New Trip Report: Bolivia, 2021
Here is a great report from Ian Thompson. Be sure also to check out his and Tracey’s photos: some seriously good species.
Ian Thompson: Bolivia, October 2021
The genesis of this trip was a conversation that Rob Foster and I had last November but due to the countless vagaries of travel during the pandemic didn’t actually happen until September – October 2021. In the end, Tracey Watchurst, my partner, and I spent three weeks in Bolivia. My main aim initially was to see the diversity of Bolivia’s titis but since I got strange looks when I mentioned this at work, I started saying we were looking for mammals in general, to the point that it became true. I had seen only a little of Bolivia in the past and Tracey had never before visited. Arrangements were coordinated by Nick McPhee of Nick’s Adventures Bolivia. I really can’t praise Nick’s help with logistics adequately. He was responsive and unfailingly helpful even when presented with questions like “Hey, can you find a chap with a four-wheel drive to pick us up in an obscure provincial airport and drive us a couple of hours down increasingly bad roads to the middle of nowhere on a Monday morning.”
We left Victoria on Saturday, September 18, 2021. On the drive to the ferry we saw several Columbian Black-tailed deer, a ubiquitous sight in Victoria. Crossing on the ferry we observed two pods of Orcas. These are not a common sight from the Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen ferry and I took it as a good omen for our trip.
We arrived at Vancouver airport with plenty of time, which was lucky as the airline person’s interrogation would have made the Spanish Inquisition look a tad superficial. She asked where Bolivia was, seemingly without any known reference point, and further questioned us on “Panamey.” We were then asked for passports, proof of Covid vaccinations, proof of negative Covid tests, proof of return airline tickets, completed Bolivian public health passenger locator forms and proof of insurance while in Bolivia, including specific coverage if we became ill from Covid-related conditions. I half expected her to ask me to strip so she could examine for any distinguishing marks that might be needed for further identification.
Our flight was delayed for a couple of hours which was unfortunate as the first leg of our journey was a flight to Montréal to stop over for the night and see two of my favourite mammals, Josie and Ben, our children attending university there. As a result of the delay we arrived about midnight but had a late- night belated celebration of Ben’s birthday and a good, albeit brief, visit.
The flight to Panama City the next morning was enlivened by a fanatical anti-mask/anti-vaccine chap sitting beside me. He was headed to Merida for the winter to avoid mask and vaccine mandates. He quickly found a kindred spirit in a woman seated in the row ahead. They started an animated maskless conversation over the seats which resulted in the two other people sitting beside the woman requesting to be moved and eventually the COPA flight attendant coming over to have a chat with him about the possibility he might not be able to continue his trip after Panama City because of his behaviour. The nice thing about this comic opera was it distracted me from thinking about our ridiculously tight connection time in Panama City. Fortunately, I had forgotten about the time zone change in Panama and so, after running frantically through the airport terminal, we had almost an hour to catch our breath awaiting our next flight. I started to believe we might actually make it to Bolivia.
After the thorough documentation checks in Canada, arrival in Santa Cruz was completely relaxed. No one wanted to see any of the voluminous documentation I had carefully prepared. I breathed a sigh of relief and slept better that night than I had in days.
The next morning Nick, driver José, and cook Yetsi met us promptly at the hotel. Nick is an Australian transplant who has been living for some years in Santa Cruz with his Bolivian wife. He regaled us with stories as we drove the five hours or so to La Moneda/Jaguarland. La Moneda is a 40,000 hectare ranch in eastern Bolivia. It is partially planted in soybeans but has a fair bit of bush and a no-hunting policy. Wildlife is abundant. Accommodation was in a comfy tent with air mattresses and a dining tent was also set up. The long-drop toilet and shack enclosing it had a level of hygiene suggesting that only single men typically use it. In two days there we had a brief sighting of a Jaguar, good views of a couple of Ocelots, sightings of two Jaguarundi, both a red morph and a black morph, four Brazilian Tapirs, four primate species and numerous other mammals. In addition, we had a good look at a Giant False Water Cobra hunting in a small pond next to the road. This has long been one of my most desired reptiles to see and was a highlight for me. Another point I should add is that despite Nick’s aversion to anything avian, Jaguarland is a non-birders’ birdwatching paradise. There is a smorgasbord of large charismatic South American bird species, including three species of macaws, Greater Rheas, a variety of cracids, several storks, and more. Even if you rarely stop to look at anything bearing feathers apart from showgirls you may find yourself completely captivated. Nick and his team were happy to do wildlife drives from 5:30 in the morning until 11:00 o’clock at night.
