by Glen Sahara
At the beginning of the year, a co-worker asked, "so Glenn, where are you going this year?" I replied, "well, I am off to Bolivia." The geographically challenged one then said, "hey you must really like Africa."
Besides the lure of great Bolivian crafts, there are several endemic avian species that intrigue me. I am especially interested in seeing the Red Fronted Macaw and the Hooded Mountain Toucan. Both are not easy to find, but I have high hopes.
After a brief stop in La Paz, my American Airlines flight touches down in the lowland town of Santa Cruz. Founded in 1561, this once backwards community is now Bolivia's second largest city. It is interesting to note that the town is built in a pattern of concentric rings. And within the first ring is my Santa Cruz home away from home, the Residential Bolívar.
The Bolívar manager is very nice and there is a semi tame Toco Toucan in the courtyard to greet the new arrivals. This establishment seems to attract the low rent gringo crowd, so I feel like I am at a small Berkeley cafe, or perhaps the free clinic. I spring for the accommodation with bathroom so the price spirals to $13.00 per night. I may digress here with one of my many traveling hints. When you visit this part of the world, a pair of rubber slippers, preferably the 3" kamaboko variety, is worth their weight in platinum. The econo-lodges that I frequent usually have a very small bathroom that consists of a toilet, a wastebasket in which one places used toilet paper, a sink and a shower. Most of the tiled room gets wet when the shower goes on, so when you're done and take a step, it is like entering an ice rink! Also, there is usually an assortment of unidentifiable hairs deposited by the previous occupants. Take the slippers! After a quick shower, I am out the guarded door to nose around the local shops. The amitrine stone is unique to Bolivia, so I decide to pick up a few for holiday gifts. Those of you who receive a pot holder this season should be nicer, or perhaps naughtier, during the year 2000! To appease my masochistic side, I purchase two large clay planters that now must be hand carried for the remaining seventeen days. Ceramic armadillos add to the breakable haul.
When I return to the hotel, I meet Fermin, the brother of local friends. There is a huge duffel of clothing, photos, cookies and other goodies waiting for him in my room. Fermin is very personable and graciously invites me to his home for lunch the following day. Sure, I'll be ready. Later that first evening, I meet Jean Paul, a professional Santa Cruz birding guide with whom I have been corresponding. He would have been an ideal Red Fronted Macaw guide, but he is currently recovering from a serious leg injury. It is a great evening as we talk macaws while consuming a huge platter of fantastic paella. Should you ever want to hire a LOCAL, English speaking professional birding guide, I would highly recommend Jean Paul. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Believe me, having local contacts when making Bolivian travel arrangements is invaluable.
The next morning, Fermin meets me at the Bolívar and we take a short mini van ride to his home. The Santa Cruz special mix of Coca-Cola and Paceño beer flows freely as I am introduced to the other family members. The outdoor grill is readied and I am soon treated to a great charcoal cooked feast of beef, sausages, fried yucca, tomato, rice with cheese and of course, more cervezas. After arranging to meet for dinner on my final night in Santa Cruz, we down a final Paceño and I motor back to the hotel. Here, I meet Bennett, the Canadian birding guide whom I have hired for the Santa Cruz and Cochabamba portions of this trip. For the next three days, Bennett and I will travel southwest, birding the area between Santa Cruz and Comarapa. Lomas de Arena is a finger of the sandy Paraguayan Chaco that stretches into the outskirts of Santa Cruz. So on this first morning, we make a quick stop and are treated to views of White eared Puff bird, Peach fronted Conures, Chestnut eared Aracaris, Burrowing Owls and huge flocks of Blue winged Parrotlets. The wind begins to pick up so we head for Red Fronted Macaw territory.
The drive southwest of Santa Cruz takes us along a river and through wonderfully verdant hillsides. The air is clean and it is a pleasant 60 degrees F. Periodic toll stops account for the surprisingly good condition of this road. The local police manning these stations receive their mandatory 5 bolivianos, but they always seem to ask for additional bolivianos as "voluntary" payment. I can raise a stink, but just hand over the extra cash and drive away.
