Noel Kempff Mercado Park

by Bennett Hennessey and Lawrence Rubey

rainforest Noel Kempff Mercado Park had to facilities to recieve tourists, Los Fierros and Flor de Oro. As of February 2012, as I understand from several sources, both have been shut down due to a lack of support. Los Fierros last leg was when the roof fell in two years ago. Flor de Oro remained open serving Brazilian fishermen, but eventually has shut its doors in a permeneant way. The Bolivian NGO FAN has been working to revive the Los Fierros tourism area in November 2011, but we have not heard any news of a new opening. We can only assume that hiking trails have also been allowed to grow over. If the cerrado species in Noel Kempff Park interest you, you can look into Selvablue lodge (regaining its old name of Los Lagos) and Riberalta cerrado areas.

The park contains some of Bolivia's most pristine and well protected tropical forest and cerrado habitat. The area is exceptional for its diversity of habitats all in a small area, from river edge, dry, gallery, inundated, bamboo and tall forest to a variety of open habitats including campos, cerrados, open forest, marshes and a selection of river types. And on top of this is the foothill 900 m forest and cerrado of the Huanchaca plateau- which should not be missed.  But with high habitat diversity in a small area, you lose more specialized species in each habitat type. So each habitat is relatively poor.  This is an important point if your goal is to truly devote yourself to a rainforest experience, as you would be much better off going to an area like Alto Madidi in Madidi N.P. Diversity and abundances are low in the forests of Noel Kempff.  But the large attraction is that during a quick visit, one can pass many habitats and have a ridiculously large bird list for such a small area.  Another attraction are the regional specialties mentioned within the text.  For a complete review of the ecosystems in the area, we highly recommend you read Tim Killeen and Tom Schulenberg's Conservation International RAP report "A Biological Assessment of Parque National Noel Kempff Mercado, Bolivia".

Noel Kempffcan be considered a second trip to Bolivia for many.  It would take at least two weeks to bird the park well, and since the small plane entrance flights are the same it is better to stay a bit and get your dollars worth.  Noel Kempffreally offers the only easily visited and Bolivian protected Cerrado habitat.  The moist forest is less diverse than other areas, but the other areas do not have the diversity of birding open grassland bird communities on the same day.

A thorough- and the typical- visit to Noel Kempffis based around the two in park lodges- the roughing it "jungle" lodge found southwest in the park Los Fierrosand the "I-can't-believe-I'm-in-the-jungle" northern top of the park Florde Oro.  Both lodges through their transportation offer access to all of thehabitat types found within the park except the Huanchacaplateau which requires a special small plane trip.  We recommend visiting Los Fierrosfirst, to leave Florde Orofor a more comfortable finish.  Usually tours spend equal time in both lodges, but the Los Fierroshabitat is worth more time in our opinion.

One very pleasant aspect of Noel Kempffis the high abundances of large mammals in the area.  On Bennett's last bird guiding trip there, the group observed Jaguar (3), Puma (2), Giant Anteater, Giant Armadillo (2), Pink River Dolphin, Silvery Marmoset, Black Spider Monkey, Brown Capuchin and many Grey Foxes.  Noel Kempffis also one of the better areas to see ManedWolf and the Giant River Otter.

Huanchaca plateau
If you are going to visit Noel Kempff, make sure you insist on visiting the Huanchacaplateau.  This was the whole driving force for Noel Kempff Mercado to create the park (read logistics section).  It is quiet something really, this cliff-edged 900 m foothill grassland and forest pushed out of the lowland tropical forest.  The area is very specialized and has the greatest diversity of birds restricted to cerrado habitat.  Threatened Bolivian species who'spopulations are specialized to the Huanchacaplateau include Campo Miner, Coal-crested Finch, Curl-crested Jay, Rufous-winged Antshrike, Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant, Sharp-tailed Tyrant and Blue Finch.

