This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Friday, August 26, 2011

The River Wild from Rurrenabaque

The pampas
Into the Wild
When making our Bolivian travel plan we always knew that we would be headed to Rurrenabaque. And we knew that in Rurrenabaque we would be able to do a jungle tour, a pampas (Amazon basin swamp) tour or both. The general knowledge is that jungle tours are more adventurous and less touristy while tours to the pampas will offer much more opportunity to see animals. We choose the swamps because Mika is determined to spot and swim with the pink river dolphins.

From La Paz there are two ways to get to Rurre, by plane or by bus. The short flight takes just 45 minutes while the bus ride takes a gruelling 18 hours off of your life. Going we choose airplane. The one way flight costs 372 Bolivianos (US $54.60) each. Traveling eight months in South America and this is our first flight. On board the forty-seater we get coffee and chocolate. It feels like real luxury, even if Mika has to change seats because hers does not have a seat belt.
Happy to have safely landed
The altitude difference between La Paz and Rurre is about 3500 m (11,500 feet). Within the short time we are in the air the landscape changes drastically (or what I can see of it through the dirty window) from harsh brown mountains to a thick carpet of forest. The plane lands and then taxis us to the airport - I use the term 'airport' loosely- over a road of dirt and grass. The hot, humid weather hits us immediately. We are surrounded by lush green, tree-covered  hills. After many cold nights in the mountains it feels like we are on vacation.

from mountains

to jungle

On our return to La Paz we choose the bus. For 70 Bolivianos (US $10). This is purely an economic decision lest we forget our monthly backpacking budget. I do not need to go into all the gruesome details, but lets just say the roads are horrendous, seats are uncomfortable, it is long and miserable.

The toucan on this bus to La Paz is a reminder that we'd rather be flying

Welcome to Rurrenabaque

View from our Rurre hotel
Rurrenabaque is a little town sitting on the Beni River and surrounded by green hills. It is the first town in Bolivia we have seen with very few cars. It is small enough that everyone gets around by motorbike or on foot. The effects of tourism are noticeable everywhere, but it has not completely swallowed the town. There are still plenty of restaurants, markets and shops catering to locals, but who will also gladly accept our money.

Two wheels are preferred in Rurre

Not Tourists: locals dvd shopping 
If you've been following the blog regularly you have probably figured out by now that Mika and I tend to avoid foreigner-geared places that have names like Mosquito Bar or Monkey Bar (yes, these places do exist in Rurre), so the first place we head to is the central market to have lunch with the locals. I eat a delicious sliver of fried pacu (a type of fish found in the Amazon) which arrived directly from the Beni River.
Found our weakness: At a French-owned pastry shop for a quiche and chocolate croissant breakfast. 

Decisions Decisions

For such a small town hotels and tourist-geared eateries abound while the number of travel agencies is off the charts. This is due to the proximity of the jungle which is reached by boat from the River Beni and to the pampas which is reached by a bumpy, two hour jeep ride.

If there is anything I hate about traveling it is having to choose a travel agency in exactly this type of situation. We know that we want to do a 3day/2night pampas tour, but who to choose? The fact is that here they all offer the same tour. Also, the majority are just not completely honest. They all say "eco" but some tourists return from tours saying that the guides handled or even fed wild animals. You buy with one agency promising this or that and they then sell you to another agency to form larger groups. On top of it all the prices are exactly the same except for the few who charge more.

Tour prices in this area have skyrocketed recently due to a government mandate. A 3 day/2 night trip now costs 900 B (US $130) minimum per person where just a few months ago the price was as low as 480 B (US $69) per person. The price does not include 150 Boliviano park entrance fee. What we are told as to why there is price control is that in the past companies would offer dirt cheap tours and then cut costs every which way, including hiring any shady character to be a guide. There were many reports of drunkenness, theft and even a tourist was raped. With the price increase the guides are now supposedly licensed, better educated about conservation and receiving better wages all of which are a good thing.
This warning sign is all over town about the risks of discounted tours
We choose Dolphin Tours mainly because they promise that our group will be a maximum of six people and that they will not push us off onto another company's tour. In the end we have a group of five people (the other three sold to Dolphin by other agencies) which is a good size. Their facilities and food are decent enough though considering that the five of us are paying over US $200 per day -- a huge sum in Bolivia-- it probably could be better.
Our river lodgings

