GUIDE TO BOLIVIA
By Bennett Hennessey
Here are responses to frequently asked questions. Below this section are notes for independent birding in Bolivia and another section on suggested trips.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What birding guidebooks are recommended?
Unfortunately, there is no single guidebook that covers all of the nearly 1,414 bird species found in Bolivia. Armonia is in the process of completing a bird field guide for Bolivia, planned for completion in 2011. For now the visiting birder must make do with a combination of field guides.
The cheapest and lightest solution is the new Birds of Peru (2007) by Thomas Schulenberg, Douglas Stotz, Dan Lane, John O'Neill and Ted Parker (now also available in Spanish). This is a semi-heavy, but excellent guide which should cover most of Bolivia's tropical humid forest, Mountain humid forest and High Andes. If you combine this guide with the simpler Collins guide Birds of Southern South American and Antarctica (1998) by Martin R. de la Pena and Maurice Rumboll, you will have most of Bolivia's birds covered. The descriptions are short, the plates are so-so, but the small size will be a relief.
Another partiall solution is Birds of South America:Non-Passerines: Rheas to Woodpeckers by Francisco Erize and Maurice Rumboll. This is a very reasonably priced book that covers all the Non-passeriformes (non-song birds) of South America with fantastic plates, all with a similar style. It is a pity they are so small, but the book is portable, and great for all of South America. This means you will have all the woodpeckers, all the hummingbirds, and all the parrots for South America! The text is weak, but the beauty of the book is the plates and the range maps.
And on one more easily portable book, I strongly recommend Birds of Chile (which is also available in Spanish) by Alvaro Jaramillo and Peter Burke. This is an excellent guide and will serve the Bolivian High Andes very well.
Moving up in weight and utility, a great reference book for South American birds is the Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America: THe Passerines. This book is an updated version of the two volumes of the Birds of South America by Robert Ridgely and Guy Tudor. The new book now illustrates almost all the species, and has updated text. If your interest in South American birds includes visiting this continent more than once, I strongly recommend making this book part of your collection.
For the highland areas (including Yungas habitats) Birds of the High Andes (1990) by Jon Fjeldsa and Niels Krabbe is very good. With a few notable exceptions, virtually every bird you are likely to encounter over 2600 meters is illustrated. The introductory sections on Andean natural history and vegetation zones are also excellent and should not be ignored. A bit pricey, a bit heavy, but worth every penny.
You must have with you a copy of the 2003 version of the Annotated List of the Birds of Bolivia published by Bennett Hennessey, Sebastian Herzog and Francious Sagot. This book was designed to put important Armonia bird database information in an easy access form. Armonia is at the entrance to Lomas de Arena. Or write to Armonia email@example.com if you want to get a copy before your trip.
Although not a field guide, Steven Hilty's Birds of
Tropical America is highly recommended. This collection of essays
on neotropical birds provides some great insights and makes excellent
reading at the end of a long birding day. More generally, the Neotropical
Companion offers a primer on how rainforests function and describes
the many common creatures of the neo-tropics. For birders that want
a broader understanding, this book is just the ticket. It has a
good section on birds that focuses on the major neotropical families,
a welcome introduction for the first time visitor. Eloquent, precise,
and perhaps even more entertaining, Tropical Nature by Adrian Forsyth
and Ken Miyata provides 17 fascinating essays that provide a glimpse
of the incredible tapestry of life in the Amazonian rainforest.
If you have an interest in bird songs, the CD-ROM
Birds of Bolivia 2 by Sjoerd Mayer is an incredible
tour de force. Many of the species on this CD-ROM are not found
on commercially available cassettes and recordings of species never
recorded before, such as Huayco Tinamou, Inquisivi Spinetail and
Masked Antpitta, are included. The second edition has sounds of
over 900 of the nearly 1400 species in Bolivia with many photos
as well. The CD-ROM format is an excellent way to learn calls and
songs of the more common species prior to a trip. The CD-ROM can
be bought from Buteo Books and Wildsounds. If you have an older version, you can installl the new, much improved program from http://www.birdsongs.com/Bolivia/version2/errata_e.htm. The new program can convert ALL (2572!) recordings to mp3s in one go
What about vaccinations and all those tropical
Hollywood has used the backdrop of exotic South American
diseases to create countless dramatic scenes of illness and death.
