Published: August 1st 2006July 29th 2006
Capybara and aligator, River Beni
I walked carefully out into the muddy pyrranha infested river listening to the yells of the lads from the other boat playing frisby. Meanwhile the guide was holding the attention of Pedro, the old crocodile, whilst we swam. Over near the opposite bank grey streamlined forms curled up and over through the water. Could I get closer? But just as I started swimming the noise behind me changed and I heard the lads frantically trying to get back into their boat. Pedro had decided to join in the fun and had caught the frisby in his jaws to taste it. I waded hurriedly back to shore. The boys decided they had had enough and after retrieving the yellow disk paddled off. Our guide called 'vamos' too but I asked if I could have one more attempt at approaching the creatures we had come to see. "OK." said Choco, "They should come to you if you are quiet." I swam out to the middle of the river, hoping the gentle nips that I occasionally felt were just sardines and not fish with bigger teeth. Then I heard a whistling noise and blowing sound. Ripples appeared nearer to me. I called back gently.
The anaconda that was rescued from the road
Then a pinky grey dolphin rose up about 5 feet away, looked at me and was gone. All went quiet but I was happy. The pink river dolphins had come near to me to say hello then gone fishing elsewhere in the river. I was in the pampas, or savanna, area near Rurrenabaque in the Bolivian part of the Amazon basin. How I got there and back is another travellers tale.
The last couple of weeks have included wonderful adventures featuring wildlife and natural places but also involved numerous changes of plan due to the peculiarities of the Bolivian transport system.
After a couple of relaxing days in Coroico after my trek (see my last blog) I had to travel down river to Rurrenabaque, by boat although I had bought a bus ticket in La Paz for a seat on a 15 hour bus journey from Yolosa, near Coroico, to Rurrenabaque. The bus was due between 1 and 2 pm but eventually rushed up in a cloud of dust at about 3pm. I waved my ticket at the driver but he said hurriedly, "segundo bus", shook his head and drove off. An hour later a second bus arrived
Pet sloth in a village on the River Beni
packed to the ceiling and the driver said "otro bus" shook his head and drove off! The local women selling mandarinas ushered me to the police check point for help. There was no other bus. I think the driver of the first bus had resold my empty seat in La Paz. Back in Coroico the bus agencies said they were sold out of seats for at least one if not more days. What was I to do?
Well the day before I had been talking to a man in dark glasses selling a three day trip by long boat through the Madidi National Park to Rurrenabaque. I declined as at the time I had prefered the idea of a longer tour in the jungle when I got to Rurrenabaque but now this seemed the only option. At 9am the next morning I rushed to another hotel where I knew of some people on the trip, met the driver and said "Can I come too?" Half an hour later, packed and ready, I jumped in the jeep with six others for a five hour drive to the river Beni. The jeep journey was exciting in itself as we drove along
the steep edge of a river valley with coca plantations hidden in the forest on the opposite mountainside. The road was narrow, precipitous and bumpy. At the town of Guanay we were met by Ivan and Reuben, our local guides. After a lunch of chicken and rice our bags were packed on board our wooden boat and we set off. 50 yards up river the outboard motor failed! Our young driver looked lost and helpless but luckily a 'mechanic' or at least a man with a spanner came up in another boat and got us going. Although still remote there seemed to be a lot of people on the edge of this part of the river. Many of the shingle banks had makeshift tents set up on them together with strange constructions on the edge of the water. This area was at one time the scene of the Bolivian gold rush and many local people still sifted out a meagre living from the river. As the sun set we pulled up onto a sandbank and Ivan and Reuben set up a series of poles, covered by a tarpaulin with individual mosquito nets strung up inside. This was our bed for
High wire in the canopy
the night. Sylvia our cooked prepared a delicious meal and we all shared a bottle of red wine.
After a good nights sleep all was packed away and off we set again down river. The scenery slowly changed and became more wooded. The river trip seemed quite short and by lunchtime we arrived at our next camp in a village by the river. The village consisted of four families and their pet sloth which was tied to a tree. As we insisted it's tether was untangled it started screaming but after that was happy to be photographed although all of us felt that it would be better released. Our guides led a steep and muddy walk through the cloud forest near to the village describing some of the medical uses of plants on the way. At the end of the walk we fished with simple hooks and lines for pyrannhas and dogfish in the river. These were added to our dinner back in the village. As we ate all the local insects seemed to be feeding on us.
