An audience with the Andean Condor

If your idea of fun is getting out of bed at 5am, standing by a roadside for 30 minutes wondering if your guide is actually going to pick you up, driving 2 hours over terrible mud and dirt roads into a remote valley, then walking for 2 hours up a large hill in the blistering heat, before spending four hours perched on the edge of a cliff under the unrelenting Bolivian sun, before repeating the journey in reverse…then Andean Condor spotting may be for you, and the rewards may well be this…

Up close and personal with the Andean Condor

About 40km from Samaipata is El Nido de los Condores, or the Condors Nest, perhaps the finest site in Latin America for viewing Andean Condors – sometimes at very close quarters. Getting there is easy, most agencies in Samaipata offer the tour, but the journey isn’t very pleasant and the hard climb at the end of it puts most people off. So much so, the day I went I had the privilege of being there alone with my guide.

I’d been recommended to contact a Bolivian guide called Saul Arias Cessio, an amazingly well informed biologist and wildlife expert who has devoted much of his career to the study of birds, especially the Andean Condor. Saul runs an agency with his wife in Samaipata called Tucandera Tours (tucandera.tours@hotmail.com or Tel. 731 67735/763 39435/726 66771) whose office is located just in front of Samaipata’s museum. Saul speaks good English and thankfully was available to take me the next day to see the Condors – although he also offers trips into nearby Amboro National Park, where there are dozens of bird species.

Saul explained that there were approximately one hundred and thirty Andean Condors in the Samaipata area, but that El Nido de los Condores was a special place for the Andean Condor because they ride the thermals across the face of the cliff to drink from a waterfall that tumbles down the cliff edge.

During the four hours we spent at the site we saw around 15 different Andean Condors, but we also saw Turkey Vultures, a rarely seen Buzzard Eagle and, to our delight, an even rarer sighting of a Tropical Condor (actually a King Vulture). We even saw three different types of Parrot and a flock of Parakeets.

If seeing the Andean Condor close up was the main reason for coming, a good secondary reason would be the beautiful countryside that you pass through to reach the Condors.

The view as we climbed up towards El Nido de los Condores

My guide, Saul, at El Nido de los Condores

El Nido de los Condores

The valley below El Nido de los Condores is home to nine families (you can see the cleared areas where they farm), living a subsistence and independent existence away from modern life – no electricity, no running water, no shops, no access to health care and no road in or out. In fact, the nearest road was the one we had travelled on into a different valley, which would be a walk of several hours to reach, but even then there is no public transport so you’d just have to hope you got lucky if you needed to get to medical help urgently.

Shortly after we arrived we started to spot Andean Condors, both adults, with their distinctive white and black plumage, and young Condors aged between three and four years of age. There is nothing to quite describe the feeling of seeing these giant birds floating effortlessly past you, sometimes at the same level as you, sometimes overhead and sometimes below, set amidst the most beautiful mountain scenery.

Adult female Andean Condor

The rarely seen Tropical Condor, all-be-it from a distance

Young Andean Condor

Young Andean Condor floats right past us

Young Andean Condor

Adult Andean Condor

Turkey Vulture

On our way back we came across this odd looking plant, which was just about to flower. It takes about twenty or twenty-five years for the plant to mature, it then flowers and dies. As Saul said, twenty-five years and it gets just one chance to reproduce!

Death becomes her/him/it

Samaipata and the mystery of El Fuerte

A spectacular three hour drive from Santa Cruz brings you to the large village of Samaipata. Set amidst beautiful rolling wooded hills, Samaipata is a relaxed place that is deservedly popular with tourists and Bolivians alike. For its size it has an excellent range of accommodation and restaurants, it even has vineyards producing a small amount of ‘1750’ (the altitude and brand name) wine.

A kilometre or so out of the village, perched atop a hill providing panoramic views over the village and surrounding valley, is the El Pueblito hotel (www.elpueblitoresort.com), which is like a model village, complete with church and themed houses where guests stay. It’s a beautiful place to while-away a day or two, especially as they have a nice pool overlooking the valley.

Samaipata from El Pueblito

One of the main reasons people come to Samaipata is to visit El Fuerte, located about 10km away on top of a mountain that offers views over the surrounding valleys and back to Samaipata. El Fuerte is a magical pre-Incan site dating back to around 2000BC when it was occupied by various indigenous groups. The Incas only arrived at the site in the 1470s, and the Spanish in the 1600s.

Despite some people (read New Age wingnuts) believing the site to be a launch pad for alien spaceships, the more accepted interpretation of El Fuerte’s purpose is as a religious ceremonial site dedicated to the serpent and jaguar, probably involving blood sacrifices, and incorporating worship of the sun and moon. Despite this, little is known about the site, even the name is misleading since the Spanish assumed that it must have had a military purpose (and it may have under the Incas) and called it ‘the fort’.