To be sure, Bolivia has its fair share of tropical diseases, but
with proper precautions, the risks faced by a traveling birder are
The typical protection includes a yellow fever shot (good for 10
years), typhoid vaccine, and the new hepatitis A vaccine. Although
cholera is endemic is some parts of South America and Bolivia gets
a few cases a year, the vaccine is not very effective and you are
better off just watching what you eat (don't eat fried hamburgers on the side of the street). Make sure your tetanus vaccine
and childhood vaccinations are up to date as well.
Malaria is very rare in Bolivia in the popular birdwatching areas. If you are heading to the Department of Pando we would suggest look into anti-malaria tablets, but for areas around Trinidad (Beni Savannahs), Rurrenabaque and Santa Cruz the only exists the less dangerous type of malaria- and at such low levels it is highly unlikely a tourist, sleeping in a clean area of town in a good hotel with few mosquitos will come into contact with malaria. Local people do not take anti-malaria medication because one almost never hears of malaria cases in these areas. Your best protection against malaria is avoiding being bitten by long sleeve field clothes and
using a repellent.
Leishmaniasis, spread by the bite of an infected sand
fly, is a threat in only a few specific areas. Locally you will be advised in such areas. There is no vaccine, so again the
best defense is to keep covered up and wear repellent. The sand
fly bites at dawn, dusk and after dark, so adequate precautions
can be taken.
As far as exotic diseases, there is a very remote
chance of contracting Dengue in the cities through a mosquito bite, usually more common in the rainy season. Dengue is comparable to a flu virus, and just as bad- but does not need medical care.
For the typical birding traveler, the major health
issues are more mundane. Sooner or later you are bound to come down
with some form of traveler's diarrhea. Powdered Gatorade is great
to have along to rehydrate yourself. An anti-diarrhoeal (such as
Imodium AD) can plug you up and allow you to spend a long day in
the field chasing endemics, but it won't speed your recovery. Many times your
body simply needs to adjust to the new unfamiliar bacterias in the area. It appears the best way to avoid traveler's diarrhea is to make sure you are drinking bottled water, soft drinks or beer. My personal opinion is that life is too short to avoid all the pleasant culinary possibilites because you are afraid of getting diarrhea. Use your own logic and ask for local advice. I avoid really cheap food in the city, below the average price. So for example, if a normal Saltena (which you must try) costs 3 bolivianos in most stores and popular street vendors, I don't buy the Saltena from some guy in the corner selling for only 2 bolivianos. If a food is average price, and local people appear to be buying it, it usually will be OK. In Santa Cruz this can also be true for local fruit juices which include local water which is fine, but more risky in Cochabamaba and La Paz, and all small towns where local water is not as well cleaned.
La Paz is the highest capital in the world. The altitude
ranges from 3250 meters (10,650 feet) to over 3650 meters (12,000
feet) depending exactly where you are in the city. This is over
twice as high as Denver, Colorado and you will definitely notice
the lack of oxygen. Altitude sickness (locally referred to as soroche)
characterized by headaches, insomnia, tiredness and vomiting is
a real possibility. Be sure to take it very easy the first few days
and, most importantly, drink lots of liquids (avoid alcohol). There
is a preventative called Diamox available by prescription that can
help, but for some it makes food and especially carbonated drinks
taste strange. Beware too of the much more serious Acute Mountain
Sickness (AMS) which, without descent to lower altitude, can cause
death. Know the symptoms and remember people react very differently
to high altitudes. If it fits your itinerary, adjust to the altitude
gradually by ascending a couple thousand feet each day. Most professionally-led
birding tours start in Santa Cruz, spend a couple nights in Cochabamba,
slowly working their way to the lofty heights of La Paz.
At high altitudes there is much greater UV radiation,
so severe sunburn can occur in a fraction of the time it would take
at sea level. Bring good sunglasses and sun block with a high SPF
and don't plan on getting a tan. A good hat is essential.
What birding gear should I bring?
Binoculars, of course. But if you happen to be in
the fortunate position of purchasing a new pair of binoculars before
your South America trip, what would be the ideal binoculars for
neo-tropic birding? Several requirements come to mind. First, you
might want to think about getting a pair that is waterproof. At
the least, you will want binoculars that have a reputation for being
rugged and able to withstand the high humidity and rainfall of the
tropical lowlands. Second, in the dim recesses of the rainforest,
the light gathering ability of binoculars becomes especially important.
Lastly, a binocular with an appropriate balance (for you!) between
magnification, a wide field of view and close focus. Trade-offs
are inevitable: magnification of course enables you to see more
detail, but the smaller the field of view, the harder it is to get
your binoculars on that Tody-Flycatcher flitting around in the canopy.
