Want to tour Bolivian eco-haven?

Joe Lowe is promoting visits to the Yunga Pampa eco-lodge in Bolivia.

Gilmar Montano
Joe Lowe is promoting visits to the Yunga Pampa eco-lodge in Bolivia.

During a recent stint in the Peace Corps, Grandview Heights resident Joe Lowe fell in love with the tropical Andes region of Bolivia.

He also met a group of Bolivian environmentalists trying to preserve the ecologically sensitive area while earning the trust and support of local residents.

Now Lowe plans to return, leading a small group of ecologically minded tourists to the 452-square-mile Northern Tiquipaya Municipal Wildlife Reserve, an amazing slice of South America little visited by North Americans.

The tourists will be pioneers in another sense, too: They will be staying in the reserve’s Yunga Pampa eco-lodge, built and operated by area residents.

The new five-room lodge, which can accommodate 10 guests, is built in an area with “the most biodiversity in the world – twice as much as in the Amazon,” Lowe said.

So far, the lodge has only twice hosted guests: First was a group of European tourists, Lowe reported; second was just him.

“This is no five-star hotel, but there are real beds, hot meals, running water. And every room has a window with a view,” he said. “There are no bad views.”

Supporting the lodge is an important part of supporting the park, Lowe said.

“The (national) government wanted to make the area a national park, but that was very controversial,” he said. “Too many people wanted to mine and log in the area.”

But the regional government and a Bolivian nonprofit group, the Center for Ecological Defense and Rural Development, persevered, he said.

“They worked with seven isolated communities that had been opposed to begin with, worked with them for three years, gained their trust and persuaded the people there that the wildlife preserve would be in their best interest.”

Unlike a national park, the reserve is still open to local people to practice sustainable agriculture, such as harvesting honey and growing hot peppers, Lowe said.

The locals were also encouraged to build and operate the eco-lodge to attract tourists and their money, he said. Local residents hope that sustainable agriculture and tourism will provide more – and more widely spread – long-term benefits than timbering and mining.

“They took a huge leap of faith to do this,” Lowe said. “They didn’t know much about the outside world but were told this might help bring in tourists and income. This gives them an incentive to take care of the land.”

The elevation of the refuge ranges from 2,500 to 12,500 feet above sea level.

“It’s a huge range of ecosystems: pampas, cloud forest and jungle,” Lowe said.

Visitors who make the trip with Lowe will explore alpine lakes, waterfalls and ancient rock paintings in the treeless plains region, he said. A local biologist, one of the world’s few experts on the spectacled bear (an endangered species found in the park), has agreed to lead hikes into the cloud forest area, he said.

Lowe, 31, will be working on a trail crew in Alaska this summer and will pursue his master’s degree at Ohio State University’s School of Natural Resources in the fall. He worries that not enough people know about Yunga Pampa to make the lodge viable.

“The people there know that this is a long-term prospect,” he said. “But I felt like it would be nice to get some people down there to build up some enthusiasm and optimism. If we can make a difference and make this eco-lodge a bit more successful, if word about it spreads, that would be fantastic.”

Lowe has reserved the eco-lodge for Sept. 13-20 (the only reservation on the books at the moment) and is still looking for more people to join him. He estimates the cost of the trip will be about $1,500 per person. Lodging, meals and a guide runs only about $60 a night at Yunga Pampa, Lowe said. (Travelers will pay for their accommodations and airfare directly; Lowe is not collecting money for the trip.)

The biggest cost will be airfare to La Paz and then to Cochabamba, Bolivia. Travelers will be responsible for getting to Cochabamba, but Lowe said he is happy to try to coordinate schedules so that most of the visitors can arrive on the same plane.

Source: Columbus Dispatch

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