Although the site is large – it takes a couple of hours to walk around – and incorporates the remains of over five hundred buildings and a large plaza, the main attraction is a huge stone mound, covered in carvings of pumas, jaguars and serpents, and sculpted seats, stairs, tables, niches, troughs and tanks.

The mysterious El Fuerte

El Fuerte

Alien launch pad or troughs that once ran with blood?

The plaza, with views over the surrounding hills

El Fuerte

Sculpted detail on El Fuerte

The many countries that are Bolivia

“We’re no longer in Sucre, Toto”, was the first thought that went through my head as our plane touched down in Cochabamba at the start of a three week ‘holiday’ into the lowlands of Bolivia (of which, much more in later posts).

Cochabamba’s Cristo de la Concordia – the world’s largest Jesus statue, that’s right Rio, the largest!

The reason for this trip was to reach the tiny Amazonian village of San Ignacio de Moxos to take part in its rightly famous Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos. It has a reputation as the biggest party in the Bolivian Amazon, and judging by the state of my liver afterwards its reputation is well deserved.

First though was Cochabamba. Only a short plane hop from Sucre, and sitting at an altitude similar to that of Sucre, Cochabamba feels more tropical, the air smells different, the temperature is hotter, humidity sits heavy and the whole city has a different, and faster-paced, vibe to anything I’ve encountered in Bolivia so far.

Cochabamba lies in a valley floor ringed by mountains that climb to well over 5000m and is one of the most agriculturally rich areas in the whole country, not quite the bread basket, but the fruit and vegetable basket for sure. For tourists there is little, verging on nothing, to do; compensating for that is some of the most diverse and delicious food in the country – something we did our utmost to explore in the two days we had in Cochabamba before heading to Trinidad, gateway to the Bolivian Amazon.

An essential diversion in Cochabamba is a visit to the hilltop that hosts the world’s tallest statue of Christ: the Cristo de la Concordia. Despite having a location that couldn’t even start to compete with Rio, the Cristo de la Cochabamba stands a whole 44cm higher – Rio may have the next Olympics but it still won’t have the tallest Christ statue. Cochabamba 1 Rio 0.

Pink river dolphins en route to San Ignacio de Moxos

After a pleasant couple of days in Cochabamba, we jumped on a plane to Trinidad, capital of Bolivia’s Beni department which contains the bulk of Bolivia’s Amazon Basin. If Cochabamba had come as a surprise, Trinidad was a whole different country – as far from the high Altiplano and Andean Bolivia as it is possible to get, with heat, humidity and mosquitoes to match. Even the people look different in Trinidad, taller and much, much more European looking. Spend an afternoon sitting in a cafe on Trinidad’s main plaza and you’ll spot people who should rightly be living in Scandinavia –  and that’s not even including our dungaree wearing friends the Menonnites (why dungarees?).

After a hot and insect heavy night in Trinidad, we took the road to San Ignacio de Moxos, and the Fiesta to end all Fiestas. On the way we saw a bewildering array of wildlife, right by the side of the road – including river dolphins.

Normally I’d be in raptures at the site of a river dolphin (and I was), but the wildlife had a difficult time competing with the human life of the fiesta.

Participants in San Ignacio’s fiesta

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

Perhaps the most dramatic, and fun, part of the fiesta were the fireworks attached to the hats of participants. They account for the burns I suffered and the holes I now have in most of my clothes.

Hat-mounted fireworks are not the way forward for health and safety

After four days of partying in San Ignacio de Moxos (thank you Cuba Libre for the worst hangover I’ve had in years), we decided to slow the pace a little and take a slow boat up the Rio Ibare and then the Rio Mamore, two large Amazonian rivers that eventually flow all the way to the Brazilian border and beyond. We sailed on the very comfortable Reina de Enin, which offered daily excursions into the surrounding forest, down small rivers to beautiful lagoons, fishing trips, horse riding and swimming in Amazon rivers.

Sunset on the Rio Mamore

After our Amazonian adventure, and an even more exciting night bus from Trinidad to Santa Cruz, we holed up in one of Bolivia’s nicest hotels – the Hotel Casa Patio (www.casapatio-hotelboutique.com) – and endured more fine dining in Bolivia’s second city, including what must be Bolivia’s (Latin America’s?) finest Japanese food. This was followed by a couple of days in the delightfully laid back village of Samaipata, set amidst rolling wooded hills and the base for close up encounters with Andean Condors and the pre-Incan site of El Fuerte.

Up close and personal with the Andean Condor

The mysterious El Fuerte

After three weeks away it’s nice to return to the pleasant climate and colonial charm of Sucre, eyes wide open to a whole new Bolivia that needs further exploration at some point – that point being when I’ve got some 100% DEET based anti-mosquito repellent, eighteen bites on one arm in one night is too much!

More photos and detail of our travels coming soon…