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Andean Condor at Puracé National Park
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 800
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 800
Understanding Cauca's bird diversity
A Popayán-centric appraoch
When to visit
Where to stay
Key Cauca birds
Cauca Birding Sites
Hacienda Anton Moreno 1760
Ecoparque Rayos del Sol
Road 26 between Totoró and Itza
Puracé National Park
With over 1,900 bird species, Colombia outpaces all other countries in avian diversity. Incredibly, ~1,300 of those species have been recorded in Cauca, a department just larger than the state of Massachusetts. I recently visited Cauca for the first time, and I will use this post to highlight the areas I birded. Cauca was a stronghold for FARC guerrillas during the 1990's and early 2000's, and very few birders visited the department during those tumultuous years. However, with increased political stability and the associated Colombian Peace Process, the department is now safe for travel. I consider myself lucky to have visited this wonderful area, and I hope other birders will discover its avian riches in the upcoming years.
A visit to Cauca couples particularly well to both the more developed Valle del Cauca Department to the north and the less developed Nariño Department to the south. It would be easy to fly into Cali, spend a week in Valle (last post), move south for 4-5 days in Cauca, and finish with 4-5 days in Nariño (next post). I found Popayán, Cauca's central city, to feel more distinctly Colombian that the more international Cali, and I think the charming city is worth a visit irrespective of the great birding found just beyond it.
Understanding Cauca's Bird DiversityBesides its equatorial proximity, Cauca owes its incredible bird diversity to topography. The Andes are the most prominent feature, and the Popayán Plateau (dotted black line above, right) marks the point of divergence between the Western and Central branches of that range (the Eastern branch splits off in neighboring Huila). That resulting Cauca River Valley hosts birds not found at Andean elevations, and the non-overlapping diversities of the Pacific and Amazonian Lowlands swell the department's birdlist to their unbelievable levels. It's really that little slice of Amazonian Lowlands that distinguishes Cauca from Valle to the North and Nariño to the south as the eastern boundaries of those departments fall well short of that species-rich habitat.
A Popayán-centric approach
As diverse as is Cauca's birdlife, the department is significantly less developed than Valle to the north. This is both good and bad; there's lot's of habitat, but much of it is inaccessible. It's really not possible, for example, to bird the Pacific Slope in Cauca because of lack of access. Birders looking to explore that habitat will either need to go north to Valle/Cali or south to Nariño/Tumaco. The roads in and around Popayán are decent, but infrastructure deteriorates outward from the city. So, most of what I present here is Popayán-centric. I'm sure there is amazing birding in other parts of the department, but it might be a while before there is the infrastructure to access it.
Central Popayán (stock photo)
Almost everyone is going to access Cauca from Valle for two reasons. First, Cali has a great international airport complete with multi-national car rental agencies. Popayán has a very small, domestic-only airport which does not offer rentals. Second, there is a lot of amazing birding just outside Cali, and birders will want to spend at least a week in that area. Popayán is ~140Km (85 miles) from Cali, and that drive can take anywhere between 2.5 and 5 hours, mostly depending on how bad traffic in Cali is. As in most Latin American countries, urban freeways like those in the US don't exist, so it can take an excruciatingly long time to go even a short distance in and around major cities. Once you've moved beyond Cali's diabolical clutches, the highway to Popayán, like most of the north-south inter-Andean routes, is fine. There quite a few tolls on those inter-Andean thoroughfares, so make sure you have enough cash.
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 (email@example.com, 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. If you arrive in Popayán, I would also suggest contacting Javier at Excursions J.R. (firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook excursiones JR, phone 8329741, Whatsapp +57 300 778 1838 or +57 313 771 1149). He drove my group around Cauca and was excellent.
When to Visit:
Short Answer: Late-November through March, especially January and February. July and August are also decent.
Long Answer: Rainfall is the primary consideration when planning a visit to Cauca, Colombia, or anywhere in the tropics, and the graph below show the average monthly rainfall in Popayán at 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). This data was obtained from this website. It's actually really cool, so check it out if you want to get your geek on!
There is a low point in July-August and another one mid-December through mid-February. At first glance, July-August might seem the clear choice, but it's important to remember than the Popayán Plateau is a topographical lowpoint between the Western and Central Andes, higher elevation areas that receive significantly more rainfall at all points in the year. So, while Popayán is generally driest July-August, late-November through March (the Andean Summer) is the best time to visit the surrounding mountains. July-August is also good in the mountains, but weather on the high elevation páramo, Cauca's most spectacular habitat, is actually more variable in that window that it is from late-November through March. Beyond those high elevation rain considerations, two others factors should weigh into your thinking. First, Popayán - and all the inter-Andean valleys - are warmest during the driest seasons; the lower elevations will actually be more comfortable late-November through March than they will July-August. Second, the North American neotropical migrants are present October through April, so total trip lists will be higher late-November through March than they will in July-August. With January and February being in the middle of the preferred window, those months would be my choice to visit.
