Exploring Bolivia’s Amazon Rainforest
From the beginning of our travels the Amazon jungle had been a key point on our travels, thoroughly exciting but also a key point of 2 months of constant travel.
After a few city days in La Paz we took a heart pumping taxi journey through the crazy rolling concrete streets to the highest airport in the world. We flew to Rurrenabaque on an 18 seater plane that had 2 props, the flight was fairly bumpy, lacking oxygen and very humid, I think both Alis and I felt fairly sick but we powered through. The actual airport in Rurrenabaque was closed for maintenance so it meant we had to land in Reyes airport, this was exciting in itself, a tiny grass runway laid ahead of us, we glided down with a subtle bump, disembarked and waited in the tiny little building they deemed as the airport building. A little minivan arrived and took us on the final leg of the journey to Rurrenabaque, 50 bumpy, teeth chattering, lung drying minutes across dusty gravel roads.
Finally in Rurrenabaque our first priority was to book an actual tour, we headed straight to Madidi Travel, a company we had read about and chose due to its focus on ecology, they don’t entice animals with food, touching animals isn’t the aim of the tour, and the actual lodges are eco friendly and made from materials mostly from the rainforest such that the lodges blend in to their surroundings.
After a little chatting we were booked on for 8am the next day. The next task was to find a hostel, we had a recommendation of “Hostel Oriental” so headed there and checked in. It was after the formalities and worries were over as we walked through the hostels garden, dotted with fallen mangos and blossoming flowers that the humidity and heat of the Amazon really hit us.
We headed to funky monkey bar and took advantage of their happy hour and had some local fish dishes.
The next morning our Amazon tour began at the Madidi office, we checked over itineraries and picked up our wellies and thick gortex ponchos.
Our adventure into the Amazon started with a 3 hour journey in a long canoe style boat with a single engine. The first 10 minutes were thrilling, as the boat rocked back and forth through the gentle river. The boat sat so low that the water was basically along side the level of our chests. About 15 minutes in to the trip the grey clouds came over and a torrential downpour of hot humid thick Amazon raindrops came cascading down on upon us. This rain did not stop for the next 3 hours, we sat in our ponchos, done up as tightly as possible around our faces, leaving only our eyes, or in Alis’ case just one eye showing. It sounds terrible, but it was certainly an experience and added to the crazy rainforest atmosphere.
Finally, almost orchestrated, the rain stopped as we disembarked at the beginning of our 50 minute walk to our eco lodge.
The ecolodge was incredible, Alis and I had one to ourselves, it would have been a kids dream, a solid wood cabin with 360 degree view windows built of out simple netting to keep the bugs out encased a double bed with full mosquito net, simple bathroom with shower and a mezzanine floor. Alis was curious about the shelves of blankets as she thought we would need one for the night, I was busy looking outside when I heard a sharp shrill from Alis – she had lifted a blanket and been faced with a little mouse. We investigated more and it looked like it had made a home from home in our lodge, having bitten through the blanket and nestled into the soft white polyester. After admiring the mouse for a bit we decided to leave it where it was and headed for the “Casa Grande” where we had been told to meet after eating our packed lunch that was provided, calzone, fruit and pain au chocolat.
The Casa Grande was a huge version of our own little eco lodge. Standing 4 stories tall, all made out of logs and trees, with the same 360 netted views. The first floor was the kitchen and dining area, 2nd a home to some injured and domesticated macaws, with colourful hammocks invitingly swinging in the slight breeze with views over the lagoon. The 3rd and 4th floors were home to the workers of the Madidi lodge.
For a easy introduction into the craziness of the Amazon we went for a 2 hour walk into the rainforest area behind the lodge. Our first warning was to watch our for bullet ants, a species of ant about 2 inches long that can cause some of the worst pain in the world. Native tribes sometimes use these ant bites as a sort of coming of age process, apparently the pain can last 24-48 excruciating hours, ouch! We continued, taking note of many huge leaf cutter ant colonies, many types of fauna and more insects than could be imagined.
Having had our first humid introduction to the rainforest we headed back for dinner. By this point our lodge could only be recognised by severally oddly flickering orange lights in be distance. As we got closer the shadowy outline of the lodge came into view and the orange lights we now recognised as candles.
