After hearing some horror stories of getting to the Amazon by bus we decided to take what was a surprisingly comfortable overnight bus to La Paz to fly into Rurrenabaque to start a 3 day tour of the Pampas (wetlands) along the Rio Beni.
The flight in itself was a worthwhile experience, requiring us to board one of the smallest planes I had ever seen, crossing some of the most amazing scenery as you pass the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real which surround La Paz before entering the lush rainforest of the National Park Madidi.
Having met our group at the office of Fluvial Tours before embarking on a 3 hour jeep ride to neighbouring town of Santa Rosa, we made a real effort to get to know some of the people we thought were worth while speaking too; in an attempt to ensure we were in the best group ( of which there were two). Given our usual luck we ended up in what we thought would be the worst possible group, the Israeli car!
Sorry Jonny (for those not in the know, that’s my Jew friend in London), but I have to say, our experiences of the big groups of Israeli Jews traveling around South America (of which there are hundreds that take a year off after finishing the compulsory army service) haven’t been great. Before you start thinking I am being antisemitic, it is a well know fact that they even beat the Australians as being the most disliked traveler…the Lonely Planet best describes it within the dangers and annoyances section in Chile, where there has been trouble between the Israelis and the locals due to their ‘uninhibited traveling style’, basically a nice way of explaining how rude they can be in their isolated groups.
Given that I am not one to judge a book by its cover (well not all the time) I got over my disappointment and played nice with my fellow travellers at the back of the jeep. This particular group, of which there were only 3, a young couple (Sophia and Muni) and a friend of theirs D… were in fact one of the highlights of the tour, becoming some of the best friends we have made, whom we will, without question, keep in touch with when back in Europe. Whilst this initially had a lot to do with the huge bag of ‘local tobacco’ that they had brought with them into the jungle, it was more their ability to laugh at themselves and appreciate why they sometimes get the reputation that they have which made for such a strong friendship and many many laughs along the way.
Madidi National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the world and recognised by National Geographic as one of the planets most biologically diverse and beautiful regions. After spending 3 days in the heart of it and in spite of the torrential downpour of the first day, not withstanding the millions of vicious mosquitos that at times made the whole experience unbearable, I can definitely see why it deserves such an accolade.
The area is home to over 6000 species of flora and supports more than 40% of the total number of bird species found in South America. I will resist unleashing the bird watcher in me and simply let the pictures speak for themselves.
I will however, spend some time explaining some of the other amazing animals we had the privilege of seeing.
Caimans – more specifically the rare black Caiman which is one of the largest predators in the Amazon basin and possibly the largest member of the Alligatoridae family.
The main predator of these beautiful animals are sadly humans who hunt them for their leather or meat. We did in fact go through the Pampas by night to see them (given that their eyes shine red when using a flash torch). That was a particularly good excursion which was a lot of fun. It wasn’t so much fun when our shitty guide disturbed the natural flow of things by catching a baby Caiman for a photo opportunity. Whilst I could get all Eco Warrior at this juncture I would really be kidding myself if I was to believe that I could have resisted the great photo opp! Although as you can see from my expression it wasn’t as much fun as I had expected.
My favourite, by a large margin, were the hundreds of monkeys we saw that ranged from little cute yellow things to the larger Howler monkeys who as their name suggest, use vocal communication which forms a large part of their social behaviour.
My least favourite had to be the Mamba snake which we saw when hunting for Anaconda! Yes believe it people, they had me fucking hunting for snakes…something that Andre conveniently forgot to tell me about.
This little thing is in fact one of the most venomous snakes in the world, who with one little bite can kill a human! Thankfully we didn’t manage to actually find any Anaconda since they have become really rare in the part of the Pampas we were in.
The guide informed us that as little as five years ago he would see over 40 in one day and would even catch them for the tourists to take a picture with them. Ironically it’s precisely this type of unethical behaviour that has killed them off, since the tourist are always laced with DEET (found in mosquito repellant) which they realised actually kills the Anaconda. This coupled with their complex reproduction process has nearly wiped out the entire species in this particular area.
The effects of tourism and more generally pollution in this area, which is full of delicate Eco-systems, did in addition to the taste of DEET, leave us with somewhat of a bitter taste.
Ironically the DEET didn’t even seem to actually work for me, since I got absolutely mulled by the little fuckers and haven’t stopped scratching since; making the nights sleeping in these wooden huts on stilts along with some of the loudest and biggest bugs in the world something I would rather not experience ever again in my life!
Another highlight was swimming with Pink River Dolphins. The Amazon river dolphin is one of a handful of fresh water Dolphins in the world and whilst they look like the usual grey dolphin, they are infact bigger and instead of a dorsal fin, have a hump. They are listed as an endangered species which made the sighting of them from the boat even more special.
To be honest the actual swimming part left a lot to be desired. I had dreamed of swimming with Dolphins from a very young age and just when I thought I was going to have my ‘Jimmal Fix It’ moment I realised I had to actually jump into the jet black, smelly waters of the Rio…with all that lives within its waters! The guide assured me that the Dolphins are in fact very territorial and actually eat everything living inside the water making it safe to swim. I was never quite able to trust our guide who had been useless for most of the expedition; if they ate everything in there how would they still be alive? Surely there would always be snakes and things passing through for them to continue eating?
Unfortunately there aren’t any pictures of me playing with Dolphins because I never really managed to get close to one 😦 although Andre claims that he touched one.
The final excursion was to go Piranha fishing, which if successful, would have made a unique Christmas lunch! Yet again the disastrous effects of pollution in the region made this somewhat problematic in that there weren’t any Piranhas to be found. The guides explained that because of the pollution from the boats, the Piranhas could no longer smell the blood of their prey and so moved on further upstream into the deepest parts of the Amazon basin.
Since I can´t show you any picture of Piranhas, here is a pic of a nother interesting animal, The capybara which is the largest living rodent in the world!