BIRDER’S 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 armonia@armonia-bo.org 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 diseases?

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 low.

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 lugging around.

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 and ponds)
4. Polylepis forests
5. Pampas (savanna, forest islands and dry forests)
6. Cerrado
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 is low.

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:

Habitat type

Diversity

Abundance Endemics
Dry valleys Medium

Low

High
Yungas
Medium Low High
Puna Low Medium Low
Polylepis forests

Low

Low High
Pampas Medium High
Low
Chaco Low High
Low
Amazonian forest High Low Low

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 show up.

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 sticks around.

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.

Asking directions

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 multinational corporation...

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 is present.

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 the Yungas.

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 holidays are:

January 1: New Year's Day
Mid-February: Carnival (falls on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday)
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 odd exceptions.

Prices

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 Cruz.

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 US
Buses: La Paz to Rurrenabaque: 10 US Santa Cruz to Rurrenabaque: 20 US

Suggested Trips