Friday, 22 June 2012

Home briefly

We have been home for a week, just to spend some time with our granddaughter and see our mums. Birdgirl has seen her friends and visited school.

Chris has done the washing and just a few more things to get restocked on. We leave on 30th June for a 9 week trip to Peru. Not enough time to fit it all in, but we are having a good go at it.

We are trying to get sorted for the next leg of our trip, but difficult to be rushing around when we are so 'relaxed'. Can't get my head around housework, what is that??

We took Birdgirl to London yesterday for an educational visit, which was really good. We must do it again when we get back. I think it is going to take months to get all our bird lists done, but at least I have my next project planned!

Birdgirl with her niece

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Bolivia – the final numbers of birds

Saying goodbye to Herman and Sandro

Birdgirl waiting for the flight and glued to her Kindle - as ever!

The final count, 645 birds seen on the trip plus 28 species heard only, giving a total of 673 recorded by one of us.  Of these, Birdgirl saw 342 new birds, 287 for me and 286 for Chris.  At present, there are 15 official endemics for Bolivia counted by the SACC.  One is extinct (or at least not seen for over 100 years) and we have seen all the remaining 14.  This is a pretty successful trip even if we did miss a couple of “soon to be” or “potential” spits like Palkachupa Cotinga and Rufous Antpitta.

The birding has been far less physically demanding than Colombia and having one local guide and the same driver/cook/administrator throughout has meant great food tailored for us, better relationship building for Birdgirl and lots more Spanish leant.  Herman has gone out of his way to ensure that Birdgirl’s fussy diet was catered for with an endless supply of pasta, olives, popcorn, crisps and chocolate biscuits.  He has always had a smile on his face and we have had many jokes with our pigeon Spanish.  Sandro has entertained us with his “English” dry sense of humour and educated us with his knowledge of indigenous culture and history and natural history.   His gentle ways have kept us calm (most of the time!) and his ability to ignore my strops (when missing birds) has meant that we can all move on quickly.  Maybe we have just relaxed more, but we have all been less “on a mission” to see every bird during this trip.  Let’s hope it continues.

The trip has been brilliantly organised by Ruth and Bennett of Bird Bolivia/Armonia with all profits going to Armonia (Bolivia’s bird conservation organisation).

I would highly recommend Bolivia for a holiday, birding or otherwise.  It’s beauty is staggering and immensely diverse and seems to have been overlooked.  By staying in the community lodges, you would be contributing directly to the environment as eco-tourism is the only financial alternative to logging and the use of natural resources.  It is likely that there are many other endemics to be described in Bolivia, but no resource for the research.  By coming to Bolivia birding, as well as seeing lots of new birds (it is interesting that Chris saw 90 more lifers in Bolivia than Colombia in the same amount of time) you will be helping to kick-start a funding interest in Bolivia that would make a difference.  The habitats are still here at present, but are quickly going to be cut down.  Armonia could still buy crucial land for reserves pretty cheaply and make a difference before it is too late.  It takes a long time to drive between areas because the county is so big but outside of the rainy season, the roads are not bad at all.  The mountain roads are dangerous and I would not recommend driving at night or when tired, but that is the same the world over.

Palkachupa Cotinga, Bolivia

We had come all the way to Apolo to try and see the critically endangered, endemic Palkachupa Cotinga. It was re-found here 14 years ago, after being thought to be extinct for 98 years. There are thought to be only 120 pairs. Few birders had travelled to see the birds, but things were improving and last year 3 small groups visited.

We headed for the community of Aten, the area where you can find the Cotinga. Armonia have been working with the community to conserve the limited and rare habitat and have built a school. The community are now keen to build a lodge, if they can get funding, and birders start coming in larger numbers. The chances of this will improve when the new airport opens in August. Sandro had spent 2 months in the area 10 years ago, trying to find out where the birds were and how many there were, after their initial rediscovery. Normally the birds sit on the top of the canopy, fly-catching however William explained that the breeding season had ended in March and the birds were not doing this at the moment. He had seen the birds flying in groups two weeks ago, but not since. We spent two days searching for the birds with William and Sandro’s maximum effort, with no success and very few new birds to divert our disappointment, except a Brown Tinamou which was great. We did manage to hear a bird a couple of times on the first day, but could not find it.
To add to our difficulties, the petrol station closed at 5.30pm and due to problems with fuel smuggling to Peru, we could not buy fuel from canisters. We used the last of our fuel canisters on the second day and so had to leave our birding site at 3.30pm, to get back to Apolo by 5.30pm to buy fuel, or wouldn’t be going anywhere the next day. At the petrol station, our registration number was taken and, despite Herman’s sweet talking, the lady would not fill the canisters. This was due to a strict law to prevent smuggling. This meant that we would have to stop birding at 3.30pm again the next day, so that we could fill up our tank, in readiness for our long drive to La Paz the next day. We would have to drive 9 hours before we could buy any fuel, even from roadside canisters.
Our third day of birding near Apolo, we have up on the Cotinga and instead headed for middle yungas forest. We had a good morning birding which put us in better spirits. We would just have to return to Apolo at some point for the Palkachupa. It was just a shame to end the tour like this, when we had been so successful up to now. Over these days we saw Chestnut-Backed Antshrike, Small-Billed and Greenish Elaenia, Brown Tinamou, White-Tipped Swift, Short-Billed Pipit, White-Bearded Hermit, Greater Thornbird, Yungas Tody-Tyrant and Manakin, Slate-Coloured and Double-Collared Seedeater and Long-Tailed Tyrant. We also had lovely views of a Tiyra, a medium sized black mammal.
The next morning we left early, for our 16 hour trip back to La Paz. Birdgirl and I, being used to being passengers for our UK twitching didn’t find this too much of a problem. It seemed long to Chris, who I pointed out was used to being the driver and not passenger. Sandwiched between her parents, Birdgirl had no option but to put down her Kindle and catch up with some home-education (which of course she loves!).
Popcorn anyone?

