Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Birding Bolivia

“The going isn’t always easy” -The Lonely Planet Bolivia

Natalia and I left Peru naively expecting more of the same from Bolivia: great birds; great food; great people. The chaotic border crossing portended the many challenges that were to come. In fact, the pitfalls nearly outshone the bird life.

What? You came here for birds?  We did too.  See Bolivia seems great for birds on paper: 1400+ species and some 25 endemics, plus 18% of the country is protected areas such as national parks.  But as is the case in many developing countries protected area borders exist only on maps and to Bolivians on the ground do not actually exist. And even the birdiest, most attractive parts of the country are completely lacking in conventional tourist infrastructure. 

We entered Bolivia on the shores of Lake Titicaca at the “picturesque” town of Copacabana (photo purposefully omitted; the town did not inspire me to take out my camera).

It’s telling that Lake Titicaca, a geographic feature two-thirds of which lies within Peruvian borders, is nevertheless featured on the cover of the Lonely Planet Bolivia.

Our first Bolivian adventure began before we even made it to La Paz. We and our bus had to cross a section of the lake by ferry. We did not imagine that passengers and bus would have to make the journey separately. But in hindsight we were glad of this arrangements. 

Ferry crossing of Lake Titicaca.  That's our bus with all our luggage being pushed over on a wooden barge by a guy with an outboard motor.

Titicaca Grebes were thick in this area of deeper water and Andean Gulls hovered over our heads looking for handouts as we motored across in the chop.

Onward the landscape was dry and desolate.  Bird life seemed to concentrate at the small creeks and streams we passed over. We had a glimpse of some Andean Avocets in one.

Having read about La Paz on the bus ride there, we managed to convince ourselves that the best strategy for birding and enjoying La Paz would be to get the hell out as soon as possible. So we arrived in the evening and were out again on a cheap flight the next morning to Cochabamba.

Cochabamba is also high and dry, but at 3000 meters is significantly lower than La Paz’s nose-bleed-inducing 3600. We set out immediately to check out what birds were to be had at Laguna Alalay, a large lake in the middle of town. The lakeside was a desolate destruction zone.  Clearly the government had cleared trash and vegetation from the waterfront in some sort of effort to make it appealing for visitors, but hadn’t yet gotten around to putting anything in its place.  So the whole area had the feeling of a vacant lot.

We came across a man defecating, who, bare-assed, was summarily apprehended by two women on security patrol. As we gazed in the opposite direction out at the lake to spot Andean Ruddy Ducks and White-tufted Grebes we were surprised when the security approached us.  “Do you have permission?”

“Permission is needed to look at birds here?”

“Yes, everyone must obtain permission. Head to the security station over there.”

Obligingly we walked along the dirt over toward a distant building where requesting permission consisted of writing down our names and passport numbers in a notebook. The security team offered to send an escort with us on our hike.  It did seen a bit sketchy around the lake, and the hotel staff had warned us to be careful, but Natalia explained how boring and slow birdwatching would be for our guard and so we carried on alone.

Despite the rather unpromising context, there were birds everywhere and most of them were new and unidentifiable to us, which was exciting.  Remember, Bolivia has no bird book. We had our Peru and Argentina guides as well as a Southern South America ‘illustrated checklist,’ but Bolivia is such a mashup of ecosystems that it was difficult to figure out which book to refer to. Compounding matters is the fact that the illustrations in the Argentina and Southern South America books are so atrocious as to be nearly unusable for identification. The Flycatcher sp. conundrum, already fraught with a good guide, is next to impossible in Bolivia.

I resorted to a shoot-first and ask-ID-questions-later birding strategy, relying heavily on the camera.

Rufous Hornero, Cochabamba

After reaching the end of a populated area along the lake shore, we decided to double-back rather than continue around a bend into a promising-looking more-vegetated area. There were a lot of sketchy-looking teens roaming about giving our optics long looks. Stolen binoculars in Bolivia would be catastrophic.

