Northwest Argentina: From the Chaco to the Altiplano

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.

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. This reserve is completely man-made – it was basically a land reclamation project for some city building that was never finished and nature has now taken it over. Wide tracks surrounded by woodland wind their way around ponds and reed-filled wetlands. We will especially look for Pampas specialties like Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch and Freckle-breasted Thornbird, reed-loving birds like Wren-like Rushbird and Many-colored Rush-Tyrant, as well as enjoying more common species including Rufous Hornero, Chalk-browed Mockingbird, Checkered Woodpecker, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, and Glitteried-bellied Hummingbird. Water levels of the ponds in the reserve vary from year to year. In good years they are full of coots, ducks, and other waterfowl, while in other years they are dry.

Day 2: Buenos Aires to the Rio Yala. After a morning flight to the city of Salta, we’ll drive north to a small park along the Yala river, spending one night in a quiet 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 Yungas 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. We’ll have another morning in the Yala area, looking for more Yungas specialties such as Slender-tailed Woodstar, Large-tailed Dove, and Yungas Pygmy-Owl along with more common species like Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, Rufous-capped Antshrike, and Rusy-and-yellow Tanager. Later in the morning, we head north, climbing up the scenic Humahuaca valley into the altiplano, stopping for lunch at a restaurant that specializes in llama (don’t worry, there are other things on the menu!). Later in the afternoon, we’ll check a few small lakes, which depending on water levels, could have Chilean, Andean, and Puna Flamingos, Andean Avocet, Andean Negrito, Giant Coot, Puna Teal, and others. We spend the night in a simple hotel in a small altiplano village.

A common yet colorful resident of much of the area, Plush crested Jay
A common yet colorful resident of much of the area, Plush crested Jay (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: Pozuelos and Lagunilla. An early start and packed breakfast and lunch are necessary today as we drive a long way on rough roads to the remote Laguna de los 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 and water levels, we may visit 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. There may be time in the afternoon to look for Least Seedsnipe and Tawny-throated Dotterel near town.

Day 5: Sierra de Santa Victoria. We’ll need another early start as we drive east 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, Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, Black-fronted Ground-Tyrant, Andean Swallow, Brown-backed Mockingbird, Andean Hillstar, and others. If the weather is nice, we stand a good chance of seeing Andean Condor. In the afternoon, we’ll bird some scrub lower down for Puna Yellow-Finch, Mountain Parakeet, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, and others before returning to La Quiaca.

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, Spot-winged Pigeon, and with luck even the rare 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 moist yungas cloudforest. The first afternoon we will concentrate on the drier lower sections of the park, looking for Ochre-cheeked Spinetail, Toco Toucan, Green-cheeked Parakeet, Saffron-billed Sparrow, Black-capped Antwren, and others.

Day 7: Calilegua NP. We’ll spend the whole day birding in the park, working our way slowly up the rough road making numerous stops as we ascend. The middle elevations can be great for Dot-fronted Woodpecker, Giant Antshrike, Amazonian Motmot, Variable Antshrike, and Golden-collared Macaw. Higher up, the forest becomes much more, lush and often foggy, and this is the haunt of several tough birds including Blue-capped Puffleg, White-throated Antpitta, Tucuman Parrot, Ocellated Piculet, White-throated Brush-Finch, and Buff-banded Tyrannulet.

Day 8: Palomitas and Taco Pozo. Today we head for the chaco, first birding a foothill road that can be good for the elegant but extremely shy and hard-to-see Black-legged Seriema. Other targets here include Brushland Tinamou, Little Thornbird, Cream-backed Woodpecker, Chaco Chachalaca, and Spot-backed Puffbird. The chaco area has been decimated for agriculture, and we will have to drive a rather long way for most of the rest of the day to reach an area where a decent amount of habitat still remains. If we make good time, there may be a chance for some late afternoon birding near the town of Taco Pozo, where we will spend two nights.