The first half of the journey went well, but then we got a puncture in Chuzani, fortunately outside a tyre place but unfortunately was shut. Herman did a quick tyre change and we were on our way, hoping that we didn’t get another puncture. After about an hour, we got to a village with a tyre place, where our puncture was repaired, whilst we had a quick camp lunch. The repaired tyre was then put back on the vehicle and we headed off. Half an hour down the road, Herman stopped suddenly on a sharp bend with a sheer drop. This was either an emergency toilet stop or something was wrong! We all piled out of the 4x4 to discover that Herman had felt the wheel wobbling and had found that all but one of the bolts holding the wheel on had fallen off. Clearly the tyre man had forgotten to tighten the bolts and we were close to the wheel dropping off. On one of these bends that could have been fatal. We all stood silently contemplating our yet another stroke of good fortune whilst Herman took a bolt of each of the remaining wheels and fixed them to the missing gaps. After this, we were well on our way with just a few stops to check that the bolts we still in place. The only outstanding bird of the day was fantastic views of another Black-Faced Ibis, just before the wheel was going to fall off. We were back in La Paz in time for a pizza and a good night’s sleep before leaving to catch our morning flight home, via Lima and Madrid.

From the Chilean to the Peruvian Border, Bolivia

The next morning, we set off from Sajama in our frozen hire car. The windscreen was icy, so I asked why Herman did not put on the heater. The response was that we did not have enough petrol. The vehicle was delivered with very little petrol and it was a miracle that we managed to drive for 1 ½ hours to a restaurant/lorry stop that fortunately had some emergency petrol. Two canisters later we were on our way, just in time for a cold and quick breakfast stop. Sandro’s quote of the day was “For me, this is like another planet”. The emergency fuel fortunately got us to the first petrol station we saw, almost three hours from the lodge.

The plan was that we were meeting another vehicle in El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz, on the way to our afternoon destination, Lake Titicaca. The demonstrations that delayed our original arrival to La Paz were continuing and due to road closures, we were held up in traffic. Eventually, we met up with our new vehicle which turned out to be the vehicle from Sadiri Lodge (Rurrenabaque), which happened to be in La Paz. Next stop was a quick exhaust repair and then purchase of fuel canisters to get us to Apolo the next day..

By the time we arrived at the Lake Titikaka Hotel it was 2.45pm and we were all tired. The hotel had a fantastic location on the south east shore of the lake, with enormous panoramic windows and a massive log fire. After a quick order for lunch, we ticked off Titicaca and White-Tufted Grebe from our bedroom window, before heading back to the dining room to quickly eat and head out to catch the last two hours of light. We managed to see Plumbeous Rail, Wren-Like Rushbird, Yellow-Winged Blackbird, Black Siskin and Peruvian Sierra-Finch.

It felt sad not to carry on the 1 ½ hours drive to Copacabana, where our good friend James’ brother lives and owns a bar. After the stressful day of driving for Herman and a long drive tomorrow, we did not feel we could ask. Next time.

The next morning, we made an early start for Apolo, north east of our hotel, back into the Amazon Basin. We first drove for 2 ½ hours along the east shore of Lake Titicaca, passing close to the Peruvian Border. We passed through many check-points, each ensuring that we were carrying no extra fuel, for smuggling. Once past the checkpoints we filled up our canisters in a small village. By now we had caught up with the supposedly common Bare-Faced Ground-Dove and the very rare Black-Faced Ibis. We had headed north east away from the Lake, higher towards the Cordillera Real. Here there is trekking to compete with Nepal, but without the permit costs. 6 ½ hours after starting our journey, we passed through the mountain town of Chuzani (3,250m) on the border and after a riverside lunch stop carried on towards Apolo. A local told us that it was another 6 hours to Apolo. I commented that surely the driving would be easier as we would have to be dropping down in height. However, at this point the road became more narrow and steep. The condition of the dirt roads did not seem too bad, which I again commented on. Shortly after this, the road became more rutted and was muddy where it seemed to have rained recently. We then came across lots of people by the side of the road. It did not look good. About 15 men were trying to pull a double-decker coach out of a muddy ditch by the roadside that it had slid into from the very muddy road. At least it had not slid off the road in the other direction and off the cliff edge. This did not work and after creating some friction for the front wheel by digging up the road, they managed to haul it out.

