Northwest Argentina: The High Andes, Yungas, and Monte Desert

From the lush yungas forest with its distinctive avifauna, to the dramatic cactus-studded Andean deserts, 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.

A very different, (and relaxed pace) extension to the largest waterfalls in the world, Iguazu, in northeastern Argentina, ensures not only that this incredible natural wonder will be seen from a number of angles, but a healthy number of Atlantic Forest birds will be added to the list too.



For more photos, see our Flickr page.

Day 1: Arrival in Tucumán. After your arrival in this northern Argentinian city, we will transfer you to a hotel for the night.

A concerted effort will be made to find Rufous-throated Dipper
A concerted effort will be made to find Rufous-throated Dipper (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Rio Los Sosa Valley and Tafí del Valle. In the early morning, we shall drive up into the Andes north of the city. We shall be looking for one of the potential birds of the trip straight off the bat; as we wind through the forested Rio Los Sosa Valley, we will check the river regularly for Rufous-throated Dipper, and Torrent Duck, and the forest is also home to the endemic Yellow-striped Brushfinch. In the afternoon we’ll check a lake on the edge of Tafi del Valle for waterbirds, like Rosy-billed Pochard and Red Shoveler, among the more common waterfowl. Along the shore we may also find Correndera Pipit or South American Snipe. The first of two nights will be spent in Tafí del Valle.

The sharp Tucuman Mountain-Finch will be a major target
The sharp Tucuman Mountain-Finch will be a major target (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: El Infiernillo and Rio Los Sosa. We’ll bird this high mountain pass at dawn for Buff-breasted Earthcreeper, the handsome Tucuman Mountain-Finch, Andean Tinamou, White-browed Tapaculo, and Hellmayr’s Pipit. Flower patches lower down the valley could hold Andean and White-sided Hillstars, Giant Hummingbird, or Sparkling Violetear. The plan for the afternoon will depend on what we still are looking for; but we may return to the Rio Los Sosa Valley to look for Rufous-throated Dipper, Slaty Elaenia or Tucuman Parrot, among others. A second night will be spent in Tafí del Valle.

Burrowing Parrots are found around Cayafate, home to some of the most famous vineyards in the region
Burrowing Parrots are found around Cayafate, home to some of the most famous vineyards in the region (Andres Vasquez)

Day 4: Tafí del Valle to Cafayate. Many people will enjoy the chance to sample some of the region’s best wines, and by the end of the day, we’ll arrive at a vineyard in Cafayate, a world-renowned wine-growing area, where we’ll overnight. Before then we shall visit the “Monte Desert”, where huge stick nests may lead us to one our targets, the noisy White-throated Cachalote. This same tinder dry-habitat is also home to the pallid Sandy Gallito, and we’ll also check thorn scrub en-route where White-tipped Plantcutter, Tufted Tit-Spinetail and Sharp-billed Canastero can be found. Crossing an area of wet grasslands en-route may also yield Spectacled Tyrant or Long-tailed Meadowlark. Closer to Cafayate we may also find groups of White-fronted Woodpeckers clinging to the side of huge, saguaro-like cacti. In the afternoon we can go in search of Chaco Earthcreeper and Burrowing Parakeets near our hotel. A single night will be spent at a vineyard in Cafayate.

Some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the Andes will be seen on this tour
Some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the Andes will be seen on this tour (Andres Vasquez)

Day 5: Cafayate to Cachi. The highlight of the morning is likely to be the scenery more than the birds, as we drive through dramatic craggy areas of the Andes peppered with burnt red rocks. Eventually, we’ll drive a road that 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 Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail, Yellow-billed and Tufted Tit-Tyrants, and Rusty Flowerpiercer. We will also get further chances at the much sought after White-tipped Plantcutter, should we need it. The night will be spent in the wonderful town of Cachi.

