Only a few hours ago we had accepted the fact that our flight was delayed for a third day. We'd be spending Valentine's Day in flooded, disaster-stricken Rurrenabaque with twenty also-stranded Canadian volunteer dentists. All but defeated, and with only twenty minutes until our scheduled departure time, our fate changed. All of a sudden someone from the airport called our hostel to say a plane WAS flying down from La Paz. We rushed to pack our bags, crammed ourselves into a shuttle bus with the dentists and drove straight to the slab of concrete in the middle of the jungle that is the airport. A couple of hours later and we're celebrating Valentine's Day with a bottle of Peruvian vino tinto at an Arabic restaurant in La Paz. Our hostel here has electricity, running water and best of all, it's not flooded!
It was always going to be a challenge to get from the Bolivian Altiplano down to the Amazon and back in the wet season, but if we had known the full extent of how difficult it would be we might have reconsidered going. The town of Rurrenabaque is the gateway to what is known as the Madidi Mosaic, which makes up part of the vast Amazon rainforest. It's only about 400km From La Paz but the road is terrible, especially when there are rivers of rainwater pouring across it from all directions!
After surviving the 'Death Road', we waited out the next day in Caranavi for a share taxi to fill up. When it finally did we drove around the corner to change two of the tyres. If we were anywhere else they all would have been changed years before, but we're in Bolivia... We weren't sure why the driver had waited all day to do it, but were grateful none the less. Having drawn our attention to the general condition of the tyres, we weren't at all surprised when a few hours into the muddy journey another tyre popped. Luckily we had a spare, a head torch and good shoes to handle the ankle deep mud. Several times throughout the night we had to get out and push the car through particularly muddy sections, and what was to be a seven hour journey turned into twenty when we had to wait for an excavator to come and repair the worst of it! The locals in the car must have thought we were completely mad, coming down this way just to see some monkeys... but Aidan has been dreaming about the Amazon since he was six and there wasn't much anyone could say to change his mind! We found out later that one of the bridges had collapsed behind us, so it was lucky we got through at all!
The company that we had booked with to visit the jungle were also surprised we made it. They seemed a little hesitant but agreed to set off the next day. After this meeting, we decided to stroll down to the river we were supposed to boat up and we realised why they were hesitant... The river had swollen to reach the esplanade, and seemed to be carrying worrisomely large pieces of jungle down with it. We sat with the locals and held our breath as brave boats crossed to the opposite side, narrowly avoiding gigantic trees and miraculously managing to stay upright through the rapids. A collective decision was made the next morning to postpone the trip for a day or two to see what the river does.
We spent our time exploring the little town, and found out a landslide had sadly killed ten people only a few days ago. Damage from the recent flood was evident on the riverbank too. We felt a bit silly being here as tourists, but no-one had told us specifically not to come and they needed our money now more than ever, so we stuck around. By the time the river calmed down our original operator was booked out, so we went with Madidi Travel instead. The founder of the company, Rosa Maria, was a local environmental activist and had helped establish Madidi National Park only twelve years ago. Since then she has had a few disagreements with officials and now has her own private piece of jungle. Serere Reserve was downriver too which made it more appealing, especially when the river went up again the morning we were set to leave...
We went anyway with six other tourists, and despite the constant rain and a thick cloud of mosquitoes, it was a good few days. Most of the reserve was still flooded which limited the trekking opportunities, but the wildlife was still pretty active and the extra water meant the boats could travel further! The staff here looked after a few rescued animals, including a couple of teenage tapirs, a mischievous macaw and an adorable Spider Monkey who had been found in a nearby village covered in battery acid! Since then the monkey has recovered, but is so attached to Rosa Maria that she screams and flips out every time they are separated.
We saw plenty of exotic, Amazonian fauna including herons, kingfishers, hawks, vultures, parrots and the brilliant prehistoric leaf-eating Serere birds. We saw a few Caiman lazing in the reeds from the safety of our canoe, and four different species of monkey (Howlers, Spiders, Squirrels and Capuchins). Jess was vigilant with the micros as well, spotting some funky mushrooms, lichen and flowers amongst the dense foliage. We were pretty lucky, but the Piranha refused to be hooked by our fishing attempts, and we must have been too noisy and smelly to catch an anaconda or jaguar, although we found some fresh paw prints belonging to the latter!
While we were spotting wildlife and enjoying the jungle, the river continued to rise. It was pretty fast flowing, but a boat came to pick us up when we were due to leave. If it were a few inches higher we would have been stuck in the reserve for a few more days! It may have been different if there were only a few of us, but we suppose having to feed nine tourists stuck in the jungle with limited food and water supplies would have been difficult, so perhaps it was worth the risk? Either way it made for an interesting hike back to the waiting boat, trudging through waist deep water with a swarm of mosquitoes trailing us and our vigilant tour guide constantly scanning the water nervously for anacondas.
We made it back to Rurrenabaque, and just in time to see more rain, more flooding and more landslides. The most frustrating thing was there was nothing we could do to help. Oxfam and some other aid groups helicoptered in food, water and tents for those who had lost their homes. We joined a few awkward onlookers and admired the way this community worked so well together. They all helped fill sandbags to prevent further damage, scrape off the residual mud left behind in the homes and feed the homeless children who sat patiently outside charitable restaurants. This was inspirational, but in the end we were pretty grateful to get out of there and leave them to it. What an adventure - and just to see a few monkeys!