All hands needed to pull this bus back onto the road

From here, the last 2 ½ hours of the journey was very difficult.  The road was very, very muddy, with the 4x4 sliding from side to side on some stretches, with sheer drops, bendy and narrow mountain road in the dark.  To add to this, the mist turned to think fog and our car seemed to have no front fog lights.  I strained to see out of the tinted windows and wondered what Herman could see.  I wound down my window, freezing Chris and Birdgirl, so that I could see out of the window at the road ahead and alleviate my anxiety by seeing that we were still heading for road.

14 hours after leaving the hotel in Lake Titicaca we arrived in Apolo, at 2,000m,  Here we were on the edge of Madidi National Park and Apolobamba National Park, which runs along the border with Peru.  Our accommodation for the next 4 nights was a monastery for nuns, which turned out to be very comfortable and friendly.  It had been here since the 1920’s and the present buildings put up in the 1950’s.  Apparently, there was a 92 year old German nun who had been there forever.  Sandro explained that it was a 5 day walk north along an Inca trail through Madidi to his community and that his grandfather was from the Apolo area.  The Inca trail then continues from Apolo to Cusco, near Machu Picchu in Peru.

Sajama National Park at 5,000m, Bolivia

Sajama National Park

Mountains across the border in Chile

The next morning, we started out in a hire car for Sajama National Park. It was a 4x4 estate with considerably less space than the Bird Bolivia 4x4 people carrier, so we left as much luggage as possible in La Paz to make room for food and utensils. From La Paz we drove south and then south west along the altiplano, high in the Andes. Here the puna landscape was flat and desolate. We stopped at a lake for breakfast and saw many puna species, Mountain Caracara, Andean Goose, Crested Duck, Chilean Flamingo, Puna Ibis, Puna Plover, Puna Canastero, Andean Negrito, Black Siskin and Andean Swallow.

It was midday by the time we reached Sajama National Park, at 5,000m. It was cold and the air felt decidedly thin. The ice covered peak of the volcano sat beside us, at 6542m. Here, we could see the mountains of Chile across the expansive border.

At 5,000m it was hard to breathe and walk and we all felt headachy. After lunch, we all had a cup of coca leaf tea to help with the altitude. We expected some homemade stewed variety, but instead were offered shop bought individually wrapped tea bags, along with the cinnamon tea. We felt not particular effect from this and so joined Herman and Sandro in chewing coca leaf as we birded. I felt no obvious effect (no dizziness or buzz) but was able to walk along much more easily than that morning at 100m lower. Birdgirl was a little chattier, but was less hyper than she would have been after a bar of chocolate or a fizzy drink.

More coca tea?

As soon as the sun set, the temperature fell to well below freezing. With no heating or double glazing, it felt cold. We were staying at Tomorapa Lodge, run by three communities, and were served up delicious and warming food. We were celebrating Birdgirl’s 2500thbird on her world list, Chilean Flamingo, our 600th bird for the trip and Sandro’s 1000th bird for his Bolivian list. Birdgirl and Sandro huddled in front of the lovely fire in the dining room. After dinner, Herman had a surprise for Birdgirl, as they brought out a huge bowl of popcorn, her face lit up! He was her favourite driver, ever.

Our beds had three blankets and a bedspread on each. The water was icy cold and so any more than washing our hands and splashing our faces was out of order (and it seems not even this for Birdgirl!). Chris and I decided to share my slightly larger bed and piled the extra blankets onto Birdgirl’s bed. She could hardly move with her 8 blankets! We all went to bed with our thermals and many layers on and actually felt pretty warm, until we had to get out of bed the next morning. Sandro suffered the most with the cold and altitude, his genetic make-up was definitely for the lowlands.

We left the lodge the next morning at 6.15am for a ½ hour drive to an isolated lake, next to some border patrol soldiers. Here they were looking for cars being smuggled from Chile and petrol being smuggled out of Bolivia. As we pulled up, Herman jumped out into the freezing cold to look under the bonnet. I could see steam rising out of the engine and it did not look good. Chris went to add his input to the discussion and returned to say that the fan belt was broken. Great I thought, only a fan belt, surely we can get one of those pretty easily. But we were in the middle of nowhere. Coffee, tea and hot chocolate were very welcome in the freezing cold before the search for Lesser Rhea began. Herman tried to pop some popcorn, but it was too cold for them to pop. It was definitely time for a Snickers Bar, even if rock solid from being frozen.

A couple of hours later, we were heading off to walk around the lake and Herman had found a temporary solution with his shoe lace (after trying a whole host of things out including Chris’ belt and our camera bag strap). Herman had also been on the phone non stop and another vehicle was coming from La Paz with a new fan belt. We birded until lunchtime, walking on mainly flat ground the whole time, but without the coca leaves it was much tougher. Herman drove us back to the lodge, with a stop half way to replace a now broken shoe lace with the other.

After lunch and some essential coca tea, we headed off birding leaving Herman to wait for this stage replacement vehicle, as the Ford fan belt had to be ordered from the US. The owner was coming with a large supply of alternative fan belts which he was going to use and change every 5km all the way back to La Paz.