Where to stay
There are several suitable accommodations in and around Popayán, but finding modern and comfortable places to stay as one moves farther out from that center becomes a challenge. I'll present a couple of really good options in the context of the birding sites I'll present below.
At writing, there are no local birding Guides in Popayán, but that will surely change as demand for them increases. The Naitonal Audubon Society is currently helping to train local guides, and those folks will be a great resource once they are ready. In the meantime, it would be easy to hire a Cali-based guide and have him/her accompany you south to Cauca after some time in Valle. 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.
Key Cauca Birds
Since Cauca has been under-birded compared to other areas - Valle to the north, for example - there isn't the eBird coverage for most of the department to say that a particular species is surely present or absent at many sites. I've tried to synthesize that eBird data with field guide range maps as best I can, but readers should know that what I present below is far from an exact science.
Colombian Endemics that occur in Cauca with some regularity
Colorful Puffleg - West Andes - Cauca only
Colombian Chachalaca - Widespread on slopes of inter-Andean Valleys
Chestnut Wood-Quail - Slopes of Western and Central Andes, a few in Eastern Andes
Grayish Piculet - Cauca Valley (including Popayán Plateau) and adjacent slopes
Apical Flycatcher - Widespread in the drier inter-Andean valleys and adjacent slopes
Munchique Wood-Wren - Spottily in West Andes, mostly west of Pereira and Manizales. Also Cauca
Colombian Chachalaca is found on the very northern and eastern peripheries of the department, but it's much better/easier sought around Cali. There are sightings of Chestnut Wood-Quail on the west slope of the West Andes in/around Munchique National Park east of Popayán, but there aren't enough data to discern much of a pattern. It's also probably better sought in Valle. There are scattered sightings of Grayish Piculet and Apical Flycatcher on the Popayán Plateau, and those species should be fairly common in mixed forests and secondary growth at that elevation. Munchique Wood-Wren is a cryptic West Andean resident originally discovered in Munchique National Park. It's since been found farther north, specifically west of Pereira and Manizales (Montezuma/Tatama, e.g.), and hardcore listers generally seek that species at those more accessible locations. I'm sure it's possible to find the species in Cauca/Munchique, but the efforts it will require are beyond the scope of this piece. Same goes for the next bird.
Colorful Puffleg is a very interesting case. That hummer is known only from the Munchique area making it a Cauca endemic! I am not sure of the conservation status of this species, but there are fewer than 10 independent eBird reports, all between 2005 and 2010. While it's distantly possible the species is extinct, it's more likely the area hasn't been birded enough to have an accurate picture of the bird's abundance and distribution (or lack of it). Very adventurous individuals might find some way of getting into Munchique to search for this bird and the wood-wren, but I really have no idea about how folks might do that, sorry.
For the rest of this post, E = Endemic to Colombia
Important note: Accessing Cauca's Pacific Slope and the Chocó endemics it holds is so difficult that is not worth doing. Birders would be advised to seek those species on Valle's Pacific Slope at Anchicaya or on Nariño's Pacific Slope between La Planada and Tumaco. For those not familiar with the Chocó Bioregion, please see my last post.
Though my survey of the department was far from comphrensive, I was most impressed by Cauca's páramo. Not only is it expansive, but there are several good ways to access it. There are 3 different roads that will carry birders up an over the Central Andean Páramo (purple dotted lines) that straddles the Cauca-Huila departmental border (solid black line). All 3 are through-roads, so it's possible to drive Road 26 east to Inza, spend a few days in Huila, then loop back to Cauca on either Road 24 or Road 20. If that's too ambitious, it's easy to make a day trip to the Puracé's páramo from Coconuco (as described more later). Reaching that point will give birders chances for all sorts of special birds, none being more exciting or majestic than Andean Condor. I'll introduce the other páramo species in the contexts of the various birding sites I'll present below. But trust me when I say it's the páramo birds that should motivate birders to experience Cauca.
