minga
San Antonio, Kilometer 18, and Finca Alejandria (with Araucana Lodge)
Valle del Cauca (or just 'Valle') is fast becoming one of the most popular birding destinations in Colombia. Access through Cali's international airport is easy, infrastructure is generally good, and an astounding array of tropical birds can be found with a half-day's drive of that gateway city. Accommodations are modern, logistics are mostly straightforward, and it would be easy for birders to arrive, rent a car, and drive themselves to all the birding sites I'll describe in just 7 or 8 days. For now anyway, Valle birding is mostly synonymous with the areas north and west of Cali, but the entire department - like everywhere in Colombia - is loaded with birds.
Looking at the topographic map above, we can see than Valle encompasses several major geographic features: the coast, the Pacific Lowlands, the Western Andes, the Cauca River Valley, and the Central Andes. When summed, those diverse habitats hold over 1,000 species in a department about the size of New Jersey! The Pacific Slope of the Western Andes and the adjacent lowlands are part of the Chocó Bioregion, a stretch of mostly coastal forest and biodiversity hotspot stretching from Southern Panama to Northwestern Peru (below, left). The Chocó claims more than 70 endemic birds, and the areas west of Cali - Anchicaya, San Cipriano - afford birders the chance to view many of those special species. Note - There is also a Chocó Department within Colombia (map at below right). That governmental unit lies almost completely with the Chocó Bioregion, but the two should not be confused.
To the east of the Chocó and the Western Andes, the rainshadowed Cauca Valley present some drier habitat in which a completely different complement of birds are found, and there is access to the high elevation Central Andean paramo at Tenerife. However, I'd suggest venturing south in neighboring Cauca Department (next post) to visit Purace National Park if you have a few extra days. Purace's paramo is really spectacular and well worth the half-day's (4-5 hour) drive to reach it. Popayán also feels more distinctly Colombian than the more international Cali, and I think many visitors would enjoy that cultural diversion.
Beyond pure birdwatching, Valle offers excellent bird photography opportunities, especially at La Minga and Finca Alejandria where natural perches have been thoughtfully placed around the attracting feeders. Sonso does not have feeders, but its wide sight lines, larger water birds, and usually good light make for decent photography in a field-type of setting.
Cali's modern and international airport makes getting to Valle a snap. It's easy to connect through Bogotá, and a number of carriers fly direct from other international destinations. For example, on my last trip, I went San Francisco > Panama City > Cali on Copa Airlines. Many of the major car rental outfits (Avis, Alamo, etc) have branches at the airport, but many birders just hire a private driver with his own vehicle as that absolves them of driving and navigating. The way that generally works is that you pay a flat daily fee for the driver and the vehicle. That fee varies with the size of the vehicle and includes the driver and gas as well as 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 (which is itself surprisingly expensive). 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: Late-November through March, especially January and Feburary. June through August can also be decent.
Long Answer: Rainfall is the primary consideration when planning a visit to Valle, Colombia, or anywhere else in the tropics, and the graph below shows the average monthly rainfall in Cali at elevation 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). This data was obtained from this website. It's actually really cool, so check it out if you want to get your nerd on!
There is a low point in July-August and another one mid-December through mid-March. At first glance July-August might seem the clear choice, but it important to remember that Cali - in the Cauca Valley - is at a topographical lowpoint between the Western and Central Andes, higher elevation areas that receive more rain at all points in the year. While Cali is driest July-August, late-November through March (the Andean Summer) is generally better in the mountains. The inter-Andean Valleys - where Cali finds itself - are also hottest in July-August, so that's another reason to visit between late-November to March. Lastly, total trip lists tend to be higher November to March since the North American neotropical migrants are present. So, my first choice would be to visit in the middle of the Andean Summer - January or February. Just remember, it's the tropics; there's always going to be some rain!
Where to stayThere is no shortage of suitable accommodations in and around Cali, and I will highlight a number of lodge-type properties in the mountains outside/above the city. If those are booked, if you have limited time, or if you want to stay in the city, many wonderful birding spots can be reached with an hour or two of driving from downtown. I'll make more specific lodging recommendations as I introduce the individual birding sites.