Two days at Jaguarland passed all too quickly. On the drive back we stopped briefly at Curiche la Madre, a small forest reserve in Santa Cruz and, just before closing time, had a good look at a family of White-eared Titi monkeys, one of my targets for the area. We went back to our comfortable hotel that evening well satisfied and appreciative of a chance to shower and recharge batteries, both our own and those of our cameras and flashlights.
The next morning we were out the door shortly after 4:00 AM to catch flights to Trinidad via Cochabamba. Because flights to Rurrenabaque are largely filled with international tourists they have ceased operating. This created some logistical challenges for the next phase of our trip but as always Nick came through. Marcelo, an experienced guide with a background in ecotourism management, met us at Trinidad Airport. We stopped for a lunch break watching Bolivian pink dolphins on a small river. We also saw some large Plecostomus and a stunningly patterned ray in the shallows. After a brief stop in San Borja to pick up Chachi, our cook for the next few days, we continued on to the small community of Monte Carlos. About 45 minutes before we reached the community, Tracey suddenly yelled out “monkeys.” We jumped out of the car to have brief but clear views of a small troop of Olalla Brothers’ Titi monkeys, our target for the next day. Relaxed that we’d now seen them we continued on to Monte Carlos. Actually, to be accurate, I should say I was relaxed we’d seen the titi monkeys. I’m not sure it changed the others’ emotional states to nearly the same degree.
Monte Carlos is a small community where a primate researcher studying the endemic monkeys of western Beni had been based for some time. The community has a small covered community hall with open sides which was to become our base for the next two nights. Marcelo and Chachi camped under the roof while Tracey and I slept in a rooftop tent on Marcelo’s vehicle. There was a small but very clean shower and toilet block located adjacent. This proved to be a highlight for me, not just because of the opportunity for private ablutions but also for the sightings of two snakes there, Imantodes cenchoa the first night and a parrot snake, Leptophis ahuetulla, the second day.
The next morning we saw Southern Amazon Red Squirrel and Bolivian Red Howler Monkey, but no Titi monkeys. We went for a paddle on the Yacuma River which was perhaps most notable for the teetery little seats on which the five of us perched in the dugout canoe. The canoe would tilt alarmingly with the slightest movement and so was not overly conducive to photographing pink dolphins which would inevitably surface behind us. A canoe ride in the evening without the rickety seats and with one canoe lashed to another to serve as an outrigger was significantly more relaxing. A few common mammals were seen around the community including squirrel monkey, agouti, capybara, and, at night, two Common Black-eared Opossums. The next morning we found a family of Olalla Brothers’ Titi Monkeys and then headed off on the seven hour drive to Santa Rosa. Part of the drive was through ranches owned by the Nogales family who also have a largely no-hunting policy on their properties. This seemed to translate into more wildlife sightings as we saw huge numbers of capybara, a large troop of coatis and a couple of Crab-eating Foxes as we drove through the ranchlands.
Santa Rosa revealed its charms in the form of a pleasant hotel with air conditioning, Hostal Sofia and Camila. We had an early start the next morning and drove out to the community of Agua Sal. After the turn off from the “main” road, a dusty track, we heard titi monkeys and stopped for a brief walk into the forest. Within minutes we found a group of three Rio Beni Titi monkeys, the second primate species endemic to the western part of the Department of Beni. Thanks to the sighting we again arrived in the community with a relaxed air. The afternoon was spent riding horses out to a pond filled with Yacare caiman. More titis were seen both around the community and deeper into the bush. That night as Tracey and I were lying in the small rooftop tent we discovered that both of us were covered with innumerable ticks of various sizes, a sensation made worse by the fact that we were also covered in a patina of sweat. Tracey said that she didn’t think she could take two more weeks of this. That was impressive – I’m not sure many people would have given a timeframe of that length. Of note, the community was louder than some metropolitan centres in which I’ve stayed, with roosters crowing, dogs raiding the campsite and assorted comings and goings throughout the night. We greeted the sunrise with something of a sense of relief, had a quick walk around the community seeing further titi monkeys and Azara’s Night Monkeys and then left about 10:30 for the drive to Rurrenabaque. Rurrenabaque came through with a comfortable hotel and a delightful swimming pool as well as restaurant serving delicious surubi.
