I’ve already reported on the crazy jeep journey to and from Rurrenabaque – an adventure in itself – but what about the reason we put our bums through 33 hours of bumpy road?
As Bolivia is the cheapest country in South America, it makes a lot of sense to visit the Amazon while you’re there. It’s relatively close to the famous Brazilian Pantanal (and, considering that the overall size of Brazil is the same as the US minus Alaska, it’s a lot easier to get to). It also has a large number of similar species.
Although we booked the whole Rurrenabaque pampas tour (including crazy jeep) through the Honey Tours office in La Paz, it was Indigena Tours who arranged for us to take to the river and spend a couple of nights in a riverside hideaway, surrounded by the angry bellow of howler monkeys and the occasional splash of an alligator catching its dinner.
Having arrived in Rurrenabaque in the early hours of the morning and slept for a meagre 4 hours, our small team of happy campers popped around the corner to locate the tour agency. There, we met three Irish girls who had had the common sense to catch a flight from La Paz the day before, and we all piled into an even less comfortable jeep than the one that had brought us to Rurrenabaque.
The 3.5 hour drive was somewhat painful for those of us who were sleep deprived, and even more so for those who bashed their head on the window frame multiple times (nice effort, Van).
There was a brief lunch stop at a roadside café, where I encountered my first giant spider in the toilet block, and my friend Sam was almost eaten alive by a rabid dog.
Not long after, we pulled up at a very murky river bank and met our guide, Juan Carlos, or JC. We helped him carry water, food and petrol, along with all our bags, down to the narrow boat that was to be our transport upstream.
Within minutes, we’d seen a disturbing number of alligators, one caiman, plenty of bird species and a few families of the bizarre capybara.
There was also a tree full of playful spider monkeys and one wider part of the river where pink dolphins were surfacing sporadically.
Against our better judgement (we’d seen about 100 alligators by this point and we knew there were piranhas and parasitic penis fish in the water), most of us stripped down and lowered ourselves into the opaque water. It was really unnerving feeling things brush up against our legs, but not being able to see anything below the surface.
I splashed about with a water bottle, inviting the dolphins to play, but to no avail. They were happy just swimming around us. I’d probably have had a minor heart attack if one had actually touched me without warning, so I wasn’t too disappointed.
We arrived at the camp – a wooden building on stilts by the river, with a swing rope and a few dorm rooms – in the late afternoon.
There was just enough time to dump our bags before getting back in the boat to head further upstream to a little bar in the middle of a field, where we could watch the sunset and catch up with other tour groups.
Dinner back at camp was the best I’ve had on an organised trip…ever. There were loads of dishes to choose from, far too much of everything, and it was all immaculately presented. I was more than ready to snooze by this point, but JC announced that we were heading back out on the river for a night time alligator safari.
We all turned our head lights off and JC cut the engine, so the only sounds were those of the jungle. The stars were stunningly beautiful, and, combined with the moonlight, just succeeded in creating silhouettes of the mangrove forest across the water.
When we turned the torches back on, we could make out lots of pairs of alligator eyes, which had moved closer to the boat. The large distance between some of them indicated that they were big mother f*ckers, capable of taking on a human snack if they were that way inclined. Lucky for us, they only seemed interested in the smaller prey.
When we returned, I got chatting to JC and managed to wangle a free Spanish lesson as well as a glass or two of red wine! All too often I find that tour groups treat the guide a bit like hired help (present company on this trip excluded), but it was really interesting to hear about his upbringing in the Amazon.
Just before bed, I realised the ground outside our dorm was a fluffy carpet of dead flies, and dozens of giant frogs were tucking in to a mammoth feast!
In the morning, I suffered a cold water shower, which turned out to be a pretty pointless exercise considering our plan for the day. We had an impressive breakfast before attempting to pick out a pair of wellies of more or less the same size from a big rack behind the dorm room. Today, we would be hunting anacondas!
