I left Santa Cruz preparing to enter the unknown. I was aiming to get to Rurrenabaque (Rurre), which is a small town and the main access point for the Bolivian part of Amazon. Most people fly in and out from La Paz. Some take the bus from La Paz, but there was barely any information at all about the possibility of reaching there from Santa Cruz. The roads linked up though and that was good enough for me!
The journey couldn’t have started any better. I booked an overnight bus to Trinidad. There were tons of companies all offering buses on the route and on the face of it precious little differences. That was until my bus turned up. Enough seat room for a small family and fully reclining seats all for eight pounds. The only other foreign tourist was a Jehovah Witness from Spain, who was visiting villages and towns in the area. Not at any point did he attempt to preach the word, although i did catch him handing out a free Jehovah Witness pencil to a child who was upset on the bus. He didn’t offer me one though.
I arrived in Trinidad in the early hours of the morning and quickly realised that bus was no longer an option. The road from Trinidad to Rurre is considered as one of the worst in South America so it was down to shared motos (taxis). The problem with these is they only go when they have enough people. So I sat and waited. After a number of hours, I began to face the reality that no locals seemed interested in a trip to Rurre and it was highly unlikely that any tourists would appear. With the help of the lonely planet Bolivia map, I identified the next town on and became the last passenger in the San Borja taxi, which meant it could depart. And off we went, all seven of us.
As soon as we left town, the road became a dirt track. It was horribly dusty. Every time the driver wanted to overtake, he would swerve out and instantly only dust could be seen. All we could hope for was that he could make it past the truck before anything coming the other way arrived. My shirt turned from blue to brown. I was covered head to toe. It was highly entertaining though. I especially enjoyed the river crossing, where people quite literally dug the road so we could get through. This happened at various other points too. The road is very much a work in progress.
San Borja was not the transport hub I had hoped for. My bag was put in a Rurre bound car and I sat and waited. The good news was that another local wanted to go the same way. The bad news was no one else looked interested. Unusually after sitting around for three hours, the driver started the engine and we left. I guess he needed to get back to Rurre, but I didn’t care for the reason. I had got lucky. I also got lucky in having the Bolivian equivalent of Lewis Hamilton, as we completed a nine hour journey in under three.
I spent the next day relaxing in Rurre. The town itself is unspectacular, but it is surrounded by jungle and that makes it a good place for a hammock. It’s a strange place, full of tourists restaurants and shops, but no tourists. That’s because everyone comes to Rurre to either go into the jungle or alternatively visit the pampas. I opted for both.
I went with the company Moshiquipe. I was put in a group with two other English guys, Scott and Tom. Our guide was Sandro. We walked down to the harbour area and boarded a boat bound for the Parque Nacional Madidi. First stop was a local village, where we got to use a sugar cane press and meet our guides grandparents. The sugar cane was refreshing and the grandparents, whilst unable to communicate with us, were just lovely. Although it was probably the least interesting part of the tour, it did provide context for what we were going into. Madidi has only become a national park fairly recently. Upon gaining its status, the indigenous population, who relied upon hunting and fishing were rehoused outside of the park. It meant that for people like our guide Sandro, who had grown up hunting and living off the park, changes needed to be made and in his case he turned to guiding.
We arrived at our jungle lodge a couple of hours later and a nice lodge it was too. Other than sitting out the heat of the days, the rest of the time in the jungle was spent exploring the various routes around the lodge and further afield. As with any other jungle I have been in, it was incredibly hot and tricky to see any wildlife other than spiders. Yes there were a lot of spiders, both venomous and not.
There was one almost magical moment, when Sandro’s jaguar calls were answered. However, it turned out to be a bird mimicking it rather than the big cat itself. Sandro seemed to be able to make the sound of every animal imaginable in the jungle. At times we wondered if he was having us on, but as the trust grew, we realised that he had an unrivalled knowledge of the jungle all of which had been passed down from to generation to generation. Despite the lack of wildlife, Sandro shared so many other things such as creating different colour face paints out of leaves, making all sorts of contraptions out of ferns and leaves, sharing various edible fruits and identifying all number of trees and plants, which could be used for medicine and food. The best day was the second day when we walked four or so hours to a campsite. The setting was gorgeous and the jungle noises when going to sleep just brilliant. In the evening, we went for a night walk. Again, other than a scorpion and a jungle mouse, wildlife was limited, but the stars were breathtaking.
On the final day in the jungle, we returned to the lodge. We had hoped to go and see a viewpoint, which looks over the Macaw’s nesting area. Unfortunately, just before we arrived, the heavens opened and the jungle became a complete mess. Using leaves as Umbrellas, we made it to the viewpoint, but the view was long gone. Getting to the river to return to the lodge then became great fun as the jungle pretty much became a river itself. Eventually we arrived, sodden to the core. To get back we constructed a raft out of seven logs and two pieces of rope and then floated back for a couple of hours to base. After a short rest, we then returned to the river and with some over sized crab lines and a bit of meat, went giant piranha fishing. The setting was great, but as was the story of our time in the jungle, we saw and indeed caught nothing.
It was an early start the following day, where we took the boat back to Rurre and then went by car to the pampas. The pampas is a wetland, where you essentially sit on a boat and see lots of wildlife. And it actually worked! Within minutes of being on the boat, we had seen turtles, loads of birds and caiman. Who needed a macaw viewpoint? They were everywhere! We were then dropped off at our lodge, which was as good a quality, if not better than the one in the jungle. As we got off the boat, a caiman lay several meters away, mostly hidden in the murky water. There are a silly number of the things in the pampas and watching them became infectious. The way the slide into the water or the speed with which they can move when threatened is an amazing sight. I’ve seen bigger crocs before but never got to watch them from so close. By far the best interaction, was watching two having a scuffle and one nearly ending up in the boat. The sounds they made were frightening.
Over the two days in the pampas, we also saw pink dolphins, capybaras and monkeys. The latter was particularly great, considering how close we could get to them and how playful they were. We also went fishing for smaller piranha. That went slightly better than the previous day. Tom caught two catfish and Scott actually caught a piranha! I got a stupid number of bites but all I managed to bring onto the boat was two of these:
On the morning we left the pampas, we had time to go into the swamp area and seek out an anaconda. Fortune was again not on our side, however, the journey itself, through knee high water at times was great fun and the knowledge halfway through that caiman used the area too, raised the stakes a little! Upon returning to the lodge, we came across some more monkeys, but these just looked depressed.
Upon returning to Rurre, I spent another night before catching a bus in the morning to La Paz. It had been a great five days and both the jungle and pampas complemented each other brilliantly. As I stepped onto the bus, I waved goodbye to the hot weather, which has been a feature of my travels so far. When I left Rurre it was 37 degrees. When I arrived in La Paz it was minus 4.