Back at the security kiosk, we ran into a scientist from the Ministry of the Environment, who informed us that she was there to investigate a recent massive bird die-off. The water was a putrid pea-soup green and the lake shore was littered with garbage, plus we had already seen how it functioned as a public toilet. The scientist's main challenge was that the trail was cold.  It had taken Bolivia’s corrupt bureaucracy two months to approve her visit to Cochabamaba from La Paz. How was she going to figure out the source of the problem so long after the fact? For a scientist investigating bird health, she didn’t seem to be much interested in birds. I interrupted her once to point out a hawk flying overhead. She gave it a half-glance before continuing her rant.

Here’s my photo:

unidentified hawk. Cochabamba

I still can’t figure out what the heck it is!

This experience of finding Bolivians indiffent toward both tourism and natural resources would become a recurring theme of our time in country.

Later that afternoon we visited the local access to Tunari National Park, a crescent that encircles the Cochabamba valley designed to protect the population’s water supply. The taxi driver had no idea what the park was or how to get there, so we guided him using the GPS on one of our phones.

When we arrived the entrance kiosk (to ask ‘permission’ as were now trained to do), the woman explained to us that nobody can enter after 3 o’clock and seeing as it is now 3:02, we would not be allowed to proceed. We managed to talk our way past this absurdity. Afterall we would not be very far from the entrance anyway.

The landscape here was arid scrub and loaded with new and interesting birds. We spent two hours at the end of one switchback in the road overlooking a dry gully as hummingbirds, warbling-finches and other birds moved up the mountain while the sun dropped.

We managed to get out by closing time, as promised, and caught a public buseta back into town for about 35 cents.

We had arranged with our taxi driver to pick us up the following morning at 4 am to take us up to a higher access to the park. We made it to the bridge spanning the river at 3600 meters just after dawn and immediately found our main target in a Cochabamba Mountain-Finch, one of Bolivia’s endemics. From here we birded our way back down the road to 3100 meters over the course of 5 hours. We saw some great birds.

Andean Hillstar, Tunari National Park

Rufous-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Tunari National Park

Rufous-bellied Bush-Tyrant

Golden-billed Saltator

Fulvous-headed Brush-Finch

But sadly Tunari, like many of its kind in the developing world, is a National Park in name only. As we descended, the scale of the degradation grew steadily more intense. All manner of rubbish began to pile up along the sides of the road: tires; plastic bags; months supplies of used diapers.  In the absence of public sanitation services it seems that people have been using the park as a public dumping ground. Ironically, the motivation for this park was to protect the city’s watershed. Hillsides of endangered polylepis forest had been cleared to make way for fields of potatoes and flowers. The silver lining is that the inaccessible opposite side of the river appeared to still be pristine. 

In retrospect, I’m curious as to what we would have found if we had birded our way up slope instead of down. A lot of odd birds I’ve never seen occur in these high Andean landscapes. Down was our only real choice though, as a harsh wind gave us the shivers and we were way under-dressed for the near-freezing temperatures.  It’s hard to get a good temperature forecast and the difference was far greater than altitudinal lapse rates would have suggested.

We thanked and tipped our very friendly taxi driver, who had charged us a cool ~$40 for his morning’s work (what a deal!).

No rest for the wicked… that afternoon we hopped a collectivo that took us all the way from the high Andes down into the Amazonian foothills in one hop.

It’s a bit frustrating because you know there could be excellent birding all along this route spanning 2700 m in elevation, yet there are neither roads, nor lodges, nor guides. The real missing raw ingredients in Bolivia, however, are a culture that values nature and hospitality. Apart from perhaps Haiti, Bolivia may be the New World country that is least prepared for a birder or ecotourist. Unlike Haiti, however, Bolivia has loads of intact ecosystems, so there is hope for the future.  And I dare say there’s a huge opportunity here. Eventually, North American birders will begin venturing to South America en masse as birding rises in popularity and a new generation, more bilingual, less xenophobic, and less-beholden to the ABA’s idiosyncratic borders emerges. After so many trips to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, Bolivia is the required destination if one hopes to sample the complete buffet of birds that the tropical Andes has to offer.

