No trip to South America is complete without a visit to the Amazon rainforest. But who knew you could access it from Bolivia?? Not us, until we researched it that is. Whilst our budget wouldn’t stretch to a Brazilian tour (notoriously expensive), entry from Bolivia offers a much more affordable but (we heard) equally rewarding experience.
Our hardest decision however was to decide what kind of tour we wanted. The town of Rurrenabaque is the starting point for most tours, but they offer HUGE amounts as you can imagine. There seemed to be two main options though – a 3 day jungle trek or a 3 day pampas tour (pampas being the word for flat lands). We were informed by our travel agent in La Paz that the jungle option was more authentic – with walking amongst the incredible fauna and flora, learning skills, sleeping under the stars but no guarantee of seeing animals, where as the pampas was more of a safari, guaranteed to see lots of animals but spending the three days from the comfort of your boat. (In hindsight we should have just done a 5 day combo tour, but hindsight is a wonderful thing).
Now for those who know Katie, she ain’t one to sit still in a boat for three days so off we went (somewhat reluctantly on my behalf as I was dying to see jungle animals) to the jungle trek!
Our first hurdle was how to get to Rurrenabaque – a town 400km north of La Paz. A 21 hour bus ride which we’d heard could potentially make you lose your sanity, or a 45 minute journey in a propeller plane which has probably been in service since the 1950s. It felt a bit like Sophie’s Choice, but we opted for the plane, and am I glad we did!!
We almost missed our flight thanks to a sudden on set of traveller’s stomach which left me bed ridden for the 12 hours before our flight, but I braved it (hero, I know) to the airport and on to the world’s smallest plane (18 seats, Katie actually bumped her head on the plane roof finding her seat it was so small, no cabin crew, toilet or door to the cockpit…). The flight was relatively smooth after the initial turbulence getting us through the clouds, which scared me so much I think the boost of adrenaline actually cured my sickness. By the time we landed I was feeling right as rain again.
Our agency greeted us with a little plaque at the airport (always wanted one of them) and took us to our hostel for the night, El Curichal, where we were to meet our buddies Hannah and Jen who were on the flight after us.
The following morning we met Domingo, our guide, and our fellow group mates, Barbara and Jean, a couple from Paris, and Lena, a student from Berlin (Han and Jen had wisely opted for the Pampas tour!) and off we set in a boat along the river Beni for our first night’s accommodation.
Along the river we entered Madidi National park, one of Bolivia’s most prized possessions at 1.8 million hectares, and promptly stopped at a local family’s sugar cane plantation for a refreshment. They took us on a tour of their plantation, and taught us how to make sugar water from sugar cane – throw some grapefruit juice in there and you have a very tasty drink!! We drank out of Tutuma bowls, a fruit they grow on the plantation which isn’t edible but they use the huge round shell for all sorts, including bowls and lampshades as glass and plastic is so hard to come by.
We continued on to our accommodation (along the way seeing a Kapibara sunbathing which is the largest rodent in the world…) which was really very luxurious for it being in the jungle. We had a private room and bathroom which we only had to share with a handful of bugs.
After a lunch of rice, potatoes, and chips (which was to be our meals for the next three days we found out, as we had both opted to go vegetarian for the trip to minimise more upset stomachs) we headed off for our first walk in the jungle.
The three hour trip took us on a short loop close to our base, but our guide Domingo was so knowledgeable he stopped at almost every tree to tell us what it’s used for. He grew up in Rurrenabaque and his father took him into the jungle constantly as he was somewhat of a jungle doctor. If local people had illnesses, his dad would go into the jungle for a few days to get them natural medicines. Needless to say, Domingo constantly referred to the jungle as his home.
A quiet evening in our lodge, with only a few encounters with huge beetles and frogs in our room (which amused the Australian couple next door so much they yelled ‘never go to Australia’ over the wall to us….).
The next day would again see us hiking in the jungle for 4 hours to reach our campsite for the night, a very basic platform in the heart of the jungle which was kitted out with a mat and mossie net. After a quick break, we headed out on another walk around the campsite, which as darkness fell (Domingo uses the sun to navigate) meant we were slightly lost in the jungle, with Domingo having to forge new routes for us with his machete….
Over the few days we learned so much about the plants and what they are used for – people really are great at making the most of what they have, there was a plant to cure almost all illnesses. Amongst various things, a few of our highlights were:
– Iridia, the camouflage leaf. Hunters would run this leaf in their hands, add a little water and it created a purple dye that they would wear when hunting. It not only camouflages you but also the smell of humans. Here is Katie trying it out:
– Anukaperi, chew on this for 2 minutes and rub it on your skin as it’s a natural anaesthetic that works for 15 minutes
– We found these ants that have such strong front legs they can be used as staple stitches if you have a cut!!
– Lena felt a bit sick on day two, so he cut pieces of bark off a tree that is good for upset stomachs and made her drink the lot. However once he cut the bark, he bowed and took his hat off to the tree and thanked Pachamama (Mother Nature) for her medicine – a really touching moment.
– Laina tree – cut a vine in half and you have fresh water!
It was wonderful to see Domingo in the jungle, he could smell all sorts of animals so would stop and say ‘a pig’ or ‘a monkey’ and take us off track to find them. Needless to say we saw huge amounts of wild pigs, a couple of monkeys high in the tree and loads of turkeys (not quite the animals I was expecting in the Amazon but you live and learn). He knew all the birds’ calls and would answer to them when he heard them singing, it was quite remarkable!
Our final day saw us awake at dawn to the sounds of the jungle, and on to another hike to see the macaws before it got to hot! Luckily we were just in time and saw huge amounts of the beautiful birds. Fun (or not so fun) fact: they mate for life, and if one dies the other one commits suicide by not eating!
We finished our trip by building a raft (or watching the men build a raft; the women weren’t immediately invited…) and floated back to our base before our boat ride back to Rurrenabaque. The water is very muddy but lovely and refreshing so the float back was highly enjoyable!
We arrived back in town in time for a beer before catching up with Jen and Han for our flight back to La Paz before heading down to Uyuni for our salt flat tour. A hugely enjoyable few days, we just wish we could afford/have enough time to stay longer.
Bye for now x