Kaa Iya National Park is located in the southeastern sector of Santa Cruz
, Bolivia's largest state. This hot, semi-arid region is called the Gran Chaco
and is part of a large territory Bolivia fought for against Paraguay in what is known as the Chaco War
of 1932. It is the largest national park in Bolivia, and one of the largest in all of South America. It covers an area 3,441,115 hectares (34,411.15 km2) in size.
It is the hottest region of Bolivia, arid (nearly uninhabitable in places due to the lack of water) and home to the largest virgin tropical dry forest left on Earth. Less than 20 inches of rain fall each year, and the average temperature remains at about 90ºF. Even so, over 2000 species of plants and over 100 species of mammals call this home. It is, surprisingly, one of the most biodiverse areas in all of South America.
In addition, over 300 thousand people live in the many small towns of this area. Most are of the Izoceño Guaraní group (whom I visited for 4 days, see photos on this page), or of Weenhayek, Ayoreode, Tapiete and Chiquitano origin, in addition to the remaining populations of several other very small indigenous groups.
This region is remote and has not been very actively developed for tourism. There is very little tourist infrastructure and the region is so vast that one could easily get lost. In addition, it is an important natural protected area, so all tourism in this area is considered ecotourism. Therefore, you can only visit Kaa Iya National Park with a guide, you must obtain a permit to enter the area, and you must "pack in pack out" (carry out all your trash).
So what makes this such a unique tourist attraction?
Kaa Iya is true adventure tourism, and home to some very interesting flora and fauna. Here you might be lucky enough to see jaguars, giant armadillos, pumas, deer, eagles and hawks, howler monkeys, and a multitude of birds, insects, and reptiles. If you're lucky, you might come across the one species that has scientists baffled: the capybara. Capybaras are the largest rodents in the world. They thrive in water. In fact, they spend most of their time in the water. So it's hard to believe that they somehow found a way to thrive in one of the hottest, driest areas of the Bolivia. For a while, there were many. However, due to excessive hunting, there are now very few left. In all, there are 89 snake species, 301 bird species, 65 small mammal species and 59 large mammal species, in addition to amphibians and insects.
Something else most visitors are not aware of, is that Kaa Iya was established, and is managed, by the indigenous groups that live in the area, by means of their central community leadership committees. No other national park anywhere in North or South America is administered by indigenous groups. The Wildlife Conservation Society assisted them in establishing the area and convincing the Bolivian government to declare it a protected area, which it finally did, in 1995.
This park is now actually doubly protected, as it has been classified not only as a national park, but also an integrally managed natural area. It's full name is Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park and Integrally Managed Natural Area.
Photo credit: Thanks to Bolivian photographer Marcelo E. Arze G., whose grandfather was a doctor who served here during the Chaco war, as did mine.