We saw some really specialist birds here including White-Faced and Puna Ibis, Golden-Spotted Ground-Dove, Puna, Creamy-Breasted and Cordilleran Canastero, Puna and Rufous-Banded Miner, Cream-Winged Cinclodes, Bright-Rumped Yellow-Finch, Taczanowski’s Ground-Tyrant, Lesser Rhea, Chilean Flamingo, Giant Coot, Least Seedsnipe and Cinnamon-Bellied Ground-Tyrant. Unfortunately we only heard Diadamed Sandpiper-Plover, one of our key targets.

It was a relief to get back to the lodge to find a new 4x4 waiting for us and that we weren’t going to be stuck in Sajama for longer! Sandro was suffering by now despite the tablets and coca tea.

Looks like an interesting feather

The old church next to the lodge


Looking back towards the lodge

From the church tower

The World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia?

La Paz sits between 3,600m and 4050m in the west of Bolivia, in the middle of the Andes in an enormous high altitude plateau. The Cordillera Real are a ridge of mountains of over 600 peaks above 5,000m which runs west to East, North of La Paz. Lake Titicaca is to the east and sits at 3,600m. There are various peaks that are at around 6,500m and the closer you get to a peak the higher you go, these are part of the Cordillera Real.

From La Paz, there is a road that runs north east up through La Cumbre, which is at it’s highest point.  Here the road is at 5,000m and enters Cotopata National Park, where you can look up to higher peaks around you.  Up until this point the road is wide and straight, increasing height gradually.  The road then continues down from this point, through a pass, and the start of “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”.  The scenery is the most spectacular that I have ever seen, impossible to capture on film.  As the road drops, part of the Cordillera Real sits above on the right, a sheer sided mountain range.  There are high mountains on all sides as the road zigzags down, with enormous drops down from it.  This section of road has been improved, with barriers in sections and wide enough for two cars to pass.  However, there is no room for driver error.  A small error on a British motorway might lead to you hitting the cat’s eyes by the side of the road, here it leads to death.  The road carries on to Coroico, where it’s statistical label ends, but this is due to a reduction of traffic and therefore numbers of accidents, rather than because the road is any better.  In fact, the road conditions become much worse as the road drops down to Rurrenabaque at 450m, in the Amazon.

There is a steady flow of coaches, lorries and cars on the road as it is the major artery to the Amazon and onto Brazil.  This makes the dangers of the road increased, with coaches overtaking slow moving lorries coming up the mountainside.   Before joining the road, a checkpoint ensures that all vehicles have a first aid kit, emergency triangle and fire extinguisher.

We stopped at La Cumbre and managed to see Rufous-Bellied and Grey-Breasted Seedsnipe, Silvery Grebe, Common Miner, Slender-Billed Miner and White-Winged Diuca-Finch before breakfast in the cold. Our new blankets were certainly coming in useful. We stopped again at 3,500m and saw Tawny and Andean Tit-Spinetail, Line-Fronted and Scribble-Tailed Canastero, d’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrant, Paramo Seedeater and White-Browed Conebill.

Birdgril examining some ice at La Cumbre

Half way along the road to Coroico, we tried to turn off right along a narrow gravel road.  However, the road was closed with a few branches placed across it.  This is the old road to Coroico, which was in fact “The Most World’s Most Dangerous Road” until 12 years ago when the new improved section of road was built.  Now it is only used by local traffic and cyclists looking for a thrill.  It was not clear why the road was closed and I was up for moving the branches to get by, as we only wanted to go a couple of miles, to stop for birding.  Thankfully, Herman did not think that was such a good idea!  We therefore headed back towards La Paz and after a couple of miles turned left down the mountainside onto another narrow gravel road.  This was the road we were taking to Chulumani.  This road was not wide enough for vehicles to pass in most places and was so dusty it was difficult to see if there was any traffic ahead.  The road winded down one mountain and up the next, continuing for four hours to Chulumani.  It took 100% concentration from Herman, there was no room for tiredness and virtually nowhere to stop.  Sandro explained that since the new section of road was build to Coroico, this road to Chulumani had now become “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”, due to the number of deaths per year.  The road seemed dangerous enough in our 4x4, but there were large numbers of buses and lorries using the road, having to reverse on bends to give way to each other, always a sheer drop to one side.

After two hours, we stopped for some (very dusty) roadside birding whilst Herman rustled up lunch. This was middle yungas forest and we managed to see Slaty Thrush, Dusky-Green Oropendula, Bolivian Brush-Finch and Rust-and-Yellow Tanager.

When we returned, there was another car parked and a guy dressed in city clothes shouting up to his friends who were climbing up a path. The two friends appeared in their casual city clothes, which seems thoroughly inappropriate for their walk but they did have boots on. After they left, Herman explained (via Sandro) that the men were from Santa Cruz and 12 days ago the one at the bottom had been driving from La Paz to Rurrenabaque when his car went over the edge. He managed to jump out but the police had told him that his car had ended up 600m below. He had returned to the area and his friends were trying to find the car and retrieve some “personal belongings”. We were innocently discussing whether it might have been something of sentimental value or cash, when Herman said that he thought that it must have been cocaine in the car and that the man was probably worried that it might be found at some point and traced back to him. Although the subject was serious, the scene did seem very comical and almost something out of Soprano’s.

