A Bolivian Introduction – part 2

Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, 2018

After much research about how best to access the Valle de las Ánimas (Valley of Souls), we decided we wanted to hike up the main canyon. Looking at satellite images from Google, it looked to be the widest canyon with best views. At least that’s what the plan was.

At dawn, we left the apartment building and caught a taxi to take us the few short kilometers to the mouth of the canyon. We told the driver that we were going to Valle de las Ánimas, and he immediately knew the spot we had to go. Monitoring our location via my phone, I noticed we had past the turn we needed to access the mouth of the canyon. In our nascent Spanish we tried to describe that we didn’t want to do the long hike that most people do, but instead we wanted to just go straight to the main attraction. Understandably, we failed to get that across and our taxi driver was quite confident in the exact spot he had to take us to. Realizing we weren’t making any headway on explaining our idea, we resigned to the fact we were taking the longer hike and thanked our driver for the ride.

The trailhead is along the main road that leads east out of Cota Cota towards Palca, and is located right next to a small cemetery (-16.547463, -68.011049).
As soon as we got out of the car, the obvious bird activity made my adrenaline spike. There were Black Siskins flying around the hillsides, Mourning Sierra-Finches and Creamy-breasted Canasteros singing from the shrubs, and Andean Swallows circling overhead.

In the cemetery, we found a couple d’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrants, my first lifer of the day. In close second was a group of Rufous-sided Warbling-Finches. A great start to the morning!

Within 5 minutes of starting the hike, we had our first visual of a Rock Earthcreeper! I would describe Earthcreepers as a perfect mix of a Bewick’s or Carolina Wren and a desert Thrasher species, like a Crissal or Curve-billed Thrasher. They are small but chunky birds, usually holding their tail cocked up like a wren, but run along the ground and live in arid environments like Thrashers. The Rock Earthcreeper was my third species of Earthcreeper for the trip, a group of birds I am desperate to see the rest of! That’s usually a good field mark of a truly obsessed birder; that they hold “drab and boring” birds as high as the classically beautiful and colorful ones.

The trail soon met a small road carved out of the hillside, and we followed it up higher still. Gaining elevation at that altitude was hard on us and we were hiking pretty slowly. One benefit of moving slowly is that you tend to see birds before you flush them. Example being a beautiful Peruvian Sierra-Finch perched just so on the edge of one of the many rocky outcroppings.

And there were hundreds of rocky outcrops! Actually, many of them were more like spires and hoodoos! The geology of the area seemed to be an entire layer of conglomerate; where finer sediment is packed in between small to medium-sized rounded rocks, appearing like a one of those ancient stone bridges over a picturesque stream in Europe. Instead here it was the entire mountainside!

Hiking higher, we came a natural viewpoint overlooking the next draw. It was spectacular! The erosion on this mountain of sand and river rocks has created an area of incredibly unique geography, with spires and spines erupting out of the hillsides and lining the streambeds. It felt almost as though we were on another planet.

Not to be distracted from birding, we had a great time watching a Giant Hummingbird flying between huge blue-green flowers of big Yucca-like plants. The truly massive hummingbird is deserving of its name. It’s the size of a Cedar Waxwing, and sort of flies like one as well. Take a waxwing and a hummingbird, and somewhere between the two is the Giant Hummingbird. It’s positively a must-see bird for anyone!

Over the next 4 hours, we followed the increasingly harder to find trail through grassy slopes, small plots of crops, and rocky passageways. Reaching the end of any discernible trail, the fun increased as we had to find our route through the maze of fields and rocky towers. Without any true danger of getting lost (we could see the city the whole time), we felt like kids running around and explore a completely alien environment. Every few minutes, I would look up at our surroundings and laugh in disbelief of what we were seeing. How can any of this exist? Adding to that, the bizarre concept that we were even there! Having never traveled outside of the US or Canada before that trip, it was shocking to remind myself of where we were on the globe. Those moments of reflection always make me smile and laugh in pure awe of the planet.

We found the trail again in the dry streambed of a larger canyon. Consulting the maps.me on our phones, that trail was the one to lead us out of the Lord of the Rings-esque landscape we found ourselves in.

Stephanie and I talked about how crazy it was that, just 45 minutes from the metropolis of La Paz, was this bizarre landscape with absolutely zero other people around. We had the entire place to ourselves. We joked about how we want to share with others about the amazing place we experienced, but decided that maybe it stay off of the average backpacker’s radar.
Consider yourselves lucky, I guess.

On the way out of the great canyon, we did find one last lifer; a Red-tailed Comet! Arguably one of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world. A great parting gift from Pachamama.

The riverbed soon led to a small road, which led us to the main road where we hailed a taxi for the short drive back to our Airbnb. After a hearty meal of great vegetarian food from an Indian restaurant, we packed our things in preparation to move locations in the morning.

