Leaving the Amazon…time for drinks by the pool

The Amazon is an amazing place, but lets face it…biting insects and not a single margarita in sight. There is only so much time you can spend in a place under those circumstances. We headed back to Rurrenabaque knowing that our time in Bolivia would soon come to an abrupt end. Within the week we’d be on an American Airlines flight that would, via Miami, return us to London and a world of rain and austerity. Not a pleasant thought.

Meanwhile, back in London...

Meanwhile, back in London…

Luckily, we had a couple of days in Rurrenabaque to hunt out a swimming pool, sun loungers and a few cold beers. Even luckier, we’d met Jo and Neil in the Amazon…two kindred spirits from Australia willing to share a cold beer with us. We’d see out our last few days in good company and good style, including an amazing meal at Gustu (the restaurant in La Paz set up by the chef from the world’s best restaurant, Noma).

We still had to get out of the Amazon though. That meant another couple of hours motoring down the Tuichi and Beni rivers back to Rurrenabaque. Under deep blue skies we navigated through rapids, past more amazing Amazonian landscapes, spotting water birds and a group of the reddest howler monkeys I’ve ever seen.

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Back in Rurrenabaque, we quickly slipped into the tropical mindset and collapsed by the pool, with occasional ventures to the bar. Rurrenabaque is a pleasant place to spend some time, everything seems to take place in slow motion and time happily slides past you, imitating the brown waters of the Rio Beni flowing nearby.

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, into the Amazon rainforest (part 2)

During the four days we spent in the Amazon rainforest we walked through the forest once or twice each day. It is a humid place and for long periods of time you don’t see much other than the flora all around, but it is absolutely fascinating to be inside the forest itself.

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

One of the great pleasures of being there is just to stand still and listen. The sound of the forest is captivating, there is little wind to obscure the bird calls, the sound of insects and occasionally the noise of the larger inhabitants of the forest. One day we heard, and smelled, a large group of peccaries moving through the forest thirty meters away. We never saw them but the noise was tremendous – they sounded like a giant creature crashing through the undergrowth, and the musk and urine smell was overwhelmingly powerful.

Its impossible to capture the feeling of being in the forest without a soundtrack, but I hope these photos give a sense of place.

Giant 500 year-old tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Giant 500 year-old tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

A brown and yellow snake, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

A brown and yellow snake, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Butterfly, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Butterfly, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Squirrel, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Squirrel, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

We occasionally saw a young tapir that had been orphaned and raised by the families who run the lodge. It was semi-wild but had little fear of humans, which meant you could watch him at fairly close quarters. Tapirs have spookily human faces, especially the eyes, but generally are quite odd looking creatures. One night he gave everyone a real scare by charging around in the undergrowth behind the cabanas, in the darkness it was a terrifying.

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, into the Amazon rainforest (part 1)

One of the reasons we wanted to visit the Madidi National Park and the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, was the opportunity to see some of the incredible wildlife that lives and thrives within the dense forests and along the rivers that make up the park. This is one of the most perfectly preserved and biodiverse areas in the world, a vast 19,000 square kilometre area ranging from tropical rainforest to the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Scientists believe the area protected by the Madidi National Park contains the greatest variety of species anywhere on the planet – giving Madidi serious bragging rights. The statistics are mind-boggling, particularly as new species are still being discovered: the park is home to 867 species of birds, 156 mammals, approximately 109 reptiles and 88 species of amphibians. There could be upwards of 300 different species of fish. The variety of flora is off the scale.

Rainforest and river, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest and river, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

That said, your chances of spotting most of these species are pretty remote. Many are rightly keen to avoid contact with humans, many others only come out at night, quite a few live under water, while others keep to the tops of trees when they aren’t flying above the forest. Still, we were hopeful of some success in spotting wildlife, mainly thanks to our highly trained guide and native of the forests, Norman.

Norman, our guide, explains about the 'walking palm', Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Norman, our guide, explains about the ‘walking palm’, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

What Norman doesn’t know about the plants and animals of the forest could be written on the back of a stamp. He spotted an ocelot as we motored up the river from Rurrenabaque, and during our four days in the Madidi he led us on daily walks through the forest spotting numerous others beasties. When not spotting animals, Norman gave us the lowdown on medicinal plants that have been used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for thousands of years.

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Flower, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Flower, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Spikey tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Spikey tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

On our first walk through the forest Norma suddenly stopped and motioned for us to be quiet (I thought we were being quiet, but apparently we sounded like a herd of elephants crashing about). He led us off the trail and we found ourselves in the midst of a group of tamarin monkeys. Tamarin’s are squirrel-sized and very agile, they didn’t seem to be bothered about our presence and we watched them moving from tree-to-tree, grooming and eating for 20 minutes.

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey with baby, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey with baby, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

On ocelot and tamarin monkeys on the first day….but there was much more in the forest for us to see.

Tree with vine, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tree with vine, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fallen tree and fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fallen tree and fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Howler monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Howler monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Poison dart frog, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Poison dart frog, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, the darkest dark in the noisiest night

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.

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

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.

Misty morning, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

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.

Boat mooring at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Boat mooring at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Steps into the jungle at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Steps into the jungle at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Path to Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Path to Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

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.

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

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.

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

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!

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, gateway to the Bolivian Amazon

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.

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

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.

Inside the Amazonas plane en route to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Inside the Amazonas plane en route to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Amazonas plane at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Amazonas plane at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

The runway at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

The runway at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

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, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

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.

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, 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.

"I'll have the checken to the fantasy." Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

“I’ll have the checken to the fantasy.” Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

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.

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia