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…
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org 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 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.
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!