Our initial plan had been to visit the Amazon in Peru…however, that trip is VERY expensive and we were never quite sure how we would afford it! Then, whilst travelling through Peru we met a number of people who were travelling up through South America and had already travelled through Bolivia. Through those people we established that there are several jungle trips available in that country to rival those of Peru and they are very much cheaper…no contest!
Most trips are booked from La Paz where you can either take a 20 hour bus down dirt tracks (the buses in Bolivia wouldn't even be road legal in the UK) or you can catch a short flight there, we opted for the plane.
Next we had to choose from one of two tours. Either a jungle tour which takes you to the edge of the Amazon (where the guide tells you all about the local flora and fauna), or to the pampas (where you get to travel down a river on a boat for 3 days and see lots of wildlife). We decided the pampas was the better option.
It was a fairly early start as the flight left La Paz at 6am and we were told it would take 45 minutes. We had to check through customs and everything but the funny part was when people were having knives (the swiss army type) confiscated but they were all being chucked in a big bin that anyone could have stolen from at any point. So much for security.
When we walked out onto the tarmac we were surprised that our plane was so small! There are many tourists flying to the jungle town of Rurrenabaque (rurren-a-baccie) so surely it made sense to use bigger planes? It was at this point we figured the airport at the other end was going to be pretty small!
The plane held 20 people and you could see straight into the cockpit and watch the pilots. It was so small even I had to practically crawl to my seat and there was no room to stand up. We realised at this point why the staff at the check in desk had wanted us to put our small rucksacks in the hold. There was no room for them on board although we managed it somehow.
There was one seat on each side of the plane and several of the passengers held hands across the aisle during takeoff including Stuart and Charlene who were on the tour with us. It was an interesting takeoff although not half as bad as I had expected. The strange point was when we started to level out but were the same height as the top of a local mountain which we flew straight past! It was an awesome sight although the turbulence we hit at the time made the plane tip and twist like nothing I've ever experienced. The pilots didn't flinch though so I guessed it was normal.
35 minutes later (Bolivian's always seem to exaggerate timescales - perhaps it's to make up for the fact they're always running late) we were heading down into the jungle and it was then we realized the runway was grass and the airport was a little building that could just as easily have been someone's house.
Once landed we all jumped on a local bus (another heap of metal) and got a ride into town. The driver dropped each of the tourists off at the right tour office (of which there were many) and we were one of the last to get off. The cost was the same no matter how far you travelled though so I guess we got good value for money!
Once we had checked in we still had about an hour and a half until we were heading into the pampas district so the lady told us to go and find a place called "Paris" and have breakfast.
On the way down the street a guy on a moped pulled over and asked in different languages if we were Spanish, British, French or German. It was pretty obvious he was French from his accent but he could speak fluently in all 4 languages. Once he established we were English he invited us to visit his French bakery down the road, where we were already heading, this was sounding promising in a land that has no idea how to bake bread or pastries! A real French guy and everything…
The food was amazing and unbelievably cheap. Our French friend had arrived before us and was busy preparing the next round of goodies for the oven. The kitchen and shop all rolled into one so you could watch him work which was great. Everything you associate with French bakeries was on offer and it was by far the best breakfast we had had in a while.
Once back at the office we met two Danish guys who were to be on our tour and then piled into the back of an old land cruiser that had had the seats removed and bench seats put in down either side facing the middle. On the edge of town we picked up another person, Christina, who introduced herself as part French Canadian, part Greek and part British. Luckily for us she spoke fluent Spanish as well which meant she could translate when others couldn't.
It was really uncomfortable in the truck and it was clear there were no tarmac roads for at least a hundred miles in any direction. When the driver mentioned in Spanish that the journey would take 3 hours our hearts literally sank once we had translated what he was saying.
There's not much I can say about the journey, it was hot, it was dusty and it was very very uncomfortable but we made it, eventually!!!
Once at the river we all decided to get changed into swimwear as we knew there was an opportunity to swim later that day and the humidity was unbelievable so our man-made fabric t-shirts were completely unsuitable. It was disappointing to realize though that the ladies toilets were locked (the locals can be weird sometimes) and we all had to get changed in the men's, not a pleasant experience, even for the men!
After nearly standing on some weird wasp type thing that a local told me (through Christina) would have given me a very bad flu had it stung me, our guide, Domingo, turned up and introduced himself and his boat/canoe Indigena 1.
We all piled in trying not to tip it and fall out (we had already spotted an alligator swimming nearby) and headed off downstream. Less than a minute after starting off the guide stopped his boat and pointed out some weird birds in a nearby tree. He told us they were literally prehistoric chickens and they certainly looked like it, ugly things!
2 seconds later there was a raucous in another tree on the other side of the river and a family of small Squirrel Monkeys appeared. They were really cute and very curious, climbing to the weak ends of the branches to get closer and check us out. The guide was careful not to get too close though, good job I had my big lens on my camera and could take good shots.
