Rurrenabaque, Bolivia; Amazon basin pampas

Latitude 14.19617°S Longitude 66.89454°W

Thursday, January 16, 2003

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Diary:

We had been tempted into the jungles of the Amazon during our visits through Ecuador and Peru, but had held off until Bolivia. From the many tales we had heard from other travelers, the Amazon jungle that borders with Bolivia has suffered less destruction than has occured in neighbouring countries. Brazil unfortunately, though being synonymous with the Amazon region, has suffered some of the worst clearing.

Visiting the Amazon basin from Bolivia is most conveniently attempted from the tiny jungle town of Rurrenabaque, in the country's northern lowlands - the Cuenca Amazónica. Even here, despite being under the protection of UNESCO, destruction of forest and habitat of the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve is proceeding at an alarming rate.

Rurrenabaque is a tiny community on the Río Beni. It was low-lying, hot and humid - an immediate shock to our systems flying in from the cold, dry and rarified atmosphere of La Paz at 4000m! Electricity in town flows only at certain times of the day and mosquitos and other biting insects abound. In Rurre you can arrange two types of excursions: to the Amazon pampas (or savannah lands), and to the jungle. Each area is quite different. The pampas tours are more geared to observing the fauna of the area, while the jungle tours focus more on the flora. On the day we arrived, we selected a 3-day, 2-night pampas package with Fluvial Tours, and set off the next morning.

We started with a 3 hour 4WD drive out to the tiny port of Santa Rosa, were we got into a long wooden canoe-like boat, and set off down the brown muddy waters of the Rio Yacuma. We slowly made our way 40km up river, along the way seeing an amazing menagerie of creatures: open jawed alligators and caiman, the very strange giant rodent-like capybara, turtles, the rare pink river dolphins, howler monkeys, tiny chichilo (squirrel) monkeys, capuchin monkeys, tegon (coatimundi), and countless numbers of beautiful birds such as tiger herons, white egrets, and many more. It was quite an amazing ride.

We finally arrived at our campsite by river in the late afternoon. We all jumped into the river and swam about, there being no fresh running water. All seemed fine until we noticed a rather large alligator lurking on the shore merely a few meters away, eyeing us with a cold unblinking stare. Our jungle guides (who, in sharp contrast to us, were actually not in the water at that time), quickly assured us that alligators were not a problem as they did not attack humans. Caiman, we were told on the other hand, were apparently very cranky animals and would attack and eat humans (and anything else) in the water on sight. Piranha, also quite numerous in the river, were also not a concern we were told unless encountered in a large school of a hundred or more. We all filed these fact away, vaguely believing them key in some way to our survival over the next few days.

Dinner was campsite cooking and uncharacteristically tasty - well beyond our expectations in such a remote location. But the stiffling heat and humidity after the sun went down were unbearble, and we dared not bare any skin to cool off lest the ravenous mosquitos, which persistently followed us around in thick clouds, made dinner out of us. But despite slathering ourselves in toxic repellents, the mosquitoes still feasted on us - having no trouble biting us even through our shirts, trousers and socks. We placed our faith in the anti-malarial drugs we were taking.

After dinner we set off up river armed with torches to spot alligators and caimen. Hundreds of red eyes glowed balefully back at us from the river banks as we cruised along. On the way back we cut the engine and drifted through the hot and sticky night in complete darkness, the air filled with the noises of millions of night creatures around us.

The next morning we went hunting for the Great Anaconda. The anaconda inhabits the swamps of the pampas, and being right in the middle of the wet season and all, the swamps had a very copious quantities of water. Before long we were all wading through the reeds, sinking up to our thighs in stagnant foul-smelling water and mud, stretched out in a long wide line searching for the elusive anaconda - all the while hoping we would not accidentally step on a mambo, which in contrast to the anaconda (a constrictor), is a highly venonous and deadly snake! Shoes and trousers were completely trashed in very short time, and despite slogging through the swamps for several hours, no anaconda could be found. Just as we had given up hope and were returning to the campsite, our guide spotted one and pounced on it, a few moments later brandishing it like a trophy. The snake, at several meters long, was an average specimen, and was quite passive and allowed us to hold it and examine it at close range. At least, it didn't strangle anyone. When we were done we released the snake which promptly vanished into the tall grasses. Anaconda snakes can apparently grow to a huge size, and though quite rare, giant specimens are encountered by communities that live in the pampas.

After lunch we went upriver further until we reached the tiny port of Santa Cruz. There was a small bay here where we swam, and were delighted to find a small group of friendly pink dolphins joined us soon after we got in the water. The water was too brown and silty to see them clearly even though they did come quite close to us, but on the occasions when they surfaced, their pink markings were quite visble and highly unusual. These fresh water dolphins are residents of the Yacuma river and are quite rare, their pink coloring resulting from minerals in their diet.

As an extra attraction to the afternoon's activities, while swimming with the dolphins, one of the girls felt a strange thump on her leg, but thought nothing more of it. When she climbed back into the boat later, we were shocked to see blood streaming down her leg! The guide quickly examined her and there in plain sight were 2 rows of tiny punctures, obviously effected by a very sharp set of teeth. The guide immediately pronounced the bite as having been caused by a piranha fish! Luckily for us, there were no schools of piranha in the area, just the odd one or two single fish. Still, after this incident (and the incident with the alligator yesterday), no one felt much like doing any more swimming for the remainder of the trip!

The next day we set about to actually try and fish for piranha. After some time I snagged a tiny juvenile, and a few moments later our guide pulled out an adult specimen about 6 inches long. Carefully opening its mouth, we could clearly see double rows of upper and lower razor sharp teeth. While each individual piranha fish is quite small, when they feed in schools of hundreds they are unstoppable. They can strip the carcass of a large animal down to the skeleton in literaly minutes.

After our little fishing trip it was time to pack up and head back to Rurre. All up we had a great time and the tour is highly recomended.

When we got back to Rurre, we inquired into also visiting the jungle for a one or two day tour, but the torrential rains that fell later that day pretty much brought the whole town to a stand still, and all the tours were postponed. In fact, the rains were so bad the Rio Beni flooded its banks and entered the town, and all transport in and out of Rurre was disrupted for several days. We were quite lucky to be able to fly back to La Paz as we had planned.


Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Rurrenabaque on the Rio BeniWe survived the flight - despite the pilot taking us up
to 25000 feet without cabin oxygen!Nico and Baby Marcelito (coati)Setting off down the Rio YacumaAlligators or caiman?!Family of the large, rodent-like capybaras
Capuchin monkeyChichilo (squirrel) monkeysAlligator Dundee about to become piranha baitOh yeah? In Australia, we have piranha this big!A real piranhaVery sharp, pointy teeth!
Alligator lurking at the campsiteWhite heronThe Fluvial campsiteThe Fluvial campsiteThe Fluvial campsiteRiver scene
River sceneOn the Great Anaconda HuntSwamp! Ick!Where are all the anacondas?!Pepe found one finally!They don't bite, but they can sure squeeze!
Anaconda affectionThe Rio Beni flooded the town after torrential rains


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