We were picked up about 7:40 the next morning by Pedro, our guide for the next phase of the trip. We departed up the Beni River and then on to the Tuichi River into Madidi National Park. After about five hours we came to the first night’s campsite, selected by Pedro as a favourable spot for seeing Madidi Titi Monkeys. These monkeys were first scientifically described in 2004. Naming rights were auctioned off and purchased by the GoldenPalace.com online casino company so the monkeys are also known as the Golden Palace Monkey. That night revealed a couple of Red Brocket Deer and two Tapeti as well as some of the thorniest and prickliest plants I have ever encountered.
We awoke the next morning to the loud calls of titi monkeys. After charging through dense vegetation around the campsite for a couple of hours seeing nothing we went back for breakfast feeling discouraged. After breakfast, following the trails that Pedro had cut, we managed to obtain a brief but reasonable view of the Madidi Titi, our only sighting in the park. We boated on to our next campsite, again located at the top of a high sandbank. No ticks here, I think because they were scared away by the incredible volume of sand flies. Tracey and I spent part of the afternoon in the river trying to escape their voraciousness (and trying not to think about Candiru fish), and the rest of the afternoon wearing bug hats. Pedro mentioned that the temperature, in the mid-30’s, was hotter than anything he had experienced up until just a few years previously. We went out for a hike from about 5:00 until 8:30 which was notable for the striking absence of visible wildlife. None of that mattered however. Returning to camp about 8:30, we saw Pedro’s son flashing a flashlight at us. We ran over to discover a Giant Armadillo which rolled a short ways down the sandbank and then started burrowing into the bank with remarkable speed. Although our photos were poor I was still thrilled to have seen one of my most wanted target species. Sitting with Pedro by the river later that evening we had a brief view of a Jaguar on the far side of the river.
About two in the morning we were awoken by a snuffling sound near the tent. I grabbed camera and flashlight and jumped out of the tent naked to see a Giant Armadillo perhaps 15 feet away and moving towards me. Tracey came out of the tent 10 seconds later to see a surprising amount of pinkness in front of her. I was glad she hadn’t grabbed her camera. The Giant Armadillo approached to within about 2 feet of me before realizing I was there and naked. It ran away with surprising speed. The night’s excitement was not yet over. We were awoken again a short while later to more snuffling and got out of the tent to see not one, but two, Giant Armadillos racing away through the brush.
The next morning we continued on upstream to Berraco Camp. This is a lovely spot with wooden platforms covered by thatched rooves and comfortable tents with real mattresses and bedding inside as well as a spectacularly clean shower and toilet block. An afternoon walk revealed Peruvian Spider Monkeys as well as the usual capuchins. A night walk out to a nearby clay lick revealed a Kinkajou, a Brazilian Tapir at the lick and a couple of Amazon Tree Boas. We took a walk early the next morning down to a beach on the river and saw tracks of jaguar, tapir, ocelot and, most excitingly, Small-eared Dog. A lengthy walk on the other side of the river that afternoon resulted in further sightings of spider monkeys, capuchins and squirrel monkeys.
Pedro and I walked to the salt lick about 3:00 o’clock in the morning seeing a Proechimys on the way as well as a tapir close to the lick. Pedro claimed another tapir visited the lick shortly after, but I was fast asleep on the platform by then. We had a leisurely hike later that morning and then boated back to Rurrenabaque in the afternoon.