It was 7pm before we reached out destination and I found the last few hours particularly stressful. I was tired and kept falling asleep, waking up concerned as to whether Herman was wide awake. Every time a vehicle came from the opposite direction, we had to pull over and wait somewhere safe, not wanting to risk having to reverse back. In many places the road had fallen away, making it even narrower or with cliffs overhanging the road where it seemed impossible for anything higher than us to pass.

We stayed two nights at Apa Apa Lodge, birding the next day at their nearby reserve. This was lower yungas forest and had been turned into a reserve by the owner. He had inherited the land and hacienda along with his 4 brothers, but had bought them out in order to turn it into a reserve and lodge. Here we saw Planato Hermit, Scaled Metaltail (both hummingbirds), Blue-Banded Toucanet, Yungas Tody-Tyrant, Ashy Antwren and Scimitar-Winged Piha. The highlight of the day was two jaguarondi walking across the path. They were like thin black cats with long tails but larger heads and more pointed ears. Sandro said that he had only seen them once before near his community.

The next morning we headed back along the same road (Chulumani road) back towards La Paz. We stopped again in the same place for breakfast and a bit of birding whilst Herman packed up. We managed to see a Black-Throated Thistletail, we was a new bird for us. At 9.30am it was like a different place. We commented on how quiet the road was and how much more pleasant. We had just got back into the car when a few buses and lorries passed, which seemed strange that they were all bunched together, but perhaps they were all stuck behind a slow moving vehicle. The next half an hour, we admired the view and commented on the sheer drops. I had just commented to Chris that it seemed impossible to be able to recover people if there was an accident when we came to a stop soon after a bend. There had been an accident ahead and there was an emergency vehicle parked to the left of the road with a winch dropping down the sheer drop to the right. There was a coach stopped ahead and a group of people looking grimly down the cliff.

We all got out of the vehicle to find out what had happened. This was the reality of this road. A 12-seater mini bus had gone down the side in the early hours of the morning. One body and luggage had been recovered from the vehicle but the remaining bodies were scattered in the undergrowth and had not yet been located. The winch was being used by emergency services to climb hundreds of metres below to search for bodies. The vehicle could not be seen from above and the only tell tale sign was some of the road being lost over the side. Someone had witnessed the accident; otherwise no one would have known what had happened to the bus. The road was straight here and as no other vehicles were involved it was likely to be caused by the driver falling asleep or misjudging the road in fog. As more vehicles stopped, more people joined the sombre and silent group. Meanwhile the luggage was being opened and relatives being telephoned.

Sandro looked visibly upset and told me that he was feeling very anxious. This was reminding him of the accident two years ago with 40 dead. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder clearly does exist everywhere. It seemed best to take Sandro and Birdgirl away from the accident scene, so we headed off up the road birding though it did still feel heartless.

We managed to head off the road along a track and could see the main Coroico road above and the Chulumani road below. This must have been where the cocaine man had gone over the edge of the road. We could see a few people further on the Chulumani side of the valley looking up at the accident site, presumably relatives trying to see evidence of bodies. We suddenly saw vehicles coming back up the road, so guessed that vehicles were being allowed to pass. We rushed back but ended up missing Herman pass, so had to walk back up to the main road to try and find him. This climb was like being back in Colombia!

After a few minutes, Herman returned to find us and we headed for our birding destination – the old Coroico Road. Herman had discovered that it was closed due to a landslide, so he dropped us off and drove off to enter the road from another point ahead. We had only been walking along the narrow gravel road for 20 minutes when we came across the landslide. The whole road had broken away, leaving it impossible to even climb around on any bank. It was a good job that Herman had not listened to me and driven into the closed road. It would be touch and go as to whether a vehicle could have stopped in time on the gravel road.

We could see Herman parked up ahead, cooking lunch but had no phone reception. We tried shouting to him, but got no response other than from some locals on the mountainside below. Giving up, we had no option but to walk back to the main road, walk along the main road (not advisable) and then down the next road, which then joins up with the old Coroico road. On this stretch of road I noticed a small memorial stone by the side of the road, similar to the many we had seen that day, but this time written in Hebrew with 9 names on it. Sandro said that he had heard about this accident, an Israeli family were heading for Rurrenabaque and had come off the main road, killing them all. Rurrenabaque received lots of Israeli tourists, due to two Israeli’s who were lost in the Amazon in the 1980’s and wrote a book about their experience. Birdgirl had already noticed that many of the memorials had fresh flowers on them, so were clearly visited regularly.

