Jungle treks through the Amazon Basin
09.12.2008 30 °C
We left La Paz early that morning and grabbed a taxi to the city`s main airport, commonly know as Él Alto.Our destination was Rurrenabaque (aka Rurre), a lowland settlement on the banks on the Rio Beni deep in Bolivia`s slice of the Amazon Basin.The journey by road takes a staggering 16 hours along some of the most dangerous jungle trails in Bolivia (and that's saying something) where buses and even 4WD jeeps frequently don`t survive the trip.Unsurprisingly, most gringos choose to fly there with Amazonas, the regions' own airline on a flight that takes just under an hour.Flights are often booked up weeks in advance due to the popularity of the treks and luckily we had the foresight to do the same.But something was troubling us as we approched El Alto; or rather, something was troubling Janelle.
You see, Janelle`s not the best of fliers.In fact, she`s one of the worst fliers I`ve come across and having worked in the industry I`ve met my fair share of nervous passengers.Strangely, this affliction only struck her in the last year or so and has gotten no better.She dislikes taking drugs and won`t drink alcohol (probably a good thing) so it was up to me to calm her as best we could during any flights we took.Not that I was very successful; my advice was along the lines of 'If we crash then we crash, and there`s nothing we can do about it', or ' I´ve jumped out of smaller planes than this', which strangely didn`t seem to reassure her.Anyway, as luck would have it the plane that would be taking us down to Rurrenabaque was a twin prop 19 seater DeHavalliand, a small cramped aircraft that any nervous passenger would run a mile to avoid.It`s the kind of plane that you can see right into the cockpit as there is no door due to the cramped cabin.And of course it goes without saying there were no flight attendants to calm Janelle down, the only technique that seemed to work in the past.Nor did we have the option of another airline -there isn`t one.
So, after a quick breakfast (which Janelle declined) we headed to the departure lounge and boarded the plane.It was small, it was cramped, it was full (of course).Take off was a roar of engines and a quick sprint down the runway before we were suddenly, shakily, airborne.Janelle was squeezing my hand so tightly it went numb.She`s normally one of the most placid people I know but put her on a plane (especially one this small) and she turns into a different person.Every single bump or change in altitude she`d give a gasp, and any small noise out of the ordinary she`d frantically twist her head around trying to locate its source.In short, every minute of the 50 min flight she was on edge, hyper vigilant like a cat on amphetamines.We were both of us desperate to land.
However, Rurrenabaque`s airport is, how shall I put this, a bit more rustic than we were used to.The landing strip consists of a single unpaved dirt track that turns to mud during the wet season and frequently leads to the cancellation of all flights, often for days at a time.Luckily the weather had been bone dry for weeks.Our flight had taken us from the high mountain peaks surrounding La Paz down to the verdant lush forests of the Amazon in less than an hour.As we banked for the final aproach I noticed the runway ended rather abruptly at the foot of a large forested mountain.The plane dropped onto the dusty track with a bang, the wingtips just missing the neighbouring vegetation by mere inches.The entire cabin broke into nervous, relieved applause and let out gasps of held breath.We`d made it, safely.
Once off the plane we were immediately assaulted by the intense and humid heat of the tropics.La Paz, being at such a high altitude remains quite cool during the day (though you`re still liable to get burned), whereas we were now practically at sea level in one of the hottest parts of the country.It was like being smothered with a steaming hot blanket and then bundled into a sauna.Even Janelle who loves the sun found it hot, and me as a lily white Irishman found it decidedly less than bearable.We made our way to the arrivals hall (read; shack) grabbed our bags and met our contact, the guide who was to bring us to our lodgings in Rurre for the night.We piled into a van which didn't made it more than two kms before getting a puncture and as we waited for a replacement tyre to be brought by motorcyle we were approached by a expat Frenchman selling fresh, warm pain au chocolate.How strange!I bought a few and hungrily ate one as our alternative transport arrived, our guide deciding his charges didn`t want to wait while the tyre was laborously replaced.
We arrived at our hostel soon after, a wonderfully serene and relaxed abode where our host brought us fresh juice in chilled glasses on our arrival.The courtyard inside was dominated by a large wooden roof supported by thick beams of natural timber upon which were roped numerous comfortable hammocks.We showered off and changed into more appropriate clothing before sinking into these, content to just sway in the breeze and enjoy the days remaining warmth amid the distant sound of the cicadas.This was more like it!