I'd start by contacting Birdwatch Colombia (http://www.colombiabirdwatch.com/), a Cali-based birding company that has experience in Valle and everywhere else. Run by Oregon transplant Chris Calonje, they can sort you out with whatever you need. I've also worked with Ibagué-based Hernan Arias and highly recommend him as well. He knows all the birds, has unbelievable 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.
Key Valle birds
Compared to other regions within Colombia, the Southwestern Andes do not hold as many true Colombian endemics. What the area offers instead is a huge number of Chocó endemics, most of which are shared with only neighboring Ecuador a few hundred miles to the south.
Immature male Multicolored Tanager at Finca Alejandria
Colombian endemics that occur in Valle with some regularity:
Cauca Guan - Slopes of Western and Central Andes (Valle, Risaralda, Quindio, Cauca)
Colombian Chachalaca - Slopes of inter-Andean valleys
Chestnut Wood-Quail - Mostly slopes of Western and Central Andres, a few in Eastern Andes
Grayish Piculet - Cauca Valley and adjacent slopes
Parker's Antbird - Mostly Central Andes with a small population in Eastern Andes
Apical Flycatcher - Widespread in drier inter-Andean valleys and adjacent slopes
Multicolored Tanager - Western Andes; Risaralda and Antioquia in Central Andes
Crested Ant-Tanager - West slope of Western Andes
The very noisy Colombian Chachalaca will be found without dedicated searching. Apical Flycatcher and Grayish Piculet are common on the Andean slopes and in the Cauca Valley, Laguna Sonso for example. Multicolored Tanager is fairly common in forests between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, and they come to feeders at La Minga and Finca Alejandria if all else fails. Crested Ant-Tanager is often present at Anchicaya, Pance, and Pichindé above Cali. Also keep your eyes open for that bird at Río Bravo. Chestnut Wood-Quail is likely to be heard anywhere on the western slope of the Western Andes, but getting eyes on it is very difficult. There are smattered Valle sightings of Cauca Guan and Parker's Antibird - mostly around Yotoco and Anchicaya, respectively - but both species are more reliably sought farther north towards Pereira and Manizales. For the remainder of this piece, E = Colombian endemic.
As for Chocó endemics, at least 40-45 can be found in Valle, all in mountains above Cali and/or on the Pacific Slope. These include Berlepsch's Tinamou, Baudo Guan, Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Blue-tailed Trogon, Toucan and Five-colored Barbets, Stub-tailed Antbird, Chocó Tapaculo, Pacific Flatbill, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Club-winged Manakin, Scarlet-and-white Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Rufous-throated Tanager, Yellow-collared Chlorophonia, and others. Anchicaya is by far the best place to search for most of these, but some low-elevation specialists can also be found at San Cipriano. For the remainder of this post CE = Chocó endemic.
Valle Birding Sites
Río Bravo (eBird Hotspot)
Río Bravo is located about 2 driving hours north of Cali. Formerly inaccessible due to the political conflict, the valley and dirt road that descends it are now safe for visitors and make for a nice introduction to Southwestern Andean birding. Using a mix of driving and walking, birders can descend from 1,400 meters to 1,200 meters (4,600 feet to 3,900 feet). The top part of that road is in very good shape and can be managed in even small rental cars, but high clearance would be better for the lower and less maintained stretches. 4-wheel drive, as always, would be helpful but is not required. Species present at Río Bravo include Chestnut Wood-Quail (E), Andean Motmot, Red-headed Barbet, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Grayish Piculet (E), Bar-crested Antshrike, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, and a host of colorful tanagers headlined by Crested Ant-Tanager (E), Multicolored Tanager (E), and Rufous-throated Tanager (CE). Only ~210 species have been eBirded from the road ('caretera'), but that number will swell with more coverage. It would be easy to spend a full morning walking/driving downhill through the reserve, and those who get tired can always rest in the accompanying vehicle. It does get warm later in the morning, so try to arrive as close to sunrise as possible. I'd recommend staying at La Huerta and using that base to explore Río Bravo, Yotoco, and Laguna Sonso.