There are multiple stops enroute as we spot flocks of Green Cheeked Conures and a spectacular Crimson crested Woodpecker. The landscape begins to change dramatically as lush hillsides are replaced by dry scrub. The plan is to stay for two nights at the Tambo Mission School. As we near the town of Tambo (don't blink), Bennett asks, "so was it difficult making reservations?" I look at him and say, "I thought YOU made the reservations!" Eh, no problem. In this remote part of Bolivia, there is sure to be space available. As we pull up to the American run Mission School, I notice that the lot is full of cars. When I ask one of the managers about lodging, he apologetically informs me that because of a weekend festival, all rooms are booked. Fortunately, there is the town of Comarapa a few kilometers away, so off we go. Actually it is good that we have the confusion regarding the Tambo Mission School reservations. You see, ethanol containing drinks are strictly prohibited at the Mission School. In contrast, cold Paceños flow freely in Comarapa. And, the Paradiso Hotel has a few newer rooms with bathroom available! The next morning, armed with information from several different birding sources, we head to a known nesting site of the Red Fronted Macaw. As we turn off of the main road, we come across a farmer in his corn field. I stop and ask if he is familiar with the paraba de frente roja. He nods and asks how many we want to purchase! Hmmmm, not a good sign. We now drive along a one lane dirt road that hugs a mountainside. Cacti and succulents grow on one side and there is a sheer drop on the other. In this terrain, I expect to see a Roadrunner or Gila Woodpecker, but certainly not a macaw. After a few hours on this windy road, we reach the small village of El Tunal. From the village, directions state that we must cross a bridge and find the road that takes us into the valley. We prep the binoculars, load the packs with water and trail mix, apply lip balm and take off. Oh, oh... when we reach the river, we find only the skeletal remains of a bridge. It seems that in March, torrential rains wiped out most of the structure. Hey, I didn't travel thousands of miles to be stopped by a few unstable pieces of wood, so I grab hold of a remaining cable and pretend I am a Wallenda. The adrenaline peaks as I cross, but there are no problems.
After the balancing act, we find the road that takes us towards the valley. It is still quite cold as we make two, thigh high stream crossings and finally arrive at what we believe are the nesting cliffs. It is a geologist's dream site as multi-hued layers of rock in varying shades of brown and red rise from the valley. Unfortunately, there are no screaming macaws in the area. So, we decide to return in the late afternoon when the birds normally come back to roost. We again cross the river and find three unsmiling locals waiting by the car. After explaining that we are there only to view the birds, they turn and leave. A few minutes later, a group of 7 men walk up a hill towards us. One of the guys stops briefly and we learn that 3 days prior to our arrival, a gringo was caught exiting the valley with three recently captured Red Fronted Macaws. Ha, no wonder we get such a cold reception. When we ask about the breeding cliffs, the villager mentions, that it requires nine stream crossings to reach the breeding site...not two. He also tells us that Andean Condors have a nest in the area. After an exchange of handshakes, we depart. It is midday so we decide to continue driving along the main road that snakes above the village. Mature trees are draped with Spanish moss and other bromeliad species. An interesting parasitic plant is also common. Hummingbirds flit by, taking nourishment from the red flowering parasite and other blooming plants. I am sure that a xerophyte enthusiast would have a field day here. As I gaze at the dry and rocky landscape, I can't help but wonder how this native macaw survives in such an inhospitable habitat.
While Bennett takes a nap, I decide to get a closer look at the different hummingbirds. Please be aware that should you ever decide to nap in the field, stay away from grassy areas frequented by cattle. That night, Bennett shows me the dozens of chigger bites he received during his afternoon snooze. A chigoe flea has also burrowed into his foot. I am careful when walking around the trails since most lead to the edge of cliffs. As I watch a hummingbird feed on a blooming succulent, something huge crosses the field in my binoculars. I look up and there at eye level is a mature Andean condor flying by. Wow! I run back to the tree under which Bennett is sleeping and tell him to get his butt to the cliff. He is amazed to see this magnificent mountain scavenger at such a close range. In a few minutes, the condor is just a black speck, albeit a large one, in the blue Andean sky.