Close focus capability is a real advantage in tight forest situations
and there is the added bonus of improved butterfly watching.
Many neo-tropical birders consider an iPOD, tape or mini-disc
recorder and uni-directional microphone standard gear for highland
Yungas and lowland Amazonian forests. Indeed, tape playback can
attract many antbirds, antpittas, and other skulkers that can be
difficult to observe. Yet there are growing concerns about repeated
tape playback in heavily birded areas. Case in point, at the popular
Cotapata site, reports suggest that the recently discovered Bolivian-diademed
Tapaculo has grown accustomed to playback and is less likely to
show itself. If you bring a tape recorder, use discretion.
If you are the type of person who has a spotting scope
permanently resting on your shoulder, Bolivia will not be an exception.
However, if you are wavering as to whether to bring a spotting scope
or leave it home, there are two schools of thought (represented
by the two authors!). One view is that a scope is very useful, occasionally
clinching a distant identification, and nearly indispensable in
the pampas and aquatic habitats. The other school of thought is
that in many habitats (especially the yungas, rainforests, arid
valles) a scope is unnecessary and often not worth the trouble of
Although you probably do not usually use one in North
America or Europe, an altimeter is almost essential in Bolivia.
Bird distribution is highly dependent upon altitude. Knowing "where
you are" often means knowing your altitude. A combination watch
and altimeter (there are several brands) runs about $150. Unfortunately,
altimeter wristwatches depend upon barometric readings and changes
in barometric pressure throw off readings. It is best to re-calibrate
your altimeter whenever possible. The following are official altitudes
for the major airports in Bolivia:
La Paz (El Alto airport) 4,058 meters (13,313 feet)
Cochabamba airport: 2,548 meters (8,360 feet)
Santa Cruz (Viru-Viru) 373 meters (1,224 feet)
Sucre airport 2,903 meters (9,527 feet)
A GPS receiver (Global Positioning System) can come
in quite handy if you plan to leave the beaten track. Since Bolivia
has very poor road signs and few good maps, GPS coordinates are
used throughout the site descriptions in this book. For finding
some sites, a GPS is very useful in order to avoid wasting considerable
time in aimless wandering. Prices on lower-end GPS receivers have
fallen to below $100, making them quite affordable.
A notebook for field notes is always a good idea,
but a microcassette recorder can also really help. In cloud forests
and Amazonian forests, it is often "feast or famine."
One minute it is quiet and the next you are surrounded by a foraging
flock with over 20 species. With a microcassette recorder clutched
in your left palm and steady grip on your binoculars, you can whisper
notes and not miss a bird. Well worth the $30 investment.
If you wear eyeglasses, bring an extra pair. You likely
will not have time to find a replacement in Bolivia. If you wear
contacts, be aware the extreme dryness of high altitude areas can
be difficult on the eyes and bring plenty of eye drops.
Narrow jungle trails, high Andean steep slopes and
urban cobblestones make walking in Bolivia a challenge, especially
if your eyes are focused elsewhere. Hiking boots, preferably with
water protection and good ankle support, are good for highland areas.
In the lowlands, heavy hiking boots can become a bother and, by
contrast, lightweight running shoes are very foot friendly. Ted
Parker regularly wore Converse Hightops in the field! And don't
forget rain gear. Even in the dry season, rain showers are regular
in the yungas forests. During the rainy season, a pair of rubber
boots is also an excellent idea. For trips to the highlands, nothing
beats a warm fleece jacket for cool mornings.
It is difficult to pack for Bolivia, as temperatures
vary greatly. In the lowlands, long sleeve nylon shirts and nylon
pants will give you protection from both the sun and assorted biting
insects. They also dry in record time. Cotton shirts are also very
comfortable option. Short pants are only appropriate for lounging
around the hotel pool or relaxing after a hard day's birding. Finally,
don't forget a hat for sun protection. For highlands, a wool cap,
gloves and long underwear are good insurance. At high-altitude,
UV rays are intense and painful sunburns can occur with limited
exposure. A baseball hat does not protect the ears and back of the
neck and most people need something more substantial. A favorite
for the neo-tropics is the wide-brimmed Tilley hat. Such hats (there
are other brands) offer excellent sun protection. The heavy canvas
keeps you dry during a brief tropical rain shower and has a cord
that keeps you from losing your hat in a sudden breeze. Finally,
a good first aid kit is essential. You will likely be traveling
in areas where immediate medical assistance is very limited.
It is always a good idea to bring a stash of snacks.
