We're up at 5.30am, early starts are now well and truly an engrained habit of this trip. We taxi to the airport, climbing up and up and up out of La Paz with the city sprawled sparkling for miles below us. By 7am we're at the airport and are told to wait until 7.30am to check-in. At check-in we are told to go to our gate where we'll be given some information as to the delay situation at 8am.
8am comes and goes. No information comes to us. The screens change to 9am. 9am comes and goes. The screen changes to 10am. At 10am a flight to Rurre with Tam Airlines is cancelled. This is not a good sign we think. Our Amazonas flight is still delayed with information pending at 11am now. Finally we get some information. The visibility at Rurre is 800m. To leave La Paz and land in Rurre we need 5000m visibility. The bad visibility is from people burning down the Amazon to put it bluntly. Yup read it and weep. That's right. And the visibility (or lack of) from smoke is a daily issue for flights into Rurrenbaque.
Around 1pm it is decided to fly us into a nearby airport with better visibility and bus us the remainder of the way to Rurre. Then at 2pm the plan changes and we are to fly direct to Rurre as visibility has improved.
The plane is a 19 seat Cessna, too small to stand up inside. The flight is okay, though no air conditioning so it's quite hot by the time we bump our way down through the clouds and land on a small strip of tarmac in a grass field. We get our bags from the one roomed airport shack and throw our bags up onto the roof rack of a mini van which whips us into town, past a field with giant Amazon-esk tree trunks lying about, awaiting transportation to a mill and ultimately some unsuspecting customer buying a new dining table.
Our tour company finds us in the minivan so we jump out at their offices, fill in the paperwork and tell them our hostel of choice for our pickup tomorrow. We head off down the street, hiking in the humidity to Hostel Oriental. This is okay, nothing more, nothing less; with spacious rooms including bathroom, a big central courtyard complete with hammocks and a friendly host. Our five speed fan has one speed. Scratch that, the following morning, after sweating it out all night under a sheet (to ward off any mosquitoes making it in through the old-with-occasional-holes-mosquito-netting) we discover our five speed fan does actually have five speeds. Luckily the shower is not hot and is chillingly cold. In 95% humidity this is acceptable, in fact, welcomed! The bed is the softest yet, roll-together central. The pillows are rock hard.
After a shop for essential supplies (loo paper, water and icecream) we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Camilla's for a fiver, free caprihinis and salted banana chips at the Jungle Bar and then headed off to bed. Luckily the bed provides only a sheet and duvet cover, no inner. We have traded altitude for humidity.
Everyone drives a motorbike, the open drains appear to act as sewers and footpaths are intermittent. Still, I cannot bring myself to throw my icecream wrapper into the rubbish filled open drains. There is enough filth and rubbish about without my contributing to it.
The following day we have a cold shower (good) followed by a funky breakfast - more hard as nails bread, strange looking jam and exotic fruits us kiwis are too afraid to try (bad). Our guide collects us at 9am, arriving on a bike. With no other option I clamber on behind him, with my massive backpack hanging off the bike behind me. At the river's edge dismounting the bike almost ends with the backpack pinning me in the sand. We throw our packs in the front of the boat and clamber in, seating ourselves on the fold down camp chairs bolted in to the bottom of the boat.
We cross the river, fill in a national park entry card and then it's off up river. We make a stop to pick up our guide and his extended family. They fill the boat with their chatter and laughter and we are off, up the Beni River for several hours. After three hours the river branches and we head up a shallower branch. The water gets so shallow that three of the guys take up positions with punting poles at the front of the boat to push the boat over the shallows which we ground on. We spot river turtles sitting on logs until we come by, then they plop, plop, plop into the flow of the river.
Eventually we pull onto a gravel bank and carry our packs up a short steep path to a clearing in the jungle where there are some huts, including a kitchen and dining hut. We are shown to our cabin in a second clearing and are impressed by what we see. Each cabin has a single and double bed, mosquito nets and lighting. This was a bonus; we'd bought our torch, prepared for no electricity. There is a separate bathroom hut, with two toilets and two showers. Hammocks are strung up in the trees for each of us, and we are set.
We are given lunch and meet three other couples who are all off camping in the jungle tonight and leave the following day. Lunch is good and plentiful, vegetable soup, rice, chicken, vegetables, salad and pork. We are then given bananas with cacao sauce, which we find out later is made from the cacao trees growing near the cabins.
At 2pm we boat 10 minutes upstream with our guide, Ernesto and set off on our first jungle walk. To ward off the mosquitoes, Ernesto rubs the orange seeds of a tree onto our faces and we look right silly with our mosquito war orange strips.
