Arriving in Rurrenabaque from La Paz is like being transported to a different planet. Everything about this small and sleepy Amazonian town sitting on the banks of the Rio Beni screams different. It drips with tropical heat, is surrounded by lush, forested hills and, the final touch, parrots and parakeets fly screeching overhead. The only things that screech in La Paz are the infernal horns of the micros and taxis.
In part the shock of arriving in Rurrenabaque is down to the short, dramatic flight to get there. Leaving El Alto airport at an altitude of 3800m, you fly between the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real feeling very small in an eighteen seater plane and, forty-five minutes later, you are deposited in the tropics outside Rurrenabaque’s tiny airport terminal, where the air temperature is thirty degrees hotter than in La Paz.
You can travel by bus to Rurrenabaque, a journey that takes twenty-four hours if you’re lucky, and which takes you over some of Bolivia’s worst and most dangerous roads. I’m sure the bus is one of those experiences that you’d look back upon retrospectively with a mixture of delight and pride, but at the time it would be a small slice of hell. There was no way I was going to subject my rear end to such a trial.
Rurrenabaque is the gateway to the absolutely stunning Madidi National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Jaguars and ocelots rub shoulders with tapirs, toucans and five types of monkeys; the diversity of insects and flora is staggering. The town is full of travellers heading out to spend a few days exploring the vast rainforest and absorbing the rhythm of life away from the distractions of the modern world.
The Madidi National Park is home to numerous indigenous groups, many of whom still live deep inside the forest. A number of these groups have embraced ethno- and eco-tourism since the creation of the park, and small, community run lodges can be found in the forest allowing travellers to experience a unique way of life first hand. That’s the reason we’d dragged ourselves away from freezing La Paz for eight days…not that we needed much convincing.
Rurrenabaque itself is a town low on energy and big on relaxation…the heat and humidity won’t allow for anything else. The best way to enjoy the town is to find a hotel with a swimming pool and a few hammocks. Luckily, Rurrenabaque has plenty of both and you’re rarely in danger of not relaxing. Bring a good book and a flexible schedule.
The town sits at a point on the Rio Beni where it splits and forms an island in mid-river, providing open vistas and stunning sunsets across the river. Surrounding the town, the forested hills have been carved into sugarloaf shapes by wind and rain, reminiscent of South East Asia. The town’s inhabitants reflect the cultures of the Amazon – physically they look different and they dress differently to the highlands of Bolivia.
Life slowly floats past on the Rio Beni en route to other parts of the Amazon, with occasional canoes stopping in Rurrenabaque with giant catfish for sale. Other than that, the lifeblood of the town is the steady trickle of tourists that daily turn up in the hope of an Amazonian adventure, and intent of thawing their bones after spending time in Bolivia’s altiplano highlands.
We would be leaving Bolivia in less than two weeks and we’d saved this delight for our final few days in the country…I’m glad we did, it’s a lovely part of the world and a fitting place to sign-off our time in Bolivia.