Looking for wildlife in South America? This is a pretty good place to start – and hardly anyone knows about it.
San Miguelito Conservation Ranch is located about 3 hours drive (180 kilometres) east of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It’s a working cattle ranch set in a stunningly beautiful part of the country with a huge variety of habitat types – mountainous rainforest, grassy wetlands, river environments and dry Chaco forest.
The owner, Duston, is a friendly, knowledgeable wildlife enthusiast with a keen interest in conservation. He has set up trail cameras at strategic locations all over his vast property to record the abundant species that roam through the area. On the first day I visited, he took me out to check some cameras (he checks them roughly every ten days). The results were amazing – we turned up photos/footage of a jaguar (from the night before), two pumas, a trio of jaguarundis, tapirs, a giant anteater, brocket deer, agoutis, peccaries, paca, a crab-eating raccoon, foxes, an ocelot, birdlife and half a dozen other creatures I can’t even recall. It was pretty awesome – on my first night in the Bolivian wilds, I got to see a close-up, as-it-happened video of a jaguar about a metre from the camera! His camera traps have recorded extremely rare wildlife like giant armadillos as well. This place also has squirrel monkeys, toucans and other attractive creatures right by the house quite often.
If you love nature and wildlife, want to experience the real Bolivia and like the idea of ‘getting away from it all’ in a lovely natural setting with a low-key vibe, this is perfect. I organised my 6-day stay here through Nick’s Adventures in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (check out their website, they do some brilliant stuff in different parts of Bolivia). While in Santa Cruz, I stayed at the Apart Hotel Premium Suites (walking distance to the Nick’s Adventures office), which was clean, comfortable and reasonable (the nearby Toronto Steakhouse has great food, too).
San Miguelito Ranch is relatively new to tourism, but it won’t stay undiscovered for long. It is one of the best places in South America to try your luck at spotting a wild cat: a Wildlife Conservation Society jaguar study here estimated that there were about 11 jaguars per 100km – one of the highest densities on the continent. The ranch is also home to pumas, margays, ocelots, jaguarundis (I saw one in the middle of the day while I was out walking) and Geoffrey’s cats. A river runs through the properties, so you might also spot spectacled caiman, capybaras and even an anaconda. As you’ll see on the drive in, much of this part of Bolivia has succumbed to soya plantations, but San Miguelito has preserved a substantial area of intact forest which means this ranch is, quite literally, an oasis for wildlife. The variety of habitats also means more different types of animals – not strictly savannah species, rainforest species, river species or wetland species, but a rich combination of all types.
Accommodation is in the spacious, beautifully decorated main house, and the feeling is like staying with family. Duston and his enthusiastic, efficient collection of cooks, house help and ranch workers made me feel at home immediately. I had a very clean, comfortable room with bathroom that was one of several available for guests in the main house – which is situated on a hill with expansive views of the surrounding wilds. The meals were home-style cooking at its unpretentious best: typical Bolivian soups (very tasty), fresh salads (they grow many of their own fruits and vegetables) and wholesome main courses with the sort of hearty portions you need when you’re adventuring in the forest all day. Yummy desserts too!
This isn’t a five-star hotel; it’s more like staying at a good friend’s house – a friend who happens to be surrounded by vast, spectacular landscapes and some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in South America. Bring a sense of adventure and you’ll love it! Whatever your interests, the folks at San Miguelito can build your activities around it: bird-watching, camera trapping, photography/film-making, canoeing on the river, spotlighting for wildlife at night, fishing for piranha, exploring the forest on horseback, wildlife studies, etc. And if your idea of activity is lying in a hammock, eating great meals, listening to monkeys chattering and watching toucans fly by while you read a book and do very little else, this is a perfectly relaxing place to do that, too.
While I was there, I wanted to experience a couple of nights camping along the river alone, so Duston took me to a remote spot where I set up my tent and had use of a canoe. This was a really nice experience – I saw a coati, some capuchin monkeys, lots of colourful rainforest birds, a small caiman, a tiny coral snake and, best of all, I disturbed a resting jaguarundi in the grass while out exploring the nearby trail.
I can’t even remember how much I paid for my 6 day stay there, but I remember it was incredibly reasonable. The great thing about San Miguelito Ranch is that they’re trying to take proactive steps through camera trap surveys, education and conservation efforts to address the problem of jaguars being killed by ranchers. The money you pay to visit this place helps San Miguelito move toward the goal of sustainable, controlled, low-key ecotourism that focuses on conservation and understanding, and allows visitors to appreciate wildlife on its own terms. Of course, there are no guarantees of seeing particular animals (it’s the real world, not a zoo), and it’s likely many of the larger animals might only be seen as an image on a camera trap video (and that depends on the animal’s cooperation too), but as someone who has visited some of the most wildlife-rich areas on the planet for 30 years, I can certainly attest that San Miguelito is very, very special.
I visited Bolivia in June 2015 and had great weather, but do your research about temperatures, rainy seasons and all that before you go. Internal Bolivian flights are a cheap way to get around (some bus routes can be closed when the rainy season hits). June was coolish when it was raining, warmish when the sun was out, but overall a pretty good time to visit. Each season brings out different adventure possibilities and different opportunities to see wildlife.
Because the ranch can only take 10-12 visitors at a time, it’s all very homey and relaxed. If you’re visiting Bolivia and want to experience raw, beautiful nature with the comforts of home, San Miguelito Conservation Ranch is highly recommended. The setting is superb, the people are genuine and welcoming and the experience will be a highlight of your trip to South America. Check it out on TripAdvisor.