by Lawrence Rubey
Note: In May 2012 the Bolivian Spinetail was recorded in the area. It had been recorded here many years ago, but with no recent observations. We still need to review how common it is in the area. See http://birdinggap.blogspot.com/2012/06/dry-andean-valley.html
About three and a half hours northeast of La Paz, Sorata, with its steep streets and a sleepy atmosphere, is a typical Yungas town. The town, perched on the hillside at 2700 meters at the base of snowcapped Mt. Illampu in the Cordillera Real, is quite charming. But many of the surrounding areas are heavily distributed. Indigenous vegetation only survives high up on steep hillsides and in steep ravines. Birds like Golden-billed Saltator, Azara's Spinetail, Rust-and-yellow Tanager, Black-backed Grosbeak are suggestive of the disturbed, scrub and hedgerow habitat that dominate. But Sorata is a convenient base for hiking and trekking and is a lovely getaway from La Paz.
The main attraction is the endemic Berlepsch's Canastero. Detection of this species seems to vary through out the year, to some people finding it easily in the dry season (June-Sept.) to others not finding it at all in January. It has most frequently been seen in the patches of introduced eucalyptus trees on the main road just a few kilometers before entering the town (see GPS waypoint below). Areas near this patch of eucalyptus are also very good for the endemic Black-hooded Sunbeam when roadside flowers are blooming. Green-tailed Trainbearer (rare further south) is also common around the town in the exotic flowering plants.
The drive from La Paz to Sorata is also excellent for waterbirds. The best spots are a few kilometers after the Ayacucho military battalion headquarters. Watch the roadside ponds here for Andean Avocet, Puna Ibis, and Chilean Flamingo. On the road ascending to the summit, there are some typical puna habitats that can be good for miners and pipits, especially Rufous-banded Miner. A good spot is 17 km from the turn at the Ayacucho military battalion where there is a large lake on the left side of the road that holds Giant Coot, Andean Goose, and even, on occasion, Black-faced Ibis.
Logistics: Sorata is 148 kilometers from the city of La Paz. Leave La Paz through El Alto and take the road to Lake Titicaca. Pass through the tranca for road to Lake Titicaca and continue 47.5 km to the small lake-side village of Huarina (re-set to 0.0 km). At Huarina (see GPS waypoint below), take the right fork to Achacachi. After 18 km, arrive at the market town of Achacachi, make your way though the town plaza, continuing straight, cross over a rather long bridge and arrive at the Ayacucho military battalion (20.8 km from Huarina--see GPS waypoint). Turn right just in front of the battalion building (a soldier may stop you to record your license plate). From here the asphalt ends (but the birding picks up). The unpaved 51.5 km stretch between Ayacucho military battalion and Sorata is a bit rough, especially in the wet season. Plan on a two-hour drive for this stretch in case the road is in poor condition.
In Sorata, Hotel Prefectura is a pleasant hotel with an entrance driveway just off to the right before entering the town of Sorata ($25 a double for a spartan room). With creaky floors and badly in need of renovation, it may appear a good set for a horror movie. But the staff is very helpful and the atmosphere is restful. Rooms on the top floor are the nicest. Residential Sorata, in the main plaza, is also highly recommended, with better food. ($48 per person per night). Try the meals at Cafe Altai on the main plaza.
GPS reading at Huarina, right fork for Sorata: S 16 11.916' W 68 35.939'
GPS reading at turn at the Ayacucho military battalion: S 16 02.148' W 68 41.282'
GPS reading at roadside spot good for Berlepsch's Canastero: S 15 49.415' W 68 8.603'