The rivers are the roads, the only traffic is drift wood and the neighbours are monkeys, caiman and birds. This is Bolivia’s Jungle and Pampas!!!
We left La Paz to travel to Rurrenabaque up on the edge of the national park. The flight up was pretty cool as we got to have both an aisle seat and a window seat each!!! Definitely the smallest plane that I have been on! We could actually see out of the front window and it was a good experience in itself. The flight was only 30 minutes as opposed to 20 hours in a car – there was no competition! We all said that Jeffro would have been in his element on this flight, being a recreational pilot and all.
We got from the small airport into town and to our hotel for the night. We had to wait a few hours before we could go and give our details to the tour companies, so we nestled in to the hammocks for a snooze and some light reading.
We spent the evening in Mosquito Bar which was the place to be in town (according to the advertisements at the hotel, airport and almost everywhere else. We got there early and they didn’t serve food for a few hours, so we just got into the alcoholic beverages until they started serving food. It was actually a really good place and lots of other travellers came in over the night. We got talking to a Czech girl who was travelling by herself and taught her how to play our favourite card game over a few drinks.
The following morning started with getting picked up for a 3 hour drive out to the Pampas. The Pampas is a large expanse of wetland savannas and grassland that runs northwest of the Jungle. As it’s is the dry season the drive was very dusty and there wasn’t much to see from the gravel road. The tour company that we went with for this tour was mashaquipe. We arrived at their accommodation and it was very basic, but we knew that we were staying in an Ecolodge so that was all part of the experience. The rooms had a cold shower, bed and mosquito net. We had started to take our Malaria tables in the last couple of days ready for now, but the nets are good for keeping out all sorts of critters including malaria carrying mosquitoes.
The accommodation was right on the banks of the Yacuma River, and as we arrived in the heat of the midday sun, a swim in the river looked inviting. However our guide, Obidio, pointed out a Caiman sitting on the opposite shore. We decided instead to snooze and read in the hammocks at the back of the building – much safer.
After some lunch which was surprisingly good, we got into a canoe with Obi Wan (our new name for him) once the temperature was cooling down. We spent the next 3 hours slowly drifting down stream. We saw SO MUCH wildlife! The Pampas are the place to come to see lots of animals because with the dryer grassland, all the wildlife congregates around the rivers. So with us quietly going down stream, a lot of the animals didn’t really bother much about us. It was so tranquil and for a lot of the time we were all really silent with only the sounds of the wildlife around us.
The most common animal were the Caiman, we easily saw a hundred or so of them either sun baking on the shore, or swimming round looking really sly. There were also Capibara along the shore which are massive rodents. They are about the size of a small pig and look just like a giant guinea pig. We saw lots of birds including kingfishers and toucans, turtles all piled onto dead branches in the water and a few different types of monkeys. It was a great way to start the pampas.
Carley was so exited that we took her to the Pampas…
Brown Capuchin Monkey
Sunset over the Pampas
We went straight to bed after dinner and got settled into our beds with mosquito nets. There were no glass windows in the building, just an insect screen. It was a really warm humid night so was difficult to get to sleep, but on the other hand, laying there listening to all the Pampas sounds was great. It was like listening to one of those relaxation CD’s.
We had an early start the next day so that we could get upstream before the day got hot again. We motored upstream for a few hours seeing lots more of the animals. We saw some really friendly yellow squirrel monkeys which came close to the boat. Obi Wan told us that its because some of the other tour operators give them food. The problem is that they don’t actually need the food, and in some cases, the food will have insect repellent or sun cream from peoples hands on it, which usually kills the monkeys after a few days.
Looks like an easy breakfast
The main reason for going upstream was to swim with the pink river dolphins. We got there and after getting rid of a few Caiman, we jumped into the river… We did ask a couple of times that it was definitely ok, the caiman and piranha wouldn’t be a problem? The Dolphins keep all the piranha away apparently so Leigh and I braved the waters while the girls watched from the comfort of the canoe. The water was really warm and the dolphins came close at times. There were some little sardine fish that kept biting us though and they started to freak me out a bit, so I called it a day.
Best view of a dolphin we could get on camera
In the afternoon it was time for some fishing. We were using some raw meat, and man, the piranha were going mental for it! Before going fishing, I had been dangling my feet over the edge of the boat to cool them in the water as I thought that piranha’s going crazy was a bit of a myth. After going fishing, I didn’t put my feet in any more. Even with the meat just barely in the water, they would absolutely savage it. We lost many hooks as they ate through the line, but I landed a couple and Hansie got one too. Luckily the guides did a good job and we all had fresh piranha for dinner that night.