Obviously no electricity here! We walked in through the wooden framed door, this also covered only in bug netting to see the cooks preparing our dinner all by candle light! The meal was delicious, I had actually heard of a “out there” restaurant in London that serves food in the pitch black as it apparently heightens senses, whether or not that was the case the joint of meat and accompanying vegetables were a taste sensation. It was then we got our first beautiful sighting of something I had never really considered to be real, fireflies. I had never imagined they could actually be so bright, but they truly were, we watched as they gracefully buzzed around the netting of the lodge, changing from orange to blue to green with a similar brightness to a single LED!
With full bellies we headed out on a simple kayak with our tour guide paddling to see Cayman in the lagoon. At first it was a blissful smooth ride across the calm waters, white light cascading across the tree tops from the full moon. And then our tour guide asked if we could see any of the Cayman, to which we said no. He then got out a torch, and with a 360 pan all around us we saw the magnificent beady eyes staring at us from all angles. Hundreds of Cayman along the waters edge and swimming near us, the light from the torch making their own eyes look like lights themselves. We could feel the 2 little dots, recognisable as eyes starring right at us, with a graceful yet considering gaze. We continued around the lagoon for a further 30 minutes or so before heading back to our lodge to retire for the evening. In our lodge we knew we had the mice for company, and could also sense there were plenty of insects lurking in the woodwork, but safely within our mosquito net that completed encased our bed we felt safe.
Admiring the sounds of anonymous leaf rustling, insects chirping and the occasional branch bending as the odd monkey swung past we were fast asleep within only a few minutes and can say we actually had one of the best slumbers of our lives.
5am was wake up time, we agreed to head our early to see birds only visible on the mornings feed around the lagoon. We saw beautiful varieties of numerous birds with colours from whites, blues, blacks and yellows to pinks! At one point our kayak calmly gliding across the water startled a Cayman right underneath of us. We felt a thump, a slight splash and then a witnessed the quick getaway as the Cayman sped away from us!
Breakfast was had in the Casa grande, fruits, granola and plenty of juices.
We said hello to the local tapir, a type of pig like animal that is native to the rainforest, but in this case is domesticated to the lodge as poachers killed its mother after it was only very young, it now protects the lodge from snakes and other various animals.
Alis and I accidentally fell asleep in the multicoloured hammocks on the second floor of the wooden lodge overlooking the shimmering lagoon for around 20 minutes, who knew the rainforest would be so relaxing!
We then proceeded across the lagoon once more for our first proper jungle trek.
We walked for 3 hours, through thick humidity, clambering over fallen trees, ducking under hanging vines and constantly wafting away insects and mosquitos whilst our guide cleared a path ahead for us with his seemingly razor sharp machete that made light work of thick jungle vines. We saw wild banana plantations, pineapples and all types of forest fruit. Our tour guide has been doing this for over 10 years and he’s yet to see a jaguar, upon finding a jaguar footprint it became obvious he really still wants to find one. Unfortunately we didn’t see any jaguars, but monkeys, birds, insects and bats were aplenty. This was dry season in the rainforest, so a majority of the animals have retired to the rivers edge, making the rainforest seem not quite so abundant.
One thing we hadn’t considered about the rainforest was in contrast to its huge scale, its actually fairly delicate. We all know about the huge deforestation that’s occurring to the Amazon, but it’s not quite as simple as we cut down 20% of the forest and lose 20% of animals. Many species actually only reside in certain areas, and of course the vastly complex food chain and ecosystems mean that if one area of the forest is cut down, in some cases that can mean a complete destruction of a certain type of spider for example.
Heading back to the lodge we had lunch, a 3 course one at that! Soup, vegetables, meats and a chocolate pudding for desert!
We headed our once more on the kayak, this time fully exploring the vastness of the lagoon. Heading all the way to its northern end we saw hundreds of herons and a huge variety of birds that I regretfully can’t recall the names of. As we hit the northern tip of the lagoon we heard the harrowing sounds of a pack of howler monkeys. The noise they make really gives you the chills, Id never imagined a monkey making such dark, grizzly howl, especially when combined into a whole pack of them doing it, it really sets your nerves on end. Our tour guide decided to land the kayak onto a patch of mud for us to disembark and investigate. As we got off of the kayak we heard some odd popping noises in the grass but for the most part informed it. We headed about 50 metres into the rainforest and saw the pack of red howler monkeys, sat high in the trees creating the horror movie suiting ensemble of sound.
Heading back to the kayak we all got on board before our guide, he pushed us gently into the water, and then equipped with his flip flops and machete proceeded to wade through the long grass as the lagoon water lapped up against it. For several minutes we just watched him carefully bend the long grass back with his machete and explore. Upon his return he told us that the popping noises we heard earlier were a prowling Cayman on the hunt, and that his instinct said that there was a anaconda there. Fortunately, or unfortunately there was nothing to be seen.