Click map to zoom in
Cauca Birding Spots
Hacienda Antón Moreno 1760 (eBird Hotspot I created)
Antón Moreno is a private finca 20 minutes outside Popayán (1,800 meters, 5,900 feet). Besides being loaded with birds, the hacienda is absolutely stunning. It is owned and maintained by the very friendly Anselmo Vergara, and he has restored the property so beautifully that several movies and TV shows have been filmed on-site. On a 2-hour Anton Moreno walk, we observed Western Emerald, Grayish Piculet (E), Spectacled Parrotlet, Montane Woodcreeper, Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, Apical Flycatcher (E), Black-and-white Becard, Fawn-breasted Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Crested Oropendola, and Yellow-bellied Siskin. As of October 2018, it isn't possible to stay at Anton Moreno, but I think that will be change in the near future. The place will certainly be worth an overnight, and time at Anton Moreno will fit nicely into a Popayán-based itinerary, especially for a non-birding spouse! Contact Anselmo ahead of time to arrange a visit (firstname.lastname@example.org). Anselmo has plans to make a webpage, but it isn't done yet. Here is a link (from a design company with some connection to the finca) so you can see more photos of the property.
Finca Anton Moreno, Birders (Anselmo at far right)
Ecoparque Rayos del Sol (eBird Hotspot, Facebook page)
Located about 15 km northeast of Popayán, right where Road 26 departs Road 25 (the road north to Cali), this educational and community facility is the perfect place to spend a morning or afternoon as one transits into or out of the city. There is a small visitor's center, and a 1Km trail that runs through some nice plateau habitat (again, 1,800 meters, 5,900 feet). I birded Rayos from 4-6pm and turned up 38 species including Sickle-winged Guan, Striped Cuckoo, Andean Motmot, Golden-faced Tyrannulet, Scrub Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, Black-winged Saltator, and White-naped Brushfinch. It's possible to stay at Rayos; the accommodations are basic but comfortable an include a home cooked dinner. There is also space for camping if that's your thing. There is a minimal entry fee to walk the trail, but it's totally worth if even if you only spend an hour. I found Rayos to be a really fun and funk place, and I like supporting community ventures such as it. An overnight at Rayos also makes for the perfect departure point for the next spot I'll discuss (but it's easy from downtown Popayán as well).
Road 26 between Totoró and Inza
This road is one of three routes that connects Cauca to Huila over the Central Andes. The beauty of the road is that is traverses a number of different elevational habitats as it ascends from Rayos del Sol at around 6,000' to over 11,000' at the road crest. Plus, once you cross over to the eastern side of the Central Andes, you'll get different species than on the western side. The road is just a single lane in each direction, but it isn't so narrow or heavily trafficked that you can't just pull over, park, and bird wherever you want. I'd suggest stopping every 10Km or so, with more time near the top (on the páramo) and on the back/eastern slope. There isn't gas along the road, so make sure you have enough before leaving Popayán.
One notable landmark is the Restaurante Las Cascadas around Km 54, just a bit beyond the road crest as one drives west to east. It's really the only building for miles so you can't miss it. The place serves very basic but very good food (chicken, trout, rice, plantains), and it's great place to shelter should inclement páramo weather rear its head. Birding around the restaurant, we found Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Cirtrine Warbler, Golden-fronted Redstart, Black-capped Hemispingus, Plushcap, and Paramo Seedeater, among others. Other roadside stops at páramo elevations yielded Andean Teal, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, Mountain Wren, Golden-crowned Tanager (best.bird.ever.), and Hooded, Lacrimose, and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers.
Restaurante Las Cascadas
One thing to keep in mind with Highway 26 is that road conditions can change very fast, particularly during the wetter páramo months. Landslides seem a fairly common occurrence, and I saw road crews making repairs from what looked like two or three past episodes. My group had originally intended to go all the way to Inza, but a very recent landslide turned us around at Km 72 and sent us back to Rayos for a second night. It's important to know that way more seemingly simple stuff goes wrong along the road in Colombia than in the US. Though the cities are modern, the rural areas are still truly third world. You need to have patience for trucks breaking down in the middle of the road or cows wandering into street and blocking traffic.
This mudslide forced a change of plans.
Despite the roadblock, we still made it a decent way down the eastern slope. Highlights from our descent included Tourmaline Sunangle, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Collared Jay, Colombian Chachalaca (E), Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Chestnut-collared Swift, Blue-capped Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Blue-and-black Tanager, Mountain Cacique, Yellow-backed Oriole, Golden-rumped Euphonia, and yadda yadda yadda. Road 26 is money. Go. You'll see lots of cool birds. Those most adventurous loop might want to loop south into Huila for a few days before re-crossing the Central Andes on Road 24 (bumpy but passable) or Road 20 (very slow and bumpy but great birding).
