Welcome to the jungle – adventures in the Bolivian Amazon

“Welcome to the jungle” was the first thing we heard as we stepped down from the little propeller flight that had taken us over the Andean mountains from La Paz to the Bolivian Amazon. The heat and humidity hit us like a wall and the difference couldn’t have been bigger from chilly and dry La Paz at almost 4000 meters above sea level to hot and humid Rurrenabaque at about 400 meters.

Rurrenabaque is a starting point of many jungle and pampas tours in the Bolivian Amazon. We booked a tour with Mashaquipe, a community-based tour operator, for 3 days/2 nights at the pampas first and 3 days/2 nights in the jungle after. The pampas is very flat with moderately vegetation. It is very dry in the dry-season and flooded in the wet season. The jungle has denser vegetation, more hilly terrain and a big river flowing through.

El mirador

To get to the pampas lodge we had to drive 3 hours on a very bumpy and dusty road that seemed to be almost impossible to drive without a good 4×4 in the wet season. The lodge is situated on the shore of a little river, and we were met by pink river dolphins playing in the river just outside the lodge!

The wet season had just ended, so the pampas was flooded with water and we didn’t get to do any walking on the large plain, instead we relaxed riding along the rivers on a long and skinny boat watching for different monkeys (spider, howler, capuchin, yellow squirrel), pink river dolphins, alligators, caimans, turtles, capybaras (the largest rodent in the world, the size of a pig!), toucans and an abundance of other birds. Our guide, Ismael (or Negro for short (yes, seriously)), put his foot in the water and the dolphins came over to nibble at it gently. We even got to swim in the river with the dolphins, although they weren’t in the most playful mood (it was mating season).  All in all it was pretty darn relaxing..

Cruising on still waters

Stoked to be swimming with dolphins!

Our guide put his foot into the water to play with the dolphins

Yellow squirrel monkey

One of the highlights was the night-trip where we used our flashlights to find caymans and alligators in the river. Their eyes light up in green, yellow and orange, and it was pretty exciting driving up to them and seeing them up-close. We drove back to the lodge in the dark watching the perfect starry sky and listening to the sounds of the amazon, it was magical!

We also had a try at fishing piranhas, using beef as bait. Only the guide did have any luck and caught two small ones, but it was nice just sitting in the lagoon an watching the sun set on the pampas.

Fishing for piranhas

Sunset over the Pampas 1

Stars over the Pampas 1

From the pampas we drove the three hours back to Rurre (that’s what the locals call Rurrenabaque), and continued with a 3D/2N jungle trip the next day, starting with a 3 hour boatride up the river Beni to the Mashaquipe camp inside the Madidi national park.

We spent the days sneaking around the jungle with our guide, Rodolfo, trying to see monkeys, birds and other animals before they saw us, but mostly we only saw a lot of plants and trees, looking up trying to see something move. Often times Rodolfo got really excited because he had heard a sound or could smell something (pipi of monkey, pipi of wild pig (chanchi), odor of puma, …). He was also really excited about all the plants and trees, especially if they might contain some larvae that we could eat, and had a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal properties of the plants in the jungle.

Inside a 500 year old tree

Tarzan in the jungle

Sangre de torro

The jungle is densely forested and it is very difficult to see the animals even if they’re close, and he told us it is easier to see the animals in the dry season (August is best)! What we did see a lot of was assorted bugs, especially ants (and some are huuuuuge and dangerous!), spiders and tarantulas, birds, a snake, and a lot of medicinal plants that was quite interesting. We got to smell, taste and feel a lot of plants and fruits!

Itsy-bitsy spider

Giant ant

Tarantula - our next door neighbour

We spent one night in the main camp and then one night in a “tent”. It was a plastic tarp stretched over a basic frame, and we slept on the ground with just a mosquito net to protect us from all the animals of the jungle (including jaguars, pumas, snakes and wild pigs! Not to mention all the bugs and ants!). It was fine for one night, and definitely an experience listening to all the sounds of the jungle, but one night was enough though. We were basically eaten up by all the mosquitoes during the night. In addition to Rodolfo we also had with us a cook, Wilson, who managed to cook some delicious food in the very basic outdoor kitchen. He was also a very jolly guy and good to have aboard!

