by Jules Wyman
El Choro is a fairly difficult, 4-day, 3-night hike which starts high in the Andes and drops spectacularly down into the humid yungas cloud forest. This trek offers great birding opportunities, with such Endemic species such as the Black-hooded Sunbeam, Black-throated Thistletail, and Rufous-faced Antpitta. The Solitary Eagle and two seedsnipes are also possible. However, this is a demanding hike and should only be attempted by the physically fit.
This hike starts at La Cumbre (4650m asl), which is a good birding site in itself. The trail starts to climb, passing through barren, rocky habitat with a few small ponds. Several species of ground-tyrant (including White-fronted and Ochre-naped) can be seen in the more open areas, along with the unique Slender-billed miner. The ponds usually don't hold more than a few Crested Ducks and Andean Gulls, but check the shorelines for the ptarmigan-like Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. This area might be the best place in Bolivia to see this bird, although it can't always be found.
After a strenuous two-hour climb to a 4859-m pass, the trail starts to descend. In this section there are few birds besides the occasional White-winged Diuca-finch or Plumbeous Sierra-finch. After an hour-long descent, hikers arrive at the ruins of a stone inn from the Inca times on the border of a bofedal (cushion-plant bog). Here it is worthwhile to check for Streek-fronted Canasteros, which hop the boulders that border the bog. When I was here, a group of about twenty Gray-breasted Seedsnipes were foraging near the small stream which runs through the bofedal.
From here, the trail descends gently for two to three hours to the village of Chucura, passing through a couple of small hamlets on the way (some of them with camping). Birds to look out for in this section include Spot-billed, Ochre-naped, Puna and Cinereous Ground-tyrants as well as Ash-breasted Sierra-finches. In Chucura, you have to pay 10 Bolivianos for trail maintenance.
In the shrubs in Chucura, there are Moustached Flowerpiercers and Plain-colored Seedeaters, but much better birding can be had in the humid scrub just below the village, where the stunning Black-hooded Sunbeam (endemic), possibly Bolivia's most sought-after hummingbird, is fairly common and the secretive Puna Tapaculo can be seen scurrying mouse-like among the larger rocks. Other birds to look for in the area include White-browed Conebill and Rufous-breasted Chat-tyrant.
As the trail continues on its downward course the habitat changes from scrub to elfin forest. When I was in this area, there was a lot of fog, but I was still able to find the endemic Black-throated Thistletail. Other birds here include Bolivian Rufous-naped Brush-Finch and various tanagers and hummingbirds.
After about an hour and a half in the elfin forest, the trail enters high-elevation cloudforest. Here the endemic Rufous-faced Antpitta's call is often heard, although seeing the bird itself is more difficult. By bushwacking a few meters off the trail and imitating its three-note whistle, I was able to get excellent views of one individual, and with playback it shouldn't be too hard to see. There are many other cloud forest birds in this area, including at least five kinds of tanager.
After some time in the cloud forest, you'll arrive at the tiny village of Cha'llapampa, which is recommended for its pretty campsites by a river. If you camp here, I would recommend you wake up early to bird, as there are several interesting species in the area including Golden-rumped Euphonia, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Gould's (collared) Inca, Scaled Metaltail, Violet-throated Starfrontlet and Pearled Treerunner. Beware identifying any Scaled Metaltails, as similar Tyrian Metaltails are very common in the area, outnumbering the scaleds at least three to one.
I also recorded 4 tanager species here: Common Bush-tanager, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager, Blue-capped Tanager and Rust-and-yellow Tanager.
From Cha'llapampa, the trail continues descending through dense cloudforest with occasional clearings for about five hours until reaching a hard uphill. The habitat is great, and many good birds can be observed, including White-collared Jay, Golden-headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Blue-banded Toucanet, Band-tailed Fruiteater, Yungas Dove, Spotted Barbtail, Rufous-capped Thornbill and many others. There are also a lot of different tyrant flycatchers here, and while a few of the species are distinctive, such as the Slaty-backed Chat-tyrant and Cinnamon Flycatcher, most of them are frustratingly hard to identify. Just a few of the many small, greenish flycatchers you can see here include Bolivian Tyrannulet, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Marble-faced Bristle-tyrant and Streak-necked Flycatcher (the Streak-necked Flycatcher is fairly easy to identify if you can get a good view of its neck and breast). These flycatchers often occur in mixed flocks, which also can contain many species of tanager, hemispingus, flowerpiercer and warbler.
After about an hour and a half of climbing, you reach Bella Vista, which has camping. The habitat is pretty degraded here, although there are a few birds, like highland and Sierran Elaenia, Rusty Flowerpiercer, and Azara's Spinetail.
A better option, if you're not too tired, would be to push on two hours more to Sandillani (2000m asl), where you can set up your tent among beautiful ornamental gardens bordered by cloudforest for 10 Bolivianos. There are many good birds here, including Andean Guan, Long-tailed Sylph, Blue-tailed Emerald, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Olivaceous Siskin and Masked Trogon. Scan the skies, as amid the numerous Turkey Vultures and Roadside Hawks the rare Solitary Eagle can occasionally be spotted soaring over. Its broad wings and very short tail are distinctive.
Near the campsites, be sure to check brush pile for the dark-colored Bolivian Tapaculo (Near-endemic). If you don't have playback, expect to get fleeting glimpses at best, as the tapaculos at Sandillani are very secretive.
From Sandillani, the trail descends to Chairo which, at 1300 m, is almost in the Amazonia. The descent takes 2-3 hours, and travels through dry forest and secondary cloudforest. Birds to look for include Dusky-green Oropendola, Little Cuckoo, Buff-throated Saltator and Silver-beaked Tanager. Listen for the flocks of Mitred and Green-cheeked Parakeets which inhabit the area.
The small town of Chairo is the endpoint of the trek. Although I've heard it can be difficult to get transportation from Chairo, when we got there a man immediately came up to us, offering to take us to Chairo or Yolosa for 100 bolivianos.
After finishing the trek, one option would be to spend a few days in the lowlands around Coroico or Yolosa. In Coroico, you can stay at Hostal La Finca, which is supposed to have Lyre-tailed Nightjars, or Ecolodge Sol y Luna, where the colorful Versicolored Barbet is common and Scissor-tailed Nightjars can be seen at dusk at the mirador (lookout).
Near Yolosa, a stay at either the pricey La Senda Verde (no camping) or the cheaper La Jungla (camping only) could produce birds such as Moustached Wren, Rufous Casiornis, Red-crested Finch, Purple Honeycreeper, Ocellated Piculet, Plain Antvireo, Two-banded Warbler, Squirrel Cuckoo, Purplish Jay, Crested Oropendola, Short-tailed Hawk, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher and Masked Trogon.
From La Paz, any taxi should be able to take you to La Cumbre for less the 250 Bolivianos. Once there, it is easy to find the trail, as there is a large sign marking the trailhead. The Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia has a great description of the hike and how to get there.
From Coroico, a private taxi to La Paz should cost somewhere between 300 and 350 Bolivianos. There are also colectivos, which can be pretty crowded and take turns pretty fast, but which cost only around 25 Bolivianos.