As you may know from previous postings, I decided to take advantage of the the downtime between Christmas and New Years by taking a quick 4-day trip up to Rurrenabaque in Northern Bolivia, a jumping-off point for tours to the Bolivian Amazon basin. After much wrangling and dithering I finally secured a flight for first thing Sunday morning via Amaszonas, a tiny regional carrier. So I found myself at at La Paz airport at 05:15 on Sunday, bleary eyed and unprepared for the 2-hour wait which ensued. Patience was tested but eventually we found ourselves on the tiny 20-seater plane (apologies for quality, this is a camera phone picture):
The cockpit was open to us, and provided much in-flight entertainment and occasional anxiety as beeping alarms punctured the din from the twin propellers. Needless to say we were all very happy when we finally landed on the grass strip at Rurrenabaque. Heat, humidity, and thick air all hit us as we spilled out onto the grass. First impressions were of a one-building airport, and a comically simple baggage claim. It was when I went out the front door – to the separate toilet building – that I came across a scene straight out of Central Casting for podunk, third-world airports. Next to the toilet blocks were old, decaying airline equipment including a row of airplane seats and a set of boarding steps for a larger airliner from a presumably more successful past. What made the scene though were the herd of cows grazing around all of this.
All the plane’s passengers boarded the shuttle bus into town and were dropped off at various tour agencies as we went. I befriended another solo traveller, Leftie (short for Leftira, as he was a London-born Greek) and together we headed for Bala Tours, which had been recommended both in the various guidebooks and by other agencies as one of the “good guys” – i.e. they practice responsible tourism and don’t run circus shows for tourists. This was up our alley, and we decided on the pampas (grasslands) tour as conventional wisdom has it that you see far more animals that way. We were told that we were the only visitors that day, so we would have their dedicated eco-lodge to ourselves.
While the kind folks at Bala got their act together, we had a bit of time to hit the Sunday market and explore the town of Rurrenabaque a bit. I got a strong vibe of a Southeast Asian beach town off the place. It had the right combination of easy-going street life, heat, and the kind of bars, restaurants, and cafes that tell the visitor that they will be spending a lot of time outside – even when they are inside.
Time came to hit the road. We met our guide for the 3 days, a mestizo named Alexander, and also Hilda the cook. I would tell you the name of our driver but he was a surly bastard who barely uttered a word. What followed was a jouncing 3.5 hour punishment of a drive in a failing Land Cruiser which had clearly had a Hawaiian longboard surfer as a previous owner. What I know is that on the eternal, sun-blasted dirt track through tropical lowlands, we had one total tire blowout (irreparable) and a following slow leak in the spare tire that required a couple of pumping stops.
Finally we arrived at a boat ramp on the Yacuma river, out past Santa Rosa. We loaded up a long boat with a 15hp outboard and made a short 5 minute trip down the river to Bala’s camp, an idyllic setting called the Caracoles Lodge. Pretty basic accommodation really (dorm beds and mosquito nets) and all electricity provided by solar and batteries. But it had hammocks. By the river. We have a winner.
What followed was three-ish full days, mostly on the long boats, and two very peaceful and restful nights (well once you got used to the jungle sounds all around you, that is). Some highlights included:
- Seeing more wildlife in three days than I had in three months previously – pink river dolphins, caiman, alligator, egrets, herons, turtles, hawks, huatzin (prehistoric chicken-sized birds) and many more
- Taking the controls of the boat for a bit – my canal barge experience from the UK stood me in good stead – and now I can say I have have piloted a boat in the Amazon (get me)
- Spending a pleasant afternoon fishing – mostly for catfish, which were delicious fried up later – and every so often having to fight off piranhas from stealing our bait
- Going for a swim with pink river dolphins nearby – in the same caimain and piranha infested river
- Going for a shower back at the camp – and having both a toad and a tree frog for company
- Burning through 16GB of memory cards on my SLR. And then deleting most of it, as there are only so many pictures of panicked birds’ arses that one needs in life.
Speaking of pictures, of course I have a few to hand:
All in all, well worth the experience, a magical few days to be sure.
Yesterday afternoon it was then back along the bumpy road to Rurre and a somewhat anxious evening as I only had 200 bolivianos (under $30) on me and that had to cover food, lodging, and transport to the airport in the morning for my flight back to La Paz. But a look at the trusty Footprint guidebook pointed me at my first proper budget accommodation of the trip, a 20-boliviano hostal. That’s less than the price of a cup of coffee. That sorted, we had a few beers and dinner at the “famous” Moskitto Bar, which was struggling a bit with a lack of tourist trade and looked slightly sad and empty. I don’t think the bar owner took too kindly to our request to change music from the inescapable-on-the-gringo-trail Bob Marley mix to something slightly less cliched. Ah well.
So back in La Paz now, and out for the last night of the 4 Europeans tonight (Shane, Eiza, Sibylle and myself) with some accomplices. Sibylle leaves tomorrow for New Years Eve in Buenos Aires, and Shane, Eiza and myself stay on in La Paz for what promises to be a big night here….