Coming into Rurrenabaque airport, the small plane made a hard banking left turn, seemingly skimming the tops of the green mountains before landing on a runway surrounded by dense jungle. Stepping of the plane, we were greeted by a wall of humid heat, like opening an oven door and forgetting to lean back for a moment before peering in. Not only that, but the air was also rich with the sound of insects, frogs and birds providing a constant background hum that didn’t miss a beat for the entirety of our stay. The overall effect was we both couldn’t stop grinning, knowing we were finally somewhere we had both dreamed of visiting at some point in our lives, to the extent Emma was close to tears on her way to the baggage claim! Waiting at the smallest airport either of us had been to, our luggage was carted over by a moped pulling a small trailer, and given out by hand. The taxi to our hostel stopped 20 metres from the airport and pointed out Capybara bathing in the river, the wildlife spotting had already begun!
The main benefit of our distinct lack of detailed planning for this trip has been our ability to be flexible and change plans based on recommendations… and to dodge political riots. Rurrenabaque has several tour operators offering tours to the jungle and wetlands, but our friends Pascal and Nina from the Salt flats had specifically recommended Madidi travel, as they were the only operator heading to their own private reserve. The reserve, called Serere, was set up by a local conservationist who wanted to encourage the local indigenous people to preserve the habitat and animals by working with tourists rather than exploiting the resources by logging and hunting. Therefore, all proceeds go back into conservation rather than a tour operators pocket who don’t practice in a sustainable way. The animals are not fed here to guarantee satisfied tourists, there is no electric, and so spotting wildlife is on more of a luck basis. Fingers crossed, we organised to head into the jungle for 5 days, the maximum stay possible. Kit recommendations were insect repellent, torches and long sleeve tops that could come out worse for wear. Not possessing the latter, we headed into the town to see what we could find, and ended up with two second hand, male, long sleeve cotton shirts each, for the bargain total of £7. It must be noted, jungle fashion is not the same as high street, however we didn’t look good in either world.
The next day we arrived at the reserve’s office, provided with a 2 litre bottle of water and a pair of wellie boots, before boarding the longboat. Along with two Dutch boys, we sat in single file for three hours, headed north down the river Beni and into the jungle. Whilst we cruised down the muddy brown river we saw an plenty of vultures, egrets, eagles, hawks, terrapin and caiman, before reaching our destination. Here, we were greeted at the muddy bank by a few guys pulling a trailer to collect supplies needed to keep us fed and watered for the week, along with our guide. His name was Alex, as all great men are, and he grew up in the jungle as part of the indigenous people before moving into more conventional civilisation, learning English and Spanish, and becoming a guide. A pretty good chap to have show you around the jungle.
Our room was a lovely but basic cabana, raised from the jungle floor on stilts, with no solid walls, just netting allowing a 360 degree view of the jungle around us. There was no electric, but we had candles, one for the cold shower of lake water, and one for the main room. Finally, the most essential piece of kit, a large mosquito net over the double bed. At first glance, it looked a romantic spot, however any thoughts of that kind are rapidly cooked at 40 degrees Celsius with 98% humidity. The advantage of the netting quickly became clear however, as we heard rustling and watched as a pregnant Tapir snuffled her way through the undergrowth next to our hut.
One of the benefits to the political troubles in Bolivia, was that we had this part of the jungle to share between just 6 of us. The two dutch boys mentioned earlier, ourselves and a French couple who we would end up sharing much of the next 2 weeks with. After introducing ourselves to Gladys and Thibault (french couple), we got chatting about the different places we had already seen in Bolivia and neighbouring countries. Having been our most recent stop, we mentioned the salt flats of Uyuni, at which point they started telling us about their trip to Uyuni and the problems they had had with their tour. Whilst searching for a reputable and reliable tour operator, a short bolivian lady in nike airs with gold teeth had pounced upon them, promising them much… We were not Fatima’s first (and we doubt last!) victims!
