The Pampas: Home to gators, dolphins, piranas & Patrick Swayze
Santa Rosa National Park, Bolivia
Andrea: Our taste of the Amazon continued with our pampas tour from Rurrenabaque. Some of the group from the previous boat trip managed to book on our boat so we were excited to have some familiar faces on the tour. We jumped in a jeep with the Australian couple, the Aussie/Kiwi couple and a new couple from Quebec and set off on a 3 hour journey down rough dirt roads with the driver peering through a windshield that was severely cracked and seemingly held together with scotch tape. We sat facing each other on the hard benches and chatting until the first bathroom stop where we were greeted by a shirtless Bolivian stud of a man that we likened to Jacob from the Twilight movie who stared us down from a hammock. I'm sure the highlight of his day was watching the giggling girls piling out of the 4x4 to go for a pee and for us it was the first of many wild animal spottings to come.
As we continued on the road, the dust got so bad that it looked like rain cascading down the back window in sheets. Our lunch stop was a local restaurant that was home to a wild boar. He looked like a toothless warthog (think Pumba from the Lion King) with the fur of a porcupine. I don't really know how a 'wild boar' comes to call a place home, but he was plenty domesticated as he demonstrated by waltzing over to us (on his tiny hoofs that made it look like he was wearing stilettos), plopping down and rolling over on his back to get his belly rubbed.
Back on the road and we were shortly at the river where we were to catch the boat. The boat was open and long with 8 deck chairs aligned two by two. There was no roof so we donned our dorkiest hats and were off! Alligators lined the banks on both sides as we all secretly wondered how sturdy the boat actually was and held on for dear life. Black caimans were also present, and much bigger and meaner looking than the alligators (they are a close relation to the crocodile). The next two hours were spent pointing and shouting 'Look!' as we all spotted something new: alligators and caimans, turtles piled on each other to make room on a sun-soaked log, jumping fish hopping into the boat for fear of our motor, birds of paradise with bright orange and blue feathers pointing straight up from their heads and stump-nosed capybaras wearily hanging out beside the gators, camoflouging themselves in the mud. Our guide, Rosaro, stayed pretty quiet during most of it, except to point out a few birds and to make sure we knew the caimans could kill us if they wanted to.
At the lodge, we were greeted by the proprietor who wore the perfect uniform for his job--tight black jeans, snakeskin cowboy boots, no shirt--and we affectionately dubbed him Patrick Swayze. We were all shown our respective double, en-suite rooms. We later realised this was a win because almost everyone else were in shared rooms so we gloated accordingly. Other groups started arriving and a group with the other half of our first boat trip arrived so we were all reunited. They started the trip one day before us so were filling us in on all the activites we could expect from Day 2. After dinner was the night boat ride to look for alligators and caiman. We all had our headlamps and flashlights and were looking for their glowing eyes on the riverbank. Yellow eyes are alligators and red eyes are caiman. We were spotting pairs of eyes on the bank with exclamations of "Look!" and "Gator!" and "Definitely a caiman!" (to which Rosaro mumbled "No, gator.") and then we turned a corner and went down a narrow passage where the eyes multiplied and it looked like Christmas lights all around. We all sat there in a stunned silence nervously counting the number of eyes. Rosaro knew we were nervous so he pulled the boat up to an especially lit-up river bank and just let us sit there as the illuminated eyes sat fixated on our boat. One gator jumped in the water and started thrashing around right next to our boat which someone later described as "attacking us." We turned around to head back to the lodge and a fish dropped out of the sky and hit Matt (the Kiwi) on the head and landed in his lap. We looked at Rosaro and asked how that happened and he told us it had been dropped by a bat (did I mention these were flying around the boat too?). We accepted that as the right answer until it came out later, when someone said bats don't eat fish or that it wouldn't drop one, that Rosaro had indeed thrown it at Matt's head. A war had started.
The next day after a delicious breakfast (pancakes!) was anaconda hunting. We had been told this could take up to 5 hours and there was only a 50/50 chance of seeing them. Rosaro proved helpful yet again when I asked him what we should wear for the trip. He just stared at me for about a minute to make sure I fully understood how dumb the question was and then answered: "long sleeve, long pant, NO BUG SPRAY!" "OK, what about sun cream," I enquired. "I don't know," was his response. Thanks. So we donned borrowed Wellington boots and followed Rosaro's suggestions and were off. Except for a 10-meter wide puddle we stayed in dry land, dodging alligators and looking under trees for anacondas. An electric fence stood next to us for about a mile of our walk and we reached the wide open plain and thigh high grass which is where the anacondas live. After about hour and a half of nervous stepping (Rosaro had also mentioned the 5 other types of killer snakes that lived in the area), Matt nonchalantly whispered, "There's one." Rosaro jumped to investigate while we all scurried to see what it looked like. Our guide couldn't have been happier to see that snake. I think he was starting to wonder how long he would have to lead the tourists around in the tall, hot grass before we all wanted to go home. He lifted it up and confirmed it was a female anaconda that was about 2 1/2 meters long (which is small by anaconda standards) and we all took photos with it a little too close to us. Rosaro put the snake back, gave us some more information about anacondas, started calling Matt "Eagle Eye Matt" and then turned to go back.