I attempted to enter and bird the University park behind our building in the morning, but I discovered that the park is closed on the weekends, only open to students. I passed on the possibility of going around to the west and birding the disheveled park by the Museum of Natural History, and instead opted to eat breakfast.

Around 2:30pm, we said goodbye to our Airbnb host and caught a taxi to Jupapina, a small community about 40 minutes away. Our destination was Colibri Camping & Eco Lodge. It’s a small operation, with a couple of cabins and an area for tents, a community kitchen, and a common area complete with hammocks. The lodge sits on the edge of a wide ravine with a small river running through it. The perfect place to relax away from the city, and maybe see some birds.

We arrived just before 4pm and checked in at reception paying for our 2 nights of tent camping. We had brought our camping gear with us, so might as well us it!

Stephanie at the reception window.
looking down to the river and the small road that leads to it.

The afternoon of relaxing and leisurely birding was quite refreshing. The air was clean and crisp and the hammocks set up by the lodge were perfectly comfortable. Stephanie caught up on journaling as I scoped out a few good birds. My first lifer of the stay, a Brown-backed Mockingbird, made a brief appearance to the compound. As the sun was getting low, I spotted a falcon flying low and close to the ravine wall. It looked as though it landed on the cliffs right below us, and sure enough, it did! Creeping to the edge of the cliff, I peered down and saw a beautiful Aplomado Falcon perched on one of the many rocky spires. Without scaring it off, I managed to retrieve the spotting scope and get it trained on the bird. Stephanie and I enjoyed the best looks at that species we’ve ever had, and watching it for 20 minutes as it sat still and scanned the area for its next meal.

Aplomado Falcon

We spent the day birding and exploring the area, with a lot of lounging around mixed in throughout. We started our morning bird walk around 7:30, following the small dirt road that winds down the ravine to the river below. Along the short stretch of road, it couldn’t have been longer than one tenth of a mile, we found quite a few birds!

The arid habitat concentrates birds around brushy gullies where more water means more vegetation. A few Sparkling Violetears sang from the dense brush and fought off any interloping Red-tailed Comets. Creamy-breasted Canasteros moved around the cactus, and both Sayaca and Blue-and-Yellow Tanagers flitted about the taller shrubs. I even managed a photo of the resident Brown-backed Mockingbird.

At the bottom of the slope, the road leads past the ‘Porvenir horse ranch’, and down to the river’s edge. Along the way we walked past fields of beautiful flowers blooming in what looked like planted crops. Maybe they harvest flowers down there?

In the taller trees near the river, we picked out my lifer White-bellied Hummingbird. Walking back up the road, I had the chance to take my first photo of a White-tipped Plantcutter, a chunky vegetarian with the most BIZARRE song of nearly any songbird! Listen to it here!

Not the best photo, but it ends up being my only photo of the species I get the entire time in Bolivia.

The next morning, our last at Colibri Camping, I spent another hour and a half birding the road down to the river. A lot of the same birds, and it allowed me to work on my auditory identification. Right at the end, I scored a buzzer-beater lifer, a Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail!

Our 2 night stay out in the country was great, and we really enjoyed the vistas and the arid-country birds. We packed our things, and caught a taxi back to La Paz, where we checked in to an Airbnb on the north side of town. We wandered the street down to the local market and stocked up on some fruit and other, less healthy snacks. The next day we were going birding in the magical cloud forest of the Andes Mountains. And not just anywhere in the cloud forest, but along the famous (or infamous?) ‘Death Road’!

eBird checklist for Valle de las Ánimas: https://ebird.org/checklist/S50325772

eBird checklist for first afternoon at Colibri: https://ebird.org/checklist/S50355366

eBird checklist for first morning along road: https://ebird.org/checklist/S50364475

eBird checklist for the river’s edge: https://ebird.org/checklist/S50364575

eBird checklist for second morning along road: https://ebird.org/checklist/S50391287

Cost and logistics

Valle de las Ánimas

Valle de las Ánimas trailhead: (-16.547463, -68.011049)
and the streambed exits here: (-16.539809, -68.026679)

Getting to the trailhead from La Paz via taxi costs anywhere between 50 and 100 bolivianos / $7 – $14.00 USD. Don’t be afraid to haggle the price, you’re likely to get the “gringo price” when first asking.

Bring food and water and start early in the day. It’s absolutely stunning and the birding is great, so you could end up spending most of a day there. I know I would go back in a heartbeat!

Colibri Camping & Eco Lodge

Camping costs 50b / $7.00 USD per person per night (in 2018) but they have a number of great cabins and rooms available if you prefer that over pitching a tent.
Check out their website here.

There are buses that run back to La Paz, but we decided to catch a taxi back that cost us 70b / $10.15 USD

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