Yotoco (eBird Hotspot, website)
Located just 15 minutes from La Huerta, Yotoco (1,600 meters, 4,600 feet) offers slightly a slightly different birding experience than Río Bravo. There is decent birding in the large courtyard at the reserve entrance, but most of the action is on a series of very narrow and sometimes steep trails running through the reserve's beautiful primary habitat. Though it hasn't yet been eBirded from Río Bravo, Colombian Chachalaca (E) is common at Yotoco. Other residents include Little Tinamou, Collared Trogon, Grayish Piculet (E), White-bibbed Manakin, Speckle-breasted Wren, Plain Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Blue-necked Tanager. Though it is much better sought farther north, Cauca Guan (E) has made periodic appearances at Yotoco, so the reserve probably represents the best - but still long - chance of finding that bird in Valle. Thick foliage makes birding challenging, but over 300 species have been recorded in the reserve. There is onsite lodging, and it's a good option for those looking for something cheaper or more rustic than La Huerta. There's no restaurant, but meals can be arranged if you contact the reserve manager ahead of time. Access is super easy as Yotoco is right off the main road. That makes it a great place to stop en route to somewhere else. If there's lot's of action great; if not, just continue.
Laguna Sonso (eBird Hotspot, website)
Ready for some easy birding? Drive the 30 minutes from La Huerta to Laguna Sonso just outside Buga. Situated in the drier Cauca River Valley at 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), the preserve presents very diverse birdlife. Impoundments are home to Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jacana, Cocoi Heron, Striated Heron, Bare-faced Ibis, Pinnated Bittern, Snail Kite, Amazon Kingfisher, and Greater Ani, and surrounding secondary growth hosts Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Spectacled Parrotlet, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Grayish Piculet (E), Jet Antbird, Striped Cuckoo, Apical Flycatcher (E), and a wide array of colorful tanagers and orioles. Nearly 400 species have been recorded at Sonso, and there will be more than enough action to fill up an entire morning. There is also a visitor's center of sorts, as well as some educational facilities, so Sonso feels a bit more legitimate than less developed reserves (Río Bravo, for example). There are reserve guides, and they can help you navigate the area. Trails aren't well-signed, but the area is flat and open enough that it would be difficult to get lost even without a guide (famous last words, right?). Sonso gets very hot by 10-11am, particularly in the driest months of June, July, and August, so visit as early in the day as possible, preferably 6-11am or so.
Sonso viewsDapa-Chicoral and La Minga (eBird Hotspots: Via a Dapa roadside, Chicoral roadside, La Minga, La Minga website)
Dapa-Chicoral is a ridge of intact Andean Cloud Forest about an hour's drive above/outside Cali. The front side of the ridge is called Dapa and the backside is called Chicoral; La Minga, a small guesthouse/ecolodge, sits just over the road crest (2,000 meters, 6,600 feet) on the Chicoral side. It's a steep and twisty 15km from Arroyo Hondo to reach that crest on Via a Dapa. The road turns to dirt about 4-5km from the crest, and the birding from that point up-and-over is fantastic. The entrance road to La Minga is the best birding of all but is private property and requires prior arrangements/fees. I highly suggest visiting La Minga and it's great feeder array. Everyone - and especially photographers - will appreciate the close views of many species, and the lodge porch is a great place to relax after a morning of walking. All vehicles will be fine on the main Dapa-Chicoral Road, but high clearance is recommended for the La Minga driveway. I did it in a small rental car at a snail's pace and still bottomed-out multiple times!
As for birds the entire area is great. Regularly occurring birds include Golden-headed and Crested Quetzals, Red-headed Barbet, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Streak-capped Treehunter, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-winged Manakin, Barred Becard, Black-winged Saltator, and an endless array of tanagers headlined by the endemic Multicolored. Up to a dozen species of hummingbirds can be observed on the La Minga feeders, so there's no end to the action. La Minga only sleeps 6 guests, but small groups should definitely consider spending a night or two. It's that good (and so is the food)! One cautionary note - The main road is quiet during the week but can be a bit dangerous on weekends when (obnoxious?) motorcycle enthusiasts speed up and down the road. If you go on the weekend, go very early and keep your visit short. Or just bird La Minga the whole time.
