We were deep in the Amazon Jungle in Bolivia when I first experienced the unsettling feeling of vulnerability and weakness as a human being.
The Amazon is home to many creatures with the potential to end my life and far away from medical care. We were on an overnight tour of the Bolivian Amazon and the rudimentary tent we'd be sleeping in that night was just a tarpaulin sheet hung over tree branch. But that was after the night hike through the leafy and loud jungle while being watched by glowing eyes. I couldn’t decide if I was thrilled or terrified.
A few days prior we had stepped off the plane and into an intense sticky heat. The tiny town of Rurrenabaque (pronounced Rur-ren-a-back-ee) in Bolivia was our launching pad into the jungle and we couldn’t walk down the dusty roads without oozing sweat.
It´s an exciting place to be, on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest whilest waiting to springboard into a new adventure.
Daylight saw quiet streets, locals sitting on doorsteps or inside by the air con. Nights were loud, an orchestra of croaks and whistles and tiny wings humming around my ears.
Everyone spent the evenings in Rurrenabaque out and about, even though there’s no nightlife in this basic town on the edge of the jungle, still we were relieved to be free from the wet blanket of heat that smothered us from sun rise till set.
We picked a hostel with a tepid swimming pool, but cooled off in the showers which were slightly frostier, our room was tiny and the old fan whirred away constantly blowing us with hot air. We were never completely comfortable.
We spoke to travellers as they came and went and asked of their experiences. There are many tourism agencies in Rurrenebaque, all selling the same two packages and we decided why not do both: The Jungle Tour with camping and hiking, and the Pampas Tour in a lodge on the swamps. After a few days in the high altitude city of La Paz, we welcomed the change of climate and a new adventure on our South American odyssey.
The Jungle Tour:
The Jungle Tour began with a three hour boat ride deeper into the amazon along the River Beni. The landscape changed little and I mostly spent this time daydreaming (my go-to pastime on long journeys). When we arrived at the campsite we sat around a while and it seemed a little anticlimactic to travel into the Amazon only to sit back and wait for something to happen.
It wasn’t long before we were beckoned by our machete wielding guide for a hike. We were four: my partner Jack and I, a French Canadian man, and the guide. Our guide spoke only Spanish, and we spoke none, but somehow we worked out between us what the knowledge he was imparting on the jungle. We walked on quietly, listening to sounds of scarpering animals.
We returned sweaty and covered with fire ant bites, having seen howler monkeys and an unusually coloured caterpillar, but not much else. To be honest I was a little disappointed at the lack of wildlife, but that’s the luck of the draw, it’s not a zoo after all.
After a hearty dinner we left for a night hike: one of gleaming eyes and insects whirring like helicopters by my ears. I was unnerved for much of the hike, with just a tiny torch to guide us along uneven ground, and the sounds from the jungle were almost deafening. It also didn’t help when our guide left us alone for ten minutes to seek out a baby alligator.
Exhausted, we turned in early, our tent really just a plastic sheet on the floor and another over a branch, so I felt totally exposed to the beasts living in these wild lands. I’ve said it before, but I’ve never felt as delicate and vulnerable as a human being than I did while in the Amazon. But despite all this I slept well (two long hikes in one day will do that though) and spent the following morning chilling with another tour group while we made jewellery with various alligator scales and seeds, and created temporary tattoos with jagua fruit.
While we chose to camp only the one night you also have the choice of camping for up to a month on the Jungle Tour - learning about and living entirely off the jungle.
The Pampas Tour
After a short return to Rurrenebaque, where we washed our sweaty and dirt encrusted clothing, we were possibly more excited to return to the Amazon and get on with the Pampas tour, of which we’d heard great stuff.
Our second trip into the Amazon began with (yet another) three hour jeep ride and (for me) a slip down a muddy hill while holding two pineapples. Don’t ask.
This was followed by another boat ride this time along the swamps, and within minutes we had seen more wildlife than we had on the whole Jungle Tour: caimans and alligators and birds and turtles and capybara.
What at first sounded like the wind tearing through the jungle was actually the deep yowls from howler monkeys swinging through the branches. We soon came upon a tree of capuchin monkeys where our guide placed bananas on our heads and the capuchins scrambled madly all over us. I spent a lot of time trying to photograph the monkeys but got mostly shots of blurry fuzzy bums. Jack did much better.
Our days in the Amazon swamps were spent watching sunsets, fishing for piranhas, and Anaconda hunting, where after walking through long grass looking for snakes (and hopefully finding them before they found us) our guide told us to wait and then disappeared into the marshes.
So we waited, and waited and waited, and a large yellow cobra appeared. So we called for our guide - but he was long out of earshot.
Jack really wanted to pick it up with a pronged stick - but I talked him out of that stunt, so we let the cobra go and sat back down to wait.
An hour went by and others in the tour group were getting nervous, talking about all the things that could have gone wrong, that our guide could be injured or dead and half the group started making plans to get back to camp. Very worst thing you could do while lost in the Amazon would be to start wandering around, always best to stay put and wait for help.
Of course some three hours or so later our guide turns up empty handed and a little disappointed. Those that had worried were furious at him but the rest of us understood that Bolivian time runs a little more casually than we’re used to at home.
Getting to the Amazon:
The Bolivian Amazon is accessed by travelling to Rurrenebaque – the frontier town for accessing the Rainforest. A return flight costs US$200 from La Paz or a rough, twenty-hour jeep ride costs $10. The town to access the Amazon in Peru is Iquitos, in Colombia it’s Leticia and in Ecuador it’s Coca.
Travel to these Amazon towns overland from the nearest major city (or fly where possible) and there you’ll find many tour agencies vying for your patronage. Never book these kinds of tours online, you’ll find far better prices buying locally.
Touring the Amazon can actually be done quite cheaply! A private room with en suite and swimming pool goes for US$30 p/n in Rurrenabaque and a basic but all inclusive one/two night tour in the Amazon costs US$90/$130 but is totally worth a greater splurge as touring the Amazon is one of the coolest things I did in South America.
Allow a week to properly explore the area - the frontier towns themselves are interesting enough on their own!
Up next week: a review of Bolivia’s Amazon tours and a budget breakdown
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