Dinner was once again had by candlelight in the Casa Grande, this time however I heard the wooden framed door creak open, it was pitch black and we couldn’t see a thing so ignored it for a while, a few creaks and thumps later I realised the domesticated tapir had worked its way in, instinctively I headed over and tried to shoo it out without much luck, after getting the attention of the kitchen staff one came over and eventually managed to just push it out with very little elegance, the animal didn’t seem to mind, but at the same time it looked like a lot of hard work pushing so much weight.
Our final nights sleep was accompanied by even more friends, this time a huge – 4 inch grasshopper, many cockroaches and of course the mouse, plus the uncountable friends hiding away, but again it was a beautiful sleep inside the comfort of our enclosed mosquito net.
The next morning was once again an early wake up, this time 4:30am as the plan was to walk a while and then kayak across the “Laguna gringo” to witness the sunrise. As we walked we came across a poison frog, only tiny but enough to kill animals and seriously injure and fully grown man. We made it in time, even after hanging to scoop plenty of rain water out of this especially rotten looking kayak. However the clouds weren’t on our side so we had no particularly beautiful sunrise to witness, it was still eventful and worthwhile however as we saw the water lilies open and several times the kayak got itself banked on mud, our tour guide having to use some muscle power and push the paddle against the mud to rock us out of the fix.
Heading back through the Laguna Gringo we came to a tiny shelter, as we got closer we saw a very welcome elderly gentlemen, and the saw a tiny baby monkey on his shoulder.
We got off and and actually got to play with this baby monkey, named imaginatively “Negra” (Spanish for black), its species; spider money. It took a while but Negra eventually jumped down from the elderly gentleman’s shoulder and began to examine us. I held out my hand and it grasped it with its own, it then proceeded to climb up my leg, around my body and snuggle in between my back and my rucksack, I assume because my back was warm and humid from the mornings 30 minute humid walk to the lagoon.
One thing I had never really considered is just how much control monkeys have of their tails, it really is just like a 5th limb, made particularly obvious as it hangs off my arm using only its tail, and the proceeded to curl itself back up onto the top of my arm using only its tail.
I never want children, but this was probably the closest to being broody I’ll ever be as it proceeded to then snuggle itself inside of my raincoat. After all having a play and learning how this little area is a protected area to help increase the spider monkey population we continued back to the Casa Grande once again for breakfast.
A final walk through the rainforest brought of Amazon jungle excursion to a gradual close, this time we saw hummingbirds as well as a huge cavernous tree shell, that was now home to hundreds of bats.
We then packed up our goods from our little eco lodge that had been our relaxing home in the rainforest for the past three days before heading back towards the river to get the boat back. As we walked the 50 minute walk back we witnessed a huge snake slithering across the path in front of us, our second snake sighting in South America so far!
This time the 3 hour boat journey back was much more enjoyable, even though before we could embark we had to help some locals pull a 25 foot carved piece of wood out of the river into the steep river bank, no one really explained what was going on, but we just went with the flow!
3 hours of admiring the edges of the rainforest that sharply met the river, there was no cascading or fade off, it was river, and then 100% dense rainforest.
We spent one final night in the hostel oriental, again going to the funky monkey for dinner and drinks, before waking up at a casual 8am in hope to catch our flight back to la Paz.
We woke up to the sound of thunder, rain and flashes of lightning bouncing through our thing curtains. We didn’t think much of it at first, but as the storm not only continued but got gradually worse we realised our flight is unlikely to go ahead. We donned our wet weather gear, which mostly consisted of just covering ourselves in our ponchos and proceeded to the Amazonas (airline) office and queried the status, being told to come back in a few hours for an update. We perched ourselves a cafe for several hours, ordering odd bits of food ad drink to keep the owner happy, being told by the airline to keep coming back every time we checked. Finally at 12pm the clouds and storm cleared and our flight as set for 2pm. 1:30pm we were picked up and taken to the now functioning Rurrenabaque airport. We checked in, have our bags and waited patiently. 2pm passed and there was no news, 2:30pm and a worked stood up in front of the 18 of us inside this small shack of an airport and told us our flight would now not take off until at least 4pm as the Brazilian president was late landing and of course.. he took priority!
Finally after more sitting around and waiting we took off and had once again a bumpy humid flight to La Paz. Alis began to feel not very at all, but managed to keep it together. Continue testing the rest of our La Paz stories for the rest.