Red-headed Barbet at La Minga
San Antonio Forest (eBird Hotspot), Kilometer 18 Cloud Forest (eBird Hotspot), and Finca Alejandria (eBird Hotspot)
These three sites are clustered around the small town of Kilometer 18 (the town is named by its measured position along Road 19), so I am going to treat them together for convenience. All continue the cloud forest theme of Dapa-Chicoral and offer more chances at species characteristic of that habitat. San Antonio Forest (Bosque de San Antonio) is a publicly accessible trail along which nearly 400 species of bird have been observed. Birders might encounter Colombian Chachalaca (E), Chestnut Wood-Quail (E), Golden-headed Quetzal, Collared Trogon, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Spillmann's Tapaculo, Montane Foliage-gleaner, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Marble-Faced Bristle-Tyrant, Whiskered Wren, Citrine Warbler, or Golden-rumped Euphonia on the 4Km round-trip walk to the antenna and back. A morning at San Antonio would couple well with an afternoon at Kilometer 18 Cloud Forest (Bosque de Niebla Kilometer 18) and Finca Alejandria (El Paraiso de Los Colibries). Finca Alejandria's unbelievable feeder array is probably the main attraction, and birders can expect close-views of hummers such as Long-tailed Sylph, Bronzy Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet, Booted Racket-tail, Purple-throated Woodstar, Andean Emerald, and Steely-vented Hummingbird. Tanagers are also well-represented with Flame-rumped, Blue-gray, Golden-naped, Saffron-crowned, Golden, Scrub, and Multicolored (E) making regular appearances. Relaxing in front of the feeders is the perfect way to relax after a morning of walking. Those with additional energy should bird the lightly-trafficked entrance road. It's that entrance road which is called the Kilometer 18 Cloud Forest, and along it birders should look for Southern Emerald Toucanet, Masked Trogon, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Chestnut-bellied Wren, Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, Green Honeycreeper, Metallic-green Yanager, and over 300 others!
Though it is not open at writing (Oct 2018), Araucana Lodge will be the place to stay when it opens in early 2019. The owners are professional bird guides (http://www.colombiabirdwatch.com/), and they have designed the entire property to serve birders. It will be large enough for tour groups and offers easy access to San Antonio, Kilometer 18, Finca Alejandria, Anchicaya, and San Cipriano (those last two highlighted below).
Golden Tanager at Finca Alejandria
Anchicaya (ebird Hotspot for Upper and eBird Hotspot for Lower)
The Anchicaya Watershed is a gigantic valley descending from Andean Cloud Forest at 1,600 meters (5,200 feet) west towards the Pacific Lowlands at 200 meters (650 feet). Abandoned by all but a minimum of local traffic, the Old Buenaventura Road offers birders nearly 500 species. Chocó birds are the biggest attractions, and at least 45 of the 70+ Chocó endemics have been recorded along the road. The upper portion of the valley is the most accessible and hosts Toucan Barbet, Chocó Tapaculo, Nariño Tapacula, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Club-winged Manakin, Black Solitaire, Glistening-green Tanager, Purplish-mantled Tanager, and Gray-and-gold Tanager - all Chocó endemics shared only with neighboring Ecuador. Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager is both a Chocó and a Colombian endemic and is usually in the area is well. A small entry fee (bring small bills) gains access to the feeders at El Descanso (eBird Hotspot) where birders are likely to encounter White-whiskered Hermit, Violet-tailed Sylph, and Empress Brilliant. The road is paved for 10Km beyond/below El Descanso but deteriorates quickly from that point. High clearance will be needed and 4-wheel drive is highly recommended. It's probably advisable to bring enough food for the entire day.
AnchicayaReaching Lower Anchicaya is a big production, one requiring not just a suitable vehicle but also the 5-6 slow driving hours it will require to get in and out. There is a small research station where well-connected and persistent birders can arrange to stay (firstname.lastname@example.org), but otherwise Lower Anchicaya must be done as a painfully long day-trip that is best for hardcore listers. Those that make the trek could be rewarded with any of Baudo Guan, Dusky Pigeon, Blue-tailed Trogon, Five-colored Barbet, Chocó Toucan, Rose-faced Parrot, Stub-tailed Antbird, Chocó Tyrannulet, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Black-tipped Cotinga, and Scarlet-and-white, Gold-chested, Blue-whiskered, and Lemon-spectacled Tanagers. For those who can't handle the logistics or commitment of getting into Lower Anchicaya, San Cipriano offers a viable alternative.