Cream-backed Woodpecker can sometimes be found in our hotel grounds near Salta
Cream-backed Woodpecker can sometimes be found in our hotel grounds near Salta (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Cardones National Park to Salta. We’ll start out the day in the dramatic surroundings of Cardones National Park, a high altitude site, where large saguaro-like cacti punctuate the landscape, which provides our best chance at tracking down the Elegant Crested Tinamou. After spending time with the tinamous, we’ll head to Salta for the night, passing through the same area for Rufous-bellied Saltator, should we need further time to search for it. In the afternoon we’ll bird the markedly different Yungas forest near our hotel, where Cream-backed and Dot-fronted Woodpeckers occur, and at night, we’ll visit a private forest reserve closeby, where both Hoy’s and Tropical Screech-Owls can be found. The night will be spent in a quiet mountain hotel outside of the city, which sometimes boasts Cream-backed Woodpeckers and Plush-crested Jays in its garden.

Hoy's or Montane Forest Screech-Owl occurs close to our hotel near Salta
Hoy's or Montane Forest Screech-Owl occurs close to our hotel near Salta (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Salta to Yala. This will be a varied day, as we combine various wetlands with some great birding in verdant Yungas cloudforest. Among the waterbirds we hope to find are Coscoroba Swan, Cinnamon and Brazilian Teals, Rosy-billed Pochard, and several coot species. If we are lucky, we may also find the scarce Ringed Teal too. One particular lake will be visited for the chance to see Tawny-headed Swallow, White Monjita, and Yellowish Pipit. We shall then shall work our way through the scrub and Yungas along the Cornisa Road, our best chance to find Red-legged Seriema, Two-banded Warbler, Green-cheeked Parakeet, and Giant Antshrike. In the afternoon, we shall visit Yala, a forest park that offers a good chance to find Red-faced Guan, Yungas Pygmy-Owl and Rust-and-yellow Tanager, among others. It also gives a further opportunity to find both Torrent Duck and Rufous-throated Dipper, should we need to do so. The night will be spent near Yala.

Red-faced Guan is a major target in the Yungas forest at Yala
Red-faced Guan is a major target in the Yungas forest at Yala (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Yala to Abra Pampa. We’ll return to the cloudforest at Yala in the morning to track down anything we’re still missing from the day before, which could include Fulvous-headed Brushfinch, Rufous-browed Warbling-Finch, Slender-tailed Woodstar, Rufous-capped Antshrike, Plumbeous Black-Tyrant, Large-tailed Dove, Buff-banded and Sclater’s Tyrannulets, and White-browed Brushfinch. Later in the morning, we’ll head higher up into the Andes, into the open puna highlands near Abra Pampa. En-route, we’ll check a high Andean lagoon for Giant Coot, White-tufted and Silvery Grebes, and Puna Teal. In the afternoon, we’ll search the arid puna around town for Puna Miner, Gray-bellied Shrike-tyrant, Bright-rumped Yellow-Finch, and Andean Negrito. The night will be spent in a simple hotel in the tiny town of Abra Pampa.

Watching a flamingo-packed lagoon in Los Pozuelos
Watching a flamingo-packed lagoon in Los Pozuelos (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Laguna de los Pozuelos. An early start is necessary today as we drive a long way on dirt roads to the remote Laguna de los Pozuelos. This massive lake is a magnet for flamingos and large concentrations of high Andean waterbirds. Three species of flamingo occur (Andean, Chilean, and James’s), along with the elegant Andean Avocet, plentiful Giant Coots, and other Andean waterbirds, like Puna Plover and Puna Teal. Occasionally, it is possible to find the rare Horned Coot on this huge lake too. (Please note: Horned Coot is nomadic and is therefore not present every year, as water conditions over the wider region affect its movements). The dry puna around the lake is good for Golden-spotted Ground-Dove, Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, Short-billed Pipit, and a variety of finches. It is also a good area to see Ornate Tinamous crossing the tracks. Herds of Vicugnas roam the lake edge, and we’ll also keep a lookout for Lesser Rheas. In the afternoon, we’ll drive to La Quiaca, located right on the border with Bolivia, for a two-night stay. Late in the afternoon, there should be time to drive a dirt road nearby which can be good for Least Seedsnipe and Tawny-throated Dotterel, and will give us another shot at finding rheas again of needed.

