I set off to the airport in La Paz, oblivious to how the short flight would be to Rurrenabaque, in the rainforest, feeling not-quite-excited but just a little apprehensive about going somewhere very different to anywhere I’ve ever been. I had no idea what to expect in the next few hours and days and that was a good thing!
Very small propeller plane, just 16 passengers.
Lunchtime flight, vertically down over 3,000m of altitude in one hour, really hot the whole time, and the plane was buffeted a lot by the wind going over the high mountains, so yes, I was sick, and felt pretty uncomfortable arriving in suffocating 70% humidity and >30 degree heat! Found a hostel, confirmed my arrival at the Mashaquipe tour agency, and slept for a bit in my private room with broken fan before going to find some food, dodging the fat juicy raindrops.
Jungle Day 1
Met my fellow tourist couple and our happy guide, Eloy, and motored up the wide shallow Beni River towards our first stop. This river is polluted because the contaminated La Paz river flows into it from the city… and then it flows into the Amazon river, causing unknown illnesses.
Saw a small community sustainable sugar cane plantation and squeezed some canes to get the juice – either fresh on its own or with lime it’s the most delicious and refreshing drink I’ve ever had! They use the money for education, but many of the young people here still want to live a traditional, quiet life.
Journeyed deeper into the rainforest along the Tuichi River, which is clean and has catfish and giant piranhas. Arrived at my next private room, in the Mashaquipe lodge – not bad!
First short walk into the rainforest that afternoon was full of life! Preying mantis, dung beetle, “walking” trees (3cm in a year), giant butterflies, purple mushrooms, a channel-billed toucan, a tree whose trunk swells to store water and nutrients, bullet ants, leaf cutter ants walking 4km to ‘farm’ mushrooms by chewing up leaves, termite mounds, tapir tracks and evidence of a jaguar’s recent visit, baby tarantula, 200 year old ficus trees with roots 1km long, horned spider, monkey head fruit, an aggressive tiger spider … and an amazon poison frog! Sounds of cicadas filled the air, and the rich vegetation smell was strong. As it got dark we heard howler monkeys up to 5km away and in my cabin a frog landed on the floor then hopped out of a hole in the wall!
I really got the sense of how fragile the rainforest is. The roots of everything only go ~15cm into the ground because below that there are no nutrients. All vegetation is young: the oldest trees are only around 200 years old because their ‘predators’ are termites, who bite off a heavy branch and topple the tree! So the land is very easy to clear. Although the creation of Madidi National Park, which has 7 different ecosystems, has increased the number of animals for now, there are government engineering projects threatening huge areas in the park: sugar cane plantation (huge areas of forest cleared, less water retention), a road through the middle to connect to Brazil, logging, oil exploration and a hydroelectric plant (large dam, large area flooded).
The country is poor and is of course trying to profit from its natural resources, but it’s at the cost of one of the most precious and irreplaceable habitats the world has. There are no easy solutions, and in corrupt municipalities the challenge is even greater.
I once had a conversation something along the lines of:
“We’re arrogant to think that we really have an impact on the planet.”
“There are 7 billion of us, and we’re extremely destructive. Even if 7 billion ants did something different it would have an impact on the world! Don’t be so ignorant!”
Jungle Day 2
Humid 7km hike to a campsite even deeper into the rainforest. Fewer animals today as they can hear and smell us a mile off! Two coatis jumped down from a tree and ran away. I slipped over downhill in the mud 3 times and started to feel tired, hungry and in need of sugar. Luckily, Wilson the cook had gone upriver and cooked lunch ready for us: fried steak, chips, rice, salad, and sweet cinnamon tea! (Couldn’t hear his name without thinking of Castaway…)
After setting up mosquito nets and having a rest, went to find lovely oropendola birds with their musical calls. Tasted small sweet nui fruit.
Spectacular viewpoint at twilight to watch red&green and chestnut-fronted macaws flying home, and white-eyed parakeets. Macaws can live for 80 years, are monogamous for life and live in the same hole in a cliff their whole lives.
Dinner was rice & cheese with chicken and yucca fries, and local-chocolate cake, with a side of 200 insect bites! Finally a night walk (!) showed tarantulas, a frog-eyed snake, more leaf cutting ants, lots of fireflies (I held one) and a 10cm-long millipede.
Jungle Day 3
Waking up it was raining but at least we hadn’t been eaten by jaguars and the monkeys hadn’t stolen our shoes! 🙂 After going to take a closer look at the macaw nests before breakfast, this morning’s challenge was to (watch the others) build a raft which we then floated on back down the Tuichi River to the lodge.
The river was warmer than the driving rain! Going slower and quieter, we saw capuchin monkeys, 70m-tall trees just 6 years old, wading birds including capped and cocoi heron, and very rapid cliff soil/rock erosion from the driving rain.
Eloy showed me how local people make rings from small coconut shells. It’s now illegal to use animal products like macaw feathers for costumes, or monkey skins for drumskins. Had a total of 5 super-painful wasp stings! River fish wrapped in leaves for dinner. My two companions left and I met the next two; a friendly Irish couple on their 3-month honeymoon, with whom I would be visiting the pampas the next day.