Northwest Argentina: From the Chaco to the Altiplano
From dry lowland forest to flamingo-studded lakes high in the Andes.
From the dry chaco with its distinctive avifauna, to the southernmost cloudforests in the Andes, to the high altiplano with its flamingo-studded lakes, this tour offers a fascinating variety of habitats and birds. There is a huge number of different species for birders who have only visited the north Andean countries, with evocative names like earthcreepers, brushrunners, cachalotes, and gallitos. We cover a lot of ground on this tour, but it is quite comfortable thanks to Argentina’s good infrastructure and friendly people. Wine aficionados will enjoy sampling the great local vintages during our evening meals.
The following itinerary was for the 2012 tour. There will be some changes for the 2014 tour.
Day 1: Buenos Aires. Most international flights to Buenos Aires arrive mid-morning. We’ll arrange a transfer to our hotel in the city center, and have an afternoon to bird in the nearby Costanera Sur reserve, which can be insanely good for waterfowl and a few Pampas specialties like Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch and Freckle-breasted Thornbird.
Day 2: Buenos Aires to the Rio Yala. After an early flight to the city of Salta, we’ll drive north to a small park along the Yala river, spending one night in a delightful B&B. Birding the idyllic Yala valley will give us our first chance at Rufous-throated Dipper, although the rare Red-faced Guan will be our main target in the alder forests. We may also find Spot-breasted Thornbird, Rusty-browed Warbling-Finch, Plush-crested Jay, and Fulvous-headed Brush-Finch.
Day 3: Rio Yala and the Humahuaca Valley. After another morning along the Rio Yala, we head north, climbing up the Humahuaca valley into the altiplano. Roadside stops can be very productive, highlighted by the endemic Bare-eyed Ground-Dove and flocks of finches that should include the cracking Black-hooded Sierra-Finch. We’ll check a few small lakes, which depending on water levels, could have Chilean, Andean, and Puna Flamingos, Andean Avocet, Andean Negrito, and others. We spend the night in a small altiplano village.
Day 4: Pozuelos and Lagunilla. Depending on our luck with flamingos yesterday, we may walk out to the edge of Pozuelos. This huge lake is also a magnet for flamingos as well as high Andean waterfowl, Puna Plovers, and wintering shorebirds. The dry puna around the lake is great for Golden-spotted Ground-Dove, Puna and Common Miners, Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, Short-billed Pipit, and a variety of finches. Later in the morning, depending on road conditions, we may bird another lake above the village of Lagunilla, which in some years can be jam-packed with Horned and Giant Coots. In the afternoon, we drive to the border town of La Quiaca for a two-night stay.
Day 5: Sierra de Santa Victoria. We climb up to a 14,700 ft (4500 m) pass, the highest elevation we reach on the tour. The scenery here is nothing short of spectacular, and while species numbers are low, what we do see is quite different. The smartly-dressed Red-backed Sierra-Finch is usually easy to find, and we’ll also look for Mountain Parakeet, Slender-billed Miner, Black-fronted Ground-Tyrant, and Andean Swallow.
Day 6: Yavi to Calilegua NP. An early morning visit to the quaint village of Yavi should score us Citron-headed Yellow-Finch, Bare-faced Ground-Dove, and maybe even a Wedge-tailed Hillstar. We then have a long drive back through Jujuy to the town of San Martín, where we’ll spend the next two nights. We may arrive early enough for some afternoon birding in Calilegua NP. This park protects a huge tract of wet yungas cloudforest.
Day 7: Calilegua NP. We’ll spend the whole day birding various elevations of the park. Some of the key birds here include Tucuman Parrot, Blue-capped Puffleg, White-throated Antpitta, and Saffron-billed Sparrow.
Day 8: Palomitas and JV Gonzales. Today we head for the chaco, first birding a foothill road that can be good for the elegant but shy Black-legged Seriema. Other targets here include Little Thornbird, Cream-backed Woodpecker, and Spot-backed Puffbird. We then drive to the town of JV Gonzales for a two-night stay.