That afternoon we went for a short walk, learning some basic survival tips from Alex, including how to identify edible termites which tasted surprisingly like basel, and some things to avoid, such as the Devil tree which provides a home to fire ants! He told us how in the past criminals, such as robbers, would be tied to this tree for several hours as punishment while the fire ants defended their home. Emma learnt this lesson the hard way, but via bad luck rather than burglary. We were also lucky enough to have a troop of black faced spider monkeys noisely make their way through the trees above us. In the evening we headed out onto the lake with torches, spotting caiman by their reflective red eyes. However the light had to be used in short bursts, as it was the night of a mass insect hatching, any glimmer of light quickly swarmed by millions of bugs who found their way into every orifice and crack in your clothing. Looking across the lake it was difficult to spot a clean patch of water for drowning bugs and the ripples of fish helping themselves to the buffet. It was then time for our lights to go out, and the most incredible light show of the night to begin. The light from the fireflies in the treetops so bright, and numbers so abundant, at times it was easy to confuse them for stars and constellations above the treeline. This was one of the things that cannot be caught on camera, and if it could, wouldn’t come close to doing it justice. So we just sat in the quiet, on the lake, taking in the jungle disco.
We were skeptical as to how good the food would be in the jungle, with no electricity, cooked by one indigenous woman called Amy over an open fire. Our first night was catfish goujons and chips. Every single meal, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, was 3 courses and always amazing. From fish, to lentil curry, roasted plantain, fresh dohnuts and empanadas, veggie burgers and packed lunches of omelette wrapped up in a giant leaf as the lunch box, we were spoilt and stuffed every time. They actually had a fruit and veg plantation over the other side of the lake, where they would head each evening to get fresh produce for each meal. We needn’t have worried.
Our next two days were full, exhausting days spent trekking deeper into the reserve to spot wildlife and learn what the plants of the jungle can provide for indigenous people. Each day we followed our guide Alex, equipped with machete, knife and powered by a ball of coca leaf in his cheek with teeth worn flat, showing a lifetime habbit. He chopped our path forward and shared his knowledge about spirits the indigenous people believe in, the plants they use for different medicinal purposes and how they bang tree roots as a way to communicate over vast distances in the jungle. He shared some of his much beloved coca leaf and sweet ash with Alexz, although Alexz didn’t find it quite as enjoyable as our guide, as it just added to the already excessive sweating. When in need of water, Alex cut down a length of vine called “Cat’s claw” in Spanish due to its thorns, before sharpening one end with his machete. He would then hold the vine above our heads and fresh water, filtered by the plant, would pour out of the sharpened end and give us all a much needed drink. This was the only water Alex drank during the day trips, unlike us he wasn’t also carrying a two litre water bottle, desperate to rehydrate at any opportunity. We visited the 3 other lakes within the reserve and tried our hand at piranha fishing on hand lines, however this wasn’t very successful and only Alex the guide was able to catch a couple. These two piranha were then added as a fourth course to our dinner that night. We were lucky enough to see red squirrels, frogs, more tarantula’s, Coati, cappuccino & squirrel monkey’s and hummingbird’s. We even saw the spider monkeys again, although this time, they weren’t so pleased to see us and we scattered when a shower of monkey urine began to rain down on us.
On the second night, already after a full day hike, we set out for a night walk with our guide in the hope of spotting some bigger animals and potentially a big cat (Puma or Jaguar). Before we set off, we were talking to Alex about the dangers of the Jaguar and Caiman, at which point he was insistent the real king of the jungle was actually the giant anteater. With claws several inches long, incredibly strong back muscles and their tail/head ends looking similar to other animals, he explained how they have been known to kill Jaguar, especially if with their young. The reserve had rescued a young giant anteater in previous years and Alex told us how even as a baby, it had once got hold of his leg under the table and was impossible to remove and left scars on his leg. At that point, one of the other workers ran in whispering hurriedly in spanish… the anteater was passing through. Later that night we went looking for Jaguar, we found deadly poisonous spiders and got covered in biting ants, yet none of this slightly bothered our guide… but this half grown giant anteater passing through had Alex in a tizz and he was always on his toes as we watched this incredible animal pass through. We did see Jaguar paw prints during our stay but that night, un/fortunately depending how you look at it (literally), we did not spot any Puma or Jaguar but did hear an Ocelot as it took off in the undergrowth.