After lunch and a siesta, it was time for swimming with the river dolphins. The water is not the clearest, in fact it is a muddy brown that you wouldn't be able to see your hand in if you put it just below the surface. Bathing suits on, we jumped in the boat ready for the unknown! We pulled up to the spot and there was already a boat there with 2 guys chasing the elusive dolphins around. We had seen a few of these the previous day and starting calling them the "Hills Have Eyes Dolphins" because they are not dolphins as we usually know them. They are a light gray with light pink bellies, have a wide nose and their dorsel fin looks like a hunchback instead of a fin. In a word: Inbred. Still cute, though. They basically made themselves scarce as soon as they realised people were trying to swim with them, and possibly hearing about our nickname for them, so we sat in the boat debating about whether or not we should jump in. Eventually we slid in along with 2 others from our boat while we simultaneously looked for dolphins, kept an eye on the alligators eyeing us from the river banks and tried not to pee (consult the previous blog for info on the urethra parasite). After five minutes we jumped back in the boat and decided the elusive river dolphins would stay just that and went to look for sloths instead.
"There's one in the tree!" Rosaro cried, pointing to the highest branch above our heads. We had all been scanning the tops of trees for sloths, because that's where we were told to look, but had no idea what exactly we were looking for. Rosaro pulled the boat up to the bank and was still pointing and screaming for us to look up. After hearing news of the sloth, another boat pulled in next to us and everyone started piling out onto the bank. I could see absolutely nothing so I thought better of climbing up a slippery hill in flip flops to look at leaves. I stayed in the boat. Vern was looking at Rosaro saying "Where is it? I can't see it." To which Rosaro replied, "Why are you looking at me?! It's not on my face, it's in the trees!" Very helpful, as usual, Rosaro. The Australian girls and I stayed on the boat and speculated that there really was no sloth and that Rosaro just needed a bathroom break, but when the other boat pulled in behind us he realised he was in too deep and filed everyone off that boat to look at the imaginary sloth. This was confirmed when a.) everyone returned to the boat with tales of seeing "possibly a black blob" and b.) when the guide from the other boat commented on a spider web saying, "This is much more interesting. It's the most dangerous spider in the Amazon and will paralyze you if bitten." Although that is interesting, the sloth is supposed to be one of the most elusive animals on the trip so the fact that a spider catches more attention made us still believe there was no sloth. Also, even though no one actually saw it, the war between Matt and Rosaro raged on as he returned to the boat saying, "Who's the 'Eagle Eye' now, Matt?" and "Didn't see that one, did you?" Matt just shrugged and clearly didn't care. Some minutes later we did see an actual sloth climbing slowly from branch to branch, so some of Rosaro's street cred was restored. Although high up, we could see the sloth's spotted back and his human-like limbs reaching between the trees. For a split second we thought it could have been one of Rosaro's friends in a furry suit trying to save him from embarrassment. Back at the lodge, dinner, drinks and good conversation made for a fun final night in the pampas.
Day 3 started bright and early for most of us as we were in the boat by 6:00 to see the sunrise. (Three people didn't make it.) Watching from an open field, "The Circle of Life" song from The Lion King sprang to mind as the red sun ascended through the clouds and into the sky in mere seconds. On our way back to the boat we all agreed to talk about how great the sunrise was during breakfast so the three people who slept in would know they missed out and be super jealous. It didn't work as they all looked well rested and we were bragging through yawns and red eyes.
After breakfast it was time for our last activity of the trip: piraña fishing. Equipped with a piece of wood with a line tied to it and a bag of raw meat, we parked next to a river bank and tried our luck. We were surprised when the fish were nibbling immediately and thought back to the previous day when we'd been splashing about in this water looking for dolphins! We were glad we didn't do this activity first else I don't think anyone would've jumped in the opaque brown water. But the fish were biting fast and hard and it wasn't long before we were reeling them in. I think this was the first fish I've ever caught, which is impressive since it is a man-eater. I had two catches and Vern one, but we had to throw them all back because they were too small to eat. There were a few big catches, however, which we would eat at lunch. The rest of the time the fish took the bait off the hooks easily and got away with full bellies. Everyone on the boat caught at least one fish, except the Australian, Dan, and we all gave him hell for it. We had a delicious lunch back at base that was complemented nicely by our fresh catch. (For the record, piraña just tastes like normal fish with a lot of bones.) After lunch it was back on the boat for our last ride to meet the jeep back to Rurrenabaque. On the way we took in the last of the alligators and sunbathing turtles in silence and enjoyed the ride.
A bumpy and dusty 4x4 drove us the 3 hours back to Rurrenabaque and we passed the time by belting out 80s power ballads and 90s alternative classics. "Here I go again on my own! Going down the only road I've ever known..." and then racing to close the windows before an oncoming car kicked up dust into our sweaty car. Back in Rurrenabaque we all went to dinner together and then spent the night playing pool and enjoying several bottles of wine with the Aussies (and 1 Kiwi). It was late when we said our goodbyes to them, and to the jungle, as the next day we headed back to the mountains.