A pair of macaws!

A single macaw

Wilson and Rodolfo

Near the campsite was a lovely viewpoint were we could see the beautiful red and blue macaws, as well as a big part of the Madidi. We saw some tayras when walking to the river (weasels), and some huge tarantulas at night. We ended our jungle trip with making a balsa raft and rafting down the river to the lodge. A wet experience but a quiet and great ending to our jungle experience!

Some travel tips to the Amazon

  • The pampas and jungle were two very different experiences and we’re glad we did both. If we had to choose one it might be the pampas, as it was very relaxing at we got to see a lot of animals and birds from the boat.
  • The best time to go is in August when it is at its driest, and you have best possibilities of seeing the animals. The seasons are about the same for the whole Amazon (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil).
  • What’s nice with the Bolivian Amazon is that it’s pretty reasonably priced, not too crowded and the area around Rurre doesn’t have malaria (we started taking malarone pills, but quit because there have never been malaria there). 
  • Choose travel agency wisely. Many of the cheaper companies take shortcuts, are not as environmentally conscious and have large groups, so it might be worth paying a little more for the better companies. We were very happy with Mashaquipe: good guides, good food, good program, responsible, the community gets a part of the profits, and we were only 2-5 people in the group!

Sunrise

Another toucan!

Take-off

Capybara

Turtles taning

The only cat we saw in the jungle..

Relaxing on the river

Cacao fruit

See more pictures from the jungle, pampas and the rest of Bolivia here.

Soakin’ in Tayrona

Our Colombian adventure started in Taganga, a small fishing village by the Carribean Sea, and also the closest town to Tayrona national park. We hadn’t heard much about Taganga, but we’d heard a lot about how beautiful Tayrona is and that it’s a must do on a visit to Colombia.

To be honest we weren’t that impressed with Taganga; the town beach is not impressive, neither is the nearby Playa Grande, restaurants are so-so, and it is generally rather dusty and dirty (we may be a bit blasé by our previous beach encounters in Nicaragua, though). We did have a good 3-course meal at the restaurant Babaganoush, which we highly recommend.

Shady street

Fishing boats

We spent a lot of the time in the hotel pool (see a pattern?), and a day at Playa Grande (a 10-minute boatride away). Playa Grande is a really busy beach, filled with beach chairs, restaurants, kayaks, pedalboats, tubes, masseurs, ceviche sellers, hustlers, snorkelers and people – very similar to European beaches in the most touristy places..and it’s not especially pretty. We had a very good lunch there, though, which was fried fresh fish at one of the many restaurants on the beach.

Playa Grande

Beach chairs

After 3 nights in Taganga we were ready to go to the much-praised beaches of Tayrona National Park! We booked a speedboat to El Cabo San Juan, the prettiest beach in Tayrona. The guy selling the tickets said that the sea was “like a plate”, giving us high hopes for a fun ride! No such luck – it was a bumpy ride in huge waves with the wind throwing bucketloads of water down our necks! Tuva has now sworn off speedboats for the rest of this trip..

El Cabo San Juan is beautiful, the rock formations are so special and the beaches are clean. Unlucky for us it was overcast.. No luck in the weather department, but still a good day. We decided it would be the most interesting to sleep in hammocks at the Mirador – a building on top of a hill overlooking the sea and the beach.

El Cabo San Juan

Panorama from the mirador

Hammocks at the mirador

Sleeping in the hammocks could have been the experience of a lifetime – we imagined clear starlit sky, big moon and lovely sunrise! This is not quite how it unraveled..

It started out good: it was tempered, a light breeze and we could hear the waves clashing on the rocks around us and grasshoppers in the distance. We had brought blankets for the cold night but didn’t even need them at first! The only thing that could have made it better was if the cloud moved to reveal a the starry sky, but oh well. Little did we know of what was awaiting us..