Our third day was far more relaxed, spent sitting lakeside crafting rings and bracelets from coconut wood and colourful seeds found on our walks, with a big breakfast and lunch either side. Whilst sat their a troop of cappucino and squirrel monkeys came through and we got to watch their mischief for a while. However, they then turned their attention to the rescue parrot, a beautiful blue and yellow macaw, that had got himself stuck up a tree and refused to come down. Alex and the other workers then spent the next hour throwing seeds and stones at the monkeys trying to eat the parrot, before making a long pole from bamboo and climbing the tree in a rescue attempt.
That afternoon we headed out onto the lake next to the main house in a final attempt to land a piranha for dinner…
In the evening of our last night, there was a brief electrical storm, with torrential rain and lightning. At first, we were grateful, as a cool breeze rolled in the humidity dropped we thought we would be in for a good night’s sleep. However, we discovered the critters of the rainforest seek shelter during these downpours and on returning to our room, we were very much not alone. Climbing the steps into our room, we turned off our headtorch to minimise the number of bugs following us in. Alexz headed up and into the room, however the pitch black prevented Emma from finding the third and final step, and so she called out for the light to come back on. As the spotlight illuminated the third step, it seemed to have grown eight legs and fur, as an enormous Tarantula was trying to invite herself in. That was the first of many close encounters. One side of the bed netting was being weighed down by an enormous tree frog, which we politely moved on. Getting ready for bed, we dodged plenty of enormous cockroaches as we cleaned our teeth… all but one which decided to attach itself to Alexz’s big toe. Neither of us knew Alexz could jive so well… and scream simultaneously. Turns out men can multitask. Finally going to climb into bed, with a bad case of the heebie-jeebies, Alexz was greeted with one last (we thought) challenge. On his side of the bed, preventing him from getting in, was a particularly large and evil looking hair grey spider. Between us, armed with a wellington boot and fan made from palm leaf, we swept Mr Wolfspider into the boot and ran to the door, and tried to empty him outside. As he didn’t want to leave, we cut our losses and left the boot outside for night so he could leave in his own time. We were now finally in bed, and glad it wasn’t our first night, as we were now feeling slightly uneasy with every move of the bed sheet and every itch. At half past two that morning, Emma had to brave the darkness and head to the toilet, only to then have to wake Alexz for some emergency bug removal, as her third tick of the week had attached itself to her hip. Alexz, tick free until this point, looked at his own wrist whilst removing Emma’s, to find he was no longer tick free.
At 6am on the final morning (Not well rested and ticked off) before the long boat back, we set off looking for the Howler monkeys that we had been hearing each morning. Around sunrise and sunset each day, the forest had sounded like there was a gale force wind whaling through the trees despite the air being still, a troop of Howler monkeys living up to their name and making an incredible noise which can be heard for up to 3 miles. Sadly, they had decided to have an off day and instead we found a very quiet group of bats snoozing in the hollow remains of a tree trunk. We crossed the lake and looked around the plantation where all the foot is grown, before being real life Tarzan/Jane and swinging from vines. Alex shouted “vamos chicos” for the last time and we headed back to civilization after both realising a long held dream of visiting the Amazon rainforest. We loved every second, it’s a phenomenal place, but far from a comfortable one.
Once back in Rurrenabaque, we found the protests in La Paz were still raging and this meant there were no buses back and into Peru. The airlines had responded as they would and sky rocketed the prices, leaving us in the town for 4 additional days awaiting an affordable flight. We met up with our new french friends, Gladys and Thibault, and had a few days to relax with good food, cards, cocktails and paying nicer hotels than we could afford to use their pool for the day.
We booked the same flights as Gladys and Thibault, heading to La Paz one evening and into Cusco, Peru, the next morning. Due to roadblocks preventing access to the airport, this meant a night on the airport floor. Thankfully, Gladys and Thibault had already had this problem once, and so knew all the best wifi spots, coffee shops and a closed down store where you could peel back the boarding to give us a luxurious private room for a night…
Stuck in both our heads during the treks, feeling like Aliens in a foreign place…