Walking the Wildside: Santa Cruz, the Missions and Noel Kempf Mercado NP


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Published: June 8th 2009
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Once back from the Madidi trip we got a flight to Santa Cruz (via San Borja and Trinidad). Our main reason for coming to Santa Cruz was to see if we could get a trip to Noel Kempf Mercado NP. The Bolivian jungle in Madidi was great but Noel Kempf is noted as one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. It doesn´t have the infrastructure that the Madidi does but that was part of the allure.

First though we lobbed up in Santa Cruz and stayed at the Jodanga hostel. Not usually into plugging hostels but this one is a gem.. a converted villa (in an area where I´d say most the Bolivian rich live) with its own swimming pool (and not one of those ones that has never been cleaned and only a mosquito would swim in) and despite being a cab ride (10 bol´s...a whole 1 pound!) into the main square it is a great place and we´d recommend it to anyone. We headed into the centre to find a tour. We walked into Amboro Tours (www.amborotours.com) and said "we want to go to Noel Kempf NP". The look on the guys face should have
Gordon & the Yellow & Blue MacawGordon & the Yellow & Blue MacawGordon & the Yellow & Blue Macaw

The subnote to this guy is that we´d read on a website that they love singing so Ann sang some songs and he basically just wouldn´t leave us alone!
been sufficient to warn us that you shouldn´t take Noel Kempf lightly.

The guy introduced himself as Marco and asked whether we wanted to go North or South in Noel Kempf. We said whichever had more animal viewing opportuntiy. Luckily (or was it??) the answer was the South. The North is only accessible by plane and there for 3 times the price of the South. The South is a drive, about 10 hours from Conception (which itself is about 6 hours from Santa Cruz). It is more basic but offers great hiking opportunities. Marco warned us about a few things: that the road was sometimes blocked with tree fall and water; that there was a bee problem in the park and that we may need to camp. We considered this and decided that hey it was an adventure, a chance to step into the wild and get close to nature (and Gordon had a growing desire to test his Indiana Jones skills). So we signed up!

We couldn´t leave for a couple of days so we kicked around Santa Cruz for the weekend. Cool town, very different from the highland Bolivian towns and seemingly much more affluent as well. On the Sunday we headed to the Guembe Biosphere at park near Santa Cruz, which is a little like the Eden Project meets a Beach Resort. It has a Butterfly House, Orchid Gardens, a massive Avery and natural swimming ponds. It was a sensational place to chill out for the day and we managed to get up close and personal with some of the critters we´d seen the week before in the Madidi, namely Macaws, Sloths, Toucan´s and a very cute Squirrel Monkey which made itself at home in Ann´s arms......after the batteries on the camera had run out..gutted!

The next day we headed to Conception. Conception is one of the Jesuit mission towns which were set up in Bolivia. It´s a small town with a big church and not a great deal else but it was a pretty good spot to kill a day. Even better it was only 4.5 hours from Santa Cruz! We met Marco in the evening and agreed the timings for our departure the next day.

So the day dawned and we were off (ok after breakfast and by the time the car was packed it was closer to 9.30)...2 hours in we were at Santa Rosa de la Roca and Marco announced that this was the last place to get lunch before our destination (in 8 hours). A typical almuerzo was had and we continued on, leaving the tarmac and hitting dirt roads for the next 10 hours (yes 8 hours was an underestimation)! Basically the road wasn´t the best, potholed and rutted by trucks and it was 200km´s from the turn off to Comunidad Florida. Along the way we saw hundred of butterflies which would often rise into a kaleidoscope of colour as the car approached. We also managed to get slightly lost.....well more like an uncertainty of direction which necessitated a back track and reconfirmation (2 hour round trip) that we were on the right track. We arrived at Comunidad Florida at around 10pm, tired and a little worried by the noise that the right front wheel was making. There were no lights on and Marco´s calls eventually roused the Hospedeje owner who confessed to not realising that we were coming having misunderstood the radio message to mean next month not tomorrow! To be fair all we wanted was a bed and that´s pretty much where Ann and I
Guembe: - up close with a slothGuembe: - up close with a slothGuembe: - up close with a sloth

These guys are amazing. They are nowhere near as slow as they are made out to be and are amazingly strong!
headed!