On our walk we spot blue and red McCaws, which stay monogamous for life, a Toucan, a snake (small luckily) and all manner of weird and wonderful plant life. There is the 'walking' tree, a garlic tree, and a tree whose name I've forgotten, but it's good for clearing sinuses. At a small lagoon we spot Paradise birds and Jungle Turkey's. We see Red Fire Ants, Termite nests on tree trunks and Armadillo burrows. We hear a Woodpecker, tap, tap, tap and bush pigs.
On our return through the jungle, Ernesto takes us bush-whacking, and we emerge tired and grimy onto the river bed we've boated up earlier. In the sandy riverbed we spot the big paw tracks of a Jaguar and a Tapir, a relative of the horse family, weighing up to 150kg. We are shown a 'living' tree that reactively closes its leaves when touched.
After more bush-whacking, we end up opposite our camp, and get a welcome pickup from their boats. We can see the sun, burning bright red behind its curtain of smoke. It's after 6pm so we hurry to have a quick cold shower together in the falling darkness before we lie, exhausted, under our mosquito net waiting for dinner.
Dinner is Mapai (a delicious rice dish), fried platinas (type of bananas, but must be cooked to eat) and fried eggs. We chat with Ernesto and find out he grew up in the jungle, as did his cousins who are also a part of Mashaquipe lodge. The Madidi area has been National Park for 15 years, yet the fires are both inside and outside the National Park boundaries.
After dinner we are not long out of bed, having decided to do two walks tomorrow, an early morning walk in search of monkeys and an all day walk through the jungle. A praying mantis flits about our bathroom cabin and bedroom porch and a thousand and one moths go loco over the porch light of our bedroom cabin.
We are up at 6am and meet Ernesto at 6.30am in the pre-dawn light. We set off into the jungle as the day begins. We trek for around an hour into the jungle, hearing the strangest noise in the distance, a kind of roar, which with the smoky burning of the Amazon in the back of my mind, I can only concur is machinery in the distance, ripping down the lungs of the planet. I think we are being taken to the edge of a cliff or clearing, where when we look out will be giant machinery, dozing down the giants of the Amazon, with cows grazing in the distance. Whilst I am sure it is possible to see such things in the Amazon, this is not what we find this early morning.
Instead by tracking the continuous roar, we find ourselves silently bush-whacking our way to a spot beneath some large trees and then craning our necks to spot three Red Howler Monkeys, high atop the tree, sleepy bundles of fur peering down at us. After watching them for a while we hike back to the cabins. On our return hike we see the quick flash of a red squirrel, hear some Toucans, and find a pineapple patch near our cabins.
Breakfast is pancakes, bananas, oranges, pena juice (pineapple), fried eggs and biscuits. Once we have refuelled we head out on our all day hike at 10am.
We see Woody Woodpecker, in fact two of them, doing their thing, hunting out worms inside of tree trunks. We spot numerous groups of bush pigs, sometimes smelling them first, and definitely smelling them afterwards, as they meandered through the jungle crunching on small coconut like nuts. Ernesto shows us a tree with leaves that I mush in my hand and add a little water to, to form a purple coloured dye. Sometime around 2pm we break for lunch near a river, which of course means mosquito and their other biting bug friends. Galore. Our packed lunch is rice, vegetables, more fried platinas, and a big hunk of meat.
After lunch we scrambled down a ridge and find ourselves on a cliff top edge overlooking the upper canopy beneath us. From this up close vantage point we sit and watch the antics of the red and blue McCaws which fill the canopies below us. Then it is time to head back, retracing our steps, and scrambling back up the ridge and making the long walk back to camp. Foot weary we get back to camp around 5.30pm, shower before dark falls and then crawl under our mossie net, tired, tired, tired.
At dinner, it is just the three of us, and we are served us a delicious pasta dish and some papa frites before we head back to bed, with a plan to hunt for more monkeys tomorrow, followed up by some piranha fishing.
Again we meet Ernesto in the early morning light at 6.30am and set off tracking the loud howl of the monkeys. This time we find them much quicker, and this time we've found the male doing all the howling. Which of course he ceases once he realises there are some non-monkey creatures at the base of his tree. He and his female friend are much easier to spot this morning than the three we saw yesterday and luckily for us, this pair is also more active, moving about to and fro through the tops of their tree. We see them walking along branches and then eventually they swing off.
The rest of our walk is filled with luck and we spot a couple of Toucans in the bare branches of a tree, followed by a pair of McCaw's flying overhead, blue and red tails streaming behind them. We see more Woodpeckers and then we startle a group of Cappuccino Monkeys, and we see them swinging off through the upper branches to flee us. The monkeys we have seen are so high up in the canopies that we realise even top notch zoo enclosures are no match for the real thing.