The biggest problem with our tour is that our guide is so boring, uninspired and just going through the motions. I can learn more about the flora and fauna of the area with two hours on the internet than three days with him. And to be honest. since all the agencies offering pampas tours are pretty much the same, it is the guide that makes or breaks it. But that being said his lameness cannot take away from the beauty of the area and the plethora of animals that we encounter.

The River Wild

I would like to first start out this section with a disclaimer: I stink at wildlife photography. I do not have a long enough zoom lens to get good close-up shots of the animals, so many of the following photos have been cropped (cropping is usually a no-no) so you can have a finer glimpse of the critters, but quality has suffered somewhat.

Our launching point
We finally reach the river, load up our boat and shove off. One good thing about our company is that they do not race down the river like other agencies who then just have to kill time at the cabanas. We take our time cruising down the muddy river and get a great look at lots of animals.

The river
We are not in a national park. The river and just 50 meters on each side is protected by a municipality. After that it is all private property. I am not sure the animals know how to calculate 50 meters, but being the dry season most of them seem to be hanging out down by the river. Wooden cabana compounds for tourists dot the edge of the river in the protected zone. 

On our first cruise we see a whole host of critters - mammals, birds and reptiles - along on the river bank and in the trees. It feels like a river safari. So come on and take a ride with me down the cafe latte colored waters of the mighty Yacuna river.
Crocs Rule: There are so many crocodiles and caiman

A pregnant capybara - the world's largest rodent 

A capybara family
A hoatzin, but I call them swamp chickens

As the boat approaches this bird is chased down river only to be again chased down river only to again...

Big bird

Sticks poking out of the water are the turtles turf

A capuchin monkey. There is also a gang of them living by our cabana

A heron

Another big bird

Did I mention there are a lot of caimans and crocs?
Sunrise, Sunset
Catching the salida del sol and the entrada del sol  - literal translation is sun's exit (sunrise) and sun's entrance (sunset) - seems to be a thing to do on this tour. The first night we catch the sunset from a bar attached to our cabanas. Next morning the sunrise is witnessed from a field after a short canoe ride and sunset that day is seen on the property of a family who happens to have hammocks and sell drinks.
We say goodbye to the kids and the sun and hop back into the canoe for our night ride with flashlights in hand. The purpose of this trip is to ride slowly while shining our lights looking for crocodiles and caimans. The reptiles eyes will shine red when in the path of the light. When I pop my camera flash the eyes sparkle like deadly diamonds. The problem we soon find with cruising slowly at sundown is that we have become a human buffet for the mosquitoes. Even with deet slathered everywhere none of us can stand the pests so we tell the guide to drive faster. An abrupt end to our night river caiman hunting cruise.
On the river with the last drops of daylight

The Eyes: The lighted spots in the photo are crocs and caiman  
The final morning we are allowed to sleep in past sunrise but I am awoken early anyway by a cacophony of hoots created by the swamp chickens which sound like roosters that have swallowed an industrial fire alarm. There is also the loud wails of the howler monkeys which can be quite eerie. They come off like the moans of a Scooby-Doo villain that would scare only the most paranoid, pot-smoking mystery solver. These monkeys sound pretty close so I leave the secure confines of my mosquito net to have a look and a listen.
Can you spot the four howler monkeys in the tree?

What Lies Beneath

Sharp teeth
Beneath the muddy waters is another notorious creature, the piranha. We spend one early evening fishing for the sharp-toothed fish using chicken meat for bait. I snag the first fish of the day which is my only catch of the day, a tiny one that gets another chance at life. Two larger ones are not so lucky and end up on our dinner plate.

Our fishin' hole

My big catch

Piranha dinner
Hunting Anaconda

Searching for anacondas is one of the big advertised activities of the tour. Though all companies warn us that it is unlikely we will see one. Their populations have dwindled drastically in recent years. This is in large part due to tourism.

