Rurrenebaque and the Pampas

30 November 2008, La Paz, Bolivia
Our holiday within a holiday was the trip to the Madidi National Park in the Bolivian Amazon, based from a place called Rurrenebaque.

It is an 18 to 30 hour bus ride on unmetalled roads so we chose to take a flight in a tiny 19 seater plane. Rhianon described it as like being in one of the pods on the London eye, catapulted across the sky. Quite accurate actually. Although I'm not scared of flying there were moments in the turbulence when I thought we wouldn't make it! The co-pilot was really sick and had to be rushed out first when we landed on a strip of grass cleared in the midst of the jungle!

Flying over the rainforest was quite an eye opener as the bits which were not national park had been heavily deforested and many areas were being burned, causing a huge smog to hang over Rurrenebaque. This brought home the importance of eco tourism, (although I guess flying there isn't so 'eco' - guilty gulp). Although I wasn't sure about the ethics of going to the jungle as part of a tour, I realise now that at least it is an alternative industry to logging and cattle and it ensures that the rainforest is preserved in some areas at least.

The 40 degree heat really hit you as you got off the plane, especially as it was only 45 minutes from La Paz where you were surrounded by glaciers. The views on the flight were stunning though, flying over the Andes.

Whilst we looked for a hostel to stay in tiny Rurrenebaque, we scrumped some mangoes which were just lying around, fallen from the trees, and later had a little fruity feast in our leafy hostel.

The next day we booked a trip to the Pampas which is a sort of marshland on the edge of the rainforest with a river running through. This is where you take the boat trip. It's a bit like being on a wet production line with all the other tour boats going up and down the same strip. It can't be good for the wildlife but as it was the very end of the dry season and everything was dried up except the river, there was really concentrated wildlife, and there was just so much of it about!!

Within seconds of getting into the boat we were surrounded by alligators, caiman and numerous birds including herons, several varieties of kingfisher, and storks. There were great families of capybara, various types of monkeys, pink river dolphins, anacondas, piranahs, macaws, toucans and many different sorts of large birds of prey. I just don't know why they don't eat each other and seem to get on. It's almost as if they have a pact to share the river as it's the only water left for them all. You'd never see such concentrated wildlife together normally.

Our camp was extremely basic, there was a shower and a tap which we used to brush our teeth for the first 2 days till we reliased that is was just the filthy, condensed river water pumped up! Our guide thought it was hilarious that we were brushing our teeth in 'peepee de Alligatorés.' If we haven't got tropical diseases and parasites now, we're not gonna get them.

After night fall we got back in the boat to look for caiman by torchlight. Unfortunately it was the night of the giant moths which only come out once a year. Every time we put our head torches on to look we got a mouthful of moths. It was bloody awful and eventually the guide made us turn them all off as he was freaked out. In the end it was lovely as the sides of the river were lit up by fireflies so the guide could steer the boat back using those and we listened to all the night time jungle sounds along the way.

We were woken early the next morning by the howler monkeys in the trees above our camp and an orphaned bambi crying. It was like a scene out of Snow White with the bambi and the brightly coloured birds - just needed someone to burst into song. I would have done so but people were already throwing rotten fruit at the bambi to get it to shut up and I didn't fancy my chances!!

After breakfast we went on an anaconda walk to look for anacondas (surprisingly). After traipsing through a potato field with ostriches, giant snails, capybara skeletons and snake skins littered everywhere, we found a swampy spot with long grass and our guide told us to break up and look for cobras and anacondas in the grass! I nearly soiled myself, I thought that was HIS job!

Within seconds one of the lads had found a 3 metre cobra constrictor which the guide proceeded to grasp by the tail and swing round his head so it wouldn't bite him till someone found a stick for him to pin it down with so he could grab the head.
The poor thing had just eaten a toad which it regurgitated (fortunately not in mid swing or we'd have got a faceful of half digested toad!) It had war wounds of alligator bites all over it. The guide reckoned it was about 20 years old. I wondered how many times it had been caught for tourists in its life!

We didn't manage to find our anaconda 'til we got back to camp and there was one, still alive but barely, on the river bank. Its head had been half eaten by an alligator but it was still moving about. Whilst we were watching the dying anaconda, our camp was invaded by a troupe of squirrel monkeys who came down to play with the kittens. It was rather sweet and a good opportunity to watch them closely.

The evening was spent fishing for piranahs from the boat. I managed to catch a twig and Minton and Rhianon both caught the same damaged fish with no tail and one eye, but everyone else caught lots of piranhas! It was great fishing with a toucan and curious capuchin monkeys in the tree above, surrounded by alligators and with the sound of howler monkeys settling down for the night as a backdrop.

The following morning we got up at 5 to go and watch the sun rise and were then taken to swim with 25 pink river dolphins - and 2 massive caiman - in the river. We made sure we washed off all our sun cream and insect repellent but not everyone else did. There are so many tourists doing it every day that it must be so poisonous for the wildlife!

It was a brilliant experience but I knew the river was full of piranhas as we'd just been catching them and the caiman were right next to us, dipping in and out of the water, but apparently the dolphins protect us from them. How thoughtful of them - such an altruistic act and what a load of nonsense! I don't know how it works but apparently if you're swimming with the dolphins, the caiman won't go in amongst them as there are so many of them. The dolphins are really eerie and creepy looking, pinky-grey and silent, popping up occasionally and snorting. I can't say I think they're all that nice to be honest. They gave me the heeby-jeebies a bit!!

I don't think I've seen so much interesting wildlife close up in all my life put together. It was truly special and I just hope that tourism doesn't kill all that wildlife off!

Will write about our more rugged jungle adventure next time, got a bottle of Bolivian wine winking at me! xx