So the day dawned and we waited for the people at the Florida Community to get the barge into position. To get into Noel Kempf you have to cross the Rio Paraña and this is done by a hand pulled barge. The barge however, because of the high water (ominous sign), was not in position and since they didn´t realise we were coming the community hadn’t done anything about it! After some discussions and some gasoline contributed the community people agreed to put the barge in position. Marco then introduced us to our Guide, Guido and our cook, Lili. We headed off at around 11am to the river. Crossing proved relatively simple (apart from the first injury of the trip....Ann´s finger getting shut in the car door and breaking through her nail) and hooray we were in the park!

The parks authorities had told Marco that they had been in the park the day before, though no one had been to Los Fierros (the camping ground we were headed for some 35 km away) for about 3 weeks. They had checked the bridges and they were all still in place and apart from a little water it
The bullies!The bullies!The bullies!

The red macaw was a real bully chasing othe birds and tormenting them. he had a little hanger on who followed him everywhere. All the other macaws gave them a wide birth so these two were stuck with each other!
was ok. The authorities proved right as we managed to negotiate the 5 bridges pretty easily. On the 3rd bridge we had to get out to reduce weight and lucky we did because we disturbed a group of Giant River Otters.....they weren´t happy about us intruding and barked and splashed at us! Yippee wildlife!

So we continued and just beyond the 5th and final bridge we encountered our first tree. Obviously the parks people hadn´t bothered to go much further than the 5th bridge because it was clear that this wasn´t a recent fall. Out got Marco and Guido, machetes and axes in hand and began clearing the fallen foliage. I (Gordon) jumped out as well and made myself useful by hauling away debris (and steered clear, nursing her wound)....hoping that I wouldn´t unearth any of those vipers that Amboro Tours had made us sign a disclaimer about! 15 minutes and the tree was cleared so we continued on. It wasn´t long before we encountered another tree, and another and another and then one which we (that is Guido and Marco) couldn´t actually move that necessitated us clearing a whole lot of forest around the tree to make a new route for the car to get through.....that took a while. Everyone got involved and Lily proved herself extremely capable with both a machete and axe! We continued on and encountered more and more fallen trees. I can honestly say that Marco and Guido earned their wage that day. I doubt we could have even chopped through one whole tree let alone a whole garden´s worth. They really could do with investing in a petrol driven saw (then again we spend god knows how much on gym memberships etc and they get a full workout as part of a days work...and it works! who needs a personal trainer when you have a blocked path to clear).

At around 4 o´clock we hit our wall, both literally and proverbially. Another tree blocked the road and this one we knew would take a while to move. It was getting late and even if we moved this tree what were our chances that there would be more trees between us and the camping ground. We made a decision to abandon the car for the night and walk the remaining 8 or so km´s to Los Fierros. We packed our bags which took about 30 minutes (after distributing food, cooking utensils, tents etc) and this was long enough for us to meet the infamous Noel Kempf Bees.......attracted to sweat they swarmed around us......they were unbearable (well for Ann and Gordon at least, the others were surprisingly unbothered)! It took us 2 hours to hike from the car to the campsite and on arrival (in the dark) we were greeted by a Refugio in a state of decay, just waiting for the jungle to reclaim it. We identified a cabin which was habitable and set about clearing it of ants and making sure that there was water in the containers at the foot off the beds (a very clever way to keep ants at bay). Guido and Lily opted for setting up their tents on their beds instead.... indoor camping...now that would have been fund as kids. We then set off for a well deserved bath.......... in the stream (home to caimans!) swatting mossies as we walked. On this occasion only Marco was brave enough to jump right in, the rest of us sufficed on washing. After that it was a quick meal (proper camping and cooking on a wood fire) and then to
The turn off to Noel Kempfe National ParkThe turn off to Noel Kempfe National ParkThe turn off to Noel Kempfe National Park

Note our destination is Comundad Florida some 199km´s away on unsealed dirt roads!
bed.....exhausted!

The next morning we walked back with Marco and Guido to get the car, with the hope that we might actually encounter some wildlife other than bees. Our walk from the car to the camp site had proved that there was only one more tree fall which had to be cleared. Along the way we saw animal tracks from the previous night, mainly Tapir and Jaguar.....it’s a surreal feeling walking in the footsteps of a Jaguar, knowing it is around but not being able to see it. It took us a around an hour and half to walk back to the car and the jungle was surprisingly silent, with minimal bird noise and no signs of mammals. Once at the car, the bees from the previous afternoon had not abandoned the vehicle and were swarming around it. Ann and I left Guido and Marco to clear the path, mainly because to hang around would have meant being surrounded by bees and we´re far too chicken for that. We walked down the road for a bit hoping to catch a glimpse of an animal...sadly we didn´t, though we did see many different butterflies! About 2 hours later we wandered
Finally....at the Rio Paraña Entrance to noel KempfFinally....at the Rio Paraña Entrance to noel KempfFinally....at the Rio Paraña Entrance to noel Kempf

We say finally, because it had taken us the better part of 2 days to arrive at this point!
back to clearing and saw that the job was almost done. We also saw Marco, shirt off, covered in bees.....attracted to the sweat the bees had swarmed to his body and he resembled one of the weird people on "Ripley´s Believe It or Not" who try to break records for the number of bees on them! Guido swatted the bees with a leafy branch to clear Marco and then Marco jumped in the car and reversed full pelt towards us to try and clear the bees from inside the car (yelping from stings as he came). We jumped in the car, swatting bees as we went. Once clear, we did a quick count as to the number of bee stings....Ann and Gordon, 0; Guido, 5; Marco, somewhere in the vicinity of 30 to 40 stings (all over torso and even in armpits...ouch!!). Needless to say that Marco was feeling a little less than tip top and opted for an afternoon nap whilst Guido and us decided to go for a jungle walk. The intention was to walk along the trail parallel to the deserted air strip, however it was flooded so we had to abandon that idea. Instead we decided to walk along the road towards the Pampas which would be our passage on the next day as part of our push for the plateau. Once again we saw some prints and evidence that Tapirs and the like had been there but no sign of the real thing. We finished the day with a bath in the stream....this time, boulstered by Marco´s swim the day before, we all jumped in (after testing for caimans with a splash on the water...Ann let Gordon check the full proofness of this test before joining in).....so relaxing!

Our final full day in Noel Kempf was a 10 hike to the plateau. The plateau is one of the key features of the park and something which makes it so special because the ecosystem completely changes once you ascend.....well so they say! The plan was to drive across the pampas and head towards the plateau. Typically you can drive to within about a 2 hours walk of the plateau´s base but Guido informed us that there had been a major tree fall and the walk was now the better part of 3 hours. Once at the base it was a further 2 hours to ascend
Unloading the carUnloading the carUnloading the car

Because of the high level of the Paraña river the barge was too high for our vehicle. This necessitated some makeshift ramps
(dependent upon how hot it was) and that it was important that we didn´t linger too long at the base of the plateau because there were these bees there which were attracted to the tear ducts of people eyes....go figure! Well that was the plan and it started well enough. There were no fresh tree falls (which was a miracle considering that it had bucketed down during the night) and we made it to the pampas uneventfully. However, that was really about as far as the car could go. The rainfall overnight had flooded the pampas and the road in parts was submerged and Guido informed Marco that he had to be careful, because there were some really deep holes that you couldn´t drive through (talk about timing.....I don´t think it was sudden divine knowledge, he must have known this from the start of the trip). Given that we´d only been going 30 minutes we elected to try to walk to the plateau which meant crossing the pampas. We took off our socks and shoes and proceeded to wade along the path (come river) for the next 2 hours (well Ann lasted about 5 minutes without boots until her very
Ahh the first treeAhh the first treeAhh the first tree

This was a sign of thinsg to come!
unhardy feet gave up and then she opted for the drowned boot approach) until we reached the turn off towards the plateau. We decided to take a break and work out our plan - given that we were probably about 2 hours hike from the tree and 5 from the plateau base. Whilst organising ourselves our guide, Guido began slashing the grass with his machete. Marco asked what was up and he replied "serpiente, grande". He then made a fang like action with his fingers and ran finger across his throat and said "muerte". Translation = he´d seen a bloody big rattlesnake slither past our backpacks into the grass near where we were resting. Given it was a 2 hour hike back to the car, a further 3 to 4 hours back to Florida and from there about 18 hours to a hospital, if bitten it was curtains! A sobering thought to go with our coffee. Some more grass bashing confirmed it had gone and it was safe to sit. We decided that all things considered getting to the plateau was just not going to happen, so we headed back to Los Fierros.....this time all with shoes on. One bright factor though was that we did manage to finally see some wildlife (other than birds). We disturbed a family of Tayras and they let us know about it, barking and yapping (another friendly welcome).