Citron-headed Yellow-Finches can be see in the picturesque village of Yavi
Citron-headed Yellow-Finches can be see in the picturesque village of Yavi (Nick Athanas)

Day 10: Sierra de Santa Victoria and Yavi. 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 from previous days. The smartly-dressed Red-backed Sierra-Finch is usually easy to find, and we’ll also look for Ornate Tinamou, Mountain Parakeet, Slender-billed Miner, Straight-billed and Plain-breasted Earthcreepers, Puna Canastero, Cream-winged Cinclodes, Black-fronted, Puna, and Cinereous Ground-Tyrants, Andean Swallow, Brown-backed Mockingbird, Andean Hillstar, and more. If the weather is good, we stand a good chance of seeing Andean Condors on the wing too. Later on, we’ll bird some montane scrub lower down for Puna Yellow-Finch, Rufous-banded Miner, and Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail before driving back west. We’ll spend the afternoon in the historic village of Yavi. A river runs through this village, providing water for small farms and creating an oasis that is amazingly “birdy”. This is the best place in Argentina for Citron-headed Yellow-Finch and Wedge-tailed Hillstar, and while these are the biggest targets, we’ll see plenty of other great birds that may include Black-hooded and Mourning Sierra-Finches, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, Spot-winged Pigeon, Bare-faced and Black-winged Ground-Doves, d’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrant, Brown-backed Mockingbird, White-winged Black-Tyrant, and Andean Swift. A second night will be spent in La Quiaca.

Wedge-tailed Hillstar occurs close to the border with Bolivia
Wedge-tailed Hillstar occurs close to the border with Bolivia (Sam Woods)

Day 11: La Quiaca to Salta. We’ll spend the morning targeting anything else we still need in this area before driving back to Salta, where we spend another night in the same comfortable hotel used on the night of day 6. The drive back south is nothing short of spectacular as we pass through the world famous Humahuaca Valley, with its patchwork of multicolored rock faces. En-route we may check out some wetlands for waterbirds and Southern Martins, and shall take a side trip to a quiet forested road, which plays host to birds like Black-and-chestnut Warbling-Finch, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, and Rufous-capped Antshrike. In the afternoon, we’ll look for foothill species in the Yungas, such as Saffron-billed Sparrow, Giant Antshrike, Green-cheeked Parakeet, and Stripe-capped Sparrow. On this night, we may do some nightbirding targeting Montane Forest Screech-owl and Scissor-tailed Nightjar.

Scenery takes center stage regularly on this dramatic tour
Scenery takes center stage regularly on this dramatic tour (Andres Vasquez)

Day 12: Palomitas to Salta/Start Iguazu Falls Extension. Today we drive down into the dry foothills east of Salta. Some superb birds can be found here along an easy dirt road, such as Many-colored Chaco Finch, Spot-backed Puffbird, Ultramarine Grosbeak, Stripe-backed Antbird, Black-capped Warbling-Finch, Checkered and Cream-backed Woodpeckers, Chaco Chachalaca, Little and Rufous-fronted Thornbirds, Chaco Earthcreeper, and Brushland and Tataupa Tinamous. Red-legged Seriema is sometimes easy to see in some open fields farther along the road, but we will need a lot of luck to find the smaller and shier Black-legged Seriema, which also occurs in the area. We’ll return to Salta airport for lunch and departures, or to fly to Iguazu, if joining the Iguazu Falls Extension.

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)

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Iguazu Falls Extension (4 days)

This short, and relaxed pace, extension focuses primarily on seeing the mighty Iguazu Falls, rightly listed as one of the World’s must-see destinations. Iguazu is the largest waterfall system on Earth, spanning two countries (shared with Brazil), rising to nearly 270ft.(over 80m) at their highest point, and consisting of up to 300 different waterfalls in the wettest periods. Although the falls are highly visible from our hotel, which overlooks this wonder of the world, we will also visit a number of other areas to view them, as they are so huge they deserve to be seen from a number of alternative angles to fully appreciate the outstanding magnificence of them.