Next morning we entered the area of Madidi National Park, a vast area of rainforest, with a rich and diverse
Anhinga, these birds swim under water or with their head out of the water like a snake
wildlife. Tall trees towered over the river. We took another walk through the forest finding a noisy group of wild pig at their mudhole and tracks of jaguar (or so our guide told us). Further along the river we were encouraged to climb a rocky outcrop to go swimming in the natural pool under the falls behind. The rocks were steep and slippery and the water cold so a quick dip was enough. However our wet bodies were then the target for sharp biting sandflies. I was covered in tiny feasting brown insects and within minutes was covered in itchy red lumps that lasted for days. At the forest checkin point the rangers were looking after several rescued young animals. The mongoose-like coati was particularly entertaining as it crawled around our shoulders, nipping and snuffling in curiosity. Just after dark we landed at our destination, Rurrenabaque.
Rurrenabaque is a laidback frontier town that is slowly adapting to tourism. The two main streets are lined with jungle tour operators and hostels but it is generally quiet and a good place to relax. I found a pretty hostel with flowers, hammocks and rooms for about $5 a night. Several people had
Paddling up river in the pampas
recommended a canopy tour which consists of a series of zipwires along which you travel at speed 50 feet above the ground, through and above the tree tops. Overcoming my nervousness of heights I enjoyed the morning playing Jungle Jane.
My main aim in Rurre was to visit the pampas and jungle to see the wildlife, particularly looking for anaconda in the pampas and jaguar in the jungle. So I toured the tour operators trying to find one I liked at a reasonable price. I had just sat down at one desk to discuss a pampas tour and was gently scratching my sandfly bites when I heard a well spoken voice behind me say' "My God, you've been eaten alive!". Turning around I saw a very smart lady dressed in pink top, pink flowery trousers, pink lipstick, a bobbing white straw hat decorated with pink silk flowers, and large bright pink flower earings. Dee, like me (except in dress), was travelling for a year, and we teamed up to find a tour. Rejecting the expensive but comfortable agency we signed up with a cheap and cheerful $45 tour that was used mainly by large groups of young Israelis. My
Family in the sun
group was luckily small though consisting of two Australians Donna and Alain, a Canadian Renne, a South African Dee, and another Brit Simon.
Early the next morning we threw a small sellection of our belongings on top of a landcruiser and headed off on a very dusty, bumpy 3 hour ride to the boats. Half way there all the vehicles from the different tours suddenly stopped, everyone jumped out and crowded round something on the road. A three metre anaconda! Choco, our guide took charge of it as he was worried that the local villagers would kill it. After a photography session, he wrapped it carefully in a grain sack. It immediately managed to find a hole and slither out. So securely double wrapped, it accompanied us in our jeep on the rest of the journey to the river. Now anacondas are beautiful creatures, but as a self defense mechanism they excrete a foul smelling substance and the next hour of our journey was very aromatic! We were glad to have seen it but also glad to see it uncoil and head off to the river.
The boat journey to our jungle lodge was one of the highlights
leaf cutter ants
of my visit to this area. Luckily Choco was a patient and interesting guide. As other tour boats opened throttle and sped up river he kept a look out for all the wildlife along the banks and slowed down when we spotted something. The river was alive with caimen, alligators, capybara, turtles, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, river dolphins and an abundance of birds, eagles, hawks, herons, storks and the crazy looking paradise bird. The following three days were fun and relaxing. Our lodge was a basic dorm, with a muddy river water shower but to compensate our cook provided enough delicious fresh food for an army. Our group had fun in the evening chatting, playing cards and Alain, a clairvoyant and astrologer, told our fortunes. In our group we had a potential criminal, a recluse, a good mother with a red hot lover and a money maker. We went out one evening spotting the shining eyes of the caimen along the river banks as we were buzzed by hunting bats. Unfortunately our walk through the marshes did not produce any more anaconda sightings but it was relaxing sitting in the sun watching the birds. Then came our homeward journey and
Jungle sunset at Serene
my swim with the dolphins.