Many birding areas are far from lodging and restaurants and early
departures are the norm. Granola bars and crackers can pass for
breakfast, bringing up blood sugar levels, and staving off hunger
pangs. As an alternative, you can stock up on snacks (and more substantial
fare for camp meals) at grocery stores in the larger cities.
As a general rule, if you cannot live without it,
bring it with you. Many common consumer goods are hard to find outside
of the large cities and quality is often poor. Medicines, batteries,
and film fall into this category.
INDEPENDENT BIRDING IN BOLIVIA
By Lawrence Rubey and Bennett Hennessey
Why Choose Bolivia?
More and more birders are headed to South America,
attracted by over 3,000 species and the greatest avian diversity
in the world. Why choose Bolivia? Several reasons combine to make
Bolivia a prime destination:
1. Low crime: Unlike Columbia and Peru, Bolivia has
low crime rates. While political unrest (in the form of strikes
and roadblocks) has grown over the past decade, tourists that avoid
periods around elections are rarely inconvenienced. Check the latest
U.S. State Department bulletins at http://travel.state.gov/. The
military coups of the 60s and 70s are a thing of the past. And Bolivians
must be some of the friendliest people in the world.
2. Reasonable prices: Unlike some countries, prices
for meals, hotels and public transportation are very reasonable.
Only imported consumer goods and rental cars are relatively expensive.
3. An incredible range of habitats: Like Ecuador and
Columbia, Bolivia has everything from dense Amazonian rainforests
to Andean puna grasslands, and everything in between. The only thing
Bolivia is missing is a seacoast that would offer coastal and pelagic
species. In fact, if Bolivia did have a seacoast, Bolivia would
probably surpass Columbia as the country with the highest count.
4. Lots of birds: Bolivia's official list stands at
nearly 1,400. But many prime areas remain unexplored. With more
fieldwork, Bolivia's bird list will undoubtedly pass 1,400, placing
just behind such birding meccas as Ecuador and Brazil.
Commercial birding tours are big business. Plunk down
$5,000 per person (plus another $1,000 or so for airfare) and you
can enjoy nearly three weeks birding in Bolivia with a tour group
and expert field guides. But many people do not have that kind of
money --- and many people don't like to have birds handed to them
on a silver platter by professional guides.
This summary is written for the independent birder
who wants to tackle Bolivia on their own. It is written at two levels:
1) for the "backpacker birder" who plans to use public
transportation and camp or sleep cheap in basic hotels; and 2) the
independent "budget birder" willing to spend a little
extra for a rental car and modest hotel room.
For two independent "budget birders," a
17 day birding trip to Bolivia, taking in many of the major sites,
can be made for less than $1,500 each (excluding airfare). That
is less than a one-third of the cost for two birders on an organized
package tour. For a couple of "backpacker birders," the
cost is even lower--perhaps only $500-600 each (excluding airfare).
The drawbacks? You have to do a little planning on
your own. That is where this guidebook is designed to help you.
But even after all the planning, expect some surprises.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
A birding trip through Bolivia with no Spanish knowledge
at all is certainly possible. Major hotels and rental car companies
have English-speaking employees. Improvised sign language and pointing
to sentences in phrase books goes along way. Fortunately, unlike
Cubans or Mexicans, most highland Bolivians tend to speak quite
slowly and the use of slang is somewhat limited.
But you will certainly enjoy your trip more and feel
more secure if you have someone in the group who has some knowledge
of the language. Even if it is just rusty Spanish from high school
or college, a little goes along way. If not, try an introductory
course at your local community college or borrow some language tapes
from a local library.
What key habitats occur in Bolivia?
Bolivia has an incredible assortment of habitats,
only lacking a sea coast. There are many possible classifications,
but for the birder, eight habitats are of major importance. The
more of these habitats that are visited, the more variety of birds
likely to be seen in Bolivia. The first four habitats are found
in the highlands, while the last four are lowland habitats. The
habitat categories are somewhat simplified and it is likely that
no botanist or ecologist would choose such simplified categories.
