The Yacuma Pampas lie in the upper Amazon basin of north-central Bolivia. I first discovered the area as I was planning a trip to Bolivia and was perusing Google Earth images of the country’s lowlands. At first, I thought the vast open area was a result of deforestation, but on closer examination the images showed no roads, no clear-cuts, no fishbone-like networks of slash-and-burn agriculture. Rather, the wide-open flats were crossed by a network of rivers surrounded by narrow veins of gallery forest. The mosaic of habitats and overall size make the Yacuma a vast wetland, almost unrivaled in scope and diversity.
I’m a wildlife biologist by training and have spent time conducting research throughout the rainforests of the New World. When I travel, I search for the best places to watch and photograph birds. The Yacuma quickly found a place on my itinerary during my six-week exploration of Bolivia.
The Yacuma Pampas aren’t protected by any federal body. Instead, the preserve is a product of local communities who, in a moment of prescience, realized that the abundant wildlife of the region was worth more than destructive agricultural practices could generate. Close to 20 years ago, the community started charging a small fee to visitors and worked with local outfitters to build small, scattered lodges along the river. And within a few years, the largest community-based conservation area in the world was born. The Yacuma Pampas Protected Area encompasses nine rural communities and over 170 different cattle ranches and includes 616,453 hectares (1,523,280 acres).
The pampas lie in the province of Beni, about a three-hour drive over a rough gravel road from the jungle-outpost of Rurrenabaque. Rurre, in turn, is accessible by air from La Paz and Santa Cruz. From there, access is as easy as booking a multi-day tour from one of several outfitters. (A word of warning: Not all are equal and some have questionable environmental ethics.) I chose Bala Tours, a well-regarded company that goes out of its way to employ locals. Bala runs a rustic but comfortable lodge a short boat ride down river from the village of Santa Rosa. From there, I worked with a local guide, who took me up and down the river in a motorized dugout canoe, the perfect platform from which to watch and photograph the wildlife of the pampas.