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Parque Nacional Noel Kempff Mercado is perhaps the most enticing national park in Bolivia and is one of the most important pieces of protected wilderness on the continent. The park covers over 1.5 million hectares of jungle and savannah, and the diversity and pristine condition of its habitats have made it a hotbed for bird and animal life.

Tucked into a crook near the border with Brazil, the park is composed of lowland Amazonian rainforest, several rivers, flood plains, grassland, marshes, swamps and, towering over the rest of the park, the 500-meter-tall (1,640 ft.) Huanchaca Plateau. There are over 600 species of birds in Mercado, including dozens of varieties of parakeets, macaws and parrots. The rivers are home to dolphins and several types of caiman. Anteaters, wolves and deer inhabit the grasslands and the forests up on the plateau. In the jungle, lucky visitors might spot a jaguar or one of the several species of monkeys that live in the park. Even if animal-watching is not your thing, you are likely to be spellbound by the striking landscapes of the park, including the dramatic Huanchaca.

It was this plateau that caught the attention of one of the area's first outside explorers, Englishman Percy Fawcett. After visiting the site in 1910, Fawcett returned to England where he told stories of the plateau; one of the listeners was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Two years later, Doyle published a novel called The Lost World, in which dinosaurs roam on a South American plateau suspiciously similar to Huanchaca.

The area around the plateau was left mostly untouched, except by the indigenous people of the area, until 1979, when it was set aside as Parque Nacional Huanchaca. In 1988 the park was expanded and renamed in honor of Noel Kempff Mercado, an ecologist who was killed by drug traffickers working in the area. The park's boundaries have been expanded once more, so that they now incorporate the Rio Paragua and its surrounding pantanal.

Mercado's remote location is a double-edged sword. It has protected the park's flora and fauna, but it makes visiting expensive and time-consuming. Most visitors arrive on arranged tours booked in La Paz or Santa Cruz, flying into the park by air taxi. There are two places to stay in the park, both run by the national park service, SERNAP (Tel: 2-231-7742). Los Fierros ($25 per night) camp is near the rainforest in the southern end of Mercado and is a great place to go game-watching. The cabins, however, have become rather decrepit and poorly-maintained, and there are numerous reports of problems with bees, bugs and other critters. In the savannah on the north side of the park, El Flor de Oro ($65) is in considerably better shape, and is near several of the park's most impressive waterfalls. It is accessible only by air or by boat. Both lodges offer hearty meals.

Visitors to the park have to pay a $30 entrance fee to SERNAP. They also must pay $22 for a guide each day; visiting the park without a guide is technically forbidden, and that rule is usually enforced. The guides can be acquired at the La Florida gate and are very helpful for spotting wildlife.

By Nick Rosen
A staff-writer here at V!VA's offices in Ecuador, I came to Quito after having worked on public health and development projects in Africa. Naturally,...
02 Mar 2010

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