But they should serve the purposes of the birder. The eight are:
1. Dry Andean valleys (valles)
2. Yungas (humid montane forest)
3. Puna grasslands and heaths (including high-Andean wetlands, lakes
4. Polylepis forests
5. Pampas (savanna, forest islands and dry forests)
7. Chaco (dry thorn scrub)
8. Lowland Amazonian forest
For the birder intent on either a big list or seeing
localized species, these habitats differ sharply in terms of diversity,
abundance and number of endemics. For example, in the Bolivian pampas,
it is possible to see (not just hear) 130 species in a day. But
on your second day in the same habitat you will probably see around
85 percent of the same species. Abundance is high, but diversity
is low. By contrast, in the lowland Amazonian forest, you may see
(not just hear) 30 species in a day. The next day you will also
likely see 30 species, but 50 to 70 percent will be species you
did not see on the first day. Diversity is high, but relative abundance
As a rule, more complex ecosystems create more diversity
of birds. So for the birder (who is looking for species numbers,
not specific species) with a limited time span, the strategy would
be to spend more time in areas of high diversity and low abundance.
The following table summarizes the trade-offs:
As seen from the table above, in general, the highlands
of Bolivia are characterized by relatively high rates of endemism
while abundance (actual number of birds) is relatively low. Indeed,
most of the Bolivian endemic and range restricted species (range
restricted species refer to those that are not endemic but are found
outside Bolivia in a very limited area) sought after by birders
are highland species.
I only have limited time so what are the best birding sites to visit?
The typical visitor, with only two or three weeks,
has to make some key decisions. The first step is decide what type
of trip best suits you. Do you want to build as big a list as possible
in a short time? Do you want to focus on finding most of the endemics
and range-restricted species? Or do you want to combine birding
with some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes and natural areas
on the continent?
If building a big list is a priority, you will want
to devote a good chunk of your time to the lowlands. Diversity is
much higher in the lowlands and a few days in Santa Cruz followed
by a quick circuit of the highlands and a longer excursion to the
pampas and Amazonian forest in the Northern lowlands can easily
push you past 500 species in just over a couple weeks. However,
most of the species that will be seen are widely distributed across
South America. So if you have done some birding in forests and pampas
in other South America countries, many species will already be familiar.
If you want to focus on finding most of the endemics
and range-restricted species, the lowlands will be less of a priority.
Since many of your target birds will be in middle and upper Yungas
forests, dry valles, and Polylepis forests, plan an itinerary around
the highlands Cochabamba and La Paz (the focus of this volume of
the guide). A favorite strategy is to spend a day or so in Santa
Cruz recuperating from your overseas flight, and then make your
way west to Cochabamba. After a few days at 2600 meters birding
around Cochabamba, you will be better acclimated when you eventually
move on to the lofty heights of La Paz. A side trip to Trinidad
in the Northern lowlands for the beautiful endemic Blue-throated
Macaw is a perfect finale.
If finding birding areas with cultural or scenic interest
is important (or if you simply are not obsessed with searching out
endemics), you may want to include a visit to some of the lesser
known areas in Southwestern Bolivia. Sajama National Park, with
snow-capped volcanoes, simmering hot springs, and stark grasslands,
offers an experience of a lifetime. Although diversity is lower
still, the bird life of the altiplano and lagunas is unique. And
who could deny the pure enjoyment of flamingos shimmering pink in
a highland lake?
Finally, those interested in getting off the beaten
track should consider exploring areas such Pando department in the
north, the Pantanal (South America's answer to the Everglades),
and Gran Chaco National Park in the southeastern part of the country.
These areas, again not described here, offer some incredible
birding experiences for adventuresome types.
When is the best time of year to visit?
If your itinerary includes more of the lowlands than
just Santa Cruz, avoiding the January to April rainy season is often
a good strategy. In the Northern lowlands, roads in pampas areas
often turn to mud during the rainy season. And if your lowland Amazonian
adventure is of limited duration, a couple days of rain can be most
unwelcome. The January to April rainy season is, however, a good
time to visit the altiplano of southwestern Bolivia. The altiplano
is so arid that there is little danger of being rained out. Temperatures
are more moderate in the rainy season and hillsides are green.
Austral winter months (May to August) have clear blue
skies in most of the country and little risk of rain (except in
the Yungas where it can rain any time of year). Travel is pleasant,
although temperatures are cold in the highlands. In August and September,
the seasonal chaqueo, burning of grasslands, casts a smoky pall
throughout nearly the entire country. Nevertheless, the latter half
of the dry season (August through early November) are prime birding
months in forested areas as song and breeding activity are high.
GETTING AROUND IN BOLIVIA
Although Bolivia is blessed by low crime and civil
strife is rare, it is still a third world country. For those accustomed
to precise first world schedules, getting around in Bolivia can
be both challenging and frustrating. This section is meant to offer
some tips that may help make a birding trip a bit smoother.
