After leaving Oruro and La Paz we headed to Santa Cruz, the other large city in Bolivia. Santa Cruz and La Paz are about as different as two cities in the same country can get. La Paz is high and dry, older, poorer, more urban, and more traditional. Santa Cruz sits under 2000 ft. in altitude, is warm and humid, and is more modern and western.

Noel Kempff National Park is one of the few remote wildernesses remaining in the world. It can only be accessed by plane, or a very long boat ride up a river. Discovered by Percy Fawcett in 1910, it is comprised of 3.7 million acres in the very northeast corner of Bolivia, sharing a border with Brazil on the Itinez River on the east, and bordered by the Paragua river on the west. The interior is a plateau that rises 1800 feet from the jungle floor and is demarcated by steep sandstone escarpments (see photos). This feature of the park was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” novel. The park encompasses five distinct ecosystems and is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Over 600 species of birds, 70 species of reptiles, and 130 species mammals have been documented in the park. Some 110 species of orchids have been discovered within the park boundaries. We stayed at one of the larger park stations, Flor de Oro, which is located on the Itinez River (Brazil is on the other side of the river). Brazil’s side of the park is supposedly a reserve as well, but we saw several ad hoc fishing camps and not a little garbage accumulation on the Brazil side which is unfortunate.

From Santa Cruz, we took a half hour ride to a rural airfield outside the city where we met our pilot and his plane (see photos) for the ride to the Flor de Oro park station Noel Kempff. Cameron took the front seat since his legs are about six inches longer than mine and I shared the backseat with our gear. My knees made pretty good friends with my chin over the next three hours. The ride wasn’t as bumpy as we expected, but we did discover that we had come in the middle of burning season. At the end of the dry season (wet season begins in December) farmers in Bolivia and surrounding countries Brazil and Venezuela burn off old vegetation on their lands or set fires to clear new land. The result is a 2-month smoke cloud larger than Utah which obscures the sun nearly all the time. The pilot’s vision was pretty completely obscured and we might as well been flying through a cloud for three hours (with no radar instruments or radio contact by the way). The smoke cover is evident in most of the photos.

Flor de Oro is an old ranch settlement converted to a park station. They do host “tourists” but this is not your typical tourist stop and it’s not for everyone. Besides requiring a 3-hour ride in a small chartered plane to get here, it also has no hot water, electricity only a few hours a day, no one that speaks English well, and um… a few critter issues. It is also warm and extremely humid. On the other hand, it’s about as unspoiled and beautiful a wilderness as you’re ever likely to see, the people were friendly, and the food was out of this world.

Our accommodations were basic but clean and comfortable – a room with two beds and sheets, some shelves, a cement floor, and a 2-liter bottle of potable water. There was a light in the room which worked for a few hours each evening. It sounded like there were a couple mice in the walls, but there was no evidence of mice inside. However there were bats in the attic area of our building and they made a racket coming and going each night. Other than that, everything was satisfactory.

The park station cooking staff (actually, the wife, mother, sister-in-law, and daughter of the man who runs the station) provided us lunch shortly after we arrived the first day, introducing us to a food theme that was to repeat itself throughout our stay there. Every day, every meal, the food was out-of-this-world good and there was always way more than the two of us could eat. When I say the food was good, I don’t mean it was good for being in the middle of nowhere in the Amazon Basin, I mean it was some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. In fact, one Brazilian roast beef dish might be some of the best meat I’ve ever had in my life (it’s tender when you can cut it with a spoon). When Cameron bit into it the first time he sounded like Bill Murray eating his corn on the cob in What about Bob. Seriously. All this great food might sound like a good thing. It wasn’t for at least two reasons. First, although we were actually getting pretty good exercise each day walking around the jungle, we weren’t burning off the 1200+ Calories per meal we were getting each day. Worse, the cooking staff seemed genuinely hurt that we only ate half or less of the food each day and kept asking if there were other dishes we would prefer etc. We protested and told them how terrific the food was etc. and tried to chalk it up to cultural differences, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t buy it. In the end, we left them a tip, Cameron asked for a recipe for a sublime Lime Mousse they had made for us and we called it even.

Every day we went out in the jungle in the morning, in the late afternoon, and once late at night. Some days we went on hikes, most of the time we went out in a dinghy on the river. Our guides (the Noel Kempff staff) were terrific and it was great to just cruise or drift the banks of the river in the cooler hours of the day looking for new animals or other interesting things. This is the dry season in the jungle, which is mostly the best season for seeing wildlife. The river is about five or six feet lower than it is in the wet season and there are fewer sources of water so the animals tend to migrate to the river to drink which makes them easier to find.

We didn’t get to see everything we wanted, but we were pretty lucky overall. I took pictures of about 50 bird species and we probably saw 20 more. I don’t have the kind of high-power photographic equipment that is really needed to take great, crisp bird pictures but I did the best I could. I was only able to identify a few. I’ve posted several of the bird photos in case someone wants to try to identify them. As with the birds, we didn’t see all the mammals we hoped for (no tapirs, only a glimpse of some monkeys), but we saw several of the famous pink/purple river dolphins, Capybaras, Nutrias, and a ways up the river, the biggest treat- the rare and endangered giant river otter. We also had some up-close and personal encounters with Caimans as you’ll see in the photos.

As with the other places we’ve been so far, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Noel Kempff and would go back in a heartbeat. It really is a unique jewel of a wilderness and I hope it can stay that way. We’re on to Cameroon tomorrow where it’s possible we may be without Internet access for the two weeks we’re there. I’ll post again as soon as possible.

2 Responses to “Noel Kempff Natl. Park”
  1. Kathy says:

    Once again, I am impressed by the photography. It’s almost tragic that smoke from indiscriminate deforestation obscures the view of some of the most beautiful waterfalls and natural habitat I’ve seen. Of course, I’ve only seen it in pictures, but . . . Obviously, your treks to off-the-beaten-track places like Orura and Noel Kempff National Park have been well worth it. The airplane ride alone to Noel Kempff would have scared me away as I likely would have contemplated crashing in the jungle and being eaten by bird spiders rather than the incredible wildlife and exotic environment. I visited the jungle on the Yucatan pennisula once, so I do empathize (with sympathy, if that’s possible) with the heavy air and obstreperous sounds.

    It’ll be a long wait until your next post and pictures from Africa, but I am genuinely eager to see what you discover on that continent. As always, be safe.

  2. Anne says:

    Everyone keeps asking, “where are they now?” Still Cameroon, I say. And, no internet access, so no new postings. When I tell folks about the places you still have to visit, they are all kind of awestruck. And, still half the trip to go. Enjoy!

Leave a Reply