Anyway, we arrived in Villa Tunari exhausted and agreed to allow ourselves to sleep-in for a morning. We didn’t have any good birding strategies lined up yet anyway.

White-necked Puffbird, Villa Tunari

From the excellent online trip reports of birdsbolivia.com, we learned that the best birding near this 'touristic' town was a couple hours back up the road from which we had just come. On the highway that connects Cochabamba and Villa Tunari, a road follows a Chinese hydroelectric pipeline down a ridge starting at roughly 2000 m into what is supposedly some of the most-accessible mid-elevation Yungas habitat in all of Bolivia. The habitat is called ‘cloud forest’ by everybody in the world, except in Bolivia where it is called ‘Yungas.’  Actually, on this particular road, many people would call it ‘crap’ because it has been heavily degraded and cleared for cultivation.

Our driver arrived half an hour late, leaving us waiting in the dark at our hotel (gotta love that Bolivian service!), so we missed the best early dawn birding.  Nevertheless, as soon as we found some decent forest along the road, there was a nice mixed-species flock with Saffron-crowned Tanagers, Montane Woodcreepers, Variable Antshrike and others.  By the time we had birded our way through the flock and caught a glimpse of one of our main targets in a Yungas Manakin, it was 9 am and in the unusually bright day, the birds went dead.  We kept at it for another hour and a half and caught up with a Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Slaty Elaenia and some Green-Cheeked Parakeets, but decided to head back down the mountain so we could grab lunch before our scheduled trip to an Oilbird cave.  Not so fast.

As we came back out to the highway we found ourselves as front-row witnesses to a recently ignited ‘bloqueo’ protest, with burning tires and logs. We were told some of the locals were protesting a trout fair.  Thus the highway connecting two of Bolivia’s largest cities was suddenly rendered useless.  We waited a bit with our driver, but he advised us to descend on foot and catch a ride with somebody turning back from the blockade.  As we passed by the crowds of angry truckers and onlookers, some whoops of excitement rang out it was announced that the blockade would be removed in ten minutes.
The two-lane Andean highway now had three lanes of traffic at loggerheads, and blockade or not, there would be no progressive movement anytime soon. So we continued walking downhill several kilometers spreading the news to anxious truckers and bus passengers.  

Yes, there was a blockade. Yes they are clearing it. But no, you will not be going anywhere anytime soon because of overtaking cars clogging the highway. 

‘Porque son desobedientes!’ one grumpy trucker exclaimed.

True, irresponsible aggressive passing makes a 1-hour blockage into a day-long ordeal, but it’s the trucks, which achieve a maximum speed of approximately 10 kilometers per hour on the steep grades and tight curves that make a suicidal driving strategy not insane, but rather a practicality.
After a few hours we eventually caught a ride in a backtracking minivan with seats available.

Inside it, of all people, was the craziest U.S. ex-pat I’ve come across in all my international travels. He was full of impossible juxtapositions.  One minute giving prudent travel advice, the next extolling the virtues of drunk driving in Bolivia, because of the easily bribe-able police. Then he would be bemoaning his poor real estate investments via eBay and in the same breath extolling the upside of his pending Nevada marijuana farm. Before the mental red flags could reach full mast, he was already hawking the iPhone app he is ‘developing’ to block negative electronic frequencies that damage the brain. 

He was travelling with his Bolvian wife and two infant children. After tenderly comforting his two-year-old son, ‘Ludwig Jr.,’ he would go on to recount his drunken fight with the intelligence police in La Paz and how his mother had to fly down from the U.S. to pay off the judge and bail him out of jail. Just when I was beginning to think he was one of those compulsive liars who can’t distinguish between true life experiences and fantasy, he got a call from a client.  Turns out he was running some sort of paralegal advice service through his phone.

