Rain in Rurrenabaque

Our flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque had been delayed due to a storm and when we arrived in the tropical, river-side town, the clouds still hung low and the streets were slick with run-off water. The next morning we piled into a jeep and began driving along a flat, dirt road to the village of Santa Teresa (where we would get on a boat and spend three days on the Yacuma river). Wedged into the front seat between Jon and the driver, I watched the half submerged landscape as we drove through sporadic showers and the windows slowly steamed up from our perspiration.

We passed huge holes and ruts dug deep into the road surface which had been softened by the rain (this is one of the main trade routes to Brazil). Lorries tried to manoeuvre around them but were sometimes forced to drive through. We saw more than one that was stuck – the front cabs easily sunk 6 feet deep into chasms of shiny, sucking mud and the trailers sticking out the back like giant discarded lego bricks. And then there were cows.

So many cows! It had to be thousands, as we sat there waiting quite a while for the bovine river to pass us. And then we continued on, reaching Santa Teresa just as the rain stopped.

On the way back, the weather was scorching. The water had dried up. The holes in the road were being filled with big stones and wooden planks. The water meadows that were visible before had receded (although not completely). And the mosquitoes had come out.

We stopped at a gas station to use the toilets, which consisted of concrete cubicles with occasional doors. They were across a paved courtyard and as we began to walk towards them, a cow appeared from no-where. Three stray dogs also appeared and began chasing it, snapping at it’s heels and growling with hackles up. The cow ran back the way it had come, but the dogs were riled up and chased us instead. We didn’t make it to the toilets. For the guys this wasn’t a problem; they just peed on the side of the road. Us girls had to get back in the jeep and endure another bumpy, thirty-minute ride before we spotted a track leading off to the side that was somewhat sheltered by bushes. As I waited my turn, clouds of mosquitoes swarmed around my face and the girl ahead of me in the bushes yelped and cursed as her exposed parts were bitten by the little blood-suckers. Needless to say, I tried to do my business as quickly as possible.

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Thoughts on visiting the pampas and jungle in Rurrenabaque

Rurrenabaque sits on the edge of the Madidi National Park and Pampas del Yacuma protected area, on the edge of the Amazon Basin. It is one of the cheapest places in South America to visit both the rainforest and the wetlands (pampas) that eventually drain into the Amazon river. Needless to say, I was super excited to visit. I was also wary because I was curious as to how the tour would be carried out in terms of sustainability and ethics.

Pampas 3 days, 2 nights

Activities:
We spent a lot of time riding in a small boat down calm waterways, spotting lots of birds, alligators, caimanes, capybaras and pink dolphins. We tried to fish for piranhas but caught only two tiny catfish (later fried up as an addition to dinner). We also donned Wellington boots and waded through swampland looking for anacondas, as well as swimming with the pink dolphins.

Good points:
It was relaxing! I didn’t expect it to be, but there was very little physical exertion and not as many mosquitoes as I dreaded. We saw wildlife everywhere. I didn’t expect to see this much, nor this close. The food and accommodation were quite decent. I think because they’re used to cooking for foreigners, they served more vegetables than is usual in Bolivia.

Bad points:
While hunting for anacondas, the guides and some tourists were smoking and dropping ash, although they took the butts back with them. When we finally found an anaconda, it was passed around for people to take pictures with it. I’m no expert, but the snake seemed pretty pissed off by the end of this. At one point, we joined another group whose guide was feeding a black caiman – so regular an occurrence that it had almost become a pet around this particular location.

What I thought:
It’s clear that the guides judge their success (and thus their earnings from tips) on how many animal encounters they can give their tourists. But this is a self-perpetuating cycle.To expect no human contact with wildlife is somewhat naive. After all, people live and go about their daily lives on this land, as was evidenced by the fields and farmers we saw. At our lodge, the leftover food was thrown out and, quite naturally, animals came to eat it. Whilst I believe some behaviors (like those I mentioned above) certainly have a negative impact, I think the experience could have been more interesting if we had viewed ourselves as part of this whole ecosystem and been aware of our impact. But I guess that’s too much to ask for on a budget tour.

Jungle 2 days, 1 night

Activities:
Short hikes, including one at night, with a choice to go fishing which we declined. Learning the traditional uses of plants for medicine, dyeing etc.

Good points:
The ride up the river to the lodge was beautiful and once in the jungle it was surprisingly not as humid or hot as I expected. We didn’t see as many animals as in the pampas, but we did have a group of wild pigs come into our camp area and get very close. Learning about the different plants through demonstrations was interesting. It was much more informative than in the pampas.

Bad points:
Even wearing long sleeves and trousers, everything still managed to bite me (for some reason ants kept going for my knees). This was doubly unpleasant on the night hike. I also had a cockroach down my top and two days later found a tick on me. So yeah, lots of insects.

What I thought:
There are lots of different options for visiting the jungle and it seems to me that this might be a time to spend more money and go for one that gives you a higher level of comfort and/or a better context. None of our camp workers were actually from the jungle. Some ecolodges are located on the land of indigenous communities who act as guides and run the programs themselves. In two days, there’s very little you can do, so staying longer and getting to know the place more would be better if you are actually interested in the rainforest. If you aren’t, then you’ll probably agree with the girl in my group who said “I’m glad I came, but two days is long enough.”

I traveled with Fluvial Tours. Each tour cost 550Bs for one person and included all food, dorm beds with mosquito nets and transport. The guides spoke little English. Additional costs for entry to the protected areas were 125Bs for Madidi and 150Bs for Yacuma.

There is a Green Action programme promoting responsible travel in Rurrenabaque. They include a list of tour operators on their website who participate in the programme.

Have you been to Rurrenabaque or taken a tour in the Amazon? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Also check out our photos from the pampas and our journey to Rurrenabaque.

Las Pampas of the Yacuma River, Rurrenabaque

On the first day, cloudy as it was, we spotted at least one alligator, as well as a few capybara, dozens of squirrel monkeys and strange birds. At night, we went out on the boat and saw the unsettling red reflection of the gators’ eyes everywhere we looked. The next day, when the sun shone bright, hardly thirty seconds would pass without spotting an alligator or caiman. Pink dolphins occasionally flashed their rounded fins, more like humps, out from the murky water. The anaconda was harder to find, and took a whole group’s eyes, struggling through thick mud and rotted wood. If you go on a Pampas tour in Rurrenabaque, you WILL see animals.

Can you spot the alligator in this picture?

We went with Fluvial Tours, 550Bs per person for 3 days 2 nights. The price was the same as other companies providing budget tours and the standard was good for a backpacker choice.

See also our post about the journey to Rurrenabaque.