Bolivia - Rurrenabaque (Welcome to the Jungle)


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Published: April 19th 2017
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David here...

We got to airport with plenty of time to spare for our flight north from La Paz to Rurrenabaque. The traffic in La Paz was really bad but we had given ourselves enough time. We breezed through check-in, thanks to our printed boarding passes, so decided to grab a snack of chicken tenders to share from a Tropical Chicken place (surprisingly good) before going through to the gates. The flight was delayed by 30 minutes but it wasn't too long until we were seated on the plane and in the air. We were only flying for about 40 minutes, time enough for a lovely coffee with condensed milk. We came to land among the most stunning and green scenery we've ever seen. The airport at Rurrenabaque was tiny, so much so that we were being touted before we had left the landing area. We grabbed our bags, jumped onto the Amaszonas shuttle bus (10 BOL each) and were soon at our hotel in the centre of town.

We had low expections of Hotel Maya as it was only 1 of 2 available on Booking.com. In the end we actually booked the 3 individual nights we were staying there through one of the tour companies (Madidi) as they got a better price for us. The hotel was modern and clean and had lovely gardens and terraces. The room was spacious, had air-con and was really nice. We were liking Rurrenabaque already, though it was hot...much hotter than we'd been for the last 3 weeks or so. We'd dropped down in altitude by a significant margin and I was feeling it. Thank goodness for the air-con, though we didn't get round to using the pool.

The reason we'd flown to Rurrenabaque was because it is the big jumping off point for both the Pampas and Jungle tours in the Amazon area, both of which are cheaper to do in Bolivia than other South American countries. We popped to Bala, the first company we were touring with (the Pampas tour), and paid up before wandering the town. Rurrenabaque felt like a cross between South America and a little of Bali or The Philippines thrown into the mix. It is a very relaxed place, probably due to the heat and we were soon sat in a bar, under shade with a couple of beers relaxing.

After freshening up, we ate at Luz de Mar, a highly rated but cheap restaurant. Suzanne had steak with roquefort cheese and I went for the Machu Pico - a big pile of chips, sausage, onion and egg all smoothered with spicy tomato sauce. The meal was delicious. Feeling full, happy and slightly drunk we ended up sat on a terrace in the hotel with another can of beer each, just listening to the sounds around us. A few people had already gone to bed so we were being quiet. But oh no, new guests arrived and they were not happy at all. We could hear them in reception and mistakenly thought they were American by how loud they were. Turned out they were German, and they were still loudly complaining as they passed the rooms and into their own, slamming the doors shut...and then back out again still complaining loudly. We politely asked them to keep the noise down as people were trying to sleep, well I say politely, we had had a drink, and one of the women was not at all happy, but think she got the message when we suggested she learn some manners. Really, hell is other people!

The next morning we headed to the Bala Tours office for 08:45, picking up extra insect repellent on the way. We were met by Rene our guide and we were soon on our way to our lodge. It became clear that even though we'd booked a tour and there were 6 of us in the car, we were the only guests. After all the comments in our previous blogs about not needing a guide and taking the mickey out of couples who had to eat meals with their guide, we were now that couple!

Anyway, the journey took about 3 hours to get to the lodge and was great. We saw some capabara on the way and some interesting birds. We got to the Yacuma river and hopped into a boat and were at our lodge after 5 further minutes. Rustic is the word to describe the rooms but we've stayed in a lot worse. It was actually quite comfortable. I'm not going to go into too much detail about each individual trip out, that would be too boring to read. The itinerary for the 3 days was a couple of hours in a boat the first afternoon, 4 hours the next morning, a walk the 2nd afternoon and finally a walk the final morning. All meals were included in the price and were of a much higher standard than expected, Hilda was a whizz in the kitchen.

