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.

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