Before, when not finding an anaconda, a guide would move on ahead to look for one while the group waited. And of course he would see one because he has kept the snake hidden in a bag for who knows how long. The guide then brings his "find"over to his group so they can pose for photos holding the reptile. Now if living in a bag is not enough to shorten the lifespan of an anaconda then coming into contact with the repellent on tourists hands should do the trick. We are told that this cruel practice has been stopped, but it would not surprise me if it is still done by a few unscrupulous guides.

To begin our hunt we literally cross the river by canoe and get out to start walking about twenty minutes to a swamp. Our guide cuts us walking sticks with his machete and gives us some quick instructions. Only a small part of the anaconda, like the head, will be sticking out of the water. This exposed skin will glisten in the sun. We need to spread out and walk slowly. What he does not tell us is that a couple years ago a tourist on the anaconda hunt stepped on a crocodile and got her kneecap chomped to pieces. Or maybe that is what he means by "walk slowly."
I am sure there must be an anaconda here somewhere
As we are slowly trudging along through the mud and the others are getting further and further away I start wondering if I really want to find this snake. I keep imagining the trash compactor scene in Star Wars when Luke is dragged under the water by a serpent-like beast. Anyway, no need to worry because there are no anacondas in sight. Regardless, I find it fun, yet exhausting, to be slogging around the swamp for an afternoon. 
Swamp n' Boots
We finally get out of the muck and walk on dry land to a shaded area with hollowed out trees where the anacondas sometimes might be. No reptiles here either, but we do see a large porcupine who has wedged himself into the crook of a tree trunk.

Just to prove that heading out to search for animals can be futile we set out on another journey to hunt for a sloth ('lazy bear' in Spanish). This activity is prompted by the French couple and of course we do not find one. We do, however, see and hear the sqwuaks of four yellow and blue timid macaws that fly away as soon as we near their tree trunk eventhough they are about seven stories over our heads.
Hunting Sloths: You are looking for an animal in the trees the size of a small dog that is the color of the tree bark and does not move. They do come down every now and then to go to the bathroom, so if you're lucky... 

Meet the Dolphins

A "good" photo of flipper
Besides scary things like pirahnas and crocodiles there are pink river dolphins swimming in these waters. It is a treat to see them and those that brave the brown waters can swim with them too.

To photograph these dolphins is nearly impossible. First of all, you have no idea where they are going to pop up. Secondly, they do not leap out of the water like ocean dolphins. They just sort of come up for a puff from the breathe hole without ever bringing their faces or bodies out of the water. Only one time do I see a pale pink tail. But it is these brief flashes of dolphin flesh that add to their mystique.

My best dolphin photo
A pair of young dolphins. They will turn pink as they become older
The last activity of our tour is to swim with the dolphins. I know what you must be asking, aren't there tons of crocodiles and piranhas roaming these waters? Well, what they tell us is that these meanies are scared of the dolphins and will swim away when they are around. Lots of people have swum in this river, but I cannot muster the courage to enter this murky water with zero visibility. While in Indonesia last year I heard too many stories of people getting eaten by crocodiles and on this tour we have seen lots of crocodiles and caimans. I chicken out and stay in the boat.

Mika on the otherhand has a lot of faith that her fellow mammals will protect her and she jumps in several times after we spot the dolphins in an area. Mika is basically the only one in our group to go in. Mika splashes the water to attract the dolphins and claims to have gotten a couple bumps from them under the water. A wonderful end to our tour to the pampas

Dolphins come out to play-yay
The International Rambler Travel Tip: 

If you abide by the theory that says "well since all the agencies are pretty much the same I might as well pay as little as possible," then I suggest that you book your tour in La Paz where deals can be made. I know a couple that paid 690 B for the 3 day/2 night pampas trip with Fluvial tours. I should mention that they have the largest groups (we saw a group of twenty-four) and I know for a fact that they handle wildlife (anacondas) even though the lady in their office promised us that they do not.

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