It’s hard to describe the sensation you feel when the lights go out in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. The noise of frogs, toads, cicadas and millions of other critters chatting to each other in the night is loud and pretty overwhelming; but, to people conditioned to the all-pervasive neon glow of the city, it is the total lack of light that most affects the senses.
Without any electric light, and what light there might have been from the moon and stars blocked by the dense forest, it is the darkest night I’ve ever experienced. The old saying about not being able to see your hand in front of your face is, in the Amazon, literally true. I tried it, even when my hand was on the end of my nose I still couldn’t see it.
To experience this sensory overload firsthand, you have to get into the middle of the Amazon rainforest. We were staying at the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, a lovely set of cabanas accommodating only eight guests, three and a half hours in a motorised canoe up river from Rurrenabaque. Located on the Rio Tuichi and surrounded by primary forest, this is indigenous community-run ecotourism at its Bolivian best.
The morning we set off from Rurrenabaque to reach the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge started cloudy, and although cool by Amazon standards it was still pretty humid. As you travel up the river you pass small communities, fishing boats and lots and lots of rainforest; by the time we reached the Ecolodge the sun had burst through the cloud.
Run by four families from the indigenous community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas, the ecolodge is in the middle of the 210,000 hectares of rainforest that is the traditional home of the community and of which they are custodians. The cabanas we stayed in were definitely at the luxury end of the market, but all the proceeds remain in the community and go towards protecting the forest and the wildlife that lives in it.
Despite the number of biting insects – even 100% DEET didn’t seem to work at times – staying in the forest is a fabulously relaxing experience. The outside world rarely makes an appearance and days pass swiftly with walks through the forest tracking animals, talks on medicinal plants and the traditional uses the forest communities have for them, fishing for piranha or crafting jewellery from tree nuts.
It is often hard to spot mammals in the dense forest, and people sometimes feel cheated if they leave without a photo of a jaguar. Luckily for us, our guide, Norman (I know, it doesn’t sound like a traditional Amazonian name), was excellent. Over the four days we were in the forest we saw four types of monkey, coati, a semi wild orphaned tapir, capybara, snakes, a large number of birds and the rarely seen ocelot. While we didn’t see peccaries (wild pigs) we definitely heard and smelled them…they absolutely stink.
One of the single most magical sights we saw during the time we were in the forest was an ocelot running along the river bank and then scrambling up the bank and darting out of sight into the undergrowth. Rare and magnificent.
All-in-all, it was an exhilarating experience, one that will be hard to forget….we even had the opportunity to ride down the Rio Tuihchi in an inner tube. Despite floating in a fast flowing Amazonian river it was relaxing, although I might have been less relaxed if our guide had told us about the Amazonian stingrays before we got into the water!