There will, of course, also be plentiful new birds, offered in an entirely new biome, Atlantic Forest, home to many endemic species. Thus, many of the species encountered on the extension will be completely new for the trip. While considerable numbers of new species are on offer, this extension will be operated at a “soft” pace, dictated by national park regulations, which prohibit early morning entry into the park. It compliments the main tour perfectly, and will provide some much-needed downtime and more slow paced birding, compared with the main tour, which has many early mornings, and longer days in the field to get to all the birding sites! On this tour we are based at one place, and walk to almost all of the birding areas, and waterfall viewing sites.

Day 1: Salta to Iguazú Falls: This is the final day of the main tour (i.e. day 12); We’ll fly this afternoon to Puerto Iguazú, and then transfer to the only hotel inside the National Park, where we’ll spend the next three nights.

The incomparable Iguazu Falls; one of the World's must see destinations
The incomparable Iguazu Falls; one of the World's must see destinations (Andres Vasquez)

Days 2-3: Iguazu Falls. We will have two full days to explore not only the massive waterfalls, for which the area is most famous for, but also the surrounding subtropical rainforests, which are alive with birds, and will offer up a long list of species not possible on the main tour. Many birds just creep into Argentina here, and so we’ll be on the lookout for many highly local Argentinian birds during these days. The park is dissected by many forest trails, and boardwalks, many of the latter of which allow spectacular views of the namesake Falls.

On the extension we'll stay in a hotel overlooking Iguazu Falls
On the extension we'll stay in a hotel overlooking Iguazu Falls (Andres Vasquez)

We’ll have plenty of time to enjoy both the forest birds and the dramatic waterfalls in our two full days on site, for an extension, which is starkly different in scenery and birding from the rest of the tour. The bird list for the park is immense, and we will split our time between walking forest trails into the deeper rainforest, with walking easy forest roads that bisect more open forest, which provides easier birding, and offers up excellent birds like the scarce Saffron and Spot-billed Toucanets, among many, many others.

Black-throated Mango; one of many species possible only on the exyension
Black-throated Mango; one of many species possible only on the exyension (Andres Vasquez)

Some of the other many species available in the park include, Black-fronted Piping-Guan, Great Dusky Swift, Surucua Trogon, Rufous-capped Motmot, Toco and Red-breasted Toucans, Chestnut-eared Aracari, Yellow-fronted, Blond-crested and Robust Woodpeckers, Spot-backed and Tufted Antshrikes, Ochre-breasted Foliage-Gleaner, Ochre-collared Piculet, Gray-hooded Flycatcher, Southern Antpipit, Riverbank Warbler, Swallow-tailed Manakin, Red-rumped Cacique, Chestnut-bellied Euphonia, Blue Dacnis and Green-headed Tanager. The possibilities for these days are huge and no two visits are the same in an area this diverse. We will certainly add many standout birds in just two days in this mega-rich birding area, while enjoying what for many is the finest set of waterfalls on Earth, rivaling even Niagra and Angel Falls for their visual impact. One either one of these days, or the departure day, we will also visit a hummingbird garden, where up to 8 species visit in this season, often including Black-throated Mango, Gilded Sapphire, Black Jacobin, and Versicolored and Glittering-bellied Emeralds. Other feeders on site also regularly attract the stunning regional endemic Green-headed Tanager. These two nights will also be spent in Puerto Iguazu.

Green-headed Tanager is among a long list of Atlantic Forest specialties only possible on the Iguazu Extension
Green-headed Tanager is among a long list of Atlantic Forest specialties only possible on the Iguazu Extension (Andres Vasquez)

Day 4: Departure from Iguazu. In the morning we’ll transfer to Cataratas del Iguazu International Airport to connect with flights to other parts of Argentina (e.g. Buenos Aires), in order to connect with international departures.

