(How to get there and see them on the cheap, as researched by your roving reporter Harold Armitage! My wife is a parrot nut!)
In 1999, we decided to go to Bolivia on our annual parrot-spotting trip. Sparsely populated and landlocked, Bolivia includes territory from the Andes to the Amazon basin, from glaciers to jungle and from desert to swamp. Twenty-five percent of all species of birdlife lives here. Ninety percent of macaws and almost 50 percent of all other parrots can be found within its borders. Two macaws are found nowhere else and both are highly endangered. There is Ara Glaucogularis, the blue throated macaw, and Ara Rubrogenys, the red fronted macaw. We decided to try to see both and whatever else fell in our path. As usual, no-one will tell you anything about exactly where they are but all information can eventually be pulled down from the internet.
I discovered that Blue Throated Macaws are to be found in a zone centred 100Km to the north of Trinidad in the department of Beni. The Estancias ‘Cutal’, ‘Habana’ and ‘San Miguelle’ were mentioned. I also picked up some internet contacts of whom more anon.
You can pay someone several thousand dollars to take you and we decided to see if any zeroes could be knocked off that price with our DIY trip, this being almost the poorest country in South America. The cost of a European standard of living is about 20% of the UK. Ninety five percent of Bolivians, however, live in total poverty and squalor. Some live on two or three pounds a week.
Reading the ‘Lonely Planet’ Bolivia book is vital. This trip is a little more difficult than our previous ones as there is little tourist infrastructure in eastern Bolivia. In the cities one can find shops, hotels and restaurants comparable with anything in the first world. However up sticks is an entirely different matter…..
Bolivia has had a turbulent history but things are very tranquil now. Everywhere we went we were treated with kindness and consideration. English is not as widely spoken here as in, say, Peru but one can find directions to indicate where/if English is spoken.
We decided to make Santa Cruz, which lies just to the south of the Amazon basin, our base for the visit. We arrived to a hot and dusty wind and a temperature of 35ºC. There are lots of gringos in Santa Cruz, many of them students studying some aspect of the local ecology. We stayed at the ‘Lonely Planet’ recommended Hostel Beni a cheap and pleasant place. After spending a few days to acclimatise, we set off north on the next leg of our journey by bus to the Amazon basin city of Trinidad in the department of Beni. Trinidad lies only 14º South of the equator. The road is mostly dirt and the buses travel at night (12hrs) to avoid the intense heat. One can fly, but we like to do things the hard (cheap, £6) way. The bus is moderately comfortable.
The journey through hell
The campesinos (farmers) traditionally burn down their forest and grassland in August /September. This results in air pollution on a massive scale throughout eastern Bolivia. In 1999 the weather had been exceptionally hot and dry and consequently the fires raged out of control, especially to the north of Santa Cruz. Houses and villages were burnt down and several people were killed. The joke of the moment was:-
“In Brasil they burn down their rain forest. In Bolivia we burn down our houses!”
Through the worst part of our drive, visibility was reduced to a few yards. The moon glowed blood red in the sky. The heat and ash whipped up from the highway was choking. The fires had by that time died but the ground was still smoking hot. Here and there were standing forests of smouldering trees, whether still living or dead we could not tell.
Trinidad has a pleasant centre with many beautiful colonial-style colonnaded buildings. One can walk the pavement nearly everywhere shaded from the sun and rain. However, each block is surrounded by a ‘moat’ of its own effluent; at each street intersection one must leap over two of these. These are linked with lidded ditches to one another and thence to the local river, the most polluted waterway I have seen anywhere. In the poorer parts of town there are no lids, traffic just ploughs straight across. Remarkably the locals don’t notice the aroma. The temperature can hit 45ºC in Trinidad.
Flocks of white-eyed conures and severe macaws noisily competed with pigeons for nesting sites about the rooftops.
There’s usually something of interest going on in Trinidad. We saw several processions and carnivals whilst we were there. I had the best beef fillet I have ever had at the La Casona restaurant on the Plaza. At the nearby Kivon restaurant a very wholesome and filling breakfast is served. Sloths clamber the trees in the Plaza where there is a strange cast iron fountain covered in Indians and dolphins.
In the evenings youthful motor cyclists orbit the Plaza with their lady friends perched daintily, side saddle, on the rear. The ones without orbit in an increasing frenzy, eyed up by the single girls who parade the Plaza on foot. Also on the Plaza is the local church. At irregular intervals a distorted electronic ‘Westminster Chimes’ booms forth. Every so often the device suffers from an electronic frenzy, a wild clangour reverberates across the city. Fortunately, they turn it off at night. It’s best to carry a torch in the evenings; there are irregular blackouts.
We stayed at the Hotel Monteverde, not quite the cheapest place but with pleasant good-sized rooms. The manager is very helpful and speaks English. It’s almost next door to Paraiso.
Here lives Lyliam Gonzales and her sister Rosario who run a small travel agency (Paraiso Tours) (picture, 38K) with local tours, an all-woman outfit (amazing in Bolivia, bastion of the male chauvanist pig!). Lyliam is a macaw nut like my wife and is able to take fellow nuts to see the blue throated macaw. The blue throated macaw lives on palm islands in the pampas 100Km to the North of Trinidad. These islands are the remains of a forest that once stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Andes, now destroyed by burning. Transport is by means of a 4×4 on the dirt road that leads to the north of Trinidad. Lyliam is a very careful driver (unusual in Bolivia), speaks good English and is jolly good company.
The land is privately owned, but Lyliam is friendly with the cattle rancher who owns the land, in our case the estancias (cattle ranches) Cutal (picture, 23K) and the nearby Habana. As with most of the estancias, they have their own private airstrips. There is pleasant though primitive accommodation for tourists. One dines on cowboy fare, needless to say the main items on the menu are beef and beef jerky. They have however heard of vegetarians (maybe they give them grass!). By night the insect life is voracious, mosquito nets and a good repellent are needed.
Part 2 of Bolivia will be published here.