Going to the Amazon was one of the big things on my South America wishlist, and we had a few opportunities along our way down. For cost and ease of access reasons, we decided Bolivia was the place, catching a flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque and getting a tour from there. There are two main options for tours: the classic jungle tour where you stay in a lodge in traditional forresty rainforest, or the pampas tour where you are less surrounded by trees but instead mainly travel on the river through the Amazon wetlands. We went for the latter due to more wildlife spotting chances, and were really glad with our choice. There were only four of us on our tour, myself, Rav, Nonna, and a girl from Newcastle called Kirsty, and our guide was knowledgeable about and respectful towards the jungle and its inhabitants.
I realised it would be hard to describe our time in the Amazon in my usual ‘here’s what we did’ way as there was so much, so I tried to write down as many detailed memories as I could each night. I’ll copy just a few of them over into this blog, along with my (mainly pretty terrible) attempts at being a wildlife photographer. My camera has kind of given up the ghost after months of being bashed about and submerged so picture quality is going rapidly downhill…
We are finally arriving by a wide, brown river after hours from the middle of nowhere to even more the middle of nowhere on a jeep down bumpy, dusty roads. The heat is sweltering and we wait in the shade to meet our guide, Bismar. As we introduce ourselves he points out into the river and we see dolphins splashing and playing around. Already. The day is off to a good start.
We’ve been on a canoe down the river for an hour or two, leisurely spotting birds and turtles, winding our way down the river. We’ve got no idea where we are as most of it looks the same, but the sky is blue and we are surrounded by lush jungle. We feels completely alone and remote until we see another tour group pulled up on the side of the river. Suddenly we realise why they’ve stopped – a huge group of squirrel monkeys are in the trees around them, curious to see what is going on in the boats. We stop by them for a little while as well, monkeys climbing around close enough that we could have touched them, until they disappear again into the bushes.
We are sitting having a snack at our lodge-on-stilts-in-the-river hone when someone spots something out the window. We run to look. A huge caiman is floating around by our canoe, ominously hovering just under a rope swing. It disappears under the water but continues to hang around the lodge every day.
The sun is setting over the pampas and we sit on a bench next to a flooded football field and watch. We’ve bought huge, cold bottles of beer and managed to find a seat with a great view. As it gets dark, bats dart filling the sky and distant clouds flash with lightning even though the sky above us is completely clear.
We are out in the boat in the dark, lit by nothing but the night sky. The moon is just a sliver but the sky is filled with more stars than I’ve ever seen, providing more than enough light to see by. We can see the cloudy stripe of the Milky Way, and fireflies make it seem like the stars are down around us, lighting the water. It is one of the most beautiful and relaxing things I’ve ever encountered. At points we shine our torches into the bushes, spotting night birds, frogs, and even a family of tiny baby caimans.
I lie sleepless under a stifling mosquito net in the uncomfortably humid bedroom of our cabin, surrounded by loud jungle noises…
Our first stop of the day is an island in the pampas, where we begin a search for plants and animals. It’s pretty overgrown and Bismar suggests we wander around to have a look, but to be careful. Wasp nests containing wasps significantly larger and more painful looking than ones from home dangle from trees, and we don’t really know what we are going to come across from the bushes. Despite being given a bit of a free run, we stick close to Bismar and his machete. He picks us some fruit from a palm which tastes weirdly like a sweet avocado. Rav refuses to eat it. “Alone in the jungle,” says Bismar “In one minute you would be dead”.
We are wading in borrowed wellies through the swamp of the island looking for snakes. Dodging wasp nests and fire ants, Bismar suddenly reaches a point where the water goes above and into his wellies. We aren’t expecting this and are reluctant to follow. “It’s an adventure,” says Bismar, and not long after we are all thigh deep in muddy, insect (and possibly snake) filled water and get a high five as our trousers get soaked.
We’ve waded through the mud and water for some time now and are hot, sweaty, and soaked. Bismar keeps us entertained by making us flower crowns and whistles out of palm. We never find any snakes (wet season makes it harder) but my legs are burning with mosquito and fire ant bites and I feel like I’ve had some proper jungle adventure.
We spend an afternoon just chilling out on the canoe and seeing all sorts of different birds and monkeys. We had the option of doing some piranha fishing but have turned it down as we just enjoy the boat rides…
As we watch the sunset once again from the flooded football field, we get an even better view. The sky is bright orange and red, and we just sit there taking photos. All of a sudden, the mosquitos descend in their droves. Way more than the previous night. We slap them off and run back to the boat to get quickly to the lodge and our repellent. I curl up under my mosquito net feeling like my skin is on fire.
I wake up confused. I can hear heavy rain. More weirdly given that I am in bed and under a mosquito net, I can feel rain. There is a storm going on so crazily that our roof can’t deal with it, and we lie in bed getting soaked. I vaguely remember that I have a sheet (it having been far too hot to consider using before) and huddle under it, trying to get back to sleep. Thunder shakes the whole room and lightning flashes very close by out of the window. My alarm goes off for the sunrise boat ride we are meant to be going on. That is most definitely not happening. I ponder how well buildings on stilts in rivers can survive tropical storms.
Still alive and very much drenched, Bismar asks us if we still want to go swimming in the river that morning. “It’s an adventure,” we say, and head out into the pouring rain.
A huge family of squirrel monkeys has been displaced by the rain. They are trying to get from one tree to another but the jump is long, and Bismar tells us that caimans wait in the water in between to pounce on any fallers. The monkeys are clearly terrified, looking over at the jump one by one and losing their nerve. Those that do jump don’t seem to be quite making it but scramble up the next tree as quickly as they can. The older ones keep jumping back to take babies that are too small to make it on their backs and help them over. It’s mesmerising, watching actual nature happening, like a David Attenborough documentary in real life.
We are swimming in a wide section of river. Dolphins keep briefly surfacing, and there is an excited atmosphere (plus a nervous one from Nonna who keeps ominously whispering “It’s behind you” as if we are in a horror movie). If you are still, the curious dolphins come and investigate you, swimming round your feet. Suddenly I feel a slight nip and a rubbery feeling body against my legs, followed by a sharper bite which makes me start. I have tooth marks on my foot! From a dolphin!
So that was our adventure. And it was an adventure: 3 solid days of amazing animals, crazy excursions, and intense weather. The adventure didn’t even stop when we left the boat and started heading back to civilization – Bismar stopped our car twice on the way back for us to see an otter aggressively killing an enormous snake, and a sloth chilling out in a tree by the road. It was a real travel highlight, and I’d definitely recommend going to the Amazon from Bolivia even in the wet season (although I’d still like to see what it’s like when it’s drier… maybe next time.