We eventually got around to where lunch was waiting. Herman had heard some shouting, but hadn’t realised it was us. After lunch, we finally set off birding along the road at 2.00pm, 3 hours late. We birded and drove our way down this road, which was extremely narrow with sheer drops. I found this road to be extremely nerve-racking, even with no other traffic. At one point we were overtaken by an Argentine cyclist, who stopped to find out what we were doing. In the other direction, we were passed by two La Paz mini buses with bikes on the roof full of adrenaline seeking tourists. I can see why they might want to do it – downhill all the way! The birding was very quiet, though we did see two endemics. The only new bird was Hooded Mountain-Toucan which I missed, I say because it was perched in a tree miles away on the other side of the mountainside and neither Sandro nor Chris had a scope on them. I was not happy (again!).

As the mist rose, we gave up on seeing other Mountain-Toucan and headed back along the road back to La Paz. Just as we reached the outskirts of La Paz, we were heading downhill along a straight stretch of road when our brakes failed. Sandro helped by yanking up the handbrake and we just about managed to avoid hitting the car in front. Herman then pulled over and hailed a taxi for us to get back to the hotel. Chris and I had missed all of this as we were involved in a maths lesson with Birdgirl, but she had witnessed it all from the back. In the taxi, Sandro vocalised what we were all thinking – we were so lucky that the brakes had not failed on the mountain roads, as we might otherwise be dead.

View back up to the road

Tuesday, 5 June 2012


Well we are still alive after our drive down and back up the world's most dangerous road - with a few tales to tell. No time now and probably no internet for a week, so will update then.

Friday, 1 June 2012

World Cup qualifiers 2012, Bolivia v Chile

Tomorrow night Bolivia play Chile in the word cup qualifiers here in La Paz. We will be at Apa Apa Lodge, with probably no TV and so Sandro and Herman were considering their options. Perhaps a visit to the local town?

As we headed back to our rooms a large group of Chile supporters walked past us, dressed in red complete with big drums and flags. I’m glad we are not in La Paz tomorrow night if Bolivia lose…

Tomorrow we go up to 5,000m at La Cumbre looking for 2 species of Seedsnipe before travelling down the first section of “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”. We travel back up to La Paz in a couple of days, so will update then (if we live to tell the tale!).

Ché Guevara, a legend killed in Bolivia

On the way back to La Paz, we passed a large modern bronze statue of “Ché”, as he is simply known here.

Ernesto Ché Guevara de la Serna is commemorated here, although it is the place where he was captured and executed (by CIA-trained special forces). In 1966 he left Cuba and came to Bolivia, which was under an oppressive military dictatorship.

He was here incognito trying to ignite a revolution amongst peasants, but was caught, shot and his body displayed as evidence. His body was buried in a secret site but in 1997 one of the soldiers who had helped bury him gave up the site and he was exhumed and buried in Cuba. Now there are paintings of him on walls all around Bolivia and he is remembered with a Ché Guevara Trail, taking pilgrims around the places he had been. The closest we have got to anywhere of importance was Camiri, near the Paraguay border, where two of his comrades were tortured and gave him up.

Seeing his statue, I felt deeply emotional. Here was a man who believed that one man can make a difference to change the world. Whatever you think of his politics, it is an important lesson to remember.

A Dry Andean Valley, Bolivia

Relaxed birding


We knew we were leaving with Herman at 5.00am the next morning but had no idea where we were going.  The day was listed as one looking for the endemic Bolivian Spinetail, which was a day trip from La Paz but we didn’t know in what direction.  Sandro had confirmed that we were going for the Spinetail but said that we were also going for another endemic, Berlepsch’s Canastero, which we knew was only found at near Sorata, north east of La Paz and past Lake Titicaca.  He was not feeling 100% because of the altitude and so we assumed he was confused, as we thought we were going to Lake Titicaca and Sorata next week.

We piled into the vehicle at 5.00am dressed in thermals and winter birding gear, not knowing where we were going, what altitude or how long it would take.  We were all tired and in need of good sleep.  I did wonder where we were when I woke up an hour and a half later to see flat barren habitat with mountains in the distance, but was freezing cold so put on my hat and gloves, coat and Chris’s coat and waterproof trousers over me as blankets.  Later still, we woke up to find ourselves in an Aymara town.  It was -2 degrees outside and the women were dressed in typical highland indigenous dress, complete with bowler hats.  As we left town, I saw a sign for Sorata.  I told Chris that I thought we were near Lake Titicaca and did he know where we were.  He said that he had seen a beautiful lake an hour before but had assumed it was some other lake.  I then asked Sandro whether we were going to Sorata? He confirmed that we were and that both endemics were in fact at the same site.  Just after this, we again drove past the edge of Lake Titicaca, which was very blue and beautiful and felt pretty foolish. 

Lake Titicaca is at 3,800m, from which we dropped to about 3,550m along the bendy road about ½ hour above Sorata, which is at 2,600m.  Here we quickly had to remove our layers, as the sun came out.  We turned to see two enormous snow covered peaks, Illampu and Anchuma, appearing out of the clouds at about 6,500m each.  This valley gets little rain and has alpine grass and flowers, with mountain shrubs and small low level cactus plants.  We managed to see both endemics, Bolivian Spinetail and Berlepsch’s Canastero as well as Puna Tinamou and were relieved to be able to sit on the ground and enjoy the sun.  We all felt the effects of the altitude today, each time we tried to walk up a steep bank, we had to stop to breathe!  Chris started to feel quite unwell, though refused to admit it was the altitude.  He eventually agreed to take a tablet for altitude sickness.

