After arriving to the La Paz airport in one piece, I made my way to the gate, down the jetway, and onto a bus to take us to our plane. I heard the plane was small but its lack of size exceeded my expectations. A single prop plane with 10 rows of 2 seats split by an aisle, and no cockpit door to prevent us from hearing any bell or alarm that may sound, it was the smallest plane in which I’ve ridden. The flight was uneventful, and we taxied to the Rurrenabaque airport, which is a term they use lightly. It was one building where the departure and arrival sections were split by a mosquito net, and the security checkpoint consisted of manually (and casually) searching your bag. I went from the airport to my El Curichal, where I’d stay one night before heading out in the morning.
I booked two separate three-day tours through Fluvial Tours, the Jungle and the Pampas. They presented two very different types of excursions, and I didn’t want to choose, so I splurged a bit and booked both. Yet they didn’t know, even the day before, on which I would go first. Luckily they had similar packing lists. I got to the office that morning to find out Jungle was first stop, and my group was me and 4 British kids on gap year after high school. Not my ideal group selection…19 year olds just seem to have different priorities while traveling, but they seemed cool enough. We hopped on a 3-hour boat ride up the river into the jungle, and hauled our stuff and food for the trip 15 minutes through woods and rivers to our camp. Good news: they told us we should rent boots cause they had gotten a lot of rain recently, so we were prepared. The bad news: they gave me two right boots and of course I didn’t try both on because the first one fit perfectly. So for the next few days I had dry, yet crooked, feet. After getting settled and eating lunch, we went out on our first of three jungle explorations. Very unstructured in nature, our guide Eliberto would just lead us through the jungle, creating a path with his machete as necessary, and teach us about any animals or unique plant life we came across. Trip 1 was a little light on wildlife (and this was expected…the Pampas is billed as the trip to see a large variety of animals) but we did see a few massive macaws, and learned a ton about the different plants and how the natives (like our guide) would use them. For example, we saw the tree sap they’d put on the end of a stick and throw into a small pond, which removed the oxygen from the water and killed the fish. Angling made easy. That was our last adventure for day 1, and after dinner, we just relaxed until bedtime, which comes early with no electricity.
Our second day was much more active - within the hour we ran into a family of yellow monkeys and chased them around for a while. And in the next few hours, we saw an iguana, wild pig, a few tarantulas, and a deer run off. We sampled some bark from the tree which the natives use to cure malaria. Extremely bitter, it took about an hour for the taste to leave my tongue, but I’m telling myself it’s pretty much like I took a vaccine against malaria, so it’s worth it. At least I think that’s how science works. After dinner, we grabbed our flashlights and went into the darkness for a nighttime walk for wildlife. What it turned into was a spider excursion. Big spiders, small spiders, all terrifying. I learned what a tarantula’s web looks like (and would later see one on the roof of both our bedroom and the dining room – fortunately this was while we were leaving).
After breakfast on day 3, we sat down with our guide Eliberto and made some forest jewelry. It brings you back to elementary school arts and crafts time. Rings for the hombres and necklaces for the chicas, all out of acorns and seeds found from the woods just outside of camp. I’m not necessarily a jewelry guy but I’ll wear this ring proudly for the rest of my trip (or at least until I lose it). Eliberto was just the type of guide I’d want for a voyage into the deep jungle. He was born in the jungle 60 years ago, and has made it his life. He spoke very little English (which gave me more helpful practice as a translator) but loved sharing his passion and knowledge of the rainforest. He only had two years of schooling (where he would have to walk an hour through the jungle to attend). He said “If you ask me about the stars I can’t explain them…but I can tell you about the jungle. I know the jungle.” He also claimed he cured his own rheumatoid arthritis by drinking a tea from the jungle for 12 straight days, followed by downing a bottle of whiskey (clinical studies soon to follow, I’m sure). But his belief and passion in the powers of nature were important factors in the experience. After our last lunch, we hauled our things back to the boat for our ride back into town. Right when we got on the boat was about when it started absolutely pouring down rain. And this wasn’t one of them fancy boats with cabins underneath…no, we were in the elements. But one thing I’ve learned and try to reinforce is not to worry or stress about things out of your control, especially the weather. Any rain you’re in is just water, and any inconvenience due to it is just temporary. Like Luke Bryan so eloquently put it, rain is a good thing. So, we arrived back into town, a little damp, and I went back to the same hostel for a night of rest before the second excursion.
I come back to the tour company office the following morning to meet my new group for discovering the wetlands – a Japanese couple and a triad of nice, young, good looking Australian girls (I can’t catch a break, right?). You never know how it will be as a solo traveler when you get paired with groups of people who already know each other, but we got along great and couldn’t have asked for a better group to explore with.
For this journey, we took a three-hour drive along unpaved roads, stopping for livestock in the road as required, towards the riverboat port. Close to our destination, we stopped for lunch, when we realized our driver had disappeared. Waiting around impatiently for 20 minutes or so, he finally showed up again, being dropped off by a car outside the restaurant. Judging by the sheepish smile on his face, our working theory was it was his local girlfriend. Unable to confirm though.
When we arrived at our boat, we met our guide Taz, and set out to look for wildlife as we headed towards the lodge. Taz handed around a bag of coca leaves (very popular amongst Bolivians for help with altitude sickness and an energy boost) and a bag of baking soda, which maximizes the effect of the leaves (not a bag of cocaine, as one unnamed Australian thought). We cruised up to a tree on the river that was filled with yellow squirrel monkeys. Taz calls my name and tosses me half of a banana to feed them. The plan in my head was to calmly break it into a few pieces and feed them peacefully. They had a different idea. I turn around and the monkeys are rushing the boat; probably 4 or 5 jumped on me and one lucky winner ripped the banana out of my hands, as the others retreated, disappointed and hungry. It was hilarious and terrifying all at the same time – I have a video that I’ll post, although I wish I could dub over the sound to make my screams sound much more manly.
We got to our lodge, a series of huts elevated over the water, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I had a private room. These last two stays in the rainforest were also my first experience sleeping in mosquito nets (the Aussies thought that was weird), and I’d be fine not doing it again. They’re lifesavers in an environment like this, but are as effective as keeping in heat as they are keeping out mozzies. We got a quick tour of the facilities, which included introduction to their “pet caimans”, one over 12 feet in length, who hung around under the dining room for meat scraps or clumsy tourists.
We had our first meal on site which, just like the jungle tour, was massive. One reason I’d recommend Fluvial Tours was the sheer amount of food they give you. Prepared by a nice lady that stays on site, they’re classic Bolivian meals with meat, 3-4 different carb options, and heaps of fresh fruit and veg. All you need to do is justify it by the calories you burned hiking and there’s no food guilt. After dinner, we went for our first round of nighttime caiman searching, as their eyes hover above the water and eerily reflect the flashlights, but we didn’t have much success. Back to get some sleep for the next full day ahead of us.
After breakfast (consisting of three different types of deep fried donuts), we went out to search for anacondas. Now this doesn’t mean ride around in a boat as our guide looks for anacondas…no, we put on our mud boots, and walked around in marsh, purposefully seeking massive predatorial snakes. As we got started, we asked Taz what we should do if we find one. “Uh…step on his head and grab him by the tail…or just call me and I’ll come over”. I just decided to blindly trust Taz with my life, and went in full steam ahead into the marsh. It’s one of those feelings where you don’t really know if you want to have a successful search or not, and since it was wet season and everything was flooded, it was truly like searching for a needle in a haystack. For better or worse, we left without finding an anaconda, but we also with all our limbs intact.
The afternoon excursion called for swimming with dolphins and fishing for piranhas. As we got to the spot to swim with dolphins, there wasn’t much activity, but we jumped in anyways to cool off. Taz, how do we know there are no piranhas in here? “No, it’s very safe here no worries”. Again…blind trust. After a quick dip, we went to the piranha fishing spot, which looked unnervingly similar to where we were swimming fifteen minutes earlier. There wasn’t much technique to piranha fishing – put some raw meat on a hook and throw it in the water. Not the smartest of fish. Due to the rainy season, we were met with limited success here as well (one fish between everyone on the boat), and after trying 4 or 5 different spots, we called it quits to go watch sunset with a few drinks. After the sun went down, we grabbed a few bottles of wine for the road and returned to camp. We split up the one piranha we caught as an appetizer, and it was a surprisingly clean tasting fish. After we had “finished” it, I watched Taz take literally every single piece of meat off the bone and give us back the skeleton. Apparently, he had plenty of experience eating piranhas. The post-dinner round 2 of caiman searching was a bit more successful – Taz pulled alongside a baby and grabbed it out of the water for us to hold. The moms only watch after their babies for the first year and then leave them to discover the world for themselves, so we returned him to the water and wished him luck. We capped the night off by enjoying the last glass of wine and good conversation in hammocks – a level of comfort that I wish I could bottle up and return to often.
Our last morning started with a 6 AM wake up call to experience the morning sounds of the pampas. Navigating just by oar, you got to hear the jungle awaken and the birds, monkeys, and other wildlife welcome the sunrise. Probably the most tranquil experience of my trip thus far, yet bittersweet because you knew it was coming to an end soon. We had a second go of swimming with dolphins, and had more success. Although it isn’t Sea World where they’re swimming up to you before doing backflips for treats – it’d probably be more appropriately named “swimming kind of close to dolphins”. And as long as you could ignore the peculiar smell in the water and not worry about long term health concerns, it was a cool experience.
One last boat ride back to the car, and we said our goodbyes to Taz. I won’t soon forget that man, he had such a fascinating story. He also only had a few years of schooling, but had somehow managed to learn five languages and travel the world helping research rainforest life and spread his knowledge. When I think of overcoming adversity and making the best of your circumstances, he will always come to mind. And when I combine the experiences I had with the great people I met, this week of exploration will be one of my favorite experiences of my travels, and the memories will stay with me forever.