Back in Rurrenabaque I quickly found another group going to a lodge on a private reserve on the edge of Madidi National Park. I made friends with a group of four Americans who had studied biology together and it made a great change to be with people who were really keen on bird watching and even had a book on South American birds which are impossible to come by in Bolivia itself. Binoculars out we spotted ibis, spoonbills, cranes and caracara on our boat journey to the lodge. However as we walked along the jungle track to the lodge we were spotted by other creatures and I was again dined upon by a multitude of hungry insects. Mosquitos, large black triangular flies and even ticks found me. I just hoped that the fly carrying a strange skin disolving disease did not get to me. Serene lodge was very different to my pampas dwelling. A luxury lounge and dining area was set on the banks of a beautiful jungle lake and our lodges were scattered in the forest five minutes walk away. I had come to the jungle in the hope of seeing a jaguar
Two way road?
but although they were around they did not show. Instead we saw many monkeys, a curious family of coati and I spotted a paca, or agouti when I went out on a night walk with the guide. This is a nocturnal animal and moved a bit like a small badger but with rows of spots on its sides not stripes. From my cabin with walls of mosquito net I could lie at night and listen to all the jungle sounds, birds, cicacads and the eerie booming sound of the howler monkeys, plus a giant thunder storm early one morning.
On returning to Rurrenabaque we found that the storms had forced the cancellation of all flights out for the last two days as the runway is grass and the mountains dangerous to fly over in cloud. I queued at the airline office with forty other people to find out when I could fly out. Not for another day at least. But I had to get to Quito for my trip to the Galapagos and did not have any transport booked to take me over half the continent from La Paz to Quito. I opted instead for a jeep trip (12
What do we do now?
hours), the bus took 18 hours along the Death Road - no thanks! However in the morning when six of us arrived to pick up a jeep at 9am there was no jeep. Apparently so many people were excaping that way that the company were having trouble finding a driver with a licence! At last we set off at 11 am in a tatty old jeep. I took front seat and was amazed when a strange large black cat-like creature with shortlegs shot across the road in front of us. What was that? Later I found it was a jaguarmundi and quite rare.
The road was bumpy, narrow, steep and dusty. The day was hot. The driver became tired after only being on the road for 6 hours. As the jeep strained up another incline... CLUNK. What was that. Clunk, judder ... clunk, juddder ... clunk .. Clutch? Gears? Wheel bearing? Something was not right. We pulled over and the driver manipulated the rear wheel axle out of the bearings .. nothing but we could not go further. The forest buzzed around us and the occasional truck groaned by. Another jeep appeared and we waved it down. The Bolivian driver looked at us, the wheel and chatted to our driver. We tentatively asked in broken Spanish if he could give us a lift to the next town, two hours away. He initially said that he could give three of us a lift to La Paz. But what about the other three? Eventually he gave all six of us and our bags a lift all the way to La Paz. So six of us crammed into a four seater jeep. The journey was slow and dusty and very uncomfortable. Eventually at 2.30am the next morning we crawled into La Paz. Our rescuer was dead tired as we waved goodbye. Bolivian people can be so kind and generous.
However my Bolivian travel trials were not yet over. I had to be in Quito soon with not enough time to go overland. I therefore went to buy a flight but all the flights to Lima en route to Quito were booked up for weeks. I therefore bought a flight from Juliaca (leaving at 5pm the next day), which is a town over the border in Peru, to Lima. I rushed to the bus station to buy a ticket for the connecting bus from La Paz to Juliaca leaving at 9am the next morning which should have got me to Juliaca at 3pm in time for my flight. Only when I went to get the bus the next morning I was told that the manager of the bus company had died in the night so they had cancelled all the buses! I quickly had to get a taxi to the border, a cycle rickshaw over the border, a local bus to Puno, then another local bus to Juliaca and a rickshaw to the airport. Phew! AND I still caught my plane!