The Jungle

Published: April 19th 2015
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The amount of life in the jungle is overwhelming. Where the salt flats and highlands of Bolivia have very little life for kilometers around, the jungle has large amounts of life in every square meter. What a display of the beauty of this planet! Layer upon layer of plants, with animals interleaving with the foliage at every level. Decomposing leaves on the floor, with ants and bugs crawling around. Fungi recycling the fallen trees and leaves. A bit higher some shrubs, bushes and small trees. Birds hopping from branch to branch looking around for insects and fruits. Larger trees with the occasional dead leaf falling down to add to the compost heap. The animals at these layers are harder to see, as they are so far away. Tucans, monkeys swinging between the trees. And above it all the largest trees that form the roof of the canopy. It took them hundreds of years to get where they are and now they produce life in the form of fruits and shelter to birds and monkeys. At this layer we hear the stunning Macaws, and on a few lucky occasions catch a glimpse of them.

It takes us 6 hours in a narrow wooden boat followed by half and hour walk to get to our lodge. Consisting of a few common buildings and a handful of cabins for the guests, it lies next to a lake in the heart of Madidi National Park in the north of Bolivia. Our guide Mario comes from the local community that runs the lodge. The community lies another 3 hours upstream of where the lodge is, and growing up there he has intimate experience with the jungle. He tells us of how he once got lost in the jungle when hunting for monkeys (with a rifle, though his great grandfather hunted with the bow and arrow). After spending a night in the jungle they found their way back the next day.

His personal experience is augmented with what he learned during guide training. He shows us parasite trees that wrap around existing trees and eventually suffocate them. We see fire ant trees that live in symbiosis with fire ants that build their nest inside its trunk. He explains the 'walking palm trees' that sprout new roots diagonally and move with them towards the light. Above all we are intrigued by the leaf-cutter ants that occasionally cross our paths carrying young green leaves to their nest. There, they chew on the leaves and mix them with their saliva to create a big ball of this substance. On this mix they cultivate a special fungus which is eventually what they use as food. Amazing! In addition they are also some of the most organized ants. Explorers to find the leaves, cutters to cut the leaves in smaller chunks, workers to carry them, large soldiers to protect the colony and tiny 'leaf-protector' ants that are carried along with the leaf. Really exciting to see them in action and being able to spot most of the roles.

We also see bullet ants: a very large solitary ant of which the bite gives an intense pain that can last up to 24 hours. Bianca had one on her leg, but Mario was quick to flick it off! This brings us to the more nasty side of the jungle. Stingers and biters everywhere. Bullet ants, poison frogs, tarantulas, scorpion spiders and snakes: all of which we had the pleasure of spotting on our day and night walks. As with most animals, they are much more afraid of us then we are of them. As long as you don't step on them you should be fine, and Mario's indifference towards these scary looking animals is infectious. We even follow a snake into the bush to get a better look. There are also the caimans and piranhas in the lake, and yet again a case where Hollywood gives animals a bad rap: caimans are very shy and the yellow-bellied piranhas are also nothing to be worried about. So, like the other guests, we safely take a bath in the lake.

On one of the hikes Mario tells us about how his community has been approached several times by the government and oil companies: oil has been found in their part of the park and they want to come in and drill. They are committed to keep them out though to maintain their lifestyle and the environment. We are happy to hear that they have nature conservation organizations backing them as well. We can only hope that the income from their lodges will be enough to convince them to keep the oil companies away. A tough story to hear, especially since we know we are very much part of the problem being large consumers of oil in various ways. At least this gives inspiration to be a bit more part of the solution.

After two nights in the jungle we are sad to leave all this beauty behind, but happy to be away from the mosquitoes. We pack some delicious jungle grown grapefruits from the trees next to the lake and head back to the boat. The way back is smooth and takes only 2.5 hours now that we are going downstream. We are treated by a flock of yellow and blue Macaws flying over and Capibaras on the riverbed.

The other activity one can do here is visit the Pampas, a grassy wetland not far from Rurrenabaque. We decide to do this for 3 days, and give the mosquitoes some more to bite. We see a lot of animals we also saw in the jungle, but also some new ones. We see: macaws, parakeets, many other birds, squirrel monkeys (one steals a banana from our boat 😊, Capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, pink river dolphins and a sloth! We also spend an hour fishing for piranhas with limited success: we get a few on our hook, but they are all too small to keep.

All transportation is by boat here, and our accommodation is right next to the river. It is on poles to also be above water in wet season. Next to the mooring spot for the boats two alligators lazy in the water. Some guests also swim here, but we are a little reluctant: these are a bit bigger than the caimans we saw in the jungle and alligators are supposedly more aggressive. The guides here are a little less professional and seem to give mixed messages about them.

Altogether we really enjoyed spending time around Rurrenabaque. We also look forward to not having to worry about the mosquitoes any longer, and are also happy to trade the humidity for high altitude. Next stop: La Paz.

Additional photos below
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30th April 2015

Lieve Hylke en Bianca
Wat maken jullie veel mooi dingen mee. Het is haast niet bij te houden. :) Wat een prachtige foto's. Geniet ze. liefs Baukje
5th May 2015

Mooi geschreven, wat een mooie reis, ben benieuwd naar jullie volgend ervaringen!

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