Los Fierros

This should be your first lodge to visit. Due to poor management, we have been told the lodge has run down and may not be able to receive guests. There also is now no vehicle to take tourists. A rougher, less private lodge, its key plus is location- right in the middle of where it all happens.  On Bennett's last visit a tourist popped his head out of his cabin at 4 am to find a Jaguar walking by. Los Fierrosarea is based on a road that travels from the border town of Florida to the El Encantowaterfall.  The lodge is in middle of this road just before it reaches cerradohabitat. Part of the Los Fierrospackage is the use of their 4x4 vehicle, which has attached out-in-the-open seats in the back. With the vehicle, you can visit the forest between Florida and the lodge (this part is unfortunately all bordered by Cercropia-dominated secondary forest and scrub), the cerradoarea, the forest between the cerradoand the waterfall El Encantoand the forest between the cerradoand the plateau trail. It would appear that the majority of the tourists visiting the area are of a more general nature level whoenjoy observing nature from the top of moving vehicles. Unfortunately, the main result of this popular activity is the lack of attention to footpaths. The entire lodge only has one decent footpath! We have mentioned the importance to design decent footpaths for tourists in the past, but presently without any acknowledgement.  Feel free to mention it.

Well as starters if you find yourself with some extra time you can always bird around the forest edge of Los Fierroslodge.  Some of the boring dirt birds around the lodge are Bat Falcon, Red-throated Piping Guan, Great Potoo, Black Caracara, Ruddy Pigeon, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Lettered Aracari,  Chestnut-eared Aracari, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Olive Oropendola, and Giant Cowbird.  Can't beat dirt birds like these!

The cerrado habitat (10 minute drive from Los Fierros) is a large open expanse of cerradovegetation- many people drawing similarities to African scrub.  The best area seems to be further away from Los Fierroswhere it is more wooded. This area has quiet a distinctive bird community and it is worth a few visits, especially one at night (nothing wrong with birders catching a glimpse of a Manned Wolf either).  Birds seen along the road are Greater Rhea, Small-billed Tinamou, Barn Owl (frequently seen in-flight at night), AplomadoFalcon, Scaled Pigeon, White-throated Goldenthroat, White-eared Puffbird, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, Rusty-backed Antwren, Collared Crescentchest, Mouse-colouredTyrannulet, Plain-crested Elaenia, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Chalk-browed Mockingbird, Grassland Sparrow, Wedge-tailed Grass-finch, Black-faced Tanager, White-rumpedTanager and Burnished-buff Tanager.

The long roads make for great after-diner night drives. Make sure to visit at night the road to Florida and the road through the cerrado. The Great Potoois frequently seen along the runway, Burrowing Owls in the cerradoand a nice diversity of nightjars including Pauraque, RufousNightjar, Spot-tailed Nightjar, Little Nightjar, and Scissor-tailed Nightjar.

Across from the cerradohabitat is a moist forest leading to the El Encantowaterfall- a nice day trip, but worth also another morning or afternoon for revision.  Many amazing species have been seen in this tall forest with many of the "great-fun" Amazonian rainforest stars like Harpy Eagle, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Blue-and-yellow Macaws, Red-necked Woodpecker, FasciatedAntshrike, Black-faced Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and the Paradise Tanager.  Other possible species more particular to this area of Bolivia and part of the Inambariarea of endemism are the Crimson-bellied Parakeet, Black-girdled Barbet, and Snowy-capped Manakin. The extremely Restricted-range (and bloody rare) Rusty-necked Piculetis worth looking out for in these parts.

Flor de Oro
On the edge of the tannin brown ItenezRiver, Florde Orois by far the prettier and more comfortable lodge. It is highly recommended to leave this lodge for last, as it is a better escape from the tropical forest daily assault.  This lodge offered high quality accommodations, service with great meals, but the quality has been decreasing recently with a change in management. If you are paying the regular price, you should be in the best rooms, which are a group of four rooms up river after passing the musuem.  

