Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rurrenabaque and Las Pampas Jungle Tour - Bolivia

A nice early taxi took us to the small airport from where we would take the flight from the bustling and populated La Paz to the Pampas jungle region of Rurrenabaque in the Amazon Basin.  The only people in the airport were those taking the small TAM (military) aeroplane and we were soon checked in and walking through the backdoor to the plane and the runway.  The vistas from the flight were spectacular and there were mountains and lagoons throughout the forty minute journey until suddenly the practically barren mountainous region turned into lush green rainforest.  We couldn’t see much of a runway as we descended but a green clearing emerged just in time as the plane touched down and we were subjected to the immense humidity as we disembarked.  It was amazing how the climate and environment had changed so much from such a short flight.  Soon we were on the transfer bus to the ‘town’ from where we got our lift to the jungle. 
Stepping off the plane in Rurrenabaque

After a couple of hours of bumpy unsealed roads and we arrived at a remote place where we would be having lunch.  The food was llama meatballs which were pretty tasty.  The restaurant also had a resident monkey which was having immense fun playing with a puppy and a cat later joined in.  The monkey seemed to have the upper hand and was pulling the poor puppy’s face and prodding it but it didn’t seem to mind too much and even offered it some food that it didn’t want.  After lunch we drove a couple of hours more until we were at the embarkation point for the boats where we would be sailing up river.

Puppy versus Monkey

Even before we got onto the boats we spotted some fresh water pink dolphins swimming around just twenty feet or so away from us.  Soon we were on the boats and animal spotting and there certainly wasn’t any shortage.  We immediately saw a family of monkeys and the river was lined with turtles bathing on rocks and logs, capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), alligators & caimans lurking in the shadows or submerging like submarines as we approached, all types of birds and the odd appearance from the beautiful dolphins.  Animal spotting was easy and we were spoiled for things to see on this glorious day and we soon stopped pointing everything out and sat back and enjoyed the ride.  We happened upon another family of monkeys and perhaps contrary to ecotourism guidelines we nosed the boats onto the muddy bank next to the tree and began our man versus monkey staring contest as they gradually became more and more confident.  It didn’t take long as they began the routine of investigating everyone’s bags and extremities undoubtedly looking for morsels of food with indifference to the scores of tourists now taking their photographs as other boats pulled up to see what was going on.                              
Kate making a friend early on

I was totally amazed by the abundance of wildlife on offer.  On the river trip we saw more pink dolphins, turtles, capybaras, caiman and alligators and all kinds of birds than anywhere we had been.  After being saturated with animal viewing opportunities we arrived at our jungle lodgings, hammocks and all.  The rooms were basic to say the least, they all consisted of two single beds with mosquito nets and were all joined to each other and shared one large roof.  We had a little time to chill out before we resumed the evening’s activity of a remote jungle bar which was to be followed by night time croc watching.  The bar was like somebody’s school project, for the most part we resided on a balcony watching the sunset whilst also feeling like this could be the last sunset we ever saw as the balcony shook and wobbled under our weight.  It provided a good opportunity to meet the other members of our group that we hadn’t sat next to in the jeep or the boat as we sipped on our cool Paceña beers.

A capybara enjoying some grass

Family of capybaras getting their toes wet

The Bolivian flag at the front of our boat

Alligator up to no good do doubt

Our guide Vismo

After the sun went down we got back into the boats and turned on our torches to do some night time lamping.  We had seen plenty of caimans and alligators during the day so there was no doubt that we would be successful.  The eyes were lighting up in every direction that we gazed as we made our way back down the river to our base.  At one point there was a serene moment where our guide turned off the engines and we drifted silently in the darkness amongst the wilderness and occasional rustling and frolicking of animals on the banks or in the water.  It was a moment that makes an imprint on your brain for a long time to come with just the stars and the sounds from the rainforest as your only sensory input.   We arrived back at camp for a slap up meal the likes of which were previously unheard of in prepaid tours.  We ate well and it was an early night under the mosquito nets to prepare for tomorrow’s early start.

I made a new friend at the camp

Anaconda hunting was the morning item on the agenda for the next day.  Our guide Vismo was overtly unoptimistic about our chances as the temperature had dropped a fair few degrees compared to the day before and was slightly overcast which meant that our slithery friends would more likely be keeping themselves to themselves in their favourite warm places rather than coming out to sunbathe where we could see them.  Armed with sticks we poked and prodded at the undergrowth around a swamp area with little success.  We did see a toucan and a couple of parrots on our wanderings which was really cool but no nine foot anacondas which I think most of the girls thought was a good thing.  The rain began to drizzle down as Vismo took us to various spots in hope of seeing some snakes but to no avail, we only saw a couple of their shed skins.  He then make whistles out of the reeds that you could change the pitch of whilst you blew.  Defeated but not disappointed, we made our way back to camp. 

Snake skin even if there were no snakes out and about

Blowing the jungle whistle

A common sight along the river

We had a bit of free time so Kate and I went for a bit of a wander (which is a bit more exciting than it sounds when you are in the jungle).  There were a couple of shallower ponds of water which appeared to have things living in them that we couldn’t quite make out but they seemed pretty big, maybe they were nurseries for young caiman?  On our way back our walk coincided with a monkey migration and we got a chance to keep up with a group of primates jumping from tree to tree which enabled us to get a few decent shots on the camera and they didn’t seem too bothered by us being there.  
A monkey montage

Later we went out on the boat to do some piranha fishing, whilst it was now overcast we still managed to see plenty of wildlife as we cruised to the fishing location.  We loaded our simple hook and lines up with bait (using some meat and also the flesh of smaller fish we caught) and within a second the life in the water took hold and the nibbles and tugs on the line began.  It wasn’t hard to get a bite but the hard thing was to catch and even land them.  It soon became apparent that it was easy to fish in the shallows and simply flick the fish onto land to catch it but this method only allowed you to catch small fish.  The only people who managed to catch anything of any size were our guide and a French man called Patrick, fortunately they allowed us to have our photos taken with their fish as the piranhas were way too smart for the rest of us and whilst I threw four tiny fish back into the water they may well have been the same one eating my bait four times and taking me for a ride.  Most of us had a couple of big bites but nothing stuck around too long, it was still an amazing experience and we still had fish to eat that evening with our usual abundance of food.  Before heading back for our last night in the jungle we stopped at an outdoor bar where we could play a bit of volleyball and enjoy a beer with another group who were staying in the same jungle lodge.  That night we lit a fire and with a couple of drinks to ease the mood went back to basics with charades and any other games people could think of to pass what was a great evening. 

Not going to feed the five thousand with this one

That's more like it! They tasted great!

Some of the gang with the catch

Patrick the crazy Frenchman and his catch

Baby birds following their mum

Yet another capybara

The main activity on our final day in the jungle was fresh water dolphin spotting.  The guides knew where the dolphins had a nursery so we pulled up in the boat as did three or four other small boats from other tour groups along with at least one caiman or large alligator (I’m still not 100% sure on the difference).  The guides told us we could swim with them and that it was safe owing to the dolphins wanting to protect their young, still it wasn’t an easy decision amidst the cold watchful gaze of these prehistoric reptiles twenty feet away.  On land they were intimidating but in the water you wouldn’t even have a chance if a big one fancied you for lunch.  To her infinite credit, Kate was the first of around twenty five or thirty people to get in the murky water that we knew was full of life, piranhas for example!  I was genuinely considering how quickly I could jump in should the dolphins become a bit boisterous or other animals took a fancy to my girlfriend. 

The dolphins were definitely curious and Kate kept feeling them brush against her under the water and they could be seen to check her out and circle her on the surface.  After realising that Kate wasn’t in imminent danger, Gaëlle was next to jump in followed by your humble narrator then a couple from another group.  It was unnerving to say the least being in the murky water and having the smooth slimy skin of the dolphins tauntingly rub against my submerged limbs but it never felt like they meant any harm.  Whilst we were in the water a couple of the alligators that had been on the bank decided to slip into the water which was a bit sketchy but I was playing an odds game and there were four other people who I think I could have swam faster than!  As a couple more people got in the dolphins gave us a bit more room and I thought it a good idea to make our way back to the boat based on what the guides said about them being the deterrent to us getting eaten.  Following this wonderful experience we carried on down river to our drop off point and began the bumpy journey back to the town of Rurrenabaque where we finished on a high with a few drinking games but not before a nice long hot shower.

Pink dolphin popping its nose out of the water

Kate facing off with a dolphin, or is it an alligator?

Kate and Gaelle getting investigated

My turn to jump in

More dolphin frolics

A croc's eyes lurk not too far away

We survived!

Some well needed comfort and drinks back in Rurrenabaque town

The following day we were flying back with a different airline, Amazonas.  It was a smaller plane but nothing I wasn’t used to coming from the land of island hoppers.  I wasn’t used to the amazing views of mountain peaks which seemed even more intense on the way back than the way out.  Perhaps because we seemed to be flying at a lower altitude and the plane seemed susceptible to the wind and other geological factors it was a bit of a bumpy ride which caused the majority of our group to visit the bathroom to be sick afterwards.  The mountains were nothing short of spectacular and the city of La Paz seemed to appear out of nowhere amongst them as we rose high in altitude before only slightly descending to touch down in the sky high city.  The tour had cost less than sixty five quid plus another eighty for the return flights, money well spent if you ask me!  It was cheaper booking from La Paz and the company was called ‘Fluvial Tours’ should anybody be reading this and require a solid recommendation. 

Me and Aussie Tim all set and ready to go back to civilisation

We collected the things we needed from the hostel storage that we had left behind and took a minibus from the cemetery area to our next destination.  We later found out that this is notoriously dangerous as there are frequent crashes and rollovers resulting in deaths with the bus network we took.  It certainly seemed very sketchy and our driver wasn’t too fussed whether he was on the right side of the road or not.  Upon arriving at Lake Titicaca in the town of Tiquina, we were required (as was the minibus) to board a boat and barge to make our way across.  They tried to usher us off yet some others were staying on the minibus whilst it was on the barge for ‘health reasons’ but in reality were probably saving a few pennies by not taking the passenger boat, we weren’t happy that they were staying whilst we were being told to leave whilst our bags remained on top.  We decided that Kate would stay with some of the other women and the bags whilst me and Gaëlle and the men took the approved passenger boat and bought a snack ready for Kate on the other side.  It all went without a hitch, so we boarded the bus again and finished the rest of our journey to Copacabana, a tourist ready town and a world apart from the jungle we had started in that morning.   

Upon arrival we found a nice little hostel run by a lovely woman who had two kids in reception to whom we gave some key rings that we had picked up in Malaysia and it might as well have been Christmas for their reaction.  After a bit of a weird experience in a small ‘garage door’ style cafe trying simply to get a cup of tea, only maté de coca (a coca leaf based tea which is more readily available) we got a bit weirded out by the over complications and strange actions of the guy serving us.  Both of our instincts were telling us to leave as he seemed to make a simple request difficult, appeared edgy and after making us wait a while asked me to try some strange concoction he had been putting together so we politely cancelled the tea and went elsewhere.  We finished the night in a great bar with live music that we enjoyed so much that we bought the guy’s CD and went back to the welcoming hostel and its comfortable bed after what had been a long few days.

Enjoying some live music to finish off the day

1 comment:

  1. you all are really brave how you were stand in front of wild animals ??
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