On the boat trips and walks we saw tons of wildlife, which included capabara, cayman, eagles, falcons, more capabara, howler monkeys (both black and red), squirrel monkeys, cappuchin monkeys, one venomous snake, bats, sloths, more colourful birds than you can shake a stick at and finally the famous river dolphins, one of which came up alongside the boat and soaked us first thing in the morning. We loved every minute of the time spent on the Pampas tour. It was expensive (for a backpacker budget anyway) but worth every penny we paid. The staff and guide couldn't do enough for us and we loved just sitting on a boat being shown loads of stuff, it was great, highly recommended.

After the final walk and lunch on the 3rd day, we hopped into the boat with our driver, Rene our guide and Hilda our chef and made the short boat journey to the car and off we went. It took around 2.5 hours to get back to Rurrenabaque and the skies opened as we stepped out at the tour office. We waited for a few minutes and then got dropped off at Hotel Maya again, back into room 204, the same as last time. After an hour of relaxing and catch-up we headed out again to pay for the second tour and to grab a couple of beers and some food. We had a drink at Luna Lounge again before eating at La Bella Italia, a highly rated pizzeria. We had intended to eat at Luz de Mar and were on our way there when we spotted some pizza being served. It was alright, not Regina pizza but tasty enough. We ended the night on the same terrace at the hotel as our last stay with a couple of final beers before bed.

After a restless night, we were down for breakfast at 07:15 as we had an 08:15 pick up. A taxi arrived for us and we were whisked to the harbor area and into the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge boat. At this point it had been raining for a lot of the night and it was still coming down. The boat was covered but the rain kept coming in so we were given ponchos to wear. The boat journey was just over 3 hours to get to the lodge, with a couple of stops along the way to pay the 200 BOL each park fee and to show the guards we had a ticket. All of this was done for us by the tour staff, we just had to fill out some forms and pay.

The Ecolodge again was very rustic but was quite comfortable (except for the extremely soft bed). There was no electricity in the rooms at all but we had candles everywhere for when it got dark. The cabin we were in was also some way from the main complex so it was quiet, or as quiet as you can get in the jungle. Overall we were happy and settled in the room.

Again, I'm not going to go into detail about every little thing we did over the course of the 4 days we stayed. After lunch the first day we walked on one of the trails around the lodge. The second day we walked for about 4 hours on a different trail, then in the afternoon we crossed the river and walked some more and the evening was a short and unsuccessful night walk. The third day we walked another different trail...you get the picture, lots of walking and all in wellies due to the rain the first day. If we never have to wear those wellies again it'll be too soon, but they were needed.

We saw less animals on this tour than the Pampas tour but were expecting that. It is far more difficult to find animals in the jungle than the wetlands. We still saw spider monkeys capuchin monkeys (one of which pooped on me), tamarin monkeys, green and blue plus red and yellow macaws, toucans, toucanettes, a tarantula, a tame tapir, many wild pigs (which were amazing, noisy and a little scary) a giant armadillo, a cayman (very close-up while fishing), plus many more birds. We learnt a lot about the local culture and plant life from our guide, Alejandro, who was excellent.

The food was a bit hit and miss and no where near as good as Hilda on the first tour, but we didn't starve. Again, overall, it was expensive but well worth the money. If you're only ever going to visit Bolivia and the Amazon once in your life you may as well make the most of it. Also, no matter how much insect repellent you think you'll need, buy more, you need it. We got through almost a bottle a day!

The only conflict or dampner on the Jungle tour happened on the final night and requires some backstory (cue wavy, dreamlike patterns). Our guide, Alejandro (all the guides seemed to be called Alejandro), was bitten by a highly venomous snake called a Bushmaster, 3 weeks previous to our stay. It almost killed him. He was lucky in that the lodge boat was ashore so it could get him to medical help quickly. He had told us the story beforehand and that he had gone back into the jungle when recovered to find the snake and kill it, unsuccessfully.