The next morning we were met early by our driver, Juan. He drove us from Rurrenabaque to Carnavi. During the drive he made several mysterious phone calls. The reason was revealed when we got to Carnavi and were handed off to another taxi driver. Juan explained that because he didn’t have license plates he was unable to drive us closer to La Paz, where there were frequent police checks. In the Bolivian backwoods it is apparently cheaper and far easier to drive without license plates and pay off the occasional policeman than it is to license one’s vehicle. Our next driver, Santos, was a short, heavyset character with a porn ‘stache. He proceeded to chew coca leaves, drink Coca-Cola (and throw the empty bottle out the window), and pick his nose aggressively all the while swerving past every other vehicle on the road and giving other drivers the middle finger. We made one brief stop at a roadside tap so that he could wash his hair with some laundry soap and then proceeded at breakneck speed on to La Paz. Arriving in La Paz we were transferred to a third taxi. The Bolivian taxi mafia seems to have remarkable control of who gets to drive where. We were not sad to part ways with Santos.
Our reserved hotel in La Paz had been taken over for the night by the Bolivian soccer team but Nick’s ever efficient wife Gladys had transferred our reservation to a nearby hotel with a wonderful view of La Paz. Despite mild shortness of breath and headaches from the altitude we had a bit of urban sightseeing and a great Mexican meal.
An early morning flight deposited us in Cobija, the capital of Pando Department on Bolivia’s northern border with Brazil. I was surprised that flights to Cobija, one of the more obscure towns on planet Earth, were still running while those to Rurrenabaque were not. I discovered that Cobija is a centre for cross- border trade with Brazil and a destination for Bolivians to do some shopping. We were picked up by Miguel, a professor of ecology at the local university, had a quick sightseeing trip across the border to Brazil and then headed out to Estacion Biologica Tahuamanu (EBT). We had decided on this destination on Nick’s advice. I had been asking about Bolivian primates and Nick had indicated Pando had the greatest diversity of primate species in the country. Further Internet research revealed that Goeldi’s Monkeys had been observed in this area. The station itself was built by the University of Pando some years ago. Apparently an American primatologist had lived nearby and conducted long-term studies in the reserve with regular visits from students and researchers. She had eventually left for personal reasons and it appears that much of the reserve’s funding had left with her. Over the past several years the buildings and trails at the station have been gradually returning to forest. Nick had managed after extensive conversations with the new director of the reserve to secure our permission to visit although he proffered no guarantee as to the accommodation we might encounter there.
EBT turned out to be about two hours’ drive down increasingly rough roads. At the end of the track was a screen-sided, thatch-covered building with large holes in the roof partially covered in plastic and a number of small thatched cabins. To call them decrepit would be a slanderous insult to decrepitude. A large toilet and shower block appeared to have been built and then soon abandoned so that lovely tiled floors were roofed with sheets of half capsized roofing. Tracey and I took over one of the small cabins. I pitched a tent we brought on the porch under what appeared to be the most intact area of roof while Tracey found the least holey mosquito net and positioned it over one of the beds inside the room. We hauled the tatty and mildewed mattresses out of the cabin and substituted the air mattresses with which Nick had thoughtfully supplied us.
We met our guide, Canela, and headed out for a walk. Canela worked at the reserve for several years when the American primatologist was based there and other researchers were frequent guests. He had outstandingly acute senses and was able to hear animals which I could only find with the thermal imager. On our first afternoon’s walk we saw a couple of White-lipped Peccaries as well as Shock-headed Capuchins. A night walk revealed a woolly opossum and a beautiful coral snake. Rain lashed down during the evening and lightning lit up the area like Disneyland for much of the night.
The next morning’s walk revealed Large-headed Capuchin monkeys and Black-capped (Bolivian) Squirrel Monkeys. The afternoon’s walk was spectacular. We saw several Rio Tapajos Saki Monkeys, several White-lipped Tamarins and a sizable group of Weddell’s Saddleback Tamarins. We also discovered that evening there were additional guests in the upper room in the cabin – bats of a couple of species which Fiona Reid was later able to identify with her usual brilliance. Rain put paid to a lengthy night walk and we were back by 9:00 pm for bed.
I awoke to the sound of titi monkeys the next morning and Canela and I dashed off to look for them. We saw a group of four Brown Titis as well as an Amazon Dwarf Squirrel. Walking after breakfast we saw more Saddle-backed Tamarins and saki monkeys and an Amazon Brown Brocket Deer. The night walk that night produced a Kinkajou and a Nine-banded Armadillo but was most notable for a sudden tickling sensation under my shirt. I reached in and suddenly felt a severe lancinating pain in my hand. Further investigation revealed a bullet ant. I would have guessed venomous snake if going solely by the amount of pain. My hand remained swollen for the next couple of days.