We headed back to the vehicle, for another lovely camp lunch.  We noticed some mandarins had appeared in the vehicle and thought Herman had been very thoughtful getting them out of the boot for us.  Over lunch, Herman pointed out a dent in the start of the barriers, protecting cars from a sheer drop on a bend 20 metres up from the car.  A truck carrying mandarins had crashed into the barrier when the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.  Half a second earlier had he would have missed the barrier and gone straight down the cliff, killing himself and the two small children with him.  Instead, all had been unhurt.     

On the way back, we stopped at a small highland lake and saw Giant Coot and two Andean Geese.

We also stopped at an Aymara town square, where I bought a llama wool blanket and a brightly coloured blanket, worn to carry babies.  These were sold to me by an old lady in traditional dress and brown bowler hat.  Birdgirl noticed some children with purple cheeks and I explained that this was caused by living at altitude.  Apparently, it is a problem with not being able to exhale carbon dioxide rather than not taking in enough oxygen.

La Paz, Bolivia

Arriving at La Paz airport, we could feel the thinness of the air. The airport is outside of the City, in El Alto, at 4,050m. As we drove through what we thought was a shabby suburb, we were not particularly impressed with the capital. We did drive through lots of markets, shutting up shop, with women in traditional Aymaran dress (wide skirts and big hats), not realising that this was an Aymara town just outside the capital. Suddenly, we came around a corner and could see La Paz, 500m below, lit up and sitting in a bowl surrounded by mountains with the city spreading up the mountainside in all directions. The road was bendy down the mountainside and the whole experience suddenly became a lot more impressive!

Polylepis Forest, Bolivia

The next morning we headed out of Cochabamba to a mountainside this time with alpine, shrubby habitat.  The main target was the endemic Cochabamba Mountain Finch.  We spent the day birding here moving up from 2,500m to 3,500m.  Birdgirl was exciting to see our first Llama, even if domesticated (I now know that all llama are domesticated!) and a wild guinea pig. 

Two hours of birding were missed in the middle of the day, as there was a man on bulldozer working widening a narrow mountain road, who refused to let us pass until he had finished.  Chris was getting very agitated during our wait. 

We still managed to see Andean and Wedge-Tailed Hillstar and eventually just before had to leave, Chris saw the finch in flight but Birdgirl and I missed it.  I was surprising calm about missing the bird, luckily for Chris! 

We then had a rush to get to the airport and get out flight to La Paz.  Again, Herman was going to meet us 5.00 am the next morning, Carlos having driven our vehicle there overnight.

The one bonus of airports - wifi

An evening out in Cochabamba

During our journey back to Cochabamba, I had found a veggie restaurant in our guide book where I thought we could eat that evening.  It looked like it was only a mile or so east of our hotel.  We met up with Carlos, who seemed to have recovered from his night drive, and Carlos and Herman went off shopping for more food and probably an opportunity to have a meaty dinner. 

Meanwhile, we got a taxi with Sandro to the restaurant.  The taxi driver didn’t know the restaurant but seemed to know the road, but pronouncing it completely differently to me, so I wasn’t 100% sure we were heading in the right direction.  We had travelled a fair distance over the main bridge, into the centre of town and into a slightly run down area, when I started telling Sandro and the taxi driver that we were in completely the wrong bit of town.  I read out the names of road close by and the taxi driver kept saying “si, si”.  I got frustrated and made him pull over, so I could show him that the restaurant was east of the hotel, not south of the river.  The taxi driver was adamant that we were in the area of the restaurant and said that driven down the road twice.  On closer inspection of the book, I realised that the area to the east of the hotel was in fact an enlarged box of the central area of town, south of the river.  Fortunately Sandro found my map reading skills hilarious and the taxi driver had just thought I was mad anyway.  So again we drove around the block and stopped in the right road, which was a side alley in a slightly bohemian, slightly dodgy looking area. 

There was no sign of the restaurant but we got out to have a look.  Sandro looked uncomfortable and asked the taxi to wait.  Then Chris spotted a sign for the restaurant in an entrance to a courtyard with apartments.  We walked in and Sandro asked a lady where the entrance to the restaurant was.  There was quite an exchange in Spanish before Sandro explained that the restaurant was only open at lunchtimes but there was a place serving pasta upstairs.  The whole place looked decidedly unsavoury to me, so I suggested that maybe we look for somewhere better.  At this point, Chris had enough and insisted that as it was late we should just go upstairs and get some food.  He pointed out that this was the same place that I had taken them to eat.  Sandro therefore let the taxi go and Birdgirl and I headed up some dark outside steps.  We found a dark doorway into a place called “Café Fusion” and tentatively went in thinking that it was a dodgy establishment.  Instead, we found the coolest bar I have probably ever been into. It was like an old 1950’s French jazz club/bar with original large wooden windows and trendy, arty clientele smoking away at candlelit tables.    The walls had lots of back and white photographs of Billie Holiday and other amazing looking stars of the past, artwork and indigenous items (like an old feather arrows).  I thought “amazing” but I think Sandro thought “OMG, people smoking, what kind of place is this?”  The menu had a section of vegetarian pasta and was the first place in Bolivia to serve tea, so was perfect.  As we had driven around, I had been too busy trying to give directions to the taxi driver to notice the trendy, arty looking types or the 6” tall transvestite or the numerous bars and cafes.  For the first time on a birding trip abroad, we enjoyed the food, ambience and our luck stumbling upon the place.  Just as we were leaving, a couple in their twenties sat at the table opposite us.  She was wearing a satin dress that looked like it was a French Chanel item from the 50’s.  They sat their smoking and looking like they had walked off a film set.  Meanwhile, we were sitting there in our stinking, dusty and very unfashionable birding clothes!