It is about 4:00 P.M. and I am ready to see a Red Fronted Macaw. We again cross the semi bridge and head for the cliffs. It is a pain to ford the stream nine times, but the cold and wet will not dampen my spirits for I know that we have a good chance at seeing the macaw. After the ninth crossing, there is a clearing ahead. I climb a rise and find that we are now in a special section of the valley. I am in awe as magnificent cliffs seem to totally surround us. And as if on cue, the pair of Andean Condors glide overhead.
After straining my neck looking upwards, I decide to lay (or is it 'lie's never know) down and look at the sky. Soon there is the unmistakable scream of psittacines. Hundreds of Mitred Conures that call this place home begin to arrive for the evening. It is interesting to watch them as they first appear in groups high above. As they near their cliff side sanctuary, the birds suddenly drop from the sky and land in trees. The conures then fly from tree to tree and eventually make their way to cliff side burrows. Bennett attempts to tape the call, but the crescendo reaches un-recordable proportions! I hope to see a macaw drop down from the mountains but only the screaming conures continue to arrive. A large pair of awkward flying Rough legged Guans also tease us. Damn we are losing light, so I decide that we should return. Since it would be very stupid to cross the bridge in complete darkness, we reluctantly leave the cliffs and head for our cold Comarapa cervezas.
On the drive back, Bennett mentions that many lucky birders spot the macaw feeding in cornfields or flying over the main road! Okay, we will try the corn growing areas tomorrow. The farmland in back of the Tambo Mission School is highly disturbed so I am surprised that many of the sightings occur here. The macaws have obviously adapted to their human intruders and now take full advantage of their field grown offerings. Unfortunately, we still do not find the macaw.
We hit the road back to Santa Cruz and again make a few stops to check out the birds. As we pass one large corn farm, there is the sound of gunshots. Like a scene from Hitchcock's "The Birds" we watch as hundreds upon hundreds of screaming Blue crowned Conures take flight. Amazing! For those friends in the International Palm Society, I must admit that at this point of the adventure, I am very close to the habitat of Parajubaea torallyi. Yeah, I have the growing site maps and I should have taken a quick look, but I decide to head directly back to Santa Cruz. Sorry!
It is the final evening in Santa Cruz and we are to meet Fermin, his family and friend Dennis at La Casa de Camba. So that I don't get ripped off, I learn that any cab ride within the first ring of Santa Cruz costs 5 bolivianos. After hailing a cab, I ask the driver, "howmuch?' He says 8 bolivianos. I wave him on. The next driver offers a price of 7 bolivianos. Again, I reject this driver. The next driver, having seen me send the others away, will drive us for 6. I agree. When Bennett asks how much the ride costs, I tell him, "well I know it is supposed to be only 5 bolivianos, but the guy is charging 6 so he is only getting me for 1 extra boliviano." Bennett then tells me that the Casa de Camba is located outside the first ring. It should be an 8 Boliviano ride!
Dinner is great. The costumed waiters bring endless platters of grilled meat, fried yucca, mixed vegetables, potatoes and several cervezas. There are no other tourists in sight. This is my kind of place! After a final round of frangelicos, we say aloha to our new Cruceño friends. And yes, I pay 8 bolivianos for the cab ride home!
I grew up in Berkeley, and after doing the entomology bit at Berkeley, assessing pest problems in wine grapes and a stint cultivating tropical plants, I moved to Hawaii 15 years ago. The reason for the move was to fulfill a lifelong dream of raising parrots and having a yard of unusual tropical plants. I am currently employed by the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture where I conduct Pesticide Regulatory work both in the field and marketplace. I first began to take trips abroad to see some of the large bird parks such as Vogelpark Walsrode and the Jurong Bird Park. However, during a post International Palm Society trip to Venezuela, I had a chance to see free flying macaws in the rainforests along the Caura River, I now take annual jaunts to see unusual bird species in the wild....not in cages. I am planning a Guatemala trip with friends next March (I want a new bedspread!), but hope to do a Lear's/Hyacinth trip in 2 years....with a return to the Red Fronted site in Bolivia. Yes, I am determined to see this species!!! If people have any questions regarding my trips (Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Bolivia) or rare tropical plants, feel free to send an email: email@example.com.