There two options of transport to Rurrenabaque, a sleepy (or not so sleepy as it turns out) town in the Amazon basin. The first, the cheaper option, is a harrowing 20 hour bus journey on unpaved roads from La Paz. The second, a 45 minute flight over the snow-capped Andes and down into the dense jungle. Being an adventurer, I chose the first option.
Of course I didn’t, I chose the second. So I jumped on a plane at the military airport just outside of La Paz and began my journey to the Amazon Basin. I flew with TAM, Bolivia’s military operated airline. The aircraft only had 35 seats and if I was ever on a flight where I thought there was a chance it would go down, it was this one. Every so often I could feel my insides all clambering to get up my esophagus as the plane dropped altitude. Ever the optimist I figured that if we did crash, a book in the same vein as ‘Lost in The Amazon’ could make me a fortune…if I survived of course. Luckily we landed safely on a small airstrip hidden amongst the trees.
Then in true South American style, 35 people clambered into a bus for 12, well for 17 if you include the roof. Rurrenabaque sits on the Beni river and on first impressions it strikes you as a sleepy town nestled away in the middle of nowhere. After an hour or so it becomes apparent that it’s not so quiet after all. Most buzzing noises come from the locals driving up and down the main street on their motos and not from the mosquitos, although there are plenty of mosquitoes to be found also.
I booked a tour of the pampas, the Amazon wetlands and the next day at 9am I clambered into a jeep and we headed three hours down a dirt road to get the boat from Santa Teresa. This was my first experience of real off-roading. When you fly into the air off your seat every few minutes, it’s definitely an authentic off road experience.
We finally arrived and as soon as we stepped onto the thin, unnervingly low-to-the-water boat, we caught out first glimpse of some Amazonian wildlife. Pink river dolphins surfaced and 3 or 4 of them started swimming back and forth ahead of the boat.
The whole 3 hour journey by boat to our eco-lodge, which sounds grand but trust me it was not, consisted of sighting after sighting of animal after animal. It was almost unfair, I felt as though I was in a very large zoo.
We encountered hundreds of birds. When I first saw one I hurredly grabbed my camera trying to get the perfect shot in a fleeting moment. On seeing the third, fourth and fifth I realised that perhaps the moment wasn’t so fleeting.
Our guide, looking as stereotypically wild as you might expect, he was a long haired, bush knife wielding, indigenous looking character who told stories in broken English of massive anacondas he had seen in the jungle as a child with his father. He would slow down when spotted something in the trees or in the water.
This time it was a black howler monkey curled in a ball. The next it was a family of red howler monkeys all lying limp on branches high above the water. Then a tortoise, then capybaras…then a Cayman. The list goes on.
We eventually came upon a family of squirrel monkeys. Playful and inquisitive they came closer and closer to the boat, until they were sitting on branches hanging beside us. They were literally touching distance away and they would jump from branch to branch clumsily precise.
Later that evening we arrived at our Eco lodge, a basic camp made up of old wood and mosquito netting. There was also a rope swing that seemed like it might be fun until we noticed the alligator that had set up home underneath for the duration of our stay. He sat there waiting for something…perhaps the cat that lived there or perhaps something bigger. At one point he was tempted up into the front of the lodge by our guide and some chicken. He hissed and growled, almost sounding like a very large dog.
The first evening we left in the boat to watch the sunset, it was five minutes after arriving that I unfortunately ended up in the water…along with my now non-functioning camera. To get a better view and get out of the heat that was causing litres of perspiration, myself and three other guys went to stand on a rickety wooden walkway looking over the river. A loud crack followed, and two of us were gone. Holding onto the handrail in the split second I had to think, I thought I was safe. The handrail couldn’t take the weight of two of us and following that thought, it also gave way, breaking into pieces as I plummeted towards the murky water. I don’t think we could have moved faster to get to dry land. When you spend the preceding hours spotting Cayman and Aligators it’s difficult to stay calm. When we were all back standing on the part that hadn’t collapsed, we were informed of an alligator that had been hanging out close by not long before.
The next day we went looking for Anacaondas, advised to wear long trousers and welly boots we began wading through the long grass and dark water. The welly boots proved useless as we waded up to our thighs looking for the elusive anaconda. The search proved fruitless and all I gained was literally hundreds of mosquito bites. So much in fact that right now it looks as though I have a terrible case of backne. It’s taking everything for me not to scratch the skin off my legs, arms and back.
Afterwards we went fishing for piranhas which again proved fruitless, and again I earned a couple hundred more mosquito bites. The mosquitos are not like mosquitos you would normally see. These are hard-core mosquitos. The caricature mosquito you always think of with a needle like mouths. They would bite through clothes and they were relentless. Resistance was futile. The mosquito repellent I was using didn’t even slightly deter them.
On the last day we rose at 5am to watch the sun rise over the pampas and although the jungle didn’t sleep it was amazing to hear it waking up. Howler monkeys made ghostly noises from high in the trees and birds continuously made noises in disorganised symphony. It was an orchestra. Every single animal and insect had a part to play.
Later that day we went swimming with the river Dolphins. I have to admit, I was not too excited at the idea of jumping into a river where we had been looking for Piranhas, Anacondas and alligators one day before. The guide assured us it was safe so, without another thought I jumped in. The dolphins were curious and you could sometimes feel them at your feet (which was quite strange and a little scary). They were not the prettiest but they were playful and intriguing to watch.
After swimming with the dolphins we headed back up river to Santa Teresa where we finally found a baby anaconda, and with enough mosquito bites to last me for at least a year, I was ready to leave. The whole experience was incredible and still scratching my skin off over a week later, is definitely worth it.