Rurrenabaque was not our final destination out here, however.It was merely the last town of any note before we took a six hour canoe trip upriver to the Chalalan Ecolodge the next morning.This was our real reason for coming; Chalalan was a model of sustainable eco tourism in an area of protected rainforest known as the Madidi National Park, an area of nearly 20,000 squared km.In 1995 a local community of indiginous tribesfolk known as the San José de Uchupiamonas decided to approach the frequent incursions into their land in a novel and remarkably foresighted way.They realised that they would never be completely free from outside interest and instead decided to embrace the inevitable tourist trade in a way that would be both informative and unique for visitors and also entirely beneficial for their people, all without destroying their way of life.The result was the Chalalan Ecolodge; a small collection of luxury huts built using only natural sustainable materials by the local tribesfolk.From here guided treks and nature walks would educate and surprise while the meals provided were rumoured to be nothing short of exquisite.All profits from this enterprise go directly back into the small community and help in educating, feeding and clothing the tribe.As the San José de Uchupiamonas have lived here for over 300 years it`s no surprise they want to remain where they are.
We were extremely excited to be leaving for Chalalan; Madidi National Park is one of the greatest hotspots of biodiversity on the planet, with over 4,739 species of plants, 1,370 species of vertebrates and highest number of bird species in the world, some 1,100 species.The park is also home to 670 families (some 3,500 inhabitants) spread out among 33 communities.The chances of seeing any number of exotic birds and animals in their natural habitat were high.We had splurged and booked the matrimonial suite, a luxury cabin with a double bed and en suite bathroom.We figured we deserved it.
We left early the next morning, having enjoyed a few drinks in Rurrenabaque`s liveliest joint the Moskito Bar the night before.We met up with our guide, Ivan and also the other tourists in our group; a few good natured Americans of retirement age and a youngish English couple who seemed to prefer their own company.We piled our gear into the canoes which lay on the banks of the Rio Beni, a warm coffee coloured river of reasonable current.The canoes themselves were brightly painted in the green and yellow of the Chalalan company logo and were thankfully covered by canvas stretched along a wooden framework which gave us essential shelter from the bright sun.They were each powered by diesel engines whose propeller dipped low in the deep river water.Once all the gear and supplies were aboard we set off upriver, powering against the current as we left the bustling Rurrenabaque behind.We passed small wooden shacks and a few other canoes but before long the river was ours alone.
After an hour or so of churning up the river we reached the Rio Tuichi, a river of considerably stronger current whose blue water was in stark contrast to the dirty brown of the Beni.We passed through the confluence and turned right, again heading into the current.The Tuichi would take us right up to our final destination but we still had some way to go yet.We contented ourselves by observing the local wildlife, including cormorants and macaws and were even lucky enough to spot some howler monkeys clambering up some vines on the far shore.Pretty soon though, the gentle sway of the boat along with the cooling breeze and hum of the engine had a decidedly soporific effect on most of us, and we soon dozed off.Upon awakening we'd reached our halfway point, a low bank of reddish clay where we clambered off the canoes, stretching and yawning and feeling quite hungry.Luckily, this was to be our spot for lunch and we were each handed a tupperware box of cooked chicken, along with plantains and fruits.Once finished, I set off to find a hospitable place to relieve myself, only to find several huge pawprints in the sand not ten feet from where we'd landed the canoes.I finished quickly and hurried back, convinced that at any time razor sharp claws would plunge savagely into my back.I encouraged our guide to set off immediately, even as he tried to convince me the prints were probably just those of a Tapir.I wasn't taking any chances!
The last three or so hours went by quickly, although at one stage we were surprised when all the men onboard bar the one manning the rudder suddenly leaped into the swirling current.It turned out that due to the dry season the water level of the river was quite low in places and this made it difficult for the canoe to navigate properly.To counter this the men had to physically drag the canoe through the rushing water,which they did with some effort.They had to do this a few times before they could climb back aboard, soaking wet but grinning with the success of their accomplishments.Once aboard, the driver revved the engine and we continued on.
Suddenly we turned a bend in the river and up ahead on the stony bank spotted three men by a makeshift landing jetty made of loose planks.We pulled up alongside, our driver cutting the engine while the other men on board leaped out and tied up the canoe.They piled our baggage onto a rusty wheelbarrow while we were helped out of the canoe and onto the wooden planks, relieved to be back on dry land.Our guide explained that our bags would be carried for us and we were to follow him.So we all set off, excited to be finally here and eager to see what was ahead.We followed our guide into the thick, green rainforest, which immediately came alive with sounds of distant birds and insects, all the while listening as our guide explained the history of the lodge and its importance to his people.The site of the lodge was on Lake Chalalan, hence the name and was surrounded by numerous trails each of which was named for a local jungle inhabitant.The trail we were on, from the Rio Tuichi to the lodge, was the Jaguar Trail.