It wasn’t very sunny – which was disappointing because anacondas like to bask in the sun apparently – but it sure was hot and humid. After half an hour’s strolling, during which time most of the group practiced their machete swings on defenceless twigs, we came upon a swampy lagoon. The water was about a foot deep, with a thick layer of mud below and a tangled maze of reeds.
We made slow progress, and Nils and I realised our wellies had holes in them after all. He had to yank me out of the mud a few times before I got the knack of pulling my feet free by lifting the heel first. We came worryingly close to a very large alligator and JC poked it with a stick. He said it had opened one eye, but the rest of us were pretty convinced it must have been dead to have remained that still.
We never did see an anaconda, but another group on the other side of the lagoon found a cobra, so we picked our way over to join them.
One of the guides was holding the cobra and he let me stroke it and kiss its head. When they put it back on the ground, it sat still for about 10 minutes and then came straight at me. I made a quick escape!
For the next hour or so, we searched another lagoon but the only wildlife we could find between the reeds was a grumpy looking turtle. The path back to the lodge seemed to have doubled in length and we were caked in dust and sweat when we returned.
After more great food, we discovered that the little bar we’d got the boat to the night before was easily reachable on foot, so a group of us went to get some wine for the evening. Sam couldn’t resist buying Ciebo for him and the Dutch boys. It’s something like 96% proof (the same throat-burning liquid I’d poured on the ground as an offering to Pachamama before cycling death road!).
Before we could enjoy the drinks, we had some dinner to catch! JC drove the boat upstream and we stopped near a muddy bank. The ‘rods’ were pretty basic – a fishing line and hook tied around a block of wood. JC baited my line and I caught a fish immediately. After that, though, I think my bait was on loose because I was getting a lot of line snagging but no fish, and the bait kept disappearing.
We were only allowed to keep a couple of fish for dinner because of the need to conserve the different species, but this little fella turned out to be very photogenic…
In the evening, we visited the little bar again before dinner, then sat in the hammocks drinking our wine/methylated spirit and learning some disturbing facts about members of our group in a game of ‘I Have Never’ (yes, at 29 I still play it)!
Photo safari and return to Rurrenabaque
We’d been warned by JC that if the weather was good, we’d be getting up at 5:30 to watch the sunrise. I don’t think any of us cared that it was overcast that morning. Instead, he woke us at 7:30 by imitating a cockerel pretty effectively outside our bedroom door.
After breakfast, we set off on a photo safari. It was fairly similar to the first day, except that JC would stop the boat for longer so we could try to get better photos.
Many of the animals were the same, but we also saw some red-furred howler monkeys high up in a tree. When spider monkeys also appeared on the other side of the boat, it resulted in a lot of movement, boat rocking and blurry pictures!
We returned to camp for lunch, but most of us were still full from the breakfast only a couple of hours earlier. Then it was time to pack all our stuff, throw a giant cricket outside that I’d found in my bag, and hop back in the boat for the return journey to Rurrenabaque.
For a good 30 minutes, the skies opened and it rained torrentially on the boat. I hid under a giant sheet of plastic I’d bought as a poncho on the Santa Cruz trek in Peru and still never used. I’m surprised the boat didn’t sink with all the rain that fell on it.
We passed the pink dolphins again, but this time, we were cold and damp and the thought of swimming with alligators again wasn’t too enticing.
Arriving back at the main bank, we helped unload the boat, waved goodbye to JC and grabbed a 4-hour lift back to Rurrenabaque in the rickety old jeep that had brought us there.
We reached the hostel at 5:30 and I had one of the most welcome showers of my life. Afterwards, we had some good pizza at a restaurant and bar called Moskkito. They do a massive range of refreshing cocktails and happy hour lasts from 7:30 to 9:30.
Just watch your step on the way home, as many of the pavements have massive holes in them. After swimming with alligators and poking around in anaconda territory, it would be a real shame to come to a sticky end by the side of the road due to careless footing…