A full and somewhat lengthy review of our Jungle and Pampas experience follows. If you can’t stomach the whole report, fast forward to the boat incident below which is perhaps the highlight or maybe the lowlight of the Jungle trip. If you follow the links to the videos you should find our general YouTube channel where we’ve uploaded a few other clips. Love to Blighty xxx.
La Paz to Rurrenbaque
There’s an oxygen bar at La Paz Airport where you can purchase a shot of air, such is the scarcity of that particular element at 3360m. It seemed weird that after a 40 minute flight we would travel from such an oxygen starved place to the place that produces 20% of the worlds oxygen – the Amazon Jungle.
We flew to Rurrenabaque on a 20 seater twin prop plane. There was no door on the cockpit which allowed a pilots eye view of the impressive Andean mountain peaks which eventually gave way to the dense jungle mountains below. The vast difference in oxygen between our origin and destination was matched by the difference in temperatures. We left a cold La Paz and after the short flight the thick, sticky, humid heat of the jungle hit us full on. Coping with the heat would be a challenge but we were grateful to be down from altitude for a few days as we had both suffered, Tracy with headaches, me with breathlessness and both of us occasional minor nose bleeds.
Rurrenabaque is a bustling small town on the banks of the River Beni, we thought it had an almost oriental feel about it. We stayed the first two nights at El Mirador a lovely little retreat on the hillside with a swimming pool which was welcome to escape the heat of the surrounding jungle. The next day we shopped for a Jungle tour, we settled on a 4 day 3 night trip to the Maddidi Eco Lodge (not to be confused with Madidi Travel). We choose Madidi because the operator seemed to go deeper into the Jungle.
We travelled by motorised wooden long boat about 3.5 hours up the chocolate brown, Beni and Tuichi Rivers. On the way we chuckled at a Bolivian guy slouched asleep behind us. It turned out this was to be our guide, Alejandro. Alejandro’s love of sleep continued throughout the trip, he could often be found napping but he turned out to be an impressive, friendly guide, a real local with all manner of knowledge about the animals, flora and fauna that we would be lucky enough to see during out treks into the dense rainforest.
During our first trek I quickly became aware of how exposed we were in the jungle. The jungle is obviously massive, its dense with vegetation and the huge trees obscure the light. The paths are not well made and it would be vital to have a guide to lead you. It became apparent during our first trek that Alejendro’s leg was hurting him. Alejendro was a short, stoutly, slightly portly Bolivia man, he had the centre of gravity of Lionel Messi. His leg became so bad that he had to cut our initial trek short, he limped back to camp and we followed slightly bemused behind. I became a bit panicy, for if Alejendro ‘went down’ in the jungle the next day, we would have no way of finding our way out, we relied on him 100% and I for one didn’t fancy an extended walk. Tracy reassured me but I still sought out the guy at the Lodge who seemed to be in charge. He laughed a little at me when I explained my concern and with that I went to bed.
Alejandro turned out to be a great guide and my confidence in him grew, I did however take a reading on my watch compass each day, reminding myself that if we got lost we should head South and providing a Jaguar or something didn’t get us, we would eventually reach the Tuichi River where we could wait for a passing boat. We spent time at the wooden lodge or trekking, fishing, eating and sleeping. We were lucky enough to see all manner of Jungle life, Caiman, Macaws, Wild Pigs, Tarantulas, Tapir’s, Capybaras and five different species of monkey to name but a few.
The wild pigs were particularly impressive. The pigs could be heard snapping there jaws in the distance. The sound was like a wood cutter landing his axe. The snapping jaws were mingled with grough grunts. We tracked the pigs through the jungle then kept our distance to watch them run away when they became aware of our presence. The pigs we were told, can be aggressive so we stood back until they ran off and then we walked to visit the pits where they had been eating clay in an attempt to neutralise their acidic stomachs. The stench they left behind was quite particular and not easy to smell, a deep aroma like smoky bacon or black pudding burning on a bonfire.
We slept in Wooden huts under mosquito nets. We were bitten occasionally but not with the intensity that we had been led to believe we would be subjected to in the jungle. Meals at the Eco Lodge were tasty and plentiful, one night we were treated to catfish baked in bamboo leaf. It was far and away the best fish I have ever had, thick meaty chunks baked in a lightly fragranced aromatic juice.
The Eco Lodge has a resident Tapir named Antonio, a massive ugly (or perhaps beautiful) mammal not dissimilar to an Ant Eater. On the second night, after dinner Alejandro took us on a night trek into the jungle to find spiders and insects that don’t come out during the day. We didn’t know it but Antonio had decided to follow us – Tracy was at the back of the line. At our first stop in the surrounding pitch black of the rain forest, Antonio snook up, walking straight into Tracy’s behind. Being the last in line, Tracy was quite sure nobody was behind her. I suspect you could have heard Tracy’s scream back in England not only frightened by the initial prod in the back but to then turn and see that Tapir’s face staring through the dark must have been a very sobering experience!
Amazingly, like a dog, Antonio followed us into the dark, right round the circuit, his presence in the deep night of the jungle was strangely reassuring.
The Boat Incident
On the third day we travelled another 3 hours up the river, we were now about 6 hours deep into the jungle. We were perhaps in as remoter location as we will be during this entire trip. The purpose of our extended boat journey was to visit Chalalan Lake where we going to ride by canoe into the middle of the lake to do a spot of Piranha fishing.
We walked to a decrepit failing wooden jetty to see a similarly decrepit, failing wooden canoe. The canoe was half sunk. A local Bolivia was perched inside bailing water with a half cut empty water bottle. As I looked towards the distant headland waiting for our canoe to come into vision it slowly dawned on me that the half sunk canoe in front of us, that the locals were trying to salvage was to be our ride.
Something happens to you when you come travelling, for in England you would protest the non waterworthyness of the vessel and demand your money back at once. In Bolivia however you get straight into the boat with a false smile and plenty of hope. Tracy sat at the front, me behind then the first Bolivian who continued to bail water. Another Bolivian paddled us out into the middle of the vast lake. Tim from the USA sat towards the rear. We settled in the middle of Lake Chalalan and cast our fishing lines, the Bolivain first man continued to bail.
Not ten minutes of unsuccessful fishing had passed when I noticed some distant thunder. A storm was brewing in the distance but it was a long way away and the nonchalance of the two crew members confirmed that there was nothing to worry about. Not ten minutes after that, the panic on the crew members faces confirmed we had everything to worry about. The rear guard had started to row but not from his usual seated position, he was stood up rowing with some urgency. The other Bolivian tapped me on the back and beckoned towards the once distant clouds that had now changed course and were racing towards us accompanied by further claps of near thunder, high winds and torrential rain.
The wind picked up in an instant and caused a swell of waves which interrupted the once serene waters. I quickly became concerned that we needed to reach the pier and we needed to reach it fast. The Bolivians it seemed, had thought “to hell with the pier”, they had instead taken the most direct line just towards the nearest land. The wind got worse and threatened to blow the boat back into the lake. The first Bolivian had given up the task of bailing to Tim and I knew that when the locals get the tourists involved, things were getting more serious. I too found a paddle and assumed the standing position, believe me I was rowing like Redgarve through the Pirana infested water. Tracy being at the front of the boat didn’t seemed to recognise the urgency and I decided it was best not to trouble her! Three of us rowed for safety whilst Tim bailed furiously. He was later to tell us that he couldn’t keep up with the bucketing rain that accompanied the storm and despite his best efforts the canoe was filling up fast.
It took us about 15 minutes of exhausting effort to reach land. We got out out of the boat now named “the Little Titanic” and went on shore to reflect on the saving of our lives.
To illustrate the rapid change of conditions on Lake Chalalan we have uploaded a before (click here) and after (click here) video. The second with me rowing for England and Tim’s efforts to Bail for USA if you look carefully can be seen behind.
We met “Norman” our Pampas guide whilst we were in the jungle and we were grateful that Tim (from the boat incident) also wanted to travel to the Pampas so the three of us travelled together on a more bespoke trip where we were cunningly able to avoid the tourist crowds.
People often ask whether you prefer the Jungle of Pampas, for me the two are completely different, the jungle made up dense humid rainforest whilst the Pampas is like a wetland savannah, not dissimilar to the Norfolk Broads. We saw lots more wildlife, more Caiman sitting menacingly on the river banks, squirrel monkeys that playfully approached the boat and an abundance of different birds including beautiful, colourful Macaws flirting between the trees. The highlight for me was a sloth that we saw moving gracefully in a tree. I didn’t know it but a sloth looks like a monkey and moves languidly like a contortionist, leisurely moving along the tree branch with the grace of a ballerina – beautiful and amazing to watch. On the way home we were lucky enough to see a sloth crossing the road, it looked like it had taken all day!
Days on the Pampas are spent on a wooden narrow boat cruising the narrows waterways spotting birds, mammals and fishing. I was able to catch a Piranha and despite looking hopefully at the guide I had to unhook it myself. I was later to learn that the Red Bellied Piranha which I had caught is the most aggressive and has been responsible for many a fisherman’s finger loss. I felt a tinge of guilt as the same fish appeared on my dinner plate. It tasted, well……like fish.
On another day we went on an unsuccessful mission to find Anacondas, despite the lack of Anacondas we did managed to find a snake but it slithered off before we could give a reliable identification.
We did both Jungle and Pampas trips with Madidi Eco Lodge (although our Pampas guide Norman seemed to be working freelance). All our guides were non-invasive and had much respect for the fragile environments in which they work. All are recommend, we had a fab time and feel very privileged to have been able to see such wonderful animal life in their natural environments.