Skip forward 3 weeks and we 'd just finished our 2nd night walk, spotting only a giant armadillo on the way (which was cool). We had just got to the path that lead back to our cabin where another guest and guide were waiting. They told us about a snake that had been spotted a few minutes earlier that looked like a Bushmaster. Alejandro wanted to take a look. I thought the other guide said it had been killed, so I was keen to tag along as well as I'm fascinated about snakes, as long as they can no way in the world bite me. So we walked back along the trail we had just come from (minus Suzanne, who did not think the guide was saying it was already dead and - knowing Alejandro's feelings - just knew what was coming so went back to our cabin).

Alejandro found the snake nearby to where we had just walked past. This snake was around 2 metres in length, still alive and was fearsome to look at. You knew it could do some serious damage to you if you were unfortunate to come across it. It is the first time I've come across a highly venomous snake like this, in it's own habitat and I have to say, it scared the living bejesus out of me. It was so much bigger than I thought it could be and it just looked mean. Anyway, Alejandro, still angry about being bitten 3 weeks ago killed the snake, much to my initial relief, and then dragged it back to the lodge where everyone could take photos of it and with it. Now, this is where it gets complex...yes, this is a dangerous animal and yes, I was relieved, almost happy that it was dead, seeing as it was a few minutes from our cabin. Also, you cannot have a highly dangerous animal that you know about roaming around a tourist area.

BUT...it wasn't killed for that reason, it was killed because Alejandro wanted revenge on something that nearly killed him. Understandable from a local guy who has probably been brought up in his village to kill these things on sight. However, we were staying at an Ecolodge, whose mantra is not to intefere with the wildlife and to observe and preserve the flora and fauna of the area. A conundrum indeed. Suzanne knew what was coming, I was a little naive and it took me witnessing the killing and the aftermath of picture-taking for me to realise that maybe killing the snake was not the best course of action. We both felt conflicted about it the next day and still do. The ideal is to capture and relocate but if that is not possible, what do you do? Chief Brody in Jaws had the same dilemma; if you know of the danger and do nothing does that make you just as culpable in the end? It didn't spoil our enjoyment of the trip, but did raise a number of questions about our place in the world and our attitude to other animals around us when we are in their space.

The boat trip back to Rurrenabaque took 90 minutes and was in bright sunshine, a lot different from heading to the lodge. We got ourselves settled at Hotel Maya again, not room 204 this time, and got a much needed laundry load done next door. A gentleman saw me leave the hotel and walk towards town with the laundry and came after me on his motorbike. He explained the cost and when it could be done by (8 o'clock that evening) and I was happy so I jumped on the back of the bike and he took me back to the laundry right next to the hotel.

After showering (hot water!) we headed out for drinks and food, stopping off at the Amaszonas office to check all was well with our flight to La Paz the next day. Lucky we did, as we found it had been brought forward by 40 minutes, a slight issue as Madidi Jungle had organised picking us up at our hotel at 12:30. We emailed Madidi later on to let them know in the hope they would come back to us with a new pick-up time.

We then headed to Luna Lounge for a drink but it was having work done and look closed so we ended up at Funky Monkey instead where we found that as Good Friday is a religious holiday, no beer or wine could be served. They did serve us 2 for 1 cocktails as they can be passed off as juice in case the police came round.

We ate at Luz de Mar again, Suzanne having steak roquefort and I opting for steak in pepper sauce. It was delicious again. Best of all, they still served beer. After the meal it was back to the hotel and into bed. The next morning I picked up our fresh smelling laundry, we had breakfast and stayed in the room until check-out time. We had heard nothing from Madidi so decided to pop to their office. The hotel staff told us that a car would be picking us up at 12:00 so we explained about our flight moving forward 40 minutes, but they didn't believe us until they rang Amaszonas and got confirmation. We ended up at the Madidi office where we were picked up from at 11:40 and they dropped us off at the airport for our flight back to La Paz free of charge, which was nice of them.

Rurrenabaque is a delightful little town. Nothing to do there but a good stopping point before, between and after tours. It is a positive, prosperous and happy town with some great food and drink options and probably the smallest airport we've ever been to. We loved the whole 8 days that we spent on the tours and in the town.


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