Calm before the storm

El mirador

After an hour or so we got a little drizzle. No problem, just refreshing. But it didn’t subside, in fact it increased a bit. Then the wind picked up and the blankets came on. Still okay, no problem sleeping here.. Then suddenly the heavens opened up and we had a blazing storm all around us! The rain and wind together soaked us completely – we had to hold the hammock closed over our bodies trying to keep dry. As the minutes crept by we got increasingly wetter and colder all throughout the night, and the only thing that kept us positive was that “It could have been worse, we could have had only shorts and t-shirt on, like the guy next to Mathias, sleeping in fetal position. At least we’re not freezing to death!”. So no sleep. And all wet.

The best thing we can say about the night is that it definitely was an experience! Not exactly what we pictured, but still an experience :)

It got even better/worse when we discovered that our little hill had actually been separated from the main beach by a river overflowing and digging out the sand! We had to put on our swimwear and pack our stuff in the watertight bag to wade across waist-high water with strong currents to get to the restaurant. When we got there we learned that mostly everyone was wet, many of the tents were flooded and in general people weren’t super-happy to be there.

Survivor

River

It continued to rain, but when we finally had to leave Cabo it actually stopped and we had a nice 2-3 hour trip through beaches and jungle to Cañaveral and the bus. The night in the hammock really made us appreciate the dry and comfortable beds when we got back to our hostel, Divanga B&B.

Into the jungle

Tarzan in the jungle

Our experience of Tayrona is a bit tainted by the whole weather situation (it actually was a tropical storm from Panama), but we could see that it definitely is a beautiful place and if you’re lucky with the weather you’ll be in paradise.

For anyone who wants to go to Tayrona, this is what you need to know:

  • You can go by:
    • Speedboat (1h, 40 000),
    • Shuttle (50 min + 2-3h hike, 15 000) or
    • Local bus (1-2h + 2-3h hike, 6000)
    • There is never calm sea, if you don’t like big waves or getting wet – take a bus!
  • There is a 37 500 park entrance fee (which seems to increase continuously)
  • You can stay several places from Cañaveral to El Cabo, but we found El Cabo to be the prettiest place and surrounding beaches, so it’s worth the trip
  • Hammocks costs from 20 000 p.p (you can bring you own tent for a bit cheaper)
  • Meals are not cheap, but no too expensive either (breakfast around 6000, lunch and dinner 15 – 30 000 at El Cabo
  • They have toilets, showers, changing rooms and lockers
  • Bring warm clothes for nighttime, it can get windy and chilly!
  • Pack all electronics in a watertight bag!
  • You’re not allowed to bring plastic bags or alcohol (they sell it though)

El Cabo beach 1

600hp

Wet and muddy, but happy

Taganga

More pictures from Taganga, Tayrona and the rest of our travels in Colombia can be found here.

Jungle adventures

After watching the adventures of El Hobbit (the Hobbit) in Guatemala City we were ready for an adventure of our own and headed into the jungle, more precisely Semuc Champey.

Bridge

We stayed at Utopia Eco Hotel, a big cabin with some smaller cabins around, 3 km outside the Semuc Champey park in the middle of the jungle. They have only been running for 6 months and the very good reviews on TripAdvisor led us to try it out, in stead of choosing one of the more classic places, such as El Portal (just outside the park) or Zephyr Lodge (in Lanquin). It was a nice place, but it must be said that we didn’t have quite the amazing picture of the place as most of the TripAdvisor reviews at the time of writing. We paid a premium price for the private riverfront cabins with hot water (more than twice the price of the next option), and the cabins were nice but the water was barely lukewarm and the furnishings were minimal. Also the food was only vegetarian and not always that good, but okay. It must also be said that we were unlucky with the weather, which probably influenced our experience.

Tread careful

Photo kids

On the first day we went for a “Indiana Jones” like hike across some old rope bridges and slippery slopes. We met some very nice locals, most of them very curious and giggly about us white weird tourists, and got really dirty in the mud.

The next day we went for a guided tour to Semuc Champey, which included a cave, where we swam in the water and climbed ropes with only a candle as light, a jungle trek to look out over the park, and finally swimming and sliding in the pools. All in all it was an awesome adventure and our guide was very good at taking care of us.

In the cave

Waterfall climb

Waist high water

Semuc Champey pools 1

Smile

Steep

All alone with the pool

Slide 1

More pictures of Semuc Champey and the rest of our travels in Guatemala can be found here.