We moved on and there were Alligators everywhere. Domingo told us they also had the much larger Black Caiman in the river, it didn't take us long to spot one of those! When they launch themselves off a bank from complete frozen standstill and swim violently towards the boat it's really something! Needless to say someone let out a little scream…Charlene!
We saw turtles, weird rodent type things the size of overgrown pigs (apparently the world's largest rodent) , many many birds including parrots and tucans, eagles and herons; howler monkeys, yet more prehistoric chickens and probably many other animals I've since forgotten, it was awesome!!!
After about 2 hours we reached an extra wide bend in the river and everything went quiet…no more alligators…or anything! Behind us was a noise like a small whale blowing through its blow hole and we turned round to see pink dolphins circling the boat. Domingo told us the Dolphins keep the alligators, caiman and piranha's away and this means it's safe to swim here. The water was thick mud though with no way of seeing even a millimeter under the surface, suddenly none of us felt like swimming despite the intense heat.
In the end only Christina was brave enough to give it a go, she dived into the water and immediately she stopped moving let out a scream as something bit her! Domingo chose this moment to let her know the sardines have a habit of biting. I was glad I stayed in the boat!
Unfortunately I couldn't really get any pictures of the dolphins as the water was too shallow at that time of year for them to dive properly and all you really saw was their backs. They stayed well clear of Christina too choosing to circle her from a distance instead.
Once back in the boat we saw Christina had 2 bites on her legs. One was small and not too bad but the other had to have been a piranha no matter what Domingo said about the dolphins keeping them away. A huge chunk was missing from her leg and by that evening her whole leg was about 3 times the size it should have been, what with the dirty water as well I was definitely glad it wasn't me and I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one.
About another hour and many photographs later we reached our accommodation for the next 2 nights. (At this point I should probably tell you the engine on the boat had broken down and we had to be towed by a friendly local for the last 20 minutes or so - highly amusing). A wooden lodge high up on the bank and built on wooden stilts. It appears the river gets pretty high during the rainy season.
Once we had dumped our bags it was back into the boat and Domingo took us a bit further downstream to a point where all the local tours gather and watch the sunset. There's a bar, hammocks and a volleyball pitch and the sun sets across the endless water planes which completely flood a bit later in the year. There were also horses, pigs and chickens running around to add to the mix. It was a pleasant evening although I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't have a vodka unless I was prepared to buy the entire (and large) bottle at some extortionate amount. You can still get Coca Cola and Sprite in the jungle though.
Once back at the lodge the in-house cook had prepared a feast and we all tucked in before chilling in the hammock room (a round house open on all sides but covered with mosquito netting. It was awesome for listening to the howler monkeys and relaxing under the stars.
At about 9pm it was pitch black and Domingo piled us all back into the boat torches in hand/on heads to see the alligator eyes by torchlight, an eerie experience but well worth it. I don't think I've ever felt so relaxed just lying back in the boat watching the glowing eyes under the stars and listening to the night sounds of all the animals.
Next morning we were up at 4.30am to take another trip back up river in the boat to watch the sunrise. Domingo left us on the river bank to run an errand and we quickly vacated to water's edge to avoid the black caiman floating nearby. As usual the sunrise was spectacular and we were all well and truly awake by the time we arrived back at the lodge for breakfast.
Next up we had an hours trek across the wetlands to go anaconda hunting. It was still only about 8am by this point but it was important we left early and got back early to avoid the midday heat. Not that I think it made much difference, it was still unbelievably hot!
We also had to wear some very uncomfortable wellies, not pleasant for hiking but at least the ground was flat.
After about an hour we reached a swamp which Domingo told us gets very deep in the rainy season, he pointed to the water marks halfway up a nearby tree to demonstrate. Way above his head!
He explained that when the water is deeper the larger anaconda can be found here, those you hear about in movies and stuff, but at this time of year only the smaller anaconda remain. We actually walked through the swamp in our wellies and although we got stuck a few times the water didn't go over the top. Unfortunately Adam managed to pick the only boot with a hole it in though so his feet got nice and wet and smelly…!
Domingo had us all spread out in a line to literally cover the swamp as we moved forwards seeking snakes. He showed us what their trails look like through the undergrowth and also explained that sometimes they sit on top of the reeds sunning themselves. Once we were about halfway across this was exactly where one of the Dutch guys found one, just sitting in front of him in the sun!
Domingo grabbed it by the tail and carried it to the edge of the swamp where we could all gather round and get a closer look. Although it was about 5 feet long it was much smaller than I had imagined. Domingo put it down amongst our feet and told us to keep very still explaining that the snake offers no danger provided it doesn't feel threatened. They don't bite either choosing to constrict their prey instead, this one didn't pose too much of a threat! The snake slithered around our feet for a couple of minutes before disappearing back into the swamp.