We come across more bush pigs and Ernesto shows us some small blueberry like berries, called Asasi berries, which I think are the new 'super' berries in the western world.
Back in camp we breakfast at 9am, on tasty cheese empanadas, fried wonton like pastry, an egg and chorizo dish, oranges and some more strong coffee with beans from the Amazon. We are exhausted and we have a mid morning siesta until 10am, when we meet up again with Ernesto and learn how to make jewellery from seeds and nuts in the jungle. We set to, making a couple of rings and Ernesto makes me a necklace, from a nut that three worms have hatched inside, and eaten three holes through the nut to make a pattern. Ernesto tips the worms out and eats one, much like a huhu grub which we tell him about.
For lunch we dine on vegetable soup, rice, coleslaw, beetroot, baby carrots, beef and pena juice. It has to be said, the food has been amazing, as has our guide, Ernesto.
It's a hot, hot day, the hottest yet, and for the first time we have clear blue skies, no smoke blowing our way today. We clamber into one of their long boats and Ernesto boats us up river to the lagoon we came to on our first hike. Here we hook small pieces of beef onto the end of our hooks and drop the line out into the murky lagoon. Piranha fishing is a bit like a game of slaps. It's all about timing and anticipation. Too long in the water and the piranha will make off with your beef, sometimes with a noticeable jerk on your line, other times as stealthy as. Not enough time in the water and you just spend a lot of time jerking out your line with beef still on it, only to throw it back again. As such, Ryan and I did not catch a thing. Luckily Ernesto had better reactions and caught a piranha, all silvery with those baby but razor sharp teeth. We made sure to stand a sufficiently respectful distance back from the edge of the piranha invested lagoon.
Piranha caught (and thrown back) we headed back to the boat and further upstream a short distance where the boys threw lines in, much like a lasso throw, to try and catch some Amazon Salmon or Catfish. Try was the operative word. Sans Salmon we boated back to camp, grabbed our gear and jumped back in the boat for our return boat ride.
We passed boats full of bananas being punted down the river and families on the river's edge having their days wash or clothes drying on river banks. Going downriver we didn't have any problems with grounding on the shallow river bed and were soon back in Rurrenbaque. In the Mashaquipe office they read our minds and handed us cold, cold cokes. Just what was called for!
We walked back to Hostel Oriental and ended up in a mosquito infested room. We went on a brief killing spree, inspected the mosquito netting (found to be sound), jumped in and out again from the ice cold shower, this time wishing it were luke warm at least, and headed off to Camilla's again for some dinner. We scored a second free caprihini and some less salty banana chips at the Jungle Bar before returning to our room where Ryan embarked on another killing spree before realising it was a losing battle, cranking the fan and crawling under the sheet.
It's another uninspiring breakfast at Oriental Hostel for us, all the while getting peeved off with other travellers who come and go from the breakfast room leaving the mosquito screen door wide open! To escape our mosquito filled room, we scarper off to the Amazonas office, noticing on our escape, that the door is not plumb with the floor, leaving a notable 'come on in' gap for said bloody Mosquitoes.
Outside the sky is blue and visibility is good, so we look set to fly, and Amazonas confirm this is so. We wait half an hour for an Amazonas bus to pick us and others up and whip us out to the airport. And in this short timeframe our smoke situation starts to deteriorate slowly. Both of us are rather anxious to get on our plane and off the ground. Another stifling night with a cold shower when we are in need of a good wash under a hot shower and being mosquito food here in Rurrenbaque does not appeal.
Out at the one roomed airport with its corrugated porch roof over the waiting area, we go through a four step rigmarole. 1. Hand in our luggage and receive luggage stickers. 2. Hand in the luggage stickers and get our boarding passes. 3. Pay municipal tax, requested in US dollars, for the privilege of staying in the town? 4. Do an about turn, take three paces to the other side of the room and find we are required to pay a further tax. Get grumpy. Demand what tax is for. Pay airport tax despite the cost of the tickets including airport taxes. Gripe about this for a little bit to finish the process.
In the waiting area outside we are able to watch the visibility continue to deteriorate, with smoke rolling in over the nearest mountains until they are just a smoke covered blur. The blue sky is no longer. We stare longingly at an Amazonas plane sitting out in the field. We stare disbelievingly as just two people board it and it takes flight. We wait some more and a TAM flight lands. Several minutes later the flight leaves full of TAM passengers. Our Amazonas plane lands and putts along the grass field. After the speedy TAM turnaround the Amazonas turnaround is painfully slow. We see gesturing towards the sky and we are rather anxious about the visibility situation ourselves. Eventually, and much to our relief we are invited to board our plane.
Phew. We are good to go.