Noel Kempff Mercado National Park

Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, named for the distinguished Bolivian biologist murdered by drug renegades, is a huge (nearly 6,250 square miles/10,650 km2), remote, pristine wilderness with an astonishing array of habitat and wild inhabitants.

Jaguars silently tread forest floors; maned wolves bound through grasslands after rodents and the occasional small armadillo; delicate pampas deer graze meadows; spider and howler monkeys swing through tall trees; habitat ranges from dry virgin gallery forest to dripping rain forest, savannah, and marsh, amid some of the continent’s most spectacular scenery.

Here the 2,000-square-mile (5,000-km2) Precambrian Caparu Plateau, crisscrossed by rivers and streams, rises 1,900 feet (600 m) from the surrounding plain, sending waterfalls plunging dramatically off steep escarpments to join the Itenez-Guapore River which forms the Bolivian border with Brazil.

Some 139 kinds of mammals are here; 650 birds—about one-fourth of all those in the neotropics; 250 fish; 74 reptiles; 62 amphibians; and over 4,000 kinds of vascular plants. At least 75 invertebrates are listed as rare, threatened, or endangered.

Near-sighted tapirs nibble on low woodland shrubs and aquatic vegetation, sniffing for signs of jaguars, which sometimes prey on their babies. Giant anteaters shuffle through leaf litter. Giant river otters fish along with piranhas and pink river dolphins (also known as bufeos). Capybaras, world’s largest rodents, forage in shallows along with jabiru and maguari storks. Black and spectacled caimans submerge, only their eyeballs showing.

Harpy eagles, world’s fiercest raptors, carry off sloths and monkeys. Primeval turkey-sized hoatzins nest low over water, their blue-eyed young able under threat either to swim or climb trees to safety. Over 20 parrot species chatter raucously, including the world’s largest and most brilliant, the macaws—yard-long (1-m) blue-and-yellow, scarlet, golden-collared, and chestnut-fronted. Umbrella birds roar through inflated gular sacs to impress mates, flaring glistening metallic crests the length of their heads and shaking fluffy throat wattles as long as their bodies.

This park’s remoteness has protected it to a great extent from human-caused problems such as agricultural encroachment and poaching, although illegal mahogany logging and drugrunning have been problems. Overland access is possible though not easy via 125 miles (200 km) of mostly unpaved road from San Ignacio to Florida, which has basic accommodations in a former ranger station, also guide services; from there it’s 15 miles (25 km) to the park entrance at Los Fierros, which has information on hiking trails and camping. Many visitors rent vehicles or come by chartered air from Santa Cruz, starting guided tours on the western river border. FAN (see above) which runs the park with SERNAP (with financial and technical support from The Nature Conservancy and the Dutch government) has a comfortable lodge at Flor de Oro, where there are rare zigzag herons and flame-crested manakins, and can arrange boat trips.


Gran Chaco Kaa-Iya National Park, newly set aside, at 13,280 square miles (34,400 km2) Bolivia’s largest park—second largest on the continent, and the only one administered by indigenous people—protecting unique dry forest habitat. Bird species include greater rheas, endemic blacklegged seriemas, king vultures, Andean condors, three eagles (crested, black-and-white, and hawk), and 10 parrots.

There are 70 mammal species, including a species of peccary that was only recently discovered for science, some 30 species of bats, giant anteaters, and giant armadillos plus seven other armadillo species.

Reserva de Vida Silvestre Rios Blanco y Negro, 5,470 square miles (14,170 km2), the country’s fourth largest park, created in 1990 to protect rare floral and faunal species, including capuchin and squirrel monkeys as well as jaguars, tapirs, wild dogs. Few facilities, accessible only by air.

Sajama National Park, adjoining Chile’s magnificent LAUCA NATIONAL PARK (see p.541; minimal facilities on Bolivian side).

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