We arrived thirty short minutes later.The campground was in a clearing surrounded on three sides by thick jungle, with the Chalalan Lake on the remaining side.Two large wooden buildings lay to our right while on our left was a medium sized hut and, in the distance, two smaller huts.All were constructed from dark brown mahogony wood, grown locally and roofed with innumerable palm leaves, and all of them were on short stilts to prevent against flooding in the wet season.This was the rainforest after all.From the front porch of each swung deep luxurious hammocks suspended from the timber beams supporting the roof.In front of us, down a series of short stone steps was the wooden jetty on the lake, tied to which were several dugout canoes.Just before this was a tall lookout like structure, which we later learned was the solar panelled water tower.We dropped our smaller backpacks and sat down on one of the smooth panelled porches just taking it all in.Our guide left to announce our arrival and returned with the rest of the tribe who bade us welcome with wide friendly grins and bearing cold drinks.He then showed us each in turn to our lodgings.Ours was a large wooden hut with a short stairway up to the entrance.All the windows were covered in thick mesh to protect against the numerous insects that would invariably assault us during the night, while the large double bed was covered entirely by a heavy mosquito net suspended from the ceiling.The bed was bookended by two lockers, upon which lay bottles of fresh water while the tiled en suite wouldn't have looked out of place in a four star hotel.The only drawback was a lack of hot water for the shower but in this heat that hardly seemed like a problem.Ivan left us to settle in and once we'd showered and changed we headed back to the main hall for lunch.
And what a lunch!Three full courses served on white china at long mahogony tables with real cutlery and glassware.All sorts of rice, fish, meats, salads and fresh fruit were on offer with juice and tea or coffee for after.It was a meal I would expect in an expensive restaurant, not in a wooden hut in the middle of the rainforest served by local tribespeople.While we ate we listened as Ivan, who sat with us, explained the daily schedule and what he expected us to see on our guided treks.He was to take us on the Monkey Trail after lunch, a trek that circled around the lake and ended at a jetty similar to the one on this side.From there we would paddle back on one of the canoes and get a better view of the area before we arrived back at the lodge.After lunch we had an hour or two to relax and laze in the hammocks, or to read from the extensive library that was stocked with National Geographics and other such literature, or even to spend swimming in the warm waters of the lake.Ivan explained to me how the great hall where we were eating, which must have measured the length of a swimming pool, was erected in less than a month.It was astounding, considering it included a full length bar and had a high, spacious roof that was as tall as a two storey house.The workmanship on the smooth wooden floor, the woven walls and roof was exceptional and it all looked reassuringly watertight.
He also explained how the lodge had limited sleeping huts to cater for a maximum of only twenty visitors at any one time.This ensured that the lodge never felt overrun or crowded and also made for an intimate and friendly atmosphere.In fact the whole area was pristine and it was hard to believe they had been running treks here for as long as they had.I mused that in any other setup like this they would've squeezed in as many tourists as possible but here they seemed content to allow just small groups of like minded individuals.In the ten years since it had opened the locals had never felt the need to expand.In fact the very idea went aginst everything they were trying to achieve here.
We met as a group an hour or so later.There was just me and Janelle, the young English couple who never felt the need for conversation, and our guide Ivan.The Monkey Trail started literally right behind the main dining hall and as soon as we stepped onto its barely discernible path the safety and comfort of the clearing fell away and we were right in the thick of the jungle.Shafts of afternoon sunlight pierced the heavy canopy overhead as we followed Ivan past thick tree trunks and wildly overgrown bushes and ferns.The calls of distant animals and birds reached our ears providing pleasant background music to our trek.Ivan identified tree after tree in English and Spanish and was even able to give them their scientific names in Latin.He told us how the bark of this tree or that was used by his people to cure everything from diarrhorea to headaches and even sexual impotence ( 'natural Viagra' as he called it).In fact as far as I could tell every tree's bark seemed to have some sort of effect on sexual performance, although this may have been more a reflection on me rather than his people.
Then suddenly Ivan urged us to stop and remain still.He had spotted something in the the trees.We turned our gaze upwards and strained to see what it was until the tiny creatures eventually came into view; a whole family of Capuchin monkeys.They chattered to each other and leapt from tree to tree, searching out the fruits that grew high above the ground.Using each limb seemingly independent of the other and especially the tail, the monkeys used the tree branches like trained gymnasts using the parallel bars.Ivan showed us how one monkey was also on gaurd for predators, sitting atop the highest tree and keeping lookout for the whole family.And lucky he was for there was a sudden explosion of squeals and movement as a white hawk, the Capuchins natural predator, came swooping in through the trees with its talons outstretched.The monkeys scattered, squealing loudly to warn each other while the hawk flew off, its element of surprise ruined.We had just enough time to take a few hurried pics before they left too, presumably for safer territory.
