Taking a Break at Biocentro Güembé in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Kayaking is just one of Güembé's outdoor activities (©Coen Wubbels)

Kayaking is just one of Güembé’s outdoor activities (©Coen Wubbels)

“Another Inca ruin?”
“Again so many hours in a bus?”
“Can’t we go swimming somewhere?”
“More markets? I want to go swimming! Please!”

The largest of the park's 10 natural swimming pools (©Coen Wubbels)

The largest of the park’s 10 natural swimming pools (©Coen Wubbels)

I don’t have kids but I can imagine this being a frequent scene between kids and parents on vacation (or maybe it’s a memory of my own childhood vacations…). Bolivia is a fantastic place to travel, to learn about its traditions and culture, to visit historical and religious sites, to take in its unique natural surroundings. Yet, traveling here can also be utterly exhausting. Apart from taking in all these experiences, there’s Bolivia’s geography. Part of the country is at high altitude, which tires you quickly when you are not used to the rarified air, while another part lies in the tropics which can be just as tiring due to heat and humidity.

And so, after so much sightseeing and absorbing a zillion impressions it is time to get those kids (and yourself) in a swimming pool, or to enjoy some leisurely strolls. When my partner Coen and I were ready for a break after an intensive period of traveling we discovered Biocentro Güembé. This is a professionally set up and excellently maintained recreation park near Santa Cruz, in the lowlands of Bolivia. Here, nature and man’s need for recreation and activity blend together harmoniously, and the park offers something for every family member.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You need a break.
  • You want to see (endangered) birds from very up close and photograph them. As well as butterflies, now that you mention animal photography. Or capybaras.
  • Good for anybody who likes peace and quiet, recreation with a share of activity. Great with kids.

Animal Life at Biocentro Güembé

The island has three species of monkeys, all given to the park by owners who no longer could care for them (©Coen Wubbels)

The island has three species of monkeys, all given to the park by owners who no longer could care for them (©Coen Wubbels)

I went jogging around the three lakes every day and followed trails into the woods. Early morning and late afternoon are perfect to see a lot of animals along the way. Near the bungalows is a monkey island and in the surrounding lakes swim large black fish and freshwater turtles. On the other side of the 24-hectare grounds are the beehive, a turtle habitation, a butterfly dome, and bird observatory. More than enough to satisfy animal lovers.

I often had a problem making a choice of what I wanted to see or do. There is so much, it is all so well taken care of; it was such a pleasure to be there. I think I was all the more impressed because of the contrast with other recreational parks I’ve seen in South America, many of which are in a sorry state, or are only about recreation and harm nature.

In the end I spent most of my time with the birds. The 2400 square meter, 30-meter high birdcage offers a last home to birds that were caught in illegal trafficking or were dumped by their owners. From the treetop walkway I admired the dozens of macaws, parrots, toucans, parakeets and some fifteen other species. Some are so used to humans that they hop over to you and you can actually touch them, like the toucan that likes to sit on your hand while you feed it.

The butterfly farms gives you the opportunity to spend ages trying to photograph a particular butterfly (©Coen Wubbels)

The butterfly farms gives you the opportunity to spend ages trying to photograph a particular butterfly (©Coen Wubbels)

The owner Carlos and his son Pablo who manage the place talk passionately about their biocenter. One of my questions was about the reason for setting up an ant and termite farm. I couldn’t visit it as it was under renovation, but I found the idea utterly intriguing.

“You know how people act around insects. They jump around, yelling and screaming for nothing. We want to show them and teach them that there is nothing to be afraid of and that there is no need to kill them. For the same reason we have the bee farm. These bees don’t sting and so people can get comfortable around these insects without slapping around their bodies all the time.”

Such a simple thought, such a great purpose, such a simple solution. I love it.

From Toddler and Preschooler to Teenager: Fun

Taking a horse cart ride is one of park's many pleasures (©Coen Wubbels)

Taking a horse cart ride is one of park’s many pleasures (©Coen Wubbels)

For the very little ones Biocentro Güembé has a fenced-off area, perfect to keep an eye on them, with a shallow swimming pool, a shady field to run around and an inviting playground with a variety of recreational equipment – outdoor as well as indoor.

For the teenagers there are fields to play soccer, beach volleyball, there is a (small) outdoor gymnasium and they can go hiking, fishing and kayaking. There is no reason for anybody to be bored here. If that happens anyway, you make them try out every single one of the ten natural swimming pools, which without doubt are the largest attraction of this recreation park for day visitors from Santa Cruz. Of course parents can join their kids and create perfect family bonding moments.

For the educationally-inclined there is the natural history museum, or take a guided tour to the various breeding farms where you learn everything about butterflies, ants and termites, and bees.

Nature and Mankind Together in Harmony

Family fun for young and old (©Coen Wubbels)

Family fun for young and old (©Coen Wubbels)

Carlos and Pablo also explained the symbol of the park, which summons up what this recreation park, education center and accredited animal refuge center is about. “Güembe is the name of the plant with large leaves (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) that often grow in palm trees They live in symbiosis and that’s what we’d like to create here: a place where nature and humans can be together in harmony.”

On my last evening I did one more round: I watched the monkeys, studied the young deer that lives in the company of, among other mammals, capybaras, and listened once more to the chatting of the birds. The idea that all these animals were either ditched or illegally trafficked from one place or another is incomprehensible and one of my main pleasures of being here was to see that fortunately at least these animals had found a decent home to stay for the remainder of their lives.

The biocenter currently has two species of toucans. This one likes to be fed by visitors (©Coen Wubbels)

The biocenter currently has two species of toucans. This one likes to be fed by visitors (©Coen Wubbels)

Practicalities

  • Santa Cruz lies in Bolivia and is connected by plane with other cities inside and outside Bolivia and also Brazil.
  • During the weekends and holidays Biocentro Güembé receives many visitors. Make sure to book a bungalow ahead of time if you’d like to stay overnight. Apart from comfortable bungalows there is a campsite as well.
  • Note that Santa Cruz lies on the plains with a hot, tropical climate that bears no resemblance to the dry and cold climate of the high plains for which Bolivia is generally known.

Photos by Coen Wubbels.

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