Well our final day was really a trip back up the road which we had travelled on that first day. This time there were no tree falls and we managed to make it to the bridges within 3 hours where we stopped for a picnic in the jungle! No River Otters this time and by 3pm we were at the barge where the Florida people kindly worked the barge to get us back out of the park. We spent the rest of the afternoon amongst the community, with Ann being taken on a tour of the village by the children and myself making friends with Lorenzo the parrot! Marco and I chatted about the trip and he shook his head and said it was definitely a tri with a lot of firsts......First time it had taken so long to get to Comunidad Florida; First time he hadn´t made it to Los Fierros on the first day; First time he´d never made it too the plateau; and First time he´d struggled to see extensive wildlife. From our perspective it was an adventure and whilst achieving all of those things would have been nice, they fact that we didn´t just made the trip more of an adventure!

The next day we headed back to Conception and then the day after to Santa Cruz where along the way Marco stopped off in San Xavier so that we could visit the mission and church there (and he could fix the passenger side front wheel which had lost 2 bolts from the brake pad and was making a horrible noise). It was a nice stop off along the way and one we really enjoyed.

Postscript.......

Whilst our trip to Noel Kempf was an adventure the fact remains we achieved none of our desired objectives. As a park Noel Kempf is potentially one of the best National Parks in Bolivia and quite possible South America. However, as our experience shows it is a park that has serious problems. Probably the 2 most disappointing aspects from our perspective were the state of the Los Fierros Refugio and the fact that there was minimal wildlife to be seen. In regards
Crossing the BridgesCrossing the BridgesCrossing the Bridges

This was one of about five bridges which we needed to cross
the first issue this is clearly a National Parks and Comunidad Florida issue. The National Parks run the refugio but the Comunidad Florida are charged as custodians. The communities failure to upkeep the refugio has meant that many tour agencies will not run tours to Noel Kempf South. Amboro Tours did but even they were reluctant because there are many variables like the state of the access road and the accomodation itself which can lead to disapointment for their clients. This is evidenced in the fact that since 2006 there has been a marked decline in visitors to Noel Kempf South.

In regards the second issue, lack of wildlife, I believe that this is due most likely to the activity of poachers. Noel Kempf´s southern boundaries are surrounded by a number of logging companies who have permanent camps for their workers. These logging companies are supposed to provide food for their workers, but often they instead turn to bushmeat which is cheaper. A couple of observations support the contention that the park is subject to poaching, namely the lack of birdlife in the area and the lack of mammels and evidence of mammals despite the fact that the park had not been visited in the previous 3 weeks of us being there. This observation, coupled with our guide Marco´s observations that the typically abundent bush turkeys, spider monkeys and other birdlife were absent.

The solution to both problems is not an easy one. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre but the less tourists that visit, the greater the arguments will grow to open up the park to loggers. Tourists will stop going to Noel Kempf unless the above problems are fixed and any solution requires that it engages the Florida Community are part of the solution. As part of the effort to raise awareness we plan to write about our concerns and experiences to the following organisations:
1) UNESCO;
2) Bolivia Park Authority; and
3) Friends of Noel Kempf.


Additional photos below
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A Bullet AntA Bullet Ant
A Bullet Ant

Not a nice critter at all......a bite from these guys is extremely painful. The pain can last for 5 or 6 hours
Wading through the PampasWading through the Pampas
Wading through the Pampas

After Guido outlined that there were some deep potholes we had to abandon the car enroute to the plateau......we opted initially for bare feet!
Marco wading through the pampasMarco wading through the pampas
Marco wading through the pampas

Note he is wearing no shoes!


9th June 2009

Noel Kempf
Loving the posts! We didn't make it into Noel Kempf at all. We spent many hours researching routes in, transport options, guides and trying to link up with other travellers to go into Noel Kempf and in the end had to pass it up. We were also restricted financially (travelling on NZ$$), but the logistics were what killed it in the end. Unfortunately there were so many stories like yours and many instances of people getting stranded. I do hope that they succeed in building slightly better infrastructure, but the management of national parks is a concern across all of South America.... Venezuela where there are no toilets and there are fields of toilet paper and sh*t, or Peru where there are toilets but full to overflowing (even though you pay $USD60 to enter) resulting in more toilet fields or even the famous Torres del Paine where some of the bridges are hazards.... Great to hear you both are having such amazing adventures. We also loved Madidi and Chalalan!

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