The reality is that the actual lodge is in poorly positioned, based on access to the runway and the river view. The savannah habitat around the lodge is very poor- well worth putting in more time around Los fierrossavannah. All the trails in the area are cleared by a tractor and quiet comfortable for group birdwatching. There are trails leading to the forest upriver and downriver.  Our favorite is the loop trail down river starting at edge of the Florde Orogrounds beside the river.  This trail wanders into gallery forest to see Southern Screamer, Scarlet Macaw, TocoToucan, Cinnamon Attila, Fiery-capped Manakin, Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Gray Hawk, Brown and Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Lineated Woodpecker, White-flanked Antbird, Warbling Antbird, Zimmer's Tody-Tyrant, Black-fronted Nunbird, Lineated Woodpecker, and Amazonian Umbrellabird.  Also farther in on this trial are stretches of bamboo that can hold bamboo specialists like Striated Antbird, Dusky-tailed Flycatcher and Large-headed Flycatcher.  At the far turn of the loop, the trail returns through cerradohabitat, giving opportunities to find open area species missed at Los Fierros.  Pay special attention to seedeater flocks, trying to find the "smoking-gun" breeding plumaged males among the confusion of female, dull and immature plumages.  You want to look out for the rare and Restricted-ranged Black-and-Tawny Seedeater and the Rufous-rumpedSeedeater.  The Black-and-Tawny Seedeater is so restricted, that Florde Orois really the only place one can see this bird with some regularity, and oddly enough, many of the observations come from the edge of the runway.

We strongly recommend a river trip during your stay.  The river edge birding is really spectacular in the area and worth even passing an early morning.  Along the river one can see AgamiHeron, MuscovyDuck, Osprey, Sungrebe, Wattled Jacana, Large-billed Tern, Black Skimmer, Hoatzin, Black-tailed Tityra, and Black-capped Donacobius.  Also talk to the boat driver about recent sightings of the Giant River Otter and the Pink River Dolphin.  We recommend a fast run along the main river but also spend time puttering along Bay 1 and 2.  Indicate to the driver you want to go very slow and close to the shore line.  It is amazing what can show up. 

While visiting Florde Oro, you should not miss the distinctive dry forest. You need to take a trip to LagoCaiman (Lake). From LagoCaiman there is a trail to MiradorMarimono(the Spider Monkey lookout). This is where the lodge should have been built. One hour on along the trail is a mammal and Macaw salt like. Follow the trail up the side, and you will come across a rocky hill. Clearly on the other side is a rain shadow created dry forest. The forest has a poor bird community, but some birds you will not see in other parts, like Natterer's Slaty-Antshrike(Thamnophilus stictocephalus), and White-lined Tanager (Tachyphonus rufus).

Logistics: Bird Bolivia is not offering trips to Noel Kempff given the closed situation with its lodges. The area can be visited on your own with a vehicle, or with small local tourism agencies in Santa Cruz, we do not recommend it as the park only seems to respond well to preplanned trips.

Bolivia likes to remark about how it is the remotest park and a real adventure to get to, which may be true from a Bolivian perspective, but in Brazil it is only twenty minutes by boat with local bus rides to nearby towns. Which brings in a possible cheaper option of taking a bus from your Hyacinth Macaw lodge in Brazil, across to Noel Kempff. Sorry, we haven't done this ourselves, but we have been told it is possible. The boats went to Flor de Oro Lodge- which is now shut down.

If you are going to visit Noel Kempff, make sure you insist on visiting the Huanchacaplateau through a small plane flight.  This is a 900 m foothill grassland and forest with quiet a few interesting adaptation and the reason for Noel Kempf fMercado's interest in creating the park.  The park is reluctant to offer this, not being able to see the value of the area and wanting to avoid the hassle (pilots don't like the area because it is buggy and they have no hammocto rest in).  It pays to book your tour in advance and insist on this aspect, giving the agency time to clean runways or whatever.  Hiking to the plateau is another option from Los Fierros, but it means a lot of hiking time (less birding time and a hard up hill hike) and sleeping in a tent on the plateau.