Huni Pass (on the Palca Road)

by Lawrence Rubey

Huni Pass, on the road to Palca, offers a taste of the dry valles of La Paz. Although rather degraded and suffering from a disheartening litter problem, the area offers some interesting birding less than 45 minutes from the city center of La Paz. Because it offers incredible views of both Mt. Illimani to the east and the city of La Paz to the west, it is quite popular with locals. Dusk is particularly beautiful as the setting sun brings out the orange, red and blue hues in Mt. Illimani, which at 6,439 meters is the second tallest mountain in Bolivia.

The small pond at Huni Pass often has little more than a Common Moorhen or two. But the reeds at the edge of the pond often attract Andean Hillstar which feed quite conspicuously with tail feathers flashing. The hillsides surrounding the lake are more promising. Among the ubiquitous Bar-winged Cinclodes, Peruvian and Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches, you are likely to turn up an Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail, Black-hooded Sierra-Finch, or Puna Yellow-Finch. Be careful in identifying any Puna Yellow-Finches as Greenish Yellow-Finch is common. Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch, Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant, Rufous-naped Ground Tyrant, and Rock Earthcreeper are also found in the eroded canyons. Watch the sky for Andean Swift, Mountain Caracara, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle and even Andean Condor. During the rainy season, the area has numerous flowering plants, attracting Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer.

Some of the nearby canyons, reminiscent of the American southwest, are worth exploring as much for their scenic value as the Rusty-vented Canasteros that call throughout the day. Locals know the area as Cañon de la Animas and the stunning rock formations attract non-birding hikers. A December 1995 municipal resolution supposedly declared the area a "natural park," with the intent to limit new construction and spur conservation of the area. However, enforcement and follow-up actions have been non-existent.

Nearby is a well-known day hike to a extinct volcano plug: La Muela del Diablo (the Devil's Molar). The Lonely Planet guide has good directions. La Muela del Diablo offers similar species to the Huni Pass site and possibly better chances at Andean Condor, but can be a strenuous hike for those not accustomed to the altitude.

Logistics: Coming from the city center, head south towards the residential Zona Sur. At the small bridge that marks the start of the Calacota suburb (Plaza Humbolt will be on the right) re-set odometer to zero (0.0). Follow the main drag (Avenida Ballivian) into Cotacota, passing McDonalds (1.0 km) and continuing south where the street name changes, becoming Avenida Muñoz Reyes. Pass the turn for Site 2 above (UMSA Botanical Gardens), continue travelling east on Avenida Muñoz Reyes through the neighborhood of Cotacota. The road makes several sharp turns as it climbs uphill. The pavement gives way to cobblestone. At 6.3 km, turn right and continue to climb up a winding dirt road (the road to the town of Palca). At 10.8 km, reach Huni Pass with a small pond on the right side of the road. Park on the right immediately after the pond. Minibuses headed to Ovejuyo or Palca can drop you off at Huni pass and you can either hitch back or walk back five kilometers (all downhill!) to a minibus stand.

GPS reading at Huni Pass parking area: S 16 32.862 W 68 00.689