It goes without saying that the guide book did say that vegetarian restaurant was only open at lunchtimes.

A dark side to Bolivia?

Arriving at Cochabamba airport, we got a taxi to our hotel.  The taxi driver seemed nice enough, but turned out to be a maniac behind the wheel, driving at what seemed like 70mph along the city streets.  With no seatbelts as well, I did not cope well with the journey.  He was very smiley when unloading our bags from the taxi, so I can only assume that he thought we would be pleased with the speed at which he had got us there!

We were due to leave at 5.00am the next morning and it was 10.00pm already.  Herman was going to travel back with the vehicle from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, with his brother Carlos driving all night.  I was dubious that they would make it in time, but, as planned, Herman was waiting for us outside the hotel at 5.00am, looking pretty bright for someone who had slept in a vehicle.

First stop was high yungus cloud forest at 3,850m, where we had great views of the endemic Black-Throated Thistletail as well as White-Browed Conebill and Rufous-Bellied Bush-Tyrant.  We then drove further down the mountainside to middle yungas cloud forest, where we saw Versicoloured Barbet, Bolivian Tapaculo, Sclater’s Tyrannulet and Barred Fruiteater and had another lovely campside lunch. 

We then drove further down the mountainside, into the Villa Tunari valley.  Here we went through a permanent checkpoint across the road, which is supposed to stop narco trafficking along this road.  We were allowed though without a search of our vehicle.  The Villa Tunari area is one of two districts In Bolivia where coca growing is legal and only those who live there have permits to sell this crop.  In other parts of Bolivia, you may only grow coca leaves for personal use and can not sell.  However, the processing of coca into any substance is illegal.  Most people have told us that narco trafficking has increased massively under the present government.  The road from Cochabamba to Villa Tunari also continues to Santa Cruz.  With a good road from Villa Tunari to both Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Sandro was telling us that drug taking in these two cities has become a big problem.  He was saying the government had recently outlawed cheap large bottles of high alcohol percentage spirits which he thinks will lead to higher drug taking as it will be much cheaper than alcohol.  Many believe that those high up in government and in the military are involved in narco trafficking and believe that it drugsare going to kill the lives of young people in Bolivia.  There are proposals for a new road from Villa Tunari directly north to San Ignacio de Moxos, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon, cutting directly through a national park with primary habitat and nothing but a few indigenous communities who are strongly against.  A new road would directly connect Villa Tunari to Trinidad and Rurrenabaque and on to Brazil by road or boat.  Most believe that the real reason for the road is to facilitate narco trafficing to Brazil and the rest of the world. 

About 10 minutes down the road from the checkpoint, we reached a village where we tried to turn right up the hillside on various tracks to reach low yungus forest higher on the hillside.  However, the tracks all said no entry.  We tried to turn into a track which they had used many times to access the forest and the last time in the last 6 months.  As we turned into the track, a man and woman shouted from the other side of the road that we could not go up the track.  When Sandro said that he had been up there lots of times, they said that if we went up the road they would barricade it.  We therefore had no option but to carry on to Villa Tunari, feeling pretty frustrated.  There would be no reason for the locals to not want anyone to go up there other than that there are cocaine making factories up there, polluting the environment and probably resulting in habitat loss, but with no one to see.  So close to the checkpoint, there can be no way that the authorities do not know about their existence.  It’s hard to really consider the human and environmental cost of cocaine production when sitting at home in UK.

Sandro told us that last year, travelling back from Villa Tunari, they had two vans full of marijuana in front of them heading towards the checkpoint.  They thought that there was no way that they would get through, but when they got to the checkpoint, both vehicles had vanished, clearly smuggled through.  He said that when he was conscripted into the military and serving in Villa Tunari,  they were ordered to load up a huge lorry with boxes.  At the time, being young and naïve he had no idea what it was, but it was only later that he realised that they were boxes packed with cocaine.

On this note, we were glad when our night’s stay in Villa Tunari was over and the next morning we headed back up the mountain, missing out lower yungus forest and making our first stop middle yungus.  However, it was 8.30am before we managed to get to any suitable habitat as the first place we stopped had been cleared of it’s primary forest.  It was not the first place this had happened during our trip and it was sad to see such recent and rapid destruction of habitat.