Day 9: JV Gonzales. We’ll spend a full day birding dry scrub and woodland, looking for Crested Gallito, Crested Hornero, Cinereous Tyrant, Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, Chaco Earthcreeper, Olive-crowned Crescentchest, and other Chaco specialties.
Day 10: JV Gonzales to Salta. After another morning birding the chaco, we return to Salta, staying in a hotel outside the city. A nearby reserve has some great nightbirding and we’ll look for Hoy’s Screech-Owl.
Day 11: Salta to Cachí. The road snakes up a steep valley known as the Cuesta del Obispo, where roadside scrub and woodland hold some extremely localized species like Iquico Canastero, Rufous-bellied Saltator, and Zimmer’s Tapaculo. On the far side of the pass, the road drops into an upland desert characterized by tall, columnar cacti. This is home to two more Argentine endemics, the ghostly Sandy Gallito and noisy White-throated Cachlote. We’ll have one night in the pleasant village of Cachí.
Day 12: Cachí to Cafayate. After another morning to clean up this area, we’ll drive south through one of the most scenic areas on the continent with rock formations reminiscent of the American west. We spend one night in Cafayate.
Day 13: Cafayate to Tafí del Valle. The rare endemic Steinbach’s Canastero is our main target this morning, but we should also find Ringed Warbling-Finch and White-fronted Woodpecker. Later we head back into the higher mountains and spend two nights in Tafí del Valle.
Day 14: El Infiernillo and Rio Sosa. We’ll bird this high mountain pass at dawn for Buff-breasted Earthcreeper and Tucuman Mountain-Finch before dropping down into the forested Rio Sosa Valley. Here we’ll check the river looking for Rufous-throated Dipper, the rarest member of the family, as well as the endemic White-browed Tapaculo and Yellow-striped Brush-Finch.
Day 15: Tafí to Buenos Aires. After another morning of birding, we catch a flight to Buenos Aires, arriving in time to connect with evening international flights.
Córdoba pre-tour extension (4 days)
Day 1: Buenos Aires. Flights arrive today in Buenos Aires. Most international flights arrive mid-morning. We’ll arrange a transfer to our hotel in the city center, and have an afternoon to bird in the nearby Costanera Sur reserve; even though we will also bird this reserve on the main tour, there is a lot to see here and it is certainly worth two visits.
Day 2: Sierra de Córdoba. After a short flight to the city of Córdoba, we bird a misty mountain range with rocky crags and grassy valleys. We search small streams for the endemic Olrog’s and Córdoba Cinclodes and will also try for an endemic form of Puna Canastero (a possible future split). Other more widespread birds include the unique Spectacled Tyrant, colorful Long-tailed Meadowlark, Plumbeous Rail, and Darwin’s Nothura. There is also a chance for Andean Condor. We have one night at a nice hotel in the foothills of the mountains.
Day 3: Sierra de Córdoba to Salinas Grandes. We’ll have another morning to target anything we’re still looking for before driving about four hours north to the salt flats of Salinas Grandes. The strange, endemic Salinas Monjita manages to eke out a living around the edges of just a few saltpans in this area of Argentina. We hope to score this bird quickly since almost nothing else shares its habitat. That will give us time to bird the nearby chaco scrub for Spot-winged Falconet (much more likely here than on the main tour), Black-crested Finch, Crested Hornero, Lark-liked Brushrunner, Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, and other specialties. We have one night in a fairly basic hotel (best available) in Dean Funes.
Day 4: Salinas Grandes to Buenos Aires. We have another morning to bird in the chaco before heading back to Córdoba and taking an early afternoon flight to Buenos Aires, where we spend the night.
CLIMATE: Hot in the chaco to chilly in the high Andes, with a bit of rain in some areas.
DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy. Nearly all birding is from roadsides, and there is only one optional strenuous hike. This tour does require some long days and a few long drives
ACCOMMODATION: Mostly good to excellent, except for three nights in clean but simple hotels, though they still have private bathrooms and hot water.