Next Domingo told us we would try to find a Cobra! Now this was a different story…our first question was "are we going to get bitten?". Domingo showed us his hands where he had numerous bite marks and he explained that he has been bitten by cobra's many times, apparently it's not so bad, you just get very ill for 24 hours and then recover - GREAT!
Once again we spread out in a line and started trawling the swamp, it wasn't long before we found a second anaconda, slightly smaller than the first, but no cobra. We walked all the way to the other side, to give you an idea it must have taken us at least an hour to do this, but it was clear that all we were going to find was a few birds. Suddenly something moved…FAST…Domingo leapt through the muddy water and dived for the reeds at the edge but lost whatever it was. He returned very disappointed and informed us the thing he was chasing was a rattle snake……………VERY DANGEROUS! And he was chasing it!!! Luckily for us he didn't stand a chance of catching it.
A further hour of walking and we returned to the lodge hot and sweaty and dying for a nice cold shower (which is lucky seeing as that was all that was on offer). We had lunch and spent a couple of hours in the hammock room where everyone promptly fell asleep. Bliss!
Around midafternoon Domingo woke us all up stating that it was time to go catch dinner…piranha's! Once again we all piled into the boat and set of upstream to an area we hadn't been to before. Domingo turned the boat around so it was directly across stream and gave us all a real of fishing wire with a hook on the end and small pieces of meat as bait. We also had the cook with us who turned out to be an excellent fisherman. Before long she was piling piranha's into the boat whilst the rest of us were getting slowly frustrated at our lack of success.
I caught one though, a nice big fat red piranha, Adam was really happy about that…not! After a while it was clear we were not in the best area of the river and Domingo started the engine again and took us still further upstream. When we arrived at his chosen spot he told us all to get out and fish from the bank where there were literally billions of sandflies, nice!
We had better luck, although still not as much as the cook, and most of us caught a few fish, Adam's first one was a mini sardine…it made great bait when the meat ran out…
There were also smaller yellow piranha's, I caught one of those too, and a larger and rarer white piranha, I think only one of these was caught. Stuart caught a red piranha and the hook had gone in through its eye and out through its nose, not sure how he managed that!
Once we had 14 fish (not including all the sardines we had caught and cut up for bait) Domingo gutted and washed them all on board the boat and threaded them on a stick of bamboo. It was surprisingly heavy. We headed back to the lodge and the cook took the fish for dinner.
Dinner that night was actually a buffet of several different dishes and the piranha were just an extra side dish, we hadn't needed them after all. They were very tasty though. Stuart took the biggest fish and carefully extracted the jaw and teeth which he kept for a souvenir. I'm not sure he'll be able to keep it in one piece though.
That evening we went to the place to watch the sunset again but it was much less busy than the night before with less tour companies there. Charlene and I chased a piglet for a while trying to get a decent picture but it disappeared into the reeds beyond and then a group turned up that included some people Stuart and Charlene had met previously on their Machu Picchu trip, it's funny how you keep seeing the same faces on your travels.
The final morning arrived and Domingo said we could either go swimming with the dolphins or he could take us to their only local area of jungle and give us a little tour. We voted for the second option.
It really was a small area of jungle which took us about an hour to cover walking as slow as we were. Domingo showed us a tree covered in fire ants and then promptly stuck his hand amongst them! Apparently they hurt as he let out a few squeals but he was used to it. He explained that in the past the indigenous people used the tree as a punishment for criminals. Anyone caught stealing or worse would be tied to the tree for as long as their punishment deserved and the pain would be excruciating. Especially when the ants started crawling up your nose and in your ears, etc.
We had previously been told that there are 3 types of monkey in the area, the squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys and black howler monkeys. The black ones are the rarest and are very hard to find. When we were walking through the jungle Adam spotted something black, high up in a very tall tree. He shouted out that it was a howler monkey but Domingo just laughed…it certainly looked like about 3 or 4 black howler monkeys up there and apparently it is a common mistake made by many tourists, but in truth it was just a vulture, sitting on the highest branch with its wings spread wide sunning itself. I used my camera to zoom right in and there it was, a humungous bird balancing on a tiny branch.
We had fun swinging from giant vines Tarzan style and checking out a few plants and trees used for local medicines, including the tree originally used in the production of anesthetic, and then headed back to the lodge just before lunch.
After a quick meal we packed up and headed back into the boat for the final time. We had been going about 20 minutes or so when one of the Danish guys realised he didn't have his IPhone with him. We turned around and he found it under his pillow!
It was only on the way back that we finally spotted a solitary black howler monkey. It was too high up in the trees for a decent photo but it was there. The whole trip had been very worthwhile and despite the colds Adam and I had picked up on the first day we were feeling very relaxed and happy.
Now back to the rat race of La Paz….