We went out for a night paddle on the river to spot Caiman eyes. When you shine the torches over the river at night you get lots of reflections from the Caiman eyes. They hunt at night so there were lots of eyes staring back at us as we went along.
In the morning we got up early again to take the boat a few hours down river to go looking for anacondas. The Anaconda stay hidden in the grassland, usually near to water pools to keep them going through the dry season. It was a baking hot day again and by the time we got down stream and off the boat it was about 10.30 and already 37 degrees with a fair bit of humidity. We walked along the track while Obi and the other guide walked in the waist high reeds and grass looking for the snakes (I was happy to be on the track just quietly!!) We were out for about 1 & ½ hours and all we could find was one dead anaconda. It was about a 1.5 meters long and was kind of interesting to see it dead actually as we have seen plenty of alive snakes before.
I was happy to let the guides do the finding
We left the pampas ecolodge and took another 3 hour drive back to Rurrenabaque to spend a night. We got a really nice hotel in town that had a pool and some pretty nice little condo type huts that we stayed in. Rurrenabaque itself is a nice little town, it is really sleepy and relaxed. It sits right on the edge of the Madidi National Park (jungle) and there are a few hills surrounding the town which makes it quite picturesque.
In the morning we had a 5 hour boat ride to take up river to get to the Chalalan Ecolodge which is on the Tuichi river. Chalalan is renowned as being the original and the best ecolodge in the Jungle. Chalalan was started by a local community (San Jose de Uchupiamonas) who lived further up the river. They had an area of jungle that was going to be used for planting fruit, however some outsiders persuaded them that tourism would be a better option. To begin with, they thought that tourist would just be interested in seeing how they hunted and lived, but soon realised that more tourists were interested in conservation and seeing the wildlife in their natural habitat. The community built the chalalan lodge by themselves over the space of a year using all local resources and opened in 1998.
The boat ride was really enjoyable, and to be honest it didn’t feel like 5 hours. The river level is quite low at the moment given it is dry season, so at lots of points they boat crew were checking the water level with a stick and having to push us over some shallow sections with big wooden poles. We stopped for a short lunch break on the bank of the river which was eventful when Leigh went into the water to get the rope for the boat, but didn’t realise the water dropped off so much. We didn’t laugh too much, but he had a nice wet pair of shorts for the second half of the boat ride. There were lots of really big trees that had fallen into the river from the wet season when the river becomes really powerful and takes some big chucks out of the jungle.
It’s all just a little too much for some people
When we finally got up to the spot for Chalalan, we had to take a 1.7km walk through the jungle to get to the lodge - decked out in our Haviaanas from the relaxing boat trip! This was the first taste of the jungle, and it was pretty awesome. It was really thick jungle and we went by some howler monkeys which were eating fruit up in the canopy. Getting to Chalalan was like walking into a little slice of paradise. Because they used all natural materials, it fits in to the surroundings really well. There is a big lagoon that the ecolodge is built next to. It is fine to swim in the lagoon, although as the water is used for the lodge, you needed to avoid swimming with sun cream or insect spray, as this pollutes the water. The sleeping huts were really nice with polished wood inside and personal hammocks out the front.
Our hut – the white hammock was our room
Our swimming pool
Our guide for the Jungle was Yad, who was a young bloke from the jungle community. Chalalan is owned by the jungle community, and all the people who work there are from the community. He had really good English and was extremely knowlegable about the jungle. He was always asking us questions to lead into telling us about something. The first thing we did after lunch was to take a short walk on one of the many paths that go into the jungle. It was really informative thanks to Yad’s information and we saw lots of insects, flowers and different trees along the way. We found a tarantula hiding in a tree and Yad got it to come out for us.
Whats that hiding in there
At night we had another nice dinner, before going out for a night walk in the jungle. It was a little bit worrying walking at the back of our group given that it was pitch black behind us and there were the occasional sounds. There were lots more insects out, and the best thing was seeing green reflections from the spiders eyes staring out at us from the darkness. There was a party back in the main hall at the camp where we got some traditional drink, was taught how to eat coca leaves and danced around with the traditional music being played by the staff. Getting into bed, the rooms again had no glass windows, and the sound of the jungle while falling asleep was a really memorable experience. All in all a great first day in the jungle!
