Bolivia's Slice of the Amazon

Thursday, May 27, 2010

We stepped off the small plane and onto the dirt strip. We stepped from a symbol of a planet tamed to another of the unexplored and untamed. We stepped into adventure; we stepped into the Amazon. Rurrenabaque is the defacto tourist stop for exploring Bolivia’s slice of the Amazon which itself is divided into two sections. First, there is the classic Amazon, a thick rainforest/jungle (called the selva) full of exotic plants and trees, deadly insects and animals, and of course water, water everywhere. Secondly, there is the Pampas or savannah, part of the Amazon basin and full of many of the same things but in different ways. A trip into the pampas is more likely to encounter wildlife because there are fewer places to hide, although as a result some wildlife doesn’t live there. The jungle is better for coming across indigenous cultures, plant life, and hoping against all odds that you’ll see some of the really incredible wildlife like a puma, jaguar, or other things. My plan was to do both trips as I couldn’t really decide which I wanted to do more. So Ty and I wandered around, negotiated, and chatted before settling on a tour with Dolphins to the Pampas for three days.

Oh, and of course you’re wondering where we stayed? Well, we stayed in a military barracks that wasn’t in use actually. Or at least that’s what seemed to be the case. When they’re on break they use it as a hostel and we paid 25 bolivianos each for the night. It’s right in the main square next door to the equally priced but much less attractive Bella Vista. We were supposed to leave the next morning at 9 AM but didn’t actually set out until 10. The road up to the village of Santa Rosa is three hours of dusty bumping along in a jeep. We had lunch in a small restaurant in Santa Rosa and then discovered that our jeep wouldn’t start. Another delay while our driver took off with the battery to get it charged and then we continued on to a river where we loaded on our boat (eventually) and met our guide. Marsial (that’s our guide) was from a village in Madidi National Park (which is deep in the jungle part of the trip) and spoke little English but that wasn’t a problem for any of us. Our group was a nice Swiss couple and a funny Korean girl and the five of us took our folding chairs in the long and narrow boat and headed up the muddy brown river and away from civilization for the next few days. The river is quite simply unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen – to say that it is teeming with life is like, well, I can’t actually come up with comparable understatement. In the two hour trip upstream to our camp we passed hundreds (and perhaps over a thousand) caimans (alligators) and that’s just what we could see above the surface. They were simply everywhere. Capyberas, which look like huge guinea pigs and are the world’s largest rodent, wallowed in the muddy banks, usually in families with young and old. Birds of all sorts were in the air, on the banks, and even underwater, occasionally poking their head out with a fish flapping in the mouth to show off to us.

We arrived at camp which was complete with mosquito nets and a bit more ‘developed’ than I’d expected and had a very nice dinner before the generator went out for the night. I wasn’t quite tired and stayed up late finishing my book, Single & Single, which is now my favourite John Le Carre novel. The next morning we had a good-sized breakfast because we had anaconda hunting to do. We took off in the boat and landed in a patch of savannah and set off wading through shoulder-high grasses and reeds in our rubber boots. The boots were a life-saver as we at times were almost knee deep in foul swamp water making our way deeper into the brush. Eventually we came across a small and mostly dried up river that we followed. I was at the back of the group with Hi-san and we heard a noise in the brush which we stopped to investigate. I tried to flush whatever it was out but we had no success and had to catch up with the group who had now disappeared. She thought they’d gone into the grasses but I convinced her to stay along the river and we found them again, having just fished an anaconda from the river. Very cool and very deadly. It was a long hour walk in the hot sun and humid air to our boat and lunch and an earned if un-wanted siesta for two hours before we set out again. This time, we were looking for pink river dolphins and eventually found some. Why? Well, not only were they cool to see but for one reason or another where there are dolphins there don’t seem to be many piranhas or alligators. And that meant we could go for a much-needed swim.

Except there were alligators (caimans, remember?) there. In fact, there were three of them on the opposite bank from where we were lodged in the mud. That we could see. As for piranhas, the only way to tell was to put some meat in the water, and so our guide jumped in first. Ty was next, and I shortly after him, and I’m happy to say that I’m able to type this with all ten fingers in spite of the fact that there were assuredly plenty of things that would’ve liked to take a chomp in close proximity. We went and played soccer with some locals while the sun was setting which was a lot of fun – I was wearing my Dynamite Dean shirt which amused our guide to no end when they would score or I’d mess up. The sunset was beautiful and we made our way back to the camp with headlamps on in the dark, illuminating the hungry red eyes of more caimans than we’d ever noticed in the day. On the tree outside the door to the kitchen was a huge tarantula, making even coming home an adventure. It was an early night because we woke up early the next morning to witness a sunrise the likes of which may only be seen in Africa. From there, breakfast, and finally piranha fishing. I never caught any but our guide did and peeled back its gums to show some very scary-looking teeth. He also caught a river snake and Hi-san caught a catfish. We had an early lunch and headed back, admiring for one last time the incredible wildlife going about its business before our eyes. There was, as always, a wait for our driver and soon we were back in Rurrenabaque, tired, dusty, and hungry.

My plan had been, if you recall, to head into Madidi proper after but the next morning was pouring rain and the forecast was for more of the same for several days. As well, most of the tours were full for the day and I’d have to wait around anyway, so I decided to take it as a sign and head back to La Paz with Ty on a bus. I’d have flown back, but with the rain that dirt strip had become mud and landing or taking-off was impossible. So it was that I missed what I think would have been at least as interesting an experience heading into the world’s most diverse protected region, but someday I’ll see that side of the Amazon as well, perhaps when I properly explore Brazil and its wonders in a future trip. Instead, I got soaked in the morning rain walking to various agencies, airlines, and then the bus terminal to secure a spot on the 11:30 bus back to La Paz for that 19 hours of bumping I had been so anxious to avoid coming here. We almost tipped the bus and got it stuck pulling over to let a truck pass, but thankfully we weren’t on the cliff side of the road. It took another passing truck which we all had to load into the back for weight to pull us out of the mud and we made it with no further hassle to La Paz. I spent a couple nights there as a result of food poisoning and also had to buy a new camera as mine had developed a disorder with one of the lenses that caused the left side to be out of focus and would cost me a week here plus $140 to fix. So, hopefully you will see some nicer photos in the future, once I get the hang of my Canon G11. But now I’ve got to run and catch my 7 PM bus to Sucre, the next stop on the road south.

Rurrenabaque Photos

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