Ah, the wonderful country of Bolivia, a land-locked nation bordered by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile. Although it has no seacoast, the Andes Mountains run squarely through the heart of this country producing vast elevation differences and giving it several of the most varied ecosystems in all of South America. With such diverse habitat, it is no surprise that Bolivia also has the highest bird species count of any land-locked country in the world and most certainly a country birders’ want to visit!
Our plan touched down at Santa Cruz airport and we officially started the next chapter of our South American adventure, Bolivia.
Up until this point, we had rented a car in every country we had visited making it easy to go where we wanted when we wanted. But with fairly expensive car rentals, rough roads, and a one-way itinerary, we decided to opt out of renting a car and instead rely on public transportation in the form of buses and taxis. After getting a visa, gathering our bags, and exchanging money, we flagged down a taxi to take us to our hostel in Santa Cruz. Ross was able to communicate with our taxi driver who called his English-speaking friend, another taxi driver, to see about chauffeuring us around for the entirety of the following day. After a little discussion an agreement was made for the driver to pick us up at 5:30 AM the following morning and stay with us for the majority of the day.
We met our driver at the prior arranged time and headed off to Lomas De Arena, a large grassland and marsh area 15 km south of Santa Cruz. We spent the first part of the morning stopping along the entrance road and picking up dozens of year birds and life birds. Highlights included Rufous-winged Tinamou, White Woodpecker, Golden-collared Macaw, Peach-fronted Parrot, and Chotoy Spinetail. Eventually we reached a river crossing the road which our 2WD taxi could not forge so we crossed the river by foot and continued walking towards our goal of a marshy area a few kilometers further along the sandy road. Luckily during our hike, we flagged down a passing dune buggy and bummed a ride to the end of the road. In the nearby marsh at the end of the road we found a few new birds including White-faced Whistling Duck, Bare-faced Ibis, Buff-winged Ibis, and Wattled Jacana. From here it was a hot 5km hike back to the taxi, but we saw some interesting birds along the way including White-eared Puffbird, Spot-backed Puffbird, Campo Flicker, Snail Kite, and Burrowing Owl. We arrived back to the taxi at 11:00 AM and decided to head into Santa Cruz to run a few errands.
Up until this point, Ross’s pants had been continually deteriorating. Having worn the pants for 2 ½ months straight (no joke), Ross had acquired a number of holes including a large one on his behind. The taxi driver took us to a local seamstress and soon Ross found himself pantless while the lady quickly went to work mending them.
With pants fixed, we headed off to an electronics store as Ross’s recording equipment wasn’t working properly. One and ½ hours later, the recording equipment still wasn’t working so we cut our losses and headed back to Santa Cruz Airport, this time to look for birds in the surrounding grasslands.
We spent the last few hours of the day having the taxi drive the dirt roads around the airport and walking through the fields. Bird activity was very slow, but we still added a few new birds including Greater Rhea, Greater Thornbird, and Wedge-tailed Finch. As dusk fell, we headed back to our hostel happy with the results of our first day in Bolivia.
The next morning we caught an early taxi to the Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens. We arrived at the gate at 6:00 AM, but there was a problem– the gate was locked and the sign said it didn’t open until 8:30 AM! The high fence around the garden resembled a jail more than botanical garden, so entering early looked out of the question. Luckily while standing at the front gate contemplating our next move, we noticed the gate which appeared “locked” really wasn’t. The morning is the best time of day for bird activity and we didn’t want to wait so we decided to risk it and let ourselves in. Luckily we quickly found a group of workers who had no problem with our early entry. We set off into the forest and over the next few hours found tons of new birds including Scaly-headed Parrot, Black-banned Woodcreeper, Short-crested Becard, Blue-crowned Trogon, Bolivian Slaty-Antshrike, Black-capped Antwren, Fawn-breasted Wren, and most importantly a flock of Green-cheeked Parakeets, the very distant ancestors of our beloved pet bird, Kolea. Also during our visit we managed great looks at a group of White-eared Titi monkeys, our first primates on our South American trip.