Day 9: Taco Pozo. We’ll spend a full day birding dry scrub and woodland along flat but often very dusty tracks and roads. We’ll especially target chaco endemics including Crested Gallito, Crested Hornero, Cinereous Tyrant, Scimitar-billed Woodcreeper, Chaco Earthcreeper, Olive-crowned Crescentchest, Black-bodied Woodpecker, and Spot-winged Falconet. Other more widespread species we may find include Stripe-backed Antbird, Blue-tufted Starthroat, Gilded Sapphire, Black-capped Warbling-Finch, Lark-like Brushrunner, and Brown Cacholote.

Las Palomitas offers a shot at the colorful Many-colored Chaco-Finch
Las Palomitas offers a shot at the colorful Many-colored Chaco-Finch (Nick Athanas)

Day 10: Taco Pozo to Salta. The exact location for the morning’s birding will depend on what we are still looking for in the chaco region. Later in the day, we have a long drive back to Salta, where we’ll staying in a hotel in a quiet, forested suburb. A nearby reserve has some great nightbirding and we’ll look for Montane Forest Screech-Owl and Scissor-tailed Nightjar.

Day 11: Salta to Cachi. After the late night of owling, we’ll have a fairly relaxed start. After breakfast, we’ll drive south of Salta, and then turn west into the mountains. The road snakes up a steep valley known as the Cuesta del Obispo, where roadside scrub and woodland hold some extremely localized species like Bare-eyed Ground-Dove, Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch, Maquis Canastero, Rufous-bellied Saltator, and Zimmer’s Tapaculo, along with more common birds, including Yellow-billed and Tufted Tit-Tyrants, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, and Rusty Flowerpiercer. 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 Cacholote. It’s also the best place on the tour for the well-named Elegant Crested-Tinamou. We’ll have one night in the pleasant village of Cachi.

Day 12: Cachí to Cafayate. We’ll return to the desert after an early breakfast, looking for anything we missed the previous afternoon. Later in the afternoon, we’ll drive south through one of the most scenic areas on the continent with rock formations reminiscent of the American west. En route we’ll check out a breeding colony of Burrowing Parrots – some years it is very active, and other years it is completely vacant. Even if we don’t see them at the colony, they are easy to find in other places around Cachi and Cafayate. Cafayate is world-renowned for its wine, and we’ll spend one night in a hotel right in the vineyards.

Day 13: Cafayate to Tafí del Valle. South of the Cafayate we return to the desert, looking for White-throated Cacholote if we haven’t seen it yet, as well as the handsome Ringed Warling-Finch and White-fronted Woodpecker. As we head up into the mountains, we’ll target the rare endemic Steinbach’s Canastero, as well as a few more common species we may not have seen yet, such as Scale-throated Earthcreeper, Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch, and Ornate Tinamou. We spend two nights in Tafí del Valle.

The handsome Tucuman Mountain-Finch
The handsome Tucuman Mountain-Finch (Nick Athanas)

Day 14: El Infiernillo and Rio Los Sosa. We’ll bird this high mountain pass at dawn for Buff-breasted Earthcreeper, Tucuman Mountain-Finch, Andian Tinamou, White-browed Tapaculo, and Hellmayr’s Pipit. There may be an optional, difficult hike for a chance at the rare Scribble-tailed Canastero. In the afternoon, we’ll first bird a lake below town for South American Snipe, Red Shoveler, Lake Duck, and Red-fronted and Red-gartered Coots before dropping down into the forested Rio Los Sosa Valley. Here we’ll check the river looking for Rufous-throated Dipper (if we didn’t see it at Yala), Torrent Duck, as well as the endemic Yellow-striped Brush-Finch.

Day 15: Tafí to Buenos Aires. We’ll make our way to Tucuman, though should have at least another couple of hours of birding depending on flight schedules. We’ll fly to Buenos Aires, arriving in early afternoon, then transfer to the international airport in time for many airlines’ late evening departures.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Hot in the chaco to chilly in the high Andes, with rain likely 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.