The following morning we set out for a 5 hour hike through the jungle. We ended up doing a complete loop of the lake. We started out coming across 2 groups of howler monkeys which were making a fair bit of noise arguing over some territory. Just walking through the jungle was a really good experience, the cycle of life and death was all around us. Everywhere you look there was decaying vegetation, but out of all of this there was plant and animal life emerging. We came across some wild pigs, plenty more insects and butterflies, flowers, mushrooms and all kinds of trees.
Yad took us on a canoe around the lake in the afternoon with the highlight being when a big group of around 100 yellow squirrel monkeys and brown capuchin monkeys were moving location at the lakes edge where we sat in our boat! I had a shower before leaving so that I could have a swim in the lagoon. I jumped in a few hundred meters from the jetty and swam back. It was beautiful especially because the water was so warm!
At the end of the evening we went back out on the boat after dark. We spotted a few caiman eyes on the lake. The sky was so clear I even spotted a few shooting stars. We treated Yad to the boat ride to make a change for him, he enjoyed sitting at the front of the boat looking out for wildlife while the 4 of us did the paddling.
In the morning it was time to say goodbye to Chalalan. Going downstream back to Rurrenabaque took half the time as coming up took. When we got into town, we were told that our flight that evening wouldn’t be leaving as there were protests in La Paz and so the airline couldn’t get any fuel. It wasn’t going to mess up our plans too much and we had heard that this is the kind of thing to expect in Bolivia, so we went back the hotel we stayed at before and booked in for the night. After being there for an hour and just about to email our La Paz accommodation we were told that the airline had got hold of some fuel, so we would be leaving on time in 4 hours time. The hotel said they would still be charging us half the cost of the room, so we thought we may as well make the most of it so we all had showers before checking back out. We dropped off some washing for a 2 hour express clean as we were getting low on clothes. They weren’t quite dry when we picked them up but at least they were clean.
We took the short plane ride back to La Paz and spent a night drying out clothes and catching up on the internet jobs before calling it a night.
Daniel – The Jungle and Pampas were both awesome in different ways. The pampas has so much wildlife there to see so easily, and the Jungle has the appeal of being so far away from everything. Chalalan was amazing, and its easy to see why it’s the best ecolodge there is, definitely recommend paying the extra for the experience. The food at both places was a lot better than I expected. I will remember lying in bed listening to the many sounds of the jungle for a long time to come!
Carley – I was blown away by the jungle and pampas tours. The amount of wildlife that we saw swimming, crawling, flying, swinging by, and often only centimetres away, was both fascinating and terrifying! I will never forget the giant black caiman eyes slipping quietly under water as our boat, and my fingers on the edge of the boat, glided by! I am not a huge fan of bugs and am pleased to say that the high deet insect repellent and keeping as much skin covered as possible, works a treat – no insect bites for me! One of my most memorable moments was in the early evening the four of us sitting by the lagoon in Chalalan, in itself one of the most tranquil places I’ve ever come across, and a tribe of yellow squirrel monkeys came flying across the treetops, rustling through the leaves in typical acrobatic monkey fashion, there was so many of them, with the most cute curious faces. I had to keep reminding myself that this was no zoo, this was real life in the jungle.
Tanya – We did the Pampas tour first and it was as if the wildlife came to see us cruising down the river. In the middle of the vast grasslands, the river was the only place for miles with any luscious vegetation so there was so much to see from the comfort of the boat, I cant believe how many cayman there were – and to see their eyes shining back at us from the boat at night was amazing. Seeing fireflies was cool too – I almost thought I was imagining them! And seeing tarantulas in the jungle and all the monkeys and toucans, and snakes, and butterflies… – the whole Pampas and Jungle trips were such a treat!! Carley – you forgot to mention pants tucked into socks too :p
Hansie – It was great we had the chance to be able to do both the Pampas and Jungle tours as they both had so much to offer and in very different ways. I loved the ease at which we could see the wildlife in the Pampas, cruising down the river in a boat and being able to spot caiman, monkeys, birds, capybara etc from the comfort of my chair was fantastic. However being immersed in thick rainforest on our jungle tour really was something else. While the wildlife was often harder to search out, our efforts were always rewarded. The lake in front of the Chalalan lodge was also something out of a National Geographic magazine. Another amazing trip with the crew.