Our game plan for the afternoon was to take a bus 4 hours west to the town of Samaipata. We arrived at the plaza in Santa Cruz where the buses typically depart planning to catch the bus leaving at 1PM, but we ran into a problem; the date was May 1st, a Labor Day holiday in most countries. Although there were still buses going to Samaipata, the 1:00 PM bus was full and the next one wasn’t for six hours! Weighing the pros and cons of waiting vs hiring a taxi we opted for the latter and flagged down a driver willing to commute the 4 hours to Samaipata. Although taking a taxi was $35 more expensive, we figured the extra cost was worth the alternative of sitting on the side of the road for six hours with all of our bags. If the bus situation wasn’t enough, we arrived in Samaipata only to find out that our hostel reservations for a room were given to someone else and they had no other beds! Being a holiday weekend, the mountain town of Samaipata was crowded and most hotels and hostels were already full. Fortunately Ross found us a room at a rather plain hostel on the outskirts of the town. Not 15 minutes after we got our room, another group came in looking for a place to stay but were turned away – we were very fortunate to have grabbed the last room!
The next morning we took a taxi to the access road for Los Refugio Volcanes, where we were to spend the day hiking the access road and looking for birds along the way, including the endemic Bolivian Recurvebill. Upon our arrival, we quickly discovered that we actually had a 5 km hike until the access road even began, something we hadn’t realized beforehand. Whoops. Our taxi dropped us off and wouldn’t have been able to drive us any further anyway so we started on the steep 5 km hike by foot. The hike took 1 ½ hours and by the time we made it to our “starting point” it was already mid-morning. The access road down to Los Volcanes is a steep private road owned and maintained by the lodge at the bottom but can be a key birding location as it goes through prime forest. However, given that the weather was unfavorable, the road was steep, and we were technically trespassing by walking the road, we decided not to hike any further and instead we started the 5 km hike back down to the main road making the morning birding essentially a wash, however views along the way were absolutely amazing. The green mountains we overlooked were reminiscent of the lush green mountains in Hawaii. The green trees situated on the red rock cliffs made for stunning views but unfortunately unforeseen circumstances prevent me from sharing any of the lovely photos we took that day (but more on that later.)
We hitch-hiked our way back to Samaipata and spent the afternoon hanging around the quaint little mountain town. As late evening approached we took a quick 15 min taxi ride to a nearby river to search for a bird who lives along streams, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. We began by checking the stream from the bridge but it became apparent that we would need to go deeper to find anything. Both Ross and I are proficient at traversing and climbing around streams, however this steep stream was extremely difficult to hike up as the sides consisted of huge boulders with minimal small stepping stones in between. Eventually we scrambled far enough up the river to hear a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper call, but we were unable to see the bird as we had flushed it somewhere upstream. We returned to the main road and once again hitch hiked our way back to Samaipata. That evening it became obvious that my phone was missing. We thoroughly searched the room multiple times before concluding that I must have left it in the taxi that took us to the stream. We spent the evening walking the town looking for our taxi driver, but he was nowhere to be found (probably cashing in on his $200 prize.) My phone was officially lost and sadly many of the photos from Chile and Bolivia were lost with it. It had been a long day of multiple fails. We went to bed a little annoyed and hoped the next day would go better.
The morning of May 3rd started off once again on a bad foot as our scheduled taxi was a no show. Luckily we were able to find another taxi and headed off on the long trip to the town of Camarapa where our game plan was to spend the day stopping along the main road looking for various target species. Our first few stops of the morning were along a section of forest just west of Samaipata. The area was full of birds and we added many new species including Giant Antshrike, Plush-crested Jay, Planalto Hermit, Brown-capped Whitestart, and Black-capped Warbling Finch. As we continued driving west, the forested areas turned to arid canyons where we saw birds such as White-fronted Woodpecker, Streak-crowned Thornbird, Purple-throated Euphonia, White-tailed Plantcutter, and Mitred Parakeet.
We arrived at our destination of Camarapa at 2:00 PM and after putting our baggage in our hotel room, we headed back out to continue birding for the evening. We stopped at multiple spots nears Tambo and San Isidro and saw a few endemic species in the form of Bolivian Blackbird and Bolivian Earthcreeper. Frustratingly, we also heard the endemic Red-fronted Macaw, but were unable to see them as a small ridge blocked our view of them flying past. We headed back to our hotel and coordinated a taxi for the following day which we planned to spend searching for the Red-fronted Macaws we only heard the day before.
We left the hotel at 5:00 AM and headed south to the town of Saipani driving the road through the Mazio (???) River valley which is a known corridor for the Red-fronted Macaw. The drive took much longer than expected and it was 3 ½ hours later before we reached the “good” area for the macaws. We were a little worried we might miss the bird, when I suddenly heard a parrot screaming outside the window. We pulled over and after a few minutes of searching we saw three Red-fronted Macaws feeding in a fallow corn field. These endangered birds are endemic to Bolivia and can only be found in the central region where they nest on the rocky cliffs in the area. Eventually the group we were observing flew off so we continued along the river valley in search of more. We found one more group of six macaws, before turning around and starting the 4+ hour trip back to Camarapa.
Shortly after starting our journey back, our taxi began to have issues. Although the car would turn on, the driver was unable to put the car into gear – something was wrong with the clutch or transmission. Basically we were stranded in the middle of nowhere four hours away from our hotel. After a few minutes of debate, we paid the taxi driver for the day and he started the long walk to the nearest town in search of a mechanic while we stayed near the broken down taxi attempting to hitch hike our way back. We were finally able to hitch a ride out with a farmer and his wife in their pickup truck. The truck took us as far as Saipani where we were able to take a taxi the rest of the way back to Camarapa. It had been a long day of traveling, but we were content as seeing the Red-fronted Macaws made up for it!
During the evening while walking around town, Ross noticed a man with binoculars around his neck (something you don’t usually see this time of year as it isn’t prime birding time.) The man, Jacob, and his wife, Tini, had just arrived in Camarapa and were planning on spending the next day birding the cloud forest of Siberia. Lucky for us, this was the same area we planned on birding and we arranged to spend the next day birding with the couple.
We met up with Jacob and Tini at 6:30 AM and started along the road to the cloud forest of Siberia. During the hour drive to the forest we saw a few groups of Greater Pampa Finches and also encountered a young Andean Condor sitting alongside the road! We stopped to take pictures of the bird and soon realized that the condor was very tame. Soon we were taking pictures with it, not just of it! Definitely a highlight of the morning!
When we arrived in the chilly and misty cloud forest there was very little bird activity but once it warmed up a bit we started to encounter small flocks of feeding birds. These flocks included many new species for us such as Montane Woodcreeper, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Pale-legged Warbler, and the endemic Bolivian Brush Finch. It remained very foggy all day which is actually ideal for cloud forest birding as flocks will often remain active throughout the whole day as opposed to taking a break in the afternoon heat. Although most flocks contained roughly the same species, we were still able to add a few more interesting species such as hearing the endemic Rufous-faced Antpitta, and seeing Trilling Tapaculo and White-browed Conebill. That evening we returned to Camarapa and planned out the next day which entailed birding along the highway while en route to Cochabamba.
We departed while it was still dark and headed west towards Cochabama. Our first stop of the morning was just west of the small town of Siberia. Along the edge of the cloud forest we saw a few new birds including Blue-capped Puffleg, Light-crowned Spinetail, the endemic Grey-bellied Flowerpiecer, and Rufous-browed Warbling Finch. We continued west for another two hours before reaching an area known for a few good birds such as Maquis Canstero, Black-throated Thistletail, Bolivian Warbling Finch, and Citron-headed Yellowfinch. As we searched the scrubby hillsides for our targets we saw Grey-hooded Parakeet, Creamy-breasted Canstero, and Red-tailed Comet, but the only target bird we were able to find was the Bolivian Warbler Finch. Eventually we called it quits and pressed on with the long drive to Cochabamba thus concluding our first of nearly three weeks in Bolivia!