Off to the Jungle (and Savannah)

Brother Steven and Cousin Ben get bored, extremely fast. After they had a single day in the city of La Paz (with two day trip outings, golf and biking) they were ready to get out of town and suggested we head to the Amazon. I considered staying in La Paz in order to take a week or two of Spanish, but since we were going to be able to get back to La Paz by Sunday (tours typically are two nights), I figured I would join them and check out the rainforest. 

We went to book airfare at the hostel travel agency and found out there was a strike stopping busses (there is always a strike or a protest somewhere in Bolivia), and that many of the flights to the jungle had been canceled due to rain earlier in the week. On a Thursday morning we were told the Friday flights (intended departure) were all sold out, and that if we wanted to go before the weekend, we could check in at 11 a.m. after they rebooked the canceled flights from earlier in the week. At 11 we got on a mid-afternoon flight, did some quick sightseeing, and headed to the airport.

Flying out of the world’s highest airport was fun, but truly nerve racking given we were on a 19 person plane, and very little attention seemed to be paid to weight and balance (people switching around seats on a not full flight in a small plane). The climb, as expected, was extremely slow, but the view of La Paz and El Alto was breathtaking. A short 35 minutes later we were landing on poorly paved (if that) runway in Rurrenabaque (Rurre for short, I still can’t pronounce it). We hopped the bus into the town center and went about trying to locate a tour agency.

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Our flight on Amazonas

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We found Ben! We were also assured all seats were windows, other than apparently the last row of three which we were put in. Luckily people moved around so I could get a view of La Paz, and the boys could use my seat to play cards.
There are two types of tours – Jungle and Pampas – both depart daily and can easily be booked when you get to Rurre. Side note: this is one thing I have been pleasantly surprised by – I have rarely booked anything in advance. I simply show up, head to a hostel, or go to an agency to book a flight, and only once so far did I have to wait at all (a day on a flight).

Back to the tours. One goes to the jungle, specifically Medidi National Park. It is a there hour boat ride upriver, and while it is the jungle, there is not necessarily a ton of viewable wildlife. You hear it all around you, but the dense plant life blocks easy viewing. The other option with more wildlife, but often with much more basic in accommodations is Las Pampas, which translated means the Savannah. Here wildlife is more accessible. Basic tours are about $65 for two nights. We started by walking into a few offices, and after not getting a great feeling, I decided to do some internet research while the boys kept talking to operators. Based on the Internet, we came up with two companies to check out, Medidi’s ecolodge Serene and Bala Tours.

Medidi as it turned out was a single lodge as opposed to three day set schedule, that looked great, but due to staff changes couldn’t get us there the next day. Do consider them if you go. Great reviews, and a bit more laid back in that you can choose your options and stay length. Bala Tours solved our indecision because they had a combined jungle and Pampas four night/five day tour leaving the next day, and while priced significantly higher, the boys decided that was the way they wanted to go (but made it seem like my decision so they could blame me later if things went wrong). For the extra price, we got pretty decent food and lodging, including ensuite bathrooms, and electricity via generator – just enough each day to charge the camera battery.

Tour selected, and everyone feeling better than we had descended close to sea level (La Paz is at 12,000 feet, more on altitude in a future post), we decided to hit the “town,” ending up at the Funky Monkey for a late night of watching Olympics, finally having a few drinks (a no go in La Paz, altitude), and playing pool. The next morning was an early one. The ride upriver was beautiful. We saw many local communities along the way, but as expected, not much wildlife. The camp itself was a 20 minute walk in from the river. We were pleasantly surprised at the quality of our accommodations. They had two rooms for us (score, room AND bathroom to myself, it is small luxuries these days!) and all had private baths and electricity at night to power the lights in our room for a few hours.

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A local ferry crossing the river.

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Room night 1
At the camp, we essentially went on lots of walks. These were more active than the Galapagos, being a few hours each, but the wildlife was harder to find. Our first wildlife was Gabriella, the lone wild pig who had been adopted by the camp. On the first hike, we heard and entire pack of dozens. We walked in silence, and it felt like we were being hunted. We also saw a few kinds of monkeys, some pretty birds, and a lone Cayman (more to come in the Pampas).

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Ga rubella
Here are some photos of the jungle. Steven’s assessment was that the Peruvian jungle was better, but this was a good value. For me, the highlight was the night walk which was absolutely terrifying as the jungle was extremely loud, there were spiders everywhere, and you couldn’t see anything.

Next we headed back to town for an hour of charging and Internet before taking an uncomfortable three-hour dirt road ride to the Pampas. Did I say it was uncomfortable? It was beyond miserable. But upon arrival, we found that due to the ability to drive rather than boat, there was cold beer here, so all was forgiven.

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Exhibit A: Animals crossing everywhere

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Exhibit B: No visibility at all. There is a truck directly in front of us, two actually.
The Pampas, loosely translated to Savannah, is known for the wildlife. We saw caymans, lots of birds, fished for piranha, and anacondas.

The Pampas is much more leisurely. Walks were generally replaced by boat rides on the river observing animals at the banks. There were fewer mosquitos and a larger lodge. We enjoyed meeting some other groups, including two guys from Vancouver who were in the middle of a three week motorcycle ride through Bolivia. Kudos to them – there was definitely some hard terrain on their trek.

We heard many of the Pampas accommodations were sparse, but ours were similar to the jungle. Electricity and a generator!

On the last day we had an opportunity to swim with pink dolphins. We were a bit confused as to where we would do this as the day before we had been fishing for, and caught, piranhas.

We also saw hundreds of caymans at the banks.

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A Cayman – basically an alligator
So when our guide pulled into a part of the river with caymans within sight, we were thinking he was joking that this was the swimming hole. After some time, we realized he was serious. Steven jumped right in. After he survived, I tried it to at least say I had done it. I felt something touch my knee and bolted to the boat. The winner was the 60 something German man from our group who was in the water for 5-10 minutes, kudos to him.

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Only thought – get me out of here.
We did see some dolphins on the way to and from the swimming area, but unfortunately didn’t have any to swim with.

Here are a few more pictures from the Pampas:

We headed back to town and the airport, in an even worse car ride – the same as before, but with another person, so Ben, Steven and me were three across in a tiny car. Miserable.

Dropped at the airport, we chilled a bit and then headed our separate ways. I went back to La Paz still wanting to explore Bolivia, while the boys decided to escape the altitude and headed to the Olympics in Rio. I am sure you can see more at steveleavestug.com.

Last two pictures. First, we learned how to remedy a swollen eye. One morning in the jungle, I woke up with an eye swollen shut. Some potato, rubbing of magic jungle tree bark, and an anti-inflammatory later, it was back to normal, but it looked hilarious in the meantime. I’ll spare you the eye as that part was ugly. We think it was a reaction to mosquito bite, somewhat amusing as I was covered head to toe with great Ex Officio gear – other than directly on my face.

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I was quite a fashion statement in the jungle. The potato helps.
Adios Rurrenabaque – you were interesting, but we are ready to go.

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Clearly ready to go, I am hot and miserable, and I am not sure what my brother is up to behind me, but he doesn’t look good.
Next up – back to La Paz solo where I successfully navigate public transit and more shared hostel dorms, and reward myself with the first fine dining of the trip!

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