After that highlight the remainder of the trek was a little subdued.We reached the lakeshore not soon after and climbed into the dugout, using the rough hewn oars to propel us across the still, oval shaped lake.It was beautiful; an entire lake to ourselves with the sun setting above us and the lights of the lodge just beginning to come on in the distance.We made it in no time and as we set off to return to our cabins for some rest Ivan promised to take us out later for a night trek, when the majority of the jungles inhabitants would be out on the prowl.We told him we looked forward to it.
Dinner that night was again as delicious as the lunch had been, yet there was an added bonus.The cooks had prepared a traditonal meal of dumqwist, freshly caught dogfish oven cooked in banana leaves.It was served buffet style with an enormous selection of side dishes and was absolutely delicious.Ivan again outlined what we were to expect on our trek, explaining how we would only have to venture a few yards from camp to see all manner of jungle creatures in their nocturnal state.Snakes, including the poisonous bushmaster and treesnakes were regularly spotted aswell as all sorts of insects, frogs, nocturnal birds, caimans and spiders.He knew where a tarantula nest lay just off the path and promised to show us, much to the consternation of the girls.
We set off after dinner, again just the two couples and Ivan.I was surprised to see our guide wearing thick boots and he informed us that it was to protect against snakebites.Suddenly the sneakers we were all wearing seemed somewhat inadequete.Ivan led the way slowly, his torch picking out the path ahead aswell as tree branches at head level.The snakes, he told us seriously, often dropped from the trees onto unsuspecting passers by.We all suddenly became as wary of the trees around us as the ground in front of us.His torch picked out the gleaming eyes of small frogs and even the red eyes of a caiman that was resting on the banks of the lake.Caimen are large reptilian looking amphibians, whose crocodile like appearance is distinctly threatening although we were assured that they were quite harmless to humans.The atmosphere became tense, creepy even.In the sheer, impenetrable darkness of the jungle every sound was magnified and there was a lot more animal noises than during the day.And adding to this the torches only illuminated a few feet ahead, leaving the majority of your surroundings in total darkness.No one spoke much and everyone seemed intent on staying as close to our guide as possible..The two girls in particular seemed a bit scared by this stage and Ivan had to check that they were okay to continue.I was enjoying myself thoroughly but I seemed to be the only one.
We stopped at a small wooden bridge over a trickling creek and Ivan led us off the path around to a mound of hard earth.Shining his torch on a large hole he leaned forward and poked a tree branch in.A large black spider, big as his hand came darting out of its nest - a tarantula.Its long hairy legs probed around the entrance to its lair, looking for the cause of the disturbance.Ivan drew back to let us get a better look at it.It was beast of a creature and in the brightness of the torches glare it looked huge.I snapped a few photos before the girls decided they'd had enough and convinced Ivan to go back.With the rest of the group keen to return to the safety of the bright lights and cabins I had no choice but to follow them.We followed the path until we reached the clearing and said our goodnights.
The next day dawned bright and humid.We had both slept soundly amidst the jungle noises of the night, which became rather soothing once you got used to them.Unfortunately however, Janelle seemed to be suffering from the beginnings of a fever of some sort and we had to miss breakfast and that mornings hike.I informed our guide who became immediately concerned and promised to brew up some local concoction to help with her symptoms.With the nearest pharmacy 4 hours boatride downriver we had little choice but to rely on his assistance.The brew was hot and pungent and contained coca leaves, ginger and treebark among its many ingredients.Ivan assured us it would help and a few hours later Janelle was feeling much better to my immediate relief (and hers).We joined the others for the afternoon hike through another of the lodge's many trails.Among the many highlights spotted were walking vines, a type of tree whose above ground roots actually moved by as much as three feet in a month in search of sunlight; the bullet ant, an inch long insect whose bite would put you in serious pain for 24 hours; leafcutter ants, whose red swarms lined the forest floor for miles around as they gathered up foliage; numerous frogs whose camouflage ensured they blend in with their immediate surroundings; a nest of angry hornets and even a small snake who scurried into the undergrowth before it could be identified.We spotted red woodpeckers, tropical parrots and other exotic birds as Ivan showed us how to identify the birds from their calls.He was an extremely informative guide, knowledgable about every animal insect or bird we encountered and had a story for each illustrating their importance to his tribespeople and to the rainforest.His high spirits and genuine love for the jungle and its inhabitants kept us going even when the high humidity threatened to sap our strength.We returned to the camp exhausted but enchanted with Nature in all her glory.