Using local transportation
Except where noted, most sites in this guide can be
reached by cheap public transportation. Bolivia has a huge number
of private companies that operate mini-buses, large long distance
coaches and everything in between. However, any discussion of schedules
and services would quickly become out of date. Your best bet is
to consult a general Bolivia travel book, such as the Lonely Planet
and Bolivia Handbook guides, for an overview. If you are on a tight
schedule or visiting a more remote location, it often pays to make
a phone call or visit to the bus terminal office to confirm departure
times. Even then, departure times are often flexible. If a bus is
full, it may depart early. If there are still seats available, the
driver may stick around awhile hoping that more passengers will
Taxi service in Bolivia is quite economical. In La
Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, a taxi can be hired for $4 or $5
per hour. Thus, for day-trips outside of these major cities, a taxi
is often cheaper than renting a car (and you lessen the chances
of getting lost!). Be sure to agree on the price before hand and
withhold payment until the end of the day to ensure that the driver
With long driving distances, internal flights can
be a good way of maximizing birding time. Fares are reasonable and
many flights leave at mid-day or at night, meaning you are less
likely to lose a morning waiting in an airport. Special tickets
allowing you to stop off at various cities on a pre-determined circuit
can be economical, but are only available outside the country. Also,
be aware that during the rainy season, flights to Rurrenabaque and
San Borja can be delayed when lowland airstrips become waterlogged.
Driving safely in Bolivia
Bolivia's unique topography and poor road infrastructure
make driving a challenge, yet renting a car also provides a lot
of flexibility and can help ensure that you are at key birding areas
at peak hours. There are several car rental companies in Bolivia,
but no international companies as of yet. Given the state of Bolivia's
roads and the short life of most vehicles, prices are rather high.
Rates run about $60 a day for a four-wheel drive Suzuki and $130
for a Toyota Land Cruiser, with 200 free kilometers per day (which
may be negotiated up with persistence). Be sure to pay attention
to the additional "per kilometer" charges, as these can
add up fast. Four-wheel drive is not necessary except for a few
locations, but the higher ground clearance can be very important
as rental car companies will charge for underbody damage. Getting
an "International Drivers License" before leaving home
(available at automobile association offices in North America and
Europe) is also good idea if you plan to rent a car. In tropical
lowland towns such as San Borja, Rurrenabaque and Trinidad, a good
option is to rent a motorcycle by the hour or day.
Very few roads are signposted and safety features
(median markings, guardrails and street lights) taken for granted
in North America are almost nonexistent. For those inexperienced
with South American road culture, it is best to avoid driving at
night. Animals and children are special hazards at all hours. If
you want to be predictable to other drivers, some general "rules"
apply: There is no need to slow down or swerve for chickens. On
the dirt roads, there are too many. If you happen to kill one, it
will simply be eaten. Roadside dogs are quite common and often aggressive.
They are often found at dangerous mountain passes awaiting handouts
from superstitious drivers. These dogs seem to have been genetically
selected for car chasing and know exactly what they are doing. Just
keep driving and don't swerve---you won't hit one. Pigs tend to
wallow at the side of the road and rarely move into traffic. Cows
are another matter as they are completely unpredictable. Cows have
a habit of wandering into the flow of traffic. Llamas and alpacas
are a bit tricky. Generally, if they are off to one side of the
road, there is no problem. But be careful if the herd is split,
with some animals on each side of the road. In such cases, it is
possible that an animal will suddenly cross at the last second to
join the others. Finally, even on a wide two-lane road, if children
are playing on the side of the road, slow down, honk your horn as
a warning, and move to the far lane.
Great care has been taken in describing how to reach
each birding site. GPS coordinates are provided for most sites to
aid in finding them. Yet Bolivian road signs are notoriously bad.
Rarely updated, Bolivian road maps should be read with skepticism.
Planned roads are often included though they do not yet exist, while
older, impassable roads are frequently shown as if new. A small
town may go by two or even three names. The bottom line: you will
undoubtedly get lost at some point in your travels. When you do,
here are some tips on asking directions. First, remember that kilometer-based
distances are a difficult measurement for many rural people. Someone
who has lived in a particular town all their life may not have any
idea how many kilometers (Bolivia uses the metric system) it is
to the next town. Better to ask how many minutes or hours away it
is. Even then, be aware the travel time is often expressed as how
long it would take in a slow bus or truck. Second, avoid phrasing
questions in a way that leads to a "yes" or "no"
answer. Instead of saying "is this San Miguel?" ask "what
is the name of this town?" Lastly, seek a second and third
opinion. If three separate townspeople agree on which road will
take you to Sorata, you are probably on the right track.