Anyway, we made it back to Villa Tunari in the mid-afternoon and gave a hasty farewell to Ludwig. The bloqueo had scuttled our plans to visit the nearby Oilbird cave, but at least we hadn’t tried to stick it out with our driver who didn’t make it down until after dark.  We would read in the paper the following day that the military police had arrived to forcefully remove the blockade using tear gas, but this is blatant state propaganda.  With the bloackade intact it would be impossible for any police trucks to arrive at the scene; and we saw the blockade being removed shortly after it had been put in place.  What I can only assume really happened is that once traffic began moving, the police showed up to tear gas the local residents as punishment.  The article ominously quoted a government official stating that rumors of gunfire used by police on unarmed civilians were untrue. Yep. That doesn’t sound the least bit concerning.  Bolivia!

So we escaped the bloqueo and tear gas, but some Bolivian suffering would catch us as we attempted to leave town. 

I present to you: the Bus Ride From Hell

Our departure had been farcical with the transportation company somehow having sold far more tickets than there were seats on the bus. When we first departed Villa Tunari the aisle was nearly full of other passengers, including several children, sitting on plastic stools. In the first several towns we made stops, ostensibly to shift passengers over to other buses with space, but these mainly led to arguments and long delays with people angrily being herded off the bus, only to return several minutes later. The other buses were also overbooked. In the end there were still quite a few people in the aisle, including one guy right next to me.

The guy in front of me had wrenched his seat so far back that his head was in my lap.  Bolivian buses, being designed for a less-vertical demographic, leave little in the way of leg room for somebody taller than six feet.  I had no choice but to twist sideways and sprawl my legs into the aisle. Some time later, I awoke to a woman savagely pinching my legs. ‘mueve las piernas.’ All I could mutter in dazed half-sleep was ‘no puedo,’ which was nearly accurate. 

Nevertheless, the next words that came out of the woman’s mouth, who was now vigorously shaking my inert shins, were a bit of a surprise: ‘Estan encima de la cabeza de mi nina!’ I pulled my feet back before I could comprehend what had been said: they are on my daughter’s head.
In the dark jouncing of the bus these words, though a harsh whisper, reverberated.  My vision was mostly obscured by a jacket wrapped around my head (an attempt to dull the awful neck pain inflicted by a head rest that barely reached the bottoms of my ear lobes), but I could sense the old crone in the opposite row concocting her worst of curses and aiming it in my direction.  It was the one she saves for the worst gringos. The kind who kick little girls in the head.

Sure enough within a couple hours, whether by karma or by curse, I awoke again with the most excruciating intestinal pain.

By this point it seemed as though we must be nearing Santa Cruz, judging by the density of lights and buildings outside.  If I could just hang on, I might make it off the bus without shitting my pants and really becoming the most popular passenger on the bus ride from hell.

So this is the part of the bus ride that makes the least sense: No, not the gross over-booking, not the children sleeping in aisles and getting occasionally stepped on, but the unique departure time of 8 pm.  This is the only time one can take the 7-hour bus trip from Villa Tunari to Santa Cruz. I repeat, buses leave at no other time of day or night.

So here we were cruising into the Bolivia’s most populous city at 2:45 am… miraculously an on-time arrival! Yet, instead of opening the doors and letting everybody off at the station to blearily make their way home or wherever, the bus pulled into a sketchy-looking alleyway and parked.  Apparently the bus terminal doesn’t become safe until 6 am, so we were given the choice to wait on the bus another three hours or chance it in the risky alley and hope to find an honest taxi driver before getting taken out by a mugger.

There are many nice Bolivians, who I’ve been lucky to meet while travelling through this mess of a country, but our bus driver was not one of them. Friendly, helpful Bolivians can be damn scarce country-wide, even in the places where you would expect to find the cream of the crop, such as hotel receptions or taxi stands in touristic places.  There just don’t seem to be very many people who work service jobs with what one might consider to be a service mentality.  The rub isn't that they have a bad attitude or charge inflated prices to tourists. No, Bolivians just don’t seem to have any interest in helping a tourist even when there is good money to be made.

Anyway, we found an honest taxi driver who was actually rather good to us.  No he didn’t know where our hotel was, but didn’t complain while spending the better part of an hour driving circles around neighborhoods looking. In Bolivia only major arteries have street signs and taxi drivers don’t carry phones or any navigational aids.

So we made it.  At 3:30 am.  I slept for the subsequent 27 hours.

So that was the Bus Ride From Hell.  You came here for birds (we did too), but as the Lonely Planet puts it. “Bolivia will test your patience and stamina.” So if you made it this far, congratulations!  Maybe you too have the endurance to bird Bolivia.  

The Santa Cruz Botanical Garden offers a promising remnant of dry forest, but the 20 to 30 mph winds made the birding tricky. We got Ocellated Piculet and watched some Least Grebe chicks get devoured by a caiman.

Prolific sloth-watching is there to be had at the Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens. We saw three.

We were determined to find a pleasant birding experience somewhere in Bolivia and Los Volcanes proved to be the ticket. Just a few hours drive from Santa Cruz, it isn't terribly difficult to access and the setting is gorgeous.

Guest House at Los Volcanes
This little gem owned by a German family sits in a pristine mesic forest in the buffer zone of Amboro National Park. It has trails, friendly hosts and great food.  

Two-banded Warbler, the most ubiquitous bird at Los Volcanes
Plush-crested Jay, the second-most ubiquitous bird at Los Volcanes
If it just had a few banana and nectar feeders, it would be the full neotropical birding lodge experience. Fortunately, we don't mind working for our birds.

Amazonian Motmot
Black-banded Woodcreeper
Black-goggled Tanager
Los Volcanes was hard for me to characterize. The forest isn't quite wet and it isn't quite dry.  And the Avifauna are part Amazonian, part Andean.  It's the only place where I've seen both Andean Condor and King Vulture.

Chestnut-eared Aracari
There's lots of bamboo in the area. Although we dipped on Bolivian Recurvebill, the bamboo seeds brought in raucous flocks of parrots.
Mitred Parakeet
Green-cheeked Parakeet
Three fulls days to bird Los Volcanes was plenty. By the end we had nearly run out of targets. We only knew this because ornithologists had put together an annotated checklist of the local bird life (very useful!). 

Back in Santa Cruz we had fun on our last morning in Bolivia at Lomas de Arena, a site characterized by some huge sand dunes.  We wanted to actually stay at a lodge on site, but nobody answered any of the 4 phone numbers we found for them and they didn’t reply to our emails (now that is how you run a business!). We hired a taxi to take us out there and he promptly got stuck in the sand.  No problem we’ll head out and begin birding by foot. Everybody said it never rains in Santa Cruz this time of year, so of course we were unprepared for the ensuing rain and cold. The expectation was dry and brutally hot.

We would take refuge where we could and then bird between showers.

a very soggy Burrowing Owl, Lomas de Arena

Campo Flickers, Lomas de Arena

Red-legged Seriema, Lomas de Arena

The taxi driver managed to un-stick himself and picked us up several hours later. We never made it to the lagoon that was supposed to be full of birds and somewhere near the sand dunes. But we weren’t too bothered since wetland birds were unlikely to be new for us anyway. We made it out in time to pack up at the hotel and head for the airport. But we saved an extra hour to do some birding at the airport with a taxi driver. It was cold and blowing hard…terrible conditions for birding open grasslands. And we ended up driving around seeing nothing for about half an hour. Finally on the last road we checked we found our target and final Bolivian bird, the Greater Rhea.

So that's Bolivia. The birds are excellent, but access is full of challenges. 239 birds in 11 days sounds like a lot, but consider that similar effort in Colombia or Ecuador could easily yield twice that number. Bolivia has too many birds and endemics to ignore, but if you do decide to go, definitely consider hiring a guide and/or driver to arrange the logistics.

Despite the hardships, Bolivia (and Los Volcanes) will forever hold a special place in our hearts since it is where we got engaged!


  1. Wonderful post, Scott, as always. Your delightful mini-essay (The Bus Ride from Hell) brings back many similar memories - most of them terrible, but somehow sweetened with time. As a fellow tall traveler, I feel your pain. And what's with the continent-wide popularity of overnight buses? I'll never understand it. Anyway, Happy New Year to you and Natalia!

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