Ochre-collared Piculet; one of many Atlantic Forest specialties offered on the Iguazu Extension
Ochre-collared Piculet; one of many Atlantic Forest specialties offered on the Iguazu Extension (Andres Vasquez)

Some more photos from this tour:

The scenic cacti-dotted park of Cardones offers a good shot at Elegant Crested-Tinamou
The scenic cacti-dotted park of Cardones offers a good shot at Elegant Crested-Tinamou (Sam Woods)

Red-tailed Comet - common and absolutely spectacular
Red-tailed Comet - common and absolutely spectacular (Nick Athanas)

The rare Rufous-bellied Saltator can sometimes be seen in quebradas along the Cuesta del Obispo
The rare Rufous-bellied Saltator can sometimes be seen in quebradas along the Cuesta del Obispo (Nick Athanas)

Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch is a handsome high Andean species
Gray-hooded Sierra-Finch is a handsome high Andean species (Andres Vasquez)

Lesser Rhea is a scarce bird on the altiplano
Lesser Rhea is a scarce bird on the altiplano (Nick Athanas)

Fulvous-headed Brush-Finch is usually easy to find along the Rio Yala
Fulvous-headed Brush-Finch is usually easy to find along the Rio Yala (Nick Athanas)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This tour will especially target the endemics and other regional specialties of Northwest Argentina. Diversity is not as high as more tropical areas of the continent, so we still have time to find a very high proportion of the more common and widespread species as well. Early starts are sometimes necessary since the best bird activity usually occurs in the early morning hours, and some hotels are a long way from the birding sites – the earliest starts will be 5:00-5:30am. At least two breakfasts and at least two lunches will be taken in the field. There is quite a bit of driving required (five days involve drives of around 4.5-5.5 hours), but most of the roads are quite good, the scenery is often excellent, there are many birding stops to break the drives up.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Nearly all of the birding is done from flat or only slightly inclined roads and wide tracks. The only reason this tour merits a “moderate” rating is that three days are spent on the altiplano at elevations entirely above 11,000 ft (3300 m), with a few hours spent as high as 14,400 ft (4,400 m) on one day. You can expect to walk about 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average.

CLIMATE: Generally quite pleasant, and temperatures in most areas range from about 60°F(16°C) early in the morning to about 85°F(29°C) in the middle of the day. On the altiplano, it can get down to near freezing early in the morning, but quickly warms up to be very pleasant. A bit of rain can be expected, but it usually comes in short downpours that don’t interfere too much with the birding.

ACCOMMODATION: Generally good to excellent, though one night is spent in a rather unremarkable hotels with somewhat small rooms, but even they have private bathrooms, hot water, and 24h electricity. Wi-fi is usually available in all the hotels, though it may only be available in public areas, and is sometimes very slow.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but it’s pretty good for casual bird photography due to the open nature of most of the habitats. It is also very scenic in some areas, and many people like to stop for some quick landscape shots.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. US, Canadian, and Australian citizens currently must pay a reciprocity fee in advance before traveling to Argentina; this can be done online and we can provide more info if needed. Currently, citizens of the UK, Western Europe, South Africa, and New Zealand do not require a tourist visa or reciprocity fee. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 11; if taking the extension, accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 3 of the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 12; if taking the extension, meals from dinner of day 1 to lunch on day 4 of the extension; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during meals; safe drinking water only between meals; one way flight from Salta to Puerto Iguazú (only if taking the extension – no flights are included in the main tour); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to mid-day of day 12 of the main tour, and from the afternoon of day 1 to mid-day of day 4 of the extension, if taking the extension; airport transfer on day 1 of the main tour (this transfer may be shared with other tour participants if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to mid-day of day 12 of the main tour (for smaller groups, the guide will drive, and for larger groups, there will be a driver); if taking the extension, group transport between the airport and the hotel on day 1 and between the hotel and the airport on day 4 (while inside the park, transport is by the park tram system, not by vehicle); entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; flights except for the one way flight from Salta to Puerto Iguazú on the extension; reciprocity fee; excess luggage charges; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.