Dealing with police checkpoints
Upon entering and exiting all major cities and some
smaller towns, the traveler encounters police checkpoints. The dual
purpose of these checkpoints is to collect modest tolls and to record
information about the vehicle and driver. The birder/tourist should
have no problem at these checkpoints and will pass through in a
matter of minutes. Simply present your driver's license (and passport
if requested) and be prepared to tell them your destination, license
plate, and number of passengers. For a rental car, you may be asked
to produce the rental agreement. Also, be sure to save any receipts
you are given for payment of tolls: you will probably be requested
to present them at future checkpoints. UMOPAR, the national drug
police, operates several checkpoints to restrict the flow of coca,
cocaine paste and precursors (materials used in the processing of
cocaine). Again, presenting your driver's license and passport should
quickly produce a wave of the hand, motioning you to continue on
your way. In some instances, you will be asked to open the trunk
or a suitcase or two. All this is quite normal and should not be
any cause for worry. It is extremely rare that tourists are solicited
for bribes or given trouble. Naturally, it would be extremely foolhardy
to buy or transport any prohibited drug in Bolivia.
Bridging the cultural gap between campesino and birder
Unlike in much of North America, birding is little
understood. The idea that someone would spend hundreds or thousands
of dollars to travel to a foreign land to see birds is often incomprehensible.
As a result, local people will naturally be curious. Also, binoculars
are often mistaken for cameras by camera-shy rural residents. If
there are questions or curious stares, your best bet is to politely
explain that you are "mirando aves" (looking at birds)
or "me gusta aves" (I like birds). Pulling out a guidebook
and pointing out the various plates does wonders. People will often
take a keen interest and even show you what other birds are found
in the area! To many, a spotting scope set up on the roadside may
look similar to a surveyor’s tripod. Again, a simple offer
for them to look through the scope can ease suspicions that you
are surveying the land for a future purchase by a profit-hungry
Rural Bolivians are some of the friendliest people
in the world. Except for some of the well-traveled treks on former
Inca trails, rural crime is virtually non-existent. Just remember
that, in their view, you are exhibiting strange behavior in your
search for birds. Even if your Spanish is limited, a smile and giving
them a glance at the plates in your bird guide is often all it takes
to bridge the cultural gap. Your efforts will determine the reception
that future birders receive.
Fences and private property
Fences are quite common in much of the lowlands of
Santa Cruz and the Beni. The main reason is not a preoccupation
with private property, but rather the presence of cattle and the
desire to control their wandering. The site descriptions attempt
to describe instances when crossing fences is acceptable. Of course,
if you open a gate, always be sure to close it behind you. In the
highlands, much land is communally owned and access seldom questioned.
But, as a general rule, it is always best to ask permission if someone
Wherever you are, be very careful about walking in
active farm fields. Rural farmers are very poor and their livelihood
depends on their meager harvests. A group of birders that thoughtlessly
trample a path through a potato field may cause real human suffering
in the form of reduced household food supplies. Respect their fields.
Staying in smaller hotels
Bolivia has a complete range of hotels, from five-star
luxury hotels in La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz to $2 a night
hostels in rural areas. Unfortunately, most hotels are far from
birding sites mentioned in this guide, often necessitating before
dawn departures. Where there are specific hotels that are particularly
convenient to birding sites, they are mentioned in the text. The
Bolivia Lonely Planet guide has the most comprehensive listing of
reasonably priced hotels. In general, it is possible to stay at
a basic but clean hotel for $15 to $30 per double.
For birders, some important points to keep in mind:
Smaller hotels often lock up their doors at night. To avoid the
frustration of being trapped in a hotel lobby at 5AM, explain to
the desk clerk the day before if you are planning an early departure.
Also, many hotels in rural areas have discos that primarily attract
a local clientele. Ask if there is a disco before registering, and,
at the very least, request a room far from the action to assure
yourself a good night's sleep. Finally, the outskirts of many cities
have "motels." These are not hotels for the motoring tourist,
but rather discrete rendezvous spots for amorous encounters with
rooms for rent by the hour.
Camping in the campo
Bolivia has few organized campsites with toilets,
showers, picnic tables and fire pits. But if you are willing to
forgo these luxuries, wonderful camping spots exist throughout the
country. Given the distances between hotel and birding sites, camping
also enables you to get a good night's sleep and still be in prime
birding areas at dawn. In the highlands (puna and valle habitats),
potential campsites far from human settlements are easy to find.
In the lowlands, cleared plots of land are often occupied. One strategy
is to ask farmers or ranchers for permission to camp on their land.
