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Published: December 16th 2009
The most straightforward way to get from La Senda Verde to Rurrenabaque is to catch a bus direct. However this bus is notorious locally - cramped, bumpy, loud, dangerous and very, very long. We decided to treat ourselves and fly. The coach would have probably been worse, but the plane wasn't pleasant either. For a start I didn't think there were commercial airliners in existence still powered by propellers. There were only 18 seats including a couple for pilot & co-pilot and no stewards or stewardesses. We've been on smaller planes, such as the Cessna over Nazca Lines in Peru, but not at great altitudes over great distances like this journey. Our tiny size meant we were buffetted through the air by turbulence and it felt more like a roller coaster than stable air flight. Thankfully though it was brief.
Rurenabaque is a tiny port into the Bolivian amazon basin without even so much as a cash machine to it's name. We whiled away an afternoon at a pool and bar set halfway up a hill with superb views overlooking the town. I have to admit that a small part of me was becoming increasingly concerned that we're nearly halfway through our travels and we still hadn't hitched a lift in the back of a pickup truck, in a beat generation style expression of freedom and exhilaration. Luckily on our way down to the town this very thing happened, so I can tick that one off and rest easy.
The amazon basin is best seen in two separate trips to both the jungle and the pampas, or wetlands, areas. We booked a trip to each sandwiched with a day back in Rurrenabaque in between, coincidentally the day of the Bolivian general election. We travelled to our camp on a motor canoe - the breeze and gentle rocking send us both to sleep, which doubtless caused us to miss a wealth of natural beauty on the way. As soon as we arrived we ate lunch, then in true South American style, had a siesta.
In the afternoon we took a walk into the dense overgrowth. Our eagle-eyed guide spotted a toucan probably half a mile away through several levels of foliage - Holly and myself both required binoculars just to see it. As we hiked we saw monkeys, wild pigs, several dozen bugs, about a million ants and a couple of tarantulas.
In the evening we wandered out again, this time to see the nocturnal creatures. This walk was essentially a spider tour, viewing several fearsome looking critters. The next day we took another stroll, this time concentrating more on the flora than the fauna. We looked at trees the flavour of garlic, plants that leaked toxic sap and even a tree used as a natural alternative to Viagra. Our guides 'friend' had apparently confirmed it's effectiveness. As we were in the Jungle it would have been churlish not to swing from vines, so that's how we concluded our tour.
After a fairly forgettable day back in Rurrenabaque (due to the election every shop, cafe, restaurant and bar was closed) we headed to the Pampas. This time we weren't the only people in our group and were joined by a Danish couple and two German guys, three of which in total turned out to be nurses. Useful for any tropical maladies, we thought. On the boat trip to our Pampas camp we cruised past hundreds of alligators and caiman stalking the banks, lots of birds and a dog-sized rodent creature, which we called a water pig. We dropped in at a riverside bar in the evening to see the sun set over the savanna which capped off a great day.
The next say we were due to go on a search for anacondas in the morning and piranha fishing in the afternoon but to the heavy rain early in the day the order of these activities was swapped. Armed with meat hanging from a line we tried to tempt the carnivorous fish to bite but with little success. All we seemed to be doing was feeding them not hunting them. Eventually though, I managed to lure in a couple of fish, one of which was almost definitely probably a piranha (they were both small though so were thrown back in). Holly, meanwhile, unleashed her inner pacifist and caught nothing. In the afternoon we walked miles and miles in search of an anaconda. We eventually found one hiding inside a tree. It seemed quite an reserved hangout for a fearsome creature capable of killing and eating a cow. Along the way we walked past a few tiny crabs who, on seeing us immediately raised their dukes - it seemed quite an act of fearless defiance whilst outnumbered by several beings each probably a thousand times bigger than them.
On the last day we took the lake to a wider and deeper section of the river where the pink dolphins play. Our guide encouraged us to take a swim with the dolphins, but we were a little apprehensive having previously seen alligators around the water's edge and piranhas lurking in the depths below. This particular area was safe, he explained, because the pink dolphins scare the predators away. I'm not an expert in the exact order of animal food chains but I was surprised that both alligators and piranhas would be terrified by a couple of pink dolphins. On the other hand I didn't want to miss this rare opportunity but only dived in after the guide had done so and not been instantly mauled. The dolphins turned out to not be the curious animals I had hoped for and spent most of the time swimming away from us, although I can't discount whether this was a game of chase they were trying to initiate.
Our trip back from Rurrenabaque wasn't as plain sailing as our journey there. We had booked another flight back but unfortunately the airstrip is little more than a dusty track, and taking off in anything but perfectly clement weather conditions is unsafe. Being that we were in the jungle in rainy season our flight was cancelled, and there seemed little chance of anything taking off for at least a week. It seems that we were fortunate even to get there in the first place. We resigned ourselves to getting the dreaded bus, although with some reservations.
We had hours to kill so took lunch at a small cafe when we were approached by a Swiss-Danish group who also had had their flights cancelled. They said that a month ago a tourist bus had slipped over the edge killing all aboard, and even more recently another bus had a fatal crash. Whatever the validity of these anecdotes I knew that a hoard of wild horses wouldn't force Holly onto the bus after hearing that. The only alternative was to hire a jeep and a couple of drivers to taxi us back all of the way back to La Paz. The road they drive back on is the same rocky single-track precariously positioned on the edge of a cliff but at least 4x4 vehicles are better at staying on the wet road than buses, even if rattling around for 16 hours in one was trying to say the least. But, thankfully, we made it back in one piece.
In my defence, I just wanted to stay alive. Secretely Joe did too he just didn't want to be the one to say he was scared of the deathly bus ride.
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