Female Lyre-tailed Nightjar on nest on Old Buenaventura Road
An isolated river community, San Cipriano offers easier access to the Pacific Lowlands than the Old Buenaventura Road through Anchicaya. However, 'easier' is still a relative term, and accessing San Cipriano is a bit of a chore - but a really fun one! That's because the only way to access the area is via the engineering marvel locally known as the 'Bruhita'. Literally translated as 'little witch', the motorcycle-train-skateboard hybrid must be experienced to be believed. Nothing like this would EVER be permitted/sanctioned in the US, but it was a hell of a lot of fun shooting through the jungle on it! It looks held together mostly by rope and chewing gum, but the ride was pretty smooth and felt safe enough. The ride is about 20-25 minutes, mostly at ~15 MPH.
Bridge to Bruhita terminal (left) and San Cipriano (right)
Because the Pacific Lowlands get hot and muggy by mid-morning, it is imperative that San Cipriano birders arrive between 6:30 and 7:00am and explore the area before the birds down. That will require some work as the Bruhita doesn't usually start running until later in the morning. Special arrangements will need to be made ahead of time - and probably by someone local. Birders can stay in Buenaventura the night before, but lodging in that rather run down city isn't ideal. The opening of Araucana will solve both of those problems as they will be just 75 minutes from the Bruhitas and have the local connections to order up the required early Bruhita rides. There is a 'hotel' in San Cipriano, but it is very, very basic (think an 8x10' room with a bed, sheet, fan, lightbulb, and nothing else). I stayed there and was kept awake all night by roosters and chickens outside my window. The cold shower was really nice at the end of the hot day, but - really - only hardcore birding badasses should stay in town.
Pance is south of Cali and a bit removed from the other birding sites north and west of that city. It doesn't hold quite the same number of specialty birds as some of the other sites, but Pance still makes for a nice morning of birding, particularly for those continuing south from Cali to Cauca/Popayan as I advised in the introduction. Most of the birding is done from the narrow entrance road and between about 1,200 and 1,800 meters (3,900 and 5,900 feet). Endemics in the area include Colombian Chachalaca, Grayish Piculet, and Crested Ant-Tanager, and birders should also be alert for Moustached Puffbird, Andean Cock-of-the-rock, Golden-collared Manakin, Black-billed Peppershrike, and Scrub Tanager. El Balcón de Colibries (eBird Hotspot) is also worth a stop (small fee) and should afford views of Long-billed Starthroat, Crowned Woodnymph, and Fawn-breasted Brilliant, among others. It is also possible to bird a site called El Topacio (eBird Hotspot), but access requires prior communication with the Corporación Autonoma del Valle del Cauca (CVC), the local agency that administers Farallones. Even without the additional stops, there's more than enough at this classic Cali spot to keep everyone happy.
Scrub Tanager (from Tolima Department, but who cares, right?)
There is not much accessible páramo in the Western Andes, so Valle Visitors will need to cross the Cauca River Valley and climb into the Central Andes to explore that high-elevation landscape. The Tenerife access roads are in pretty poor shape and will require 4-wheel drive. Birders that can reach high enough can hope to find Shining Sunbeam, Purple-backed Thornbill, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Tawny Antpitta, Blackish Tapaculo, Pearled Treerunner, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Red-crested Cotinga, Black-collared Jay, Black-crested Warbler, and other páramo birds. Though Tenerife is one páramo option, a better one is found at Purace National Park in adjacent Cauca Department (next post). If you have a few extra days, I would strongly suggest continuing the 3-4 hours south to experience Purace. It is really incredible and completely worth the trip!
Valle is a world class birding destination, and there is more than enough in the greater-Cali area to motivate 8 to 10 days of birding, depending on energy levels and enthusiasm. Accessing the area is easy and infrastructure everywhere but the Pacific Slope is pretty good. Several tour operators include Valle in their itineraries, but the area is safe and easy enough that birders arrive, rent a car, and explore most of the sites on their own.
In the next 7-10 days, I'll be posting a similar account of my Cauca Department travels, so please be on the lookout for that!