Camba hospitality being what it is, many will even invite you in
for a cold drink. Finding secluded campsites in the Yungas forests
of La Paz and Cochabamba is the most difficult as nearly every piece
of relatively flat land already has a house on it or is being cultivated.
Again, asking permission to camp in someone's "front yard,"
fallow field, or on the edge of a community soccer field is an option.
The site descriptions mention several potential camping sites in
Coping with fiestas
If you are on a tight schedule, it pays to be prepared
for Bolivian holidays. Public transportation usually runs on holidays
and smaller grocery stores are open. But hotels can be quite full,
especially when there is a three-day weekend. The major Bolivian
January 1: New Year's Day
Mid-February: Carnival (falls on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash
March/April: Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday)
May 1: Bolivian Labor Day
June: Corpus Christi Day (always on a Thursday)
August 6: Bolivian Independence Day
Early November: All Saints Day (usually November 2)
Dec 25: Christmas
Avoid the city of Oruro during Carnival (mid-February).
The Government also usually closes a few days before Christmas and
does not re-open until the first Monday of the New Year. Most middle
and upper-class Bolivians also take off from work during this period
and hotels are often full.
In addition, each department has its own Departmental
holiday once a year:
April 15: Tarija department
May 25: Chuquisaca department
July 16: La Paz department
September 14: Cochabamba department
September 24: Santa Cruz and Pando departments
November 10: Potosi department
November 18 Beni department
Bolivian Currency Advice (SEP 2012)
Right now the Boliviano is 1 US= 7 Bolivianos (English
speakers call them B’s, or some Brits Bollys, Bolivians surprisingly
often call them Bolivianos but as well pesos). Bolivians base their
money on the US dollar (20 years ago Bolivia had the highest inflation
rate in the world). One can easily change US dollars everywhere
in the cities. Most store purchases you can use 20 USD bills, and with larger purchases pay in US 100 without a problem. But make sure your US bills are in mint condition. Better to change your money in “casa de cambio”
which you can ask anyone on the street “Donde esta la casa
de cambio”. There are many people who will change your money
for you on the street, usually they have a corner with five or six
competing people. Through-out Bolivia these people have learnt to
take advantage of tourists and should be avoided at all costs. My
clear and strong advice is to always avoid changing your money with
people on the street- and to count extremely well you transaction
in established money changing outlets.
When coming to Bolivia best to bring sparkly new one
hundred US dollar bills (the new version). An overly worn, ripped
or holy US bill will not be received. I suggest hundreds for your
many costs, a few twenties which you can use to pay restaurants
and such and about 15 brand new US one dollar notes for tips and
to pay the taxi when you first arrive.
While in La Paz and Cochabamba do not except ripped
or old worn Bolivian bills as nobody else will take them and you
are stuck with the money. Worn money, even with rips is not a problem
in the Santa Cruz area.
Basically what changes when you travel in Bolivia,
is the bill denomination that people can receive. In the city (La
Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz) you can still work with 200 and
100 B’s notes in most restaurants, stores and movie theatres.
But as you travel further away from the cities, the less they will
accept and the more you will receive the reply “no hay cambio”-
there is no change. There is a common joke in the small town of
Rurrenabaque, that having a 200 Boliviano note is worse than having
no money at all. The smaller the population the smaller the bill
they will accept- no joke, I have gone to stores where they will
not sell me something because they did not want to be stuck with
such a big bill. While in the city, I like to go to the bank and
get a big wad of 10 B’s, and then everything else in
twenties. Just tell the banker you are going to the field (el campo),
they will understand.
Things are relatively cheep in Bolivia, with a few
1.5 Boliviano buys you
a street drink, bag of bread, sweets and other little things.
2 Bolivianos buys you
minibus ride anywhere in La Paz, Cochabamba or Santa
10 Bolivianos buys you
Luxurious Radio Taxi ride anywhere in La Paz, Lunch or Diner in
local food houses, and a beer,
17 Bolivianos buys you
Local Restaurant diner, night-club beer, entrance
into a disco...
Hotels range from decent at 70 B’s (there are
the travellers hotels at 35 B’s if you do not want a window)
to 100-180 US dollars at the niceys.
70 to 130 US a day to rent a vehicle. Once you see Bolivia’s
dirt roads you will understand the price.
Planes: La Paz to Rurrenabaque: 70 US La Paz to Santa Cruz: 120
Buses: La Paz to Rurrenabaque: 10 US Santa Cruz to Rurrenabaque: