Rurrenabaque. Where to start. I had really wanted to visit the Amazon Basin while I was in this part of the world. Despite having a morbid fear of anything with more than four legs I decided to head into the jungle as I was determined to see the pink river dolphins that everyone was talking about.
Caroline and I had a discussion about what mode of transport would be best, with the options being bus or air. The former costing a mere $10 for 18-hours, and the latter $80 for 45-minutes. We decided to take the money-saving option and so, after firm instruction from the ticket lady, we turned up at the bus station at 10:30am prompt. Of course, being in Bolivia, the bus didn´t end up leaving until 2:30pm and no one ever bothered to explain why.
Either way, we made our way out of La Paz and in fact took the same route as the Death Road tour, along the nice paved road. It was all going so well, I couldn´t believe that we´d paid just $10. Then, a few hours into the 18-hour journey, we hit Death Road proper. Although the authorities have closed off a section of what is Death Road, they have left open a huge section (spanning around 7 hours) of road that is exactly the same in width and composition (where composition includes a deadly drop of hundreds of metres on one side). I had the misfortune of being in the window seat which meant that every time I looked out of the window my heart skipped a beat seeing that the bus was no more than about a foor away from the edge of a cliff. Add to this the fact that the road was littered with large rocks, and our bus had the suspension of a four year old´s push bike and you can imagine the ride wasn´t the most comfortable. Somehow I actually managed to sleep for a few hours though and when I regained consciousness, we were on flat roads, the terrain and climate had completely changed. The dusty white roads had given way to bright orange clay-like roads (though the large rocks and terrible suspension hadn´t disappeared), the fog and clouds gave way to bright blue sky and the towering mountains had disappeared to be replaced by flat fields and palm trees.
We got into Rurre around breakfast time. Having met an interesting (and slightly loopy) Italian girl who was carrying out research on local indigenous populations we went to a cafe she recommended for some French pastries and coffee. We then checked into El Curichal hostel and once showered and refreshed set off finding a tour for the Pampas and the jungle.
Of the various companies we spoke to, Amazonico seemed to be the cheapest, which seemed a little suspicious at first, but seeing as how we´d taken the cheap option with transport getting there we figured we´d continue along the same path. So, for BOL 920 ($130) we got two days on the Pampas, with accommodation and food included, as well as three days in the jungle, again all included.
The following day we turned up at the offices as instructed and saw that we would be in a group totalling twenty four people including ourselves (three boats, each holding eight people). Twenty two of these were Israeli.
We set off first in 4x4s, navigating the very bumpy orange roads. After an hour or so we stopped for a refreshment break at a small hut that was part of a guy´s farm. Next to the hut was his barbecue pit, on which was an Armadillo. One of the guides named Puma went over and cut himself a piece with his machete. He then offered and given that the Armadillo wasn´t kosher, myself and Caroline were the only potential takers. I figured I´d have a go and was pleasantly surprised when it tasted of a hog roast. Puma then scooped a piece of brain out and offered it to me. I hesitated so he took a bite himself to prove it wasn´t a wind up. I decided to man up and again, was pleasantly surprised. On its own the texture wasn´t great (something like pate), but I could imagine it being quite good spread on toast.
After the short break we continued on until we got to the point for the boats. Here we split up into three boats and set off into the Pampas. Things started well, with the weather being perfect and the smooth ride being very relaxing. We saw some amazing birds, including storks and falcons. Puma was the guide in the front boat, with us just behind. He had spotted some Paradise birds in a tree that was in the water, and both boats approached the tree so everyone could see them. Unfortunately, both guides seemed to think that in order to see the birds, we needed to be in the tree with them. The boats made contact with the tree, displacing branches. The birds were clearly getting agitated and yet the guides continued. Finally after a few minutes, we moved on. Puma´s group went ahead as we spotted some impressive birds and stopped to take pictures. We caught up to his boat after a while as they had stopped. We saw that he had picked up a turtle from the riverbank and was allowing each person in his group to manhandle it. One girl got a little too close and the turtle managed to grab her camera case. We watched as she tried to yank it out of the turtles mouth. Eventually the turtle let go. They continued to pass it around and we watched in disbelied as the idiot girl put her camera case back in the turtle´s mouth intentionally. All the while the guides sat back and watched. When the turtle refused to let go again, one of the guys on the boat thought it would be a good idea to pick up a small stick and try to poke it´s head, whilst the girl used the camera case to yank it´s head from side to side. Caroline and I shouted at him to stop. I really couldn´t believe these people were so stupid. Even more so, I couldn´t believe the guides were so careless. Caroline was in tears, having grown up on a farm and been so close to animals, she was shocked by what she was seeing.
This incident really put a downer on the rest of the day. We saw a lot of beautiful wildlife, including some amazingly cute and curious little yellow monkeys, but it became more and more clear that the guides just wanted to try and impress the girls and really were not bothered about the wildlife and educating the group. They had also learned Hebrew due to the sheer volume of Israeli tourists and our guide insisted on speaking in Hebrew even though he knew that Caroline and I needed to hear what he said in English/Spanish, and that all the Israelis on the boat spoke decent English. Idiot.
In the evening we headed out to see the sunset. There was a footy pitch there and some of us had a kickabout whilst others played volleyball or chilled with a beer. I had a couple of layers of clothing as well as copious amounts of mosquito repellent on as I had heard stories of the volume of mosquitos. When they came though, I couldn´t believe how many there were. I was constantly having to rub my hands, back and legs to make sure they weren´t biting, but of course in the dark I really couldn´t see if they were doing any damage or not. After sunset, we headed back for what was a delicious (and kosher) dinner. After dinner we had the night excursion planned. We headed out on the boats with torches. As we sailed along we shone the torches into the bushes/trees growing at the river banks and often we saw a narrow orange reflection, which were the eyes of alligators lurking in the water. It was great to see, and slightly terrifying.
Yet again though, the experience was somewhat destroyed by the guides. Our guide picked up a baby alligator, which was clearly in distress as a result. He saw that Caroline had been upset and said: ´don´t worry, I´m only picking this up for educational purposes, so I can tell you about aligators´. He gave us two basic facts and then passed it around for photos. Useless. Shortly after this, he came to the front of the boat, turned his back on me and proceeded to ask Caroline to come to the back of the boat so he could show her the aligators and tell her about them. Completely ignoring the fact that I might be interested he took her to the back of the boat, gave her a few more basic facts and then asked if she wanted to go for a drink. She said no. This guy really was the definition of douchebag.
That night we were in bed early as the plan was to be up for the sunrise the following morning. They´d explained to us before that you can hear the birds and howler monkeys in the mornings, and having had a similar experience in Tikal, Guatemala, I was really excited about this.
In the morning we were up at 5:30am, but with the Israeli´s faffing about, it was 6:15am before we were in the boat. One of the girls in our boat was messing about in the room, thinking about her hair and how tired she was, but the others were insistent that she come, so we waited in the boat while they shouted to her and she shouted back. At 6:30am we left. The sun was up and by the time we got to the viewing point, the other two boats were already there. We hadn´t missed much in terms of the sunrise because it was a little cloudy, but the animals were still stirring. Unfortunately, I learned that when you have more than two Israelis within speaking distance of each other it is impossible for them to be quiet for more than three seconds. So, we heard very few Howlers roaring above the sound of Hebrew being spoken. Of course, the guides were intent on flirting with the girls and so they weren´t bothered about the experience. I´d been lucky enough to experience a great sunrise and the eerie sounds of the animals/birds waking in Guatemala so I was more disappointed for Caroline who hadn´t had that opportunity than I was for myself.
We returned to the camp for breakfast where we were greeted by a massive aligator waiting for us at the river bank. Amazingly (and slightly worryingly), the guides still stopped the boat next to it and told us we had to get out to get to the camp. We all looked on in disbelief. This massive 10ft aligator was no more than a few feet away and we had to walk almost past it´s head. Still, we did as we were told and luckily it kept stock still. The guides came out with some meat and we watched in amazement as it opened it´s massive jaws to eat. When we returned to the boat after breakfast there was a second aligator on the bank. This was all a bit suspicious given that they are normally quite shy, hiding away in the marshes, so we assumed that these two had been almost house trained and knew they could get an easy meal at the camp when the gringos showed up. Nonetheless, it was amazing to see them so close up. Next, we headed out to go ´Anaconda hunting´. We kitted out in wellies and headed to a marsh which turned out to be a feeding frenzy for the mosquitos. I had woken up with around sixty bites on my hands, back and legs from the night before, and they relentlessly bit me again in the marsh. Luckily, the idiots didn´t find an Anaconda, so there were no wild animals manhandled on this occasion. We headed back into the boats and sailed back via the area where the pink dolphins normally are. Caroline went in to try and swim with them, but I decided to stay on the boat as I felt the view would be better from there. It was amazing to see them. Impossible to photograph but something that stays in the memory forever. The way they moved in the water, the beautiful pink colour, everything was perfect, and no opportunity for the guides to ruin it.
Finally, we headed back to camp for a quick lunch and the return trip to Rurre.
There were parts of the Pampas trip that I really enjoyed. However, part of me really regrets going as it was really sad to see the that the tour companies are so irresponsible towards the wildlife. It would have been an incredible experience and worth every penny if they had shown a little intelligence and respect, allowing us to view the animals and birds from afar. Unfortunately, the guides seemed to be there just to find girls and not to educate us about the Pampas, which really is a beautiful place.
The following day we were due to head out on the jungle tour. After the Pampas experience I was not looking forward to it. We got to the offices and found that we would be going on the jungle tour with a group from a different company (Fluvial). This raised my hopes a little. This time we were just seven people. Myself, Caroline, an English couple, an English lad, an Irish lad and an Aussie bloke. Straight away, things were better. We hopped on a boat in Rurre and started a 2 1/2 hour journey downriver towards our lodge in the Amazon.
We all chatted a little (not in Hebrew), getting to know each other before either falling asleep (the three other lads had been drinking until late the night before) or sitting back and taking in the views (the rest of us hadn´t been drinking). The journey was beautiful with hillsides to the left and right soon being replaced by jungle.
When we arrived, we set up camp and sat down to an amazing lunch. The chef was quite incredible. I looked into the kitchen and saw the basic equipment she had, but somehow she had cooked up some delicious beef as well as some amazing fresh fish, rice, salads etc. This was a great start.
After lunch we headed out for an excursion into the jungle. Our guide led the way and we followed in tow, single file. A few minutes in we saw a gigantic ant, named the Bullet Ant. It gets this name because on an official pain scale a bite from one of these is second worst, behind being shot. The pain can last from anywhere to a day, up to five days. Some Amazonic tribes have traditions that involve being bitten by these in order to pass from boyhood to manhood. Crazy.
We saw all kinds of interesting plants and trees along the way. Every so often the guide would stop and say: ´listen. Can you hear? Pigs. Pigs.´ In a slightly hilarious English accent. Of course we heard nothing and so thought he was making it up. He did this several times along the way. At one point we stopped next to what looked like a perfectly normal tree. The guide explained to us that this was a crucial source of water if you were lost. He chopped the tree with his machete and one by one we lined up to drink. I was expecting a few droplets but water would come gushing out when he tipped the trunk.
We kept going and he pointed out various plants used by the indegenous tribes for medicinal purposes. Finally, he stopped again and pointed in a certain direction whilst saying: ´Listen. Pigs. Pigs. Maybe 200m.´ We headed the way he was pointing, slowly and as quietly as possible. We approached a small rivulet over which a large tree had fallen, forming a sort of bridge. We walked slowly onto the trunk and there just 30m away were the wild pigs. It was amazing to see them in their natural environment. It was also a 15ft drop down to the rocks of the rivulet so we had to be careful. We watched for around 10 minutes before something freaked them out and quick as a flash they were gone. We followed the route they had taken, but although the pigs were gone, the stench they left behind still lingered. It was truly disgusting!
We headed back to the camp after this excursion, for another awesome dinner. After food, we headed out with torches at the ready, for a night time excursion. It was quite spooky walking around just by torchlight. We saw all kinds of bugs, including tarantulas, other weird spiders (including one that had managed to lose two legs) and centipedes. Every so often we would stop, turn out the light and listen to the sounds. I´d never been in darkness like that before. Caroline was no more than a foot in front of me and I couldn´t make out even a silhouette. Every so often we would see a tiny flash from a firefly here and there. It was beautiful to see.
The following morning we headed out on another walk. Our guide picked up a small apple like fruit, chopped it in half and dipped a stick into it. He explained how the juice was used as tribal war paint and that it could be used to make temporary tattoos. He wrote ´Viva Bolivia´ on my left arm and we continued to walk. Nothing appeared on my arm at first, but after 30 minutes I could see the blue writing on my arm. Although it looked like something a small child had written, it was pretty cool.
We continued walking and stopped at another regular tree. Our guide used his machete to chop away a small rectangle of bark from the tree and expose the underlying wood. He cut away a thin sheet of this wood and poured a little water onto it. As he started to rub the water into the wood, it gained an almost cloth-like texture. This, he explained, was used to make clothes by the tribespeople. Fascinating. We also saw a plant whose leaves when crushed and mixed with water formed a blood red liquid, which he explained was used as an antiseptic.
We returned from the walk and had another fantastic meal, before heading out fishing. We went to the river with bait that the guide had caught (sardines) and sat waiting patiently. The Aussie bloke, a regular fisherman back home got a few bites but nothing more. Right towards the end of the day, when all seemed lost, the guide caught a nice big fish for us to take back to the camp and grill.
That night we had a massive feast with chicken and fish. We relaxed and managed to find a few critters around the camp, including a huge cricket, tarantula and a large frog.
Sadly, it was our last morning in the jungle. It was all about arts and crafts. We spent the morning making a choice of either a ring or a necklace, out of nuts. It was hard work and made me realise how hard the street vendors actually work to make the products they sell at their little stalls.
Finally we packed up and jumped on our boat back To Rurre. As we left, the sun was shining and it was nice and hot, as it had been every other day during out time in the jungle. After around 30 minutes, we saw a huge wall of grey sky ahead of us. We all looked at each other thinking we´d be fine. Home and dry in Rurre before we reached the cloud. How wrong we were. The locals on the boat alll ran for their ponchos. They obviously know what was coming. It was torrential. within two minutes I was soaked to the bone. Then the wind came and froze us. For an hour and a half we sat frozen and soaked as the wind and rain continued to batter us. Finally we reached Rurre and legged it to the hostel for a warm shower.
Caroline and I had a bus booked to go back to La Paz that night. However, having gotten to the bus terminal we were told that it had been cancelled due to the horrendous conditions and that we would have to come back in the morning. We went back to the hostel which was full, and ended up sleeping on the floor in the same room as the staff. The following morning I decided to take a flight back, while Caroline decided to take the bus. I went to the ticket office for the airline and was told that all the flights were full for that day as there had been delays to all flights due to fog and cloud cover. I tried another airline and they sold me a ticket for later that day. I was a little suspicious but turned up at 2pm as they´d instructed. Of course I stood waiting until 4:30pm at which point they told me that no flights would be leaving that day and that I would have to return at 7:30am the next morning for a flight at 8:30am. This I did. And yet again we were waiting until 11:30am before the shuttle bus left the offices to take us to the airport. Once at the airport we had another 2-hour wait until we were allowed to get onto the plane. This was an interesting experience. We were first transported to the runway. We stood for around ten minutes next to the runway before the plane arrived. It landed around twenty metres from where we were stood.
Finally, I was on my way back to La Paz. When I got there, there was no sign of Caroline. I found out that night, that her bus had taken 36 hours as it had gotten stuck in mud and they had to wait for rescue machinery. Thank god I had decided to fly.
I spent just a couple more days in La Paz, not really doing much, before catching an overnight bus to my next stop, Sucre.