The next morning’s walk revealed six of the seven primate species we had seen previously at EBT as well as a Collared Peccary with young. Severe stomach upset rendered a night walk unappealing and instead we had an early evening. The next morning’s walk produced male and female Amazon Brown Brocket Deer and several monkeys of previously seen species. Miguel picked us up, we had a brief lunch in Brazil and then headed to the airport for our flight back to Santa Cruz and Covid testing prior to our return to Canada the following day.
Although we missed Goeldi’s Monkey I think EBT is a reasonable spot to search for it and a couple of additional days there may well have resulted in success. We otherwise saw virtually everything I was hoping to see. My appreciation again to Nick McPhee and his team for putting together a fantastic trip and to Tracey Watchurst for her unflagging good humour and sense of adventure.
I have added a list of mammal species seen and some photos. Neotropical mammalian taxonomy is constantly changing. If anyone notices any errors or outdated nomenclature, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ian Thompson, Victoria. British Columbia
A selection of photos are here.
- Brown-eared Woolly Opossum – Caluromys lanatus
- Common Black-eared Opossum – Didelphis marsupialis
- Nine-banded Armadillo – Dasypus novemcinctus
- Giant Armadillo – Priodontes maximus
- Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth – Bradypus variegatus
- Southern Tamandua – Tamandua tetradactyla
- Weddell’s Saddle-back Tamarin– Leontocebus weddelli
- Red-bellied Tamarin (White-lipped Tamarin) – Saguinus labiatus
- Shock-headed Capuchin Monkey– Cebus cuscinus
- Azara’s Capuchin Monkey– Sapajus cay
- Brown (Tufted) Capuchin Monkey– Sapajus apella
- Large-headed Capuchin Monkey– Sapajus macrocephalus
- Black-capped Squirrel Monkey – Saimiri boliviensis
- ? Bare-eared Squirrel Monkey –Saimiri ustus
- Azara’s Night Monkey – Aotus azarae
- White-eared Titi Monkey– Plecturocebus donacophilus
- Rio Beni Titi Monkey– Plecturocebus modestus
- Olalla brothers’ Titi Monkey– Plecturocebus olallae
- Madidi Titi Monkey (Golden Palace Monkey) – Plecturocebus aureipalatti
- Brown Titi Monkey– Plecturocebus brunneus
- Rio Tapajos Saki Monkey (Gray’s Bald-faced Saki Monkey) – Pithecia irrorata
- Bolivian Red Howler Monkey– Alouatta sara
- Peruvian Spider Monkey – Ateles chamek
- Southern Amazon Red Squirrel – Hadrosciurus spadiceus
- Amazon Dwarf Squirrel – Microsciurus flaviventer
- Simon’s Spiny Rat – Proechimys simonsi
- Greater Capybara – Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris
- Brown Agouti – Dasyprocta variegata
- Lowland Paca – Cuniculus paca
- Brazilian Rabbit (Tapeti) – Sylvilagus brasiliensis
- Greater Bulldog Bat – Noctilio leporinus
- Lesser Bulldog Bat – Noctilio albiventris
- Short-tailed Bat – Carollia sp.
- Common Long-tongued Bat – Glossophaga soricina
- Jaguarundi – Herpailurus yagouaroundi
- Ocelot – Leopardus pardalis
- Jaguar – Panthera onca
- Crab-eating Fox – Cerdocyon thous
- South American Coati – Nasua nasua
- Kinkajou – Potos flavus
- Lowland (Brazilian) Tapir – Tapirus terrestris
- Collared Peccary – Pecari tajacu
- White-lipped Peccary – Tayassu pecari
- Gray Brocket Deer – Mazama gouazoubira
- Red Brocket Deer – Mazama americana
- Amazon Brown Brocket Deer – Mazama nemorivaga
- Marsh Deer – Blastocerus dichotomus
- Bolivian Pink Dolphin – Inia boliviensis