Puracé National Park
Located in the Central Andes about 90 minutes west of Popayán, this place is an absolute must visit. Road 24 can be navigated in a standard rental car, but a 4-wheel drive and/or high clearance would be much better. Follow Road 20 west out of Popayán for about 20Km. Start your odometer where Road 24 splits off from Road 20 (which continues on to Coconuco). The first 2Km of Road 24 are unpaved and very steep. It levels off a bit after that introduction and pavement takes you another 10Km to reach the tiny town of Puracé at Km 12. There is basic food and water there, but not much else. If you're going to spend the whole day at Puracé NP, which I advise, I would bring a lunch so you don't need to drop to the town in the middle of the day to eat.
Road 24 into Puracé NP
Hostería Coconuco - a great Puracé base
Andean Condor at Puracé
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800
Volcanic springs at Termales San Juan in Puracé
After the condors, I'd return to the páramo for more high elevation birding. Exploring the area around Laguna San Rafael (eBird hotspot), we found Tawny Antpitta, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Mountain Wren, Páramo Tapaculo, and Pale-naped Brushfich. We also heard Crescent-faced Antpitta, one of the most reclusive birds in the entire country. The road into and out of Puracé makes for great birding, and it's so lightly trafficked enough that birders can stop and explore whenever they want. I easily could have spent two full days at Puracé.
Boque Leguaro a private finca just outside Coconuco and couples perfectly with a visit to Puracé, particularly the morning after a full day (or two!) at the national park and an overnight at the Hostería Coconuco. There is no eBird Hotspot for Bosque Legaro (yet!), but this eBird spot is right at the end of the driveway and essentially marks the turn into the finca (map below). Be sure to check the river for White-capped Dipper and Torrent Tyrannulet before heading up to the finca. The house has both hummingbird and fruit feeders, but birders should first head upslope behind the house. There is no trail, so the best thing to do is wander through the pastures and scan the forest edges for feeding flocks. Using that strategy, we found Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Barred Becard, Mountain Wren, Golden-rumped Euphonia, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, and Blue-and-black Tanager. Most importantly we found Cinerous Conebill, Rufous-chested Tanager, and Golden-plumed Parakeet, three mid-elevations species that can be tricky in that area (those species can sometimes be found along the steep/unpaved 2 Km bottom section of the Puracé road as well). Contact Jose Fernán at email@example.com to arrange a visit to Bosque Leguaro. There is small fee, but it's totally worth it. Plus, you'll be supporting people at the most local level possible if you visit!
Sparkling Violet is common at Bosque Legauro
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/320 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Hacienda Versalles (eBird hotspot)
Located off Road 25 towards the southern end of Cauca, just ~18Km before the road crosses into Nariño, this private property is a hidden gem. It is an old ranch house that has been converted into basic but comfortable lodging, and its several dormitory-style rooms can accommodate upwards of 25 people. Home-cooked meals are included and are fantastic. I'd bring bottled water as the tap water is certainly not perfectly clean. While worth a visit in the context of Cauca, the place makes an ideal overnight if you want to continue south into Nariño. Alternatively, it is possible to travel to Versalles, bird it for a day or two, then return to Popayán and/or travel back north to Valle/Cali.
View of ranch house and pool (nice after a morning of birding!)
The birding at Versalles is wonderful and easy. A series of walkable farm roads leads through a dry landscape, and birders alternate exploring open pastureland and surrounding dry forest habitat. Birders might expect to find Blue Ground-Dove, Dark-billed Cuckoo, Black-throated Mango, Grayish Piculet (E), Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Pale-breasted Spinetale, Apical Flycatcher (E), loads of other flycatchers, Scrub Tanager, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. However, the tenderly-diminutive and strikingly-patterned Scarlet-backed Woodpecker is the signature bird for the property. The Upper Patia Valley is the only place in Colombia to see this species, so make sure it's on your radar at Hacienda Versalles!
Views around Versalles (Río Turbio)
Since it is a private property, visiting Hacienda Versalles will take some advance planning. Contact María Alejandra González at firstname.lastname@example.org or at +57 318 803 1254 to arrange a visit. All communication will need be in Spanish, so be ready for that. It might take a bit of work to get everything squared away, but your visit will make the logistics totally worth it. The different habitat will also fluff up your trip list for those that are concerned about that sort of thing.
OK, that about does it for Cauca. I am sure that there is way more to do than I have presented here, and I hope you'll find some spots of your own to explore. Cauca might take a bit more organization on the front end, but it is a fantastic birding destination that I think all birders will enjoy. One thing to note is the Cauca is NOT a good place for bird photography as there aren't feeder array so to draw birds into worthwhile shooting distance. You'll want you camera for the condor, but otherwise I'd focus on birding in Cauca. If you're really into photography, I'd suggest a few days around Cali, specifically at La Minga and Finca Alejandria (see my last post for info on those spots) .
Damn, that's a lot of info, I hope someone finds it useful!
Next up? Nariño! Stay tuned!