Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado

In the remote far north of Santa Cruz department is Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado, one of the world's most stunningly diverse natural habitats, with a range of animal and plant species unmatched almost anywhere else on the planet. The park is astonishing in every way, especially for its Amazonian forests, spectacular waterfalls, and eerie-looking flat-topped mountain ranges called
mesetas
. There are seven distinct ecosystems within the park, the highest number in any single protected area anywhere on earth.

Noel Kempff Mercado is Bolivia's third-largest protected area, at 1,523,446 ha, an area the size of Massachusetts in the USA. It was established in 1979 as
Parque Nacional de Huanchaca
. In 1988, its name was changed to honour Noel Kempff Mercado, a pioneer of Bolivia's conservation movement who was murdered there two years earlier.

Ins and outs

Tourism in the park is administered by
SERNAP
, turismonoelkempff@gmail.com. Entry is free but all visitors are required to register with SERNAP either in Santa Cruz or San Ignacio. The NGO
Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN)
, www.noelkempff.com and www.fan-bo.org
, works with conservation projects in the park.

Access to Noel Kempff Mercado remains limited and this isolation has, until now, helped preserve its great bio-diversity. Note that all roads described below are transitable exclusively in the dry season (May to September). Those attempting to drive must have a 4WD and be entirely self-sufficient with petrol and all supplies. Tour operators in Santa Cruz and elsewhere in Bolivia offer three- to seven-day guided tours of the park . Given the remoteness of the area, plus the fact that private aircraft are generally used for access and to see the great waterfalls, these tours are understandably expensive.

Although the park is vast, there are at present only two access points for visitors. On the southwestern border of the reserve, along the Río Paraguá, is
La Florida
. To reach La Florida take a bus from Santa Cruz or San Ignacio bound for Piso Firme or Remanso and get off at
Las Lajas
, from where it is 35 km to La Florida. There is no public transport but you may be able to hitch a ride with logging trucks, or SERNAP in San Ignacio may be able to arrange for you to be picked up (for a fee). Always contact SERNAP before heading out. Some innovative tourists have taken bicycles with them on the bus and then rode to La Florida and beyond. From La Florida a track runs 35 km to
Los Fierros
, which is inside the park and has a camping area and a 15-bed shelter (unused in 2008 but slated for renovation). From Los Fierros it is a multi-day trek to the base of
Cascada El Encanto
, one of the parks majestic waterfalls. In all, six days of trekking are required to visit this area from La Florida. Local guides charge about US$25 per day for a group of up to five tourists. Meals are available at La Florida but you should bring all your own provisions for the park.

At the northwest corner of the park, near the confluence of the Ríos Paraguá and Itenes (called Río Guaporé in neighbouring Brazil, with which it forms the border), are the villages of
Piso Firme
and
Remanso
. The two are joined by a 35-km dry-weather road and boats also ply the river between them. Remanso gets one bus a week from Santa Cruz via
Santa Rosa de la Roca
(about half-way between Concepción and San Ignacio de Velasco) with
Trans Bolivia
. The same company usually runs another bus along the same road from San Ignacio to Piso Firme. From Piso Firme or Remaso, it is a further five to nine hours of upriver travel (depending on water levels) along the Río Itenes/Guaporé to the confluence of the Río Paucerna at
Boca del Paucerna
(a park rangers' camp) and on to
Flor de Oro
. At Flor de Oro is a landing strip and an upmarket
tourist camp
, which is used as a base for excursions to the
Federico Ahlfeld
and
Arco Iris waterfalls
. Most visitors arrive at Flor de Oro by private aircraft (2½ hours flight from Santa Cruz) as part of their tour package, which includes spectacular overflights of
the meseta and w
aterfalls.

An alternative access to Flor de Oro is 20 minutes by boat from the Brazilian town of
Pimenteiras do Oeste
. Brazilian tour agencies also offer trips to Noel Kempff but note that you are required to have a Bolivian guide. Pimenteiras do Norte can be reached by mostly paved roads on the Brazilian side, and you can travel there from San Ignacio via the border towns of
Marfil
(Bolivia) and
Vila Velha
(Brazil). Enquire about all details in San Ignacio, including where to get your passport stamped.

The park

Rising over 500 m above the surrounding plain is the 3000-sq-km
Huanchaca Plateau
, which is drained by numerous rivers and streams which merge to form the headwaters of the Verde and Paucerna rivers. Steep cliffs of 200-500 m bound the plateau, creating spectacular waterfalls.
Arco Iris
and the
Federico Ahlfeld Falls
on the Río Paucerna, reached from Flor de Oro, are two of the most impressive on the entire continent. Equally stunning is the 150-m high
Cascada El Encanto
, reached from Los Fierros.

Wildlife

The wildlife count in the park is staggering - so far over 620 bird species have been identified, which is approximately one-quarter of all the birds in the neotropics. These include blue and yellow, scarlet, golden-collared, and chestnut-fronted macaws; over 20 species of parrots; crimson-bellied parakeets; red-necked aracari; the Amazonian umbrella bird; the pompadour cotinga; helmeted manakin; curl-crested jays; hoatzin and harpy eagles. Among the many large mammals frequently sighted are the tapir, grey and red brocket deer, silvery marmoset, and spider and black howler monkeys. Giant otter and capybara are relatively common along the Iténez and Paucerna rivers, as are jabiru and the maguari stork. Giant anteaters, marsh deer and the rare maned wolf inhabit the western grasslands and the endangered pampas deer roam the dry twisted forest of the Huanchaca Plateau. There's also a chance of seeing jaguars where the narrow Río Paucerna winds its way through dense towering rainforest on its way to join the Río Iténez.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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