Bolivia’s “Lost World”
IN 1906 the president of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society discussed with Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett the great economic potential of South America. Pushing a chart in front of Fawcett, he said: “Look at this area! It’s full of blank spaces because so little is known of it.” He then offered the colonel the job of exploring the region. Fawcett accepted.
In his journals Fawcett described the heavily forested slopes of what is now known as the Huanchaca Plateau in Bolivia. He called the area “a lost world.”* Some believe that Fawcett’s journals and photographs inspired famous British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the novel The Lost World, which describes a mythical world of “ape men” and terrifying dinosaurs that had supposedly survived to modern times. Today, this relatively pristine part of Amazonia includes Bolivia’s magnificent Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, which was designated a World Heritage site in the year 2000.*
Located in the far northeast of Bolivia along the Brazilian border, the park is an almost untouched wilderness that covers an area of nearly 5,900 square miles [more than 15,000 sq km]. It encompasses five ecosystems: upland evergreen forest, deciduous forest, upland dry savanna, savanna wetlands, and forest wetlands. The Huanchaca Plateau itself is a 2,000-square-mile [5,180 sq km] sandstone escarpment that rises 1,800 feet [550 m] above the surrounding plain and runs like a 93-mile [150 km]-long backbone parallel to the eastern border of the park. The numerous rivers that drain the plateau and surrounding plain feed some 20 waterfalls, including the Salto Susana Falls, the Arco Iris Falls, the Federico Ahlfeld Falls, the Gemelas Falls, and El Encanto Falls.
Our Adventure Begins
Somewhat protected by its isolation, the park is a magnet for ecotourists, many of whom fly there from Santa Cruz, in central Bolivia. We decided to drive the 440 miles [700 km], which gave us a much closer look at the Bolivian countryside. At one spot we saw ahead of us what seemed to be a cloud of colorful leaves flittering across the road. The “leaves,” however, turned out to be butterflies, and we were not the only observers. A platoon of hungry lizards were scampering about, feasting on their hapless prey.
When we arrived at the national park, we met our guide, Guido, in the village of La Florida, on the banks of the Paragua River. Guido took us and our vehicle across the river on a pontoon boat, and from there we drove the short distance to Los Fierros camp. Along the way we spotted a fox and a scissor-tailed nightjar—a handsome bird that swooped across the road in front of us.
After a night’s sleep, we awoke to the raucous sound of birds—four beautiful blue-and-yellow macaws perched high in a tree outside our cabin. It was as if they were calling out, “Welcome to our home!” This fine start to our first day in the park told us that we were in for a treat.
Teeming With Life
Noel Kempff Mercado National Park boasts over 600 species of birds, 139 different mammals (more than in all of North America), 74 varieties of reptiles, and perhaps some 3,000 kinds of butterflies—not to mention countless other insects. The birds include more than 20 varieties of parrots, as well as the harpy eagle, the hoatzin, and the helmeted manakin. Nick Acheson, a local bird guide and conservationist, told us that “rare species like the rufous-sided pygmy-tyrant and the black-and-tawny seedeater draw bird-watchers from all over the world.”
Among the many mammals are giant anteaters, maned wolves, jaguars, peccaries, tapirs, and pampas deer. The numerous rivers that surround and drain the park are also filled with life, including 62 kinds of amphibians and 254 species of fish, as well as caimans, giant river otters, capybaras, and beautiful pink dolphins. The park truly is a nature lover’s paradise!
Because of the big cats in Amazonia, many visitors have concerns about safety—and so did we. The administrator of Los Fierros camp told us about his first night in the park. “I awoke at midnight with the strange feeling that I was being watched,” he related. “I looked out the window of my cabin to see a jaguar staring at me, a mere insect screen separating us! Terrified, I locked myself in the bathroom until dawn.” That was not what we wanted to hear!
But then the administrator continued: “I soon learned that this curious feline often visits at night and is not considered dangerous. In fact, on hot days jaguars often enter the camp and lie on the cool, tiled patios of the cabins. As you might imagine, that can be an unnerving sight to newcomers! In the past, we always carried a rifle, especially when guiding night tours, but now we never take one. The animals haven’t changed; our attitude toward them has.” Nevertheless, he cautioned us to treat all wild animals with respect.
The Jungle Walk to El Encanto Falls
The park’s many waterfalls are a big attraction. We started out early on our walk with Guido, our guide, to El Encanto Falls, which spill down 262 feet [80 m] from the Huanchaca Plateau. As we walked the 3.5 miles [6 km] through the rain forest, spider monkeys and howler monkeys greeted us from the branches above. Both species are appropriately named—spider monkeys because they are all arms and legs and howler monkeys because they make a loud crying sound that can be heard up to two miles [3 km] away! Up ahead, a red-throated piping-guan, a turkeylike bird, dashed across our path in search of breakfast. Guido drew our attention to tracks along the banks of the nearby stream. His trained eye identified the footprints of two different kinds of deer, as well as a tapir, a jaguar, and a cougar. We sensed that eyes of all kinds were observing us from numerous hiding places and that day and night this place throbs with life.
The watchful creatures have abundant foliage to hide behind, for the various landscapes and habitats in the park support a profusion of plants of every kind. In fact, an estimated 4,000 species thrive in the area, including over 100 varieties of orchids, as well as a wide range of trees, ferns, bromeliads, and vines. Our eyes feasted on the colors and our noses captured the fragrances as we savored the delicious fruits growing near the path. The latter included mangaba fruit, which grows on a tree, and passion fruit, which grows on a vine.
Finally, as we crossed a stream, we began to hear the distant sound of falling water, which got louder with every step we took. Then, suddenly, we entered a clearing, and there before us towered majestic El Encanto Falls, the lower portion shrouded in mist. Ferns and bromeliads decorated the rock walls around the crystal-clear pool. “On hot days,” said Guido, “monkeys come down to the water to cool off.” We took the hint and cooled off too, all the while absorbing the unspoiled tranquillity of this beautiful place and the pleasant sound of the falling water.
Conservation—The Legacy of Noel Kempff Mercado
Conservationist Noel Kempff Mercado died in 1986. Nevertheless, the work he began of protecting this part of Bolivia continues. In 1996 the governments of Bolivia and the United States agreed to protect 2.2 million acres [880,000 ha] of rain forest and promote sustainable development in an effort to mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases in other parts of the world. The following year the government of Bolivia and three energy companies started the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project, which, among other things, resulted in the termination of logging rights on 2.2 million acres [880,000 ha] of forest. This area was then added to the park, doubling its size.
Our visit to this magnificent place heightened our appreciation for the Creator and for the beauty and diversity of the life he placed on planet Earth. Says Psalm 104:24: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.” Indeed, as we walked the trails in this unspoiled “lost world,” we felt an almost instinctive desire to tread lightly, to absorb the beauty, and to take nothing home with us but the pictures in our cameras and the memories in our hearts.
In May 1925, Fawcett wrote to his wife about his expedition. It was his last communication, and his disappearance still remains a mystery.
Created in 1979, the park was originally named Huanchaca National Park. The new name was given it in 1988 in honor of Bolivian biologist Noel Kempff Mercado, who was murdered on the plateau by drug traffickers after he stumbled across an illegal cocaine laboratory.
[Picture on page 16]
Purple and red orchid
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Ahlfeld Falls, inside the national park
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El Encanto Falls
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
Aerial: ® 2004 Hermes Justiniano/BoliviaNature.com
[Picture Credit Line on page 17]
Orchid, Ahlfeld Falls, and macaws: ® 2004 Hermes Justiniano/BoliviaNature.com