The evenings adventure promised to just as unforgettable; a nighttime paddle around the lake in search of resting caimen.We finished another delicious meal and followed Ivan out to the jetty, the torches leading the way and climbed carefully into the dugout canoe.We pushed off, myself and Janelle paddling with the oars as Ivan's torch led us across the water.The moon was a bright low orb in a night sky populated with thousands of tiny stars.I'd never seen so many at once, even on the astronomy tour in San Pedro.The lake was a black mirror image of the sky bar the quiet ripples caused by the oars.We headed straight for the edges of the lake where the caimen rested amongst the reeds.Straightaway Ivan's torch picked out the telltale red eyes in its beam and we paddled toward it.We came upon a young caiman, its head just breaking the surface of the water with the distinctive crocodile like body barely visible in the darkness.We watched it for a few minutes before leaving it in peace and found another three or four specimens nearby.All around us the sounds of the jungle echoed over the lake and over our heads bats swooped down low from nearby trees to catch the swarms of insects basking in the moonlight.There was a sudden explosion of squealing and chattering among the trees as the monkeys came down to drink from the water.We paddled around for a bit before deciding to head back in, at one stage extinguishing the torches so we could float in the middle of the lake in complete darkness.It was a serene, surreal moment.
The next morning started like the others, with the low calls from the jungle gently rousing us from sleep.After a hearty breakfast of breads, fruits and cakes we set off on our final trek.This time Ivan took us off the established trails and we headed down a rough path through thickets of wild bushes and reeds.We followed a strange repeating call that led us to its source on a low rock formation.The culprit was neither bird nor animal but frog; a tiny colourful frog about the size of your thumb.Its call was to attract a mate Ivan explained, although he also warned us that this particular amphibian was extremely dangerous.The secretions from its back were highly toxic; in fact, Ivans' people used it to coat their tiny darts that they shot from blowpipes when they were hunting small birds or monkeys.A small drop would be enough to kill an adult human in no time.Another point of interest was a tall tree whose bark was entirely covered in tiny spines an inch or two long.Ivan told us how, according to his tribes tradition, a man wishing to marry had to prove himself to his intended bride by climbing the tree to the top, enduring the pain all the while.But the real highlight of the trek came toward the end, when our guide urged us to stop suddenly and bade us to crouch down behind some bushes.He had spotted something, but we couldn't see what it was.Then we heard it; a low grunting sound followed by a sniffing of some sort.A family of wild boar was up ahead, scavaging about for food.Their foul stench hit us immediately after; a smell of dead, rotting meat.We tried to stay upwind of them to avoid being undetected but they were skittish and impossible to get near.Ivan told us how in the wet season his people would hunt the boar for meat, but in the dry season they were frequently infected with parasites that caused intense sickness.We watched them for a time as they nosed about the forest floor looking for food, until they passed from our sight and disappeared.We too, decided to head back to camp for the last time.
As we said our goodbyes to our kind hosts, it struck me how lucky we'd been.Although I did have a feeling of regret that we hadn't managed to see a jaguar or some other such impressive beast, as unlikely as that was.We shouldered our packs and followed Ivan down to the Tuichi river.As we approached we heard the boats engine from afar, although it sounded louder and more guttural than we remembered.Again, Ivan stopped and began gesturing into the trees in front of us.In the distance we saw some shapes that were.....monkeys.But this time they were larger and darker than the Capuchins we'd seen on the first day.And it was they who were the source of that loud rumbling growl.Howler monkeys.We'd thought it was the boats engine!The males have a large gland on their throat that enables them to make this strange sound which is used (as always) in attracting a mate.We stood in silence marvelling at the diversity of nature before we left them to their courtship and boarded the canoe.
We made the journey back to Rurre in about three hours, far less than the six it took us to get there.Along the way we passed more canoes heading to the lodge, carrying with them excited backpackers who were yet to begin their unique and unforgettable experience in Chalalan.I envied them their virgin status, and longed to be back at the beginning again, but we'd had our time and it was everything we could have hoped for and more.The food, the people, the huts, the lake, the treks, the animals.....we'd experienced the rainforest in a truly wonderful way from the people that called it their home.And in a genuinely eco friendly and sustainable way.It was hard to leave but we had other things to think about now; we would be leaving La Paz and Bolivia in a few days but we had one more Bolivian adventure to doundertake first.Something I'd wanted to do since I first read about it and which had taken me several months to persuade Janelle to even THINK about doing.The World's Most Dangerous Road (aka The Death Road) - a mountain bike ride down 64kms of some of the most treacherous trails on the planet.But first we had that flight back to La Paz to take.And something told me that for Janelle this would be worse than anything the WMDR could throw at her.