Arrived to the Andean city of La Paz, Bolivia on the 11th. I am here guiding an ecotour group for GreenTracks to the remote rainforests of Madidi National Park. La Paz is a city at an altitude of 12,000 feet so it's reasonably cold especially at night. The flight from La Paz down to the jungle town of Rurenabaque takes us through a pass between two mountains (one reaching a height of 22,000 feet!). Unfortunately, the weather is unpredictable this time of year. The planes are small and they can't make the flight in bad weather the surrounding mountains are too high for them to try to fly over, so we are at the mercy of the local weather. Our group was supposed to leave for Rurenabaque yesterday but the weather changed rapidly and flights were canceled. The flight today was filled with the people from the two previous day's cancellations so we're still stuck in La Paz. It really hasn't been bad. The locals are very friendly and the food has been incredible. The peoples of the Andes have colorful and unique traditional clothing and the markets are loaded with interesting things to see.
We caught a break today and made it onto the morning flight down to Rurenabaque. We landed first on the dirt/gravel air strip at San Andreas. A few people got off and the crew loaded a dozen huge planks of hardwood onto the plane. There is no cargo hold on the airplane so they simply piled these fifteen foot long by two foot wide boards in the center aisle between our seats. What massive rainforest trees this timber must have come from! We took off again and landed on Rurenabaque's gravel runway a few minutes later. It had been raining so the pilot was a bit concerned about the amount of mud and slippage the landing would entail but all went well. We caught a ride to the banks of the Tuichi River and got on a motorized canoe to make our way 5 hours up the river to Chalalan Lodge. The scenery on the way up the Tuichi River is spectacular, lots of birds to see and other wildlife including capybaras Latin America's largest rodent. We arrived to the lodge at dusk in time for an incredible meal and inviting personal quarters where we all crashed within minutes of tucking in our mosquito netting.
I awoke to the loud chatter of Amazon parrots and squabbles between ornery hoatzins above the nearby oxbow lake. Canoes are lined up to take us on our first outing into this vast, green wilderness. We hiked the considerably developed system of trails around the lodge what a treat! In all the years I have worked in Latin America, few have been the times where I have been able to hike through pristine forest like this. Several species of monkeys move through the canopy and noisily remind us of their presence. Toucans and macaws are common encounters. A rainbow of mushrooms decorate the forest floor. A species of poison frog calls incessantly from unseen positions in the leaf litter I caught a brief glimpse of one and think it to be Epipedobates pictus. I took the group out on a night hike where we found several species of monkey frog (Phyllomedusa). We also found the aquatic frog, Pipa pipa, in shallow streams. Unfortunately this isn't the frog's breeding season otherwise I could show the clients females with eggs embedded in their backs truly a strange form of parental care. Further proof to the fact that this forest is in good shape, highly endangered black caiman, Melanosuchus niger, are common to the oxbow lake by the lodge. We have already seen several. Among other encounters, we ran into one of the most spectacular tarantulas I have ever seen. This animal was a dark coffee color with brilliant orange stripes on its abdomen.
We made a long day hike today and saw some incredible wildlife. We arrived to a beach on the Beni River where hundreds of butterflies lapped up salts and minerals at the water's edge. Among them were brilliant swallow-tail moths, Urania leilus. We also saw owl butterflies, Caligo sp., in the forest at rest on vines and tree trunks. We have seen several species of orchid in bloom with some incredible flowers. A pair of "jumping-sticks," Apioscelis bulbosa, was breeding in a low shrub by the trail great insects!! On our way back, we had a group of 70+ white-lip peccaries, Tayassu pecari, cross the trail fifty feet in front of us. These relatives to pigs are the size of a small to medium dog and can be aggressive they have large front teeth. The locals consider them to be one of the only seriously dangerous mammals in the forest mainly because they usually move in large groups. They give them plenty of respect so we most certainly do as well. We went off on another night hike this evening and saw some nice insects. "Spiny lobsters," Panoploscelis specularis, were not uncommon. These giant grasshopper-like insects amazed the clients. We found some leaf-mimic katydids (tribe pterochrozini, order tettigonidae) that matched rotting leaves down to moldy spots and frayed edges. We ran into a giant forest gecko, Thecodactylus rapicauda, as well.
We got up early and set off on a long trail. Not twenty minutes into the hike we were traversing and area with rolling, hilly terrain. A huge group of parrots chattered so noisily above us it was almost hard to hear yourself think. I was in the lead as I made my way over the crest of one of these hills to find myself roughly 20 feet from an adult, male jaguar, Panthera onca, somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. What a rush!!! I really hadn't realized they got this big. Apparently the cat hadn't heard us approaching owing to the chatter of the parrots and I think he was as surprised as I was. He was walking across a sunny spot on the forest floor and stopped in the shadows as soon as he saw me. The client with me, Dr. Paul Bean, arrived on the scene to a huge cat's face peering back out at him from the shadows. In another instant, the cat had disappeared. I was startled and amazed since at no point had I heard even so much as a small sound as the cat moved absolutely silent travel over the forest floor! Amazingly and somewhat startlingly, the cat reappeared roughly the same distance away from us but to the right of our positions only moments later. Again, I hadn't heard a thing!! How humbling to realize that this cat could move freely around us without our knowing it. This was my first jaguar sighting and what a close up experience it had been something I'll never forget. We saw quite a bit later that day including a group of red howler monkeys, Alouatta seniculus.
We decided to take a boat ride today up the Tuichi River to look for wildlife along the waterway. We were about 30 minutes into the trip when we rounded a bend and again, I couldn't believe my eyes. There at the base of a steep bank was a young jaguar, Panthera onca, with a still twitching agouti-paca, Dasyprocta agouti, in its mouth. The cat reared back and bounded up the bank, disappearing within seconds of our arrival. I kept thinking to myself, "This has to be some sort of a dream 12 years of working in the tropics without ever having seen a jaguar and now, 2 jaguars in 2 days!!!!" We stopped to look over the agouti-paca's body, leaving it a few minutes later in case the jaguar decided to return for its kill. What a trip this has already been! The tracks of numerous animals marked the beaches while we rode farther upriver this forest is loaded with wildlife. We stopped for a while and I caught sight of an adult poison frog, Epipedobates pictus, transporting its tadpoles on its back to a water source. This is something I have enjoyed seeing several other times in the neotropics but never before have I had the opportunity to get close enough to photograph a frog carrying tadpoles. This was quite an experience and a great photographic opportunity.
We have made our way back to La Paz from Cahlalan Lodge and Madidi National Park. We spent the day up at Lake Titicaca today. What incredible scenery. The habitat is "puna" habitat and is above the normal tree-line. Eucalyptus has been introduced here and is thriving but few other trees are present. The lake is unbelievable in size massive. We arrived to a town at the edge of the lake, Copacabana, and I found a group of people building a new dock. They had a hooka diver in the water setting the piers when we arrived. I asked him if he ever saw the famous and endemic Lake Titicaca frog, Telmatobius culeus, on the lake bottom when he was working. He said he does see quite a few of them. He went back down and within a few minutes, he was back at the surface with two of the frogs in his hands! Another great photographic opportunity and a really nice chance to explain the interesting biology behind these high-elevation aquatic frogs to the clients. I had my photographic aquarium with me so it really made for a great photo shoot. We had an incredible lunch of grilled trout fresh from the lake before returning to La Paz that evening. We went out for another great meal on the town to cap off an incredible trip.