Thursday, 12 January 2012

Welcome to the Jungle

Cliché, I know, but it was better than “In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle.” 

We are back in La Paz after our week in the Amazon and I don’t have enough superlatives to describe it. It was awesome, in every sense of the word. 

The excitement started before we even left La Paz, when we were boarding the tiniest plane I have ever been on. There was room for 15 passengers, no crew, no bathroom and even I had to hunch over to walk down the aisle. It even had propellers!

We were sitting in the first row, about a meter from the cockpit, which was open. We were so close that I could actually see through the windshield of the plane.  
 As we took off, there were random beeps coming from the cockpit, like the heart monitor of someone who clearly isn’t going to make it. Occasionally, the monitor would flat line with a long booooooop, causing my blood pressure to sky rocket.
Our landing was even more stressful than the take-off. The flight only lasted 45 minutes, so by the time we leveled out, we immediately started our descent. And what a descent it was. The runway at the Rurrenabaque airport is right after a low mountain chain, so the pilot started down straight towards the mountains, barely clearing the top (I could see the individual leaves of the trees we were flying over) before practically nose-diving onto the runway, which turns to dirt after about 100 meters. To give you an idea of what kind of airport Rurrenabaque has, here are a few pictures:
Rurrenabaque Airport

The airport bathroom. No automatic flush here...
Rurrenabaque is a nice little river town on the Rio Beni, and acts as a jumping-off point to go into Madidi Park, which is a protected area of the Amazon. We spent five days and four nights in the jungle, first on a tour of the swamp called the Pampa, then in the jungle itself. 

Our tour of the Pampa started with a three hour car ride on a dirt road to another little river town in the Pampa. After the car ride was a three hour boat ride to our lodge, up the river in a motorized boat that was basically an over-sized canoe. 
Now, in case you are imagining a luxurious lodge in a jungle paradise, let’s be clear: this was no hotel. Our lodge was extremely basic: built on stilts over the water with rotting floor boards, cold river-water (albeit filtered) showers, electricity that shut off at 9pm, dorm lodging on thin mattresses with torn mosquito netting, outdoor toilets that you had to walk on narrow planks over swamp water to get to. It was impressive and humbling to be staying in the jungle, watching monkeys play in the trees around us, of course.  But it certainly wasn’t comfortable.
Home sweet home

During our tour, we did various activities, always with the goal of seeing wildlife. While we saw a lot of different animals and birds, we couldn’t help but feel like the experience was not very authentic or ecologically sound. The whole thing was very superficial, like everyone just paid to come sleep in the jungle, take a few pictures of alligators and go home, without learning anything about the place they were in. Our favorite parts of the Pampa were the times when we were just on the boat, checking out the scenery, or hanging out with our tour group, whom we loved.
Playing soccer at sunset in the swamp.
Howler monkey outside our lodge
Squirrel monkeys
The next three days of our jungle tour were everything we had wanted and didn’t get from the Pampa. Our accommodation was even more basic than in the Pampa- we didn’t even have electricity, and ate and played cards at night by candlelight. The tour, however, was much more educational, active and interesting. Every day, we went walking in the jungle and learned about various plants and animals from our guide, who was from a local village, had been a guide in the park for 16 years and who was impressively knowledgeable. We really got the impression that he loved what he did and cared immensely about the jungle. We saw tons of animals and birds, but more importantly and interestingly, we learned a lot about the different medicinal and fruitful plants that grow in the Amazon. Some were fatally poisonous, others naturally healing, and others simply useful, like a tree whose branches hold and filter water. The guide cut a branch off the tree and we were able to drink directly from the cut wood like a canteen.
And of course, just walking in and seeing and hearing the jungle was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. The jungle is forbidding, yet fruitful; uncomfortable, yet enticing. It was hot, humid and buggy, with every insect and plant that could cause you pain or death. It was also lush and giving and strikingly beautiful, with fresh fruits, and plants that could cure any ailment. Like I said, I don’t have enough words for how incredible it was.

Wild pigs, called Chonchos

In addition to walking, we also spent one morning hanging around the lodge, making jewelry from natural materials found in the jungle and playing in the camp. The highlight was making rings from coconuts, which will replace our wedding rings that we left back in France.
Making a bracelet for the cook's eight year old daughter (left)
Our new wedding rings

Our intimate jungle bungalow that we shared with eight other people
At the end of the three days, we took our boat back down the Rio Beni to Rurrenabaque and caught our tiny plane back to La Paz. We will hang out here for another day or two before heading to Lake Titicaca, where hopefully spending some time there will help me to stop giggling like a 14 year old every time I say its name. Hehehe, Titi-caca….


  1. Great pictures! Love the monkeys of course! and the wedding rings...that's sweet!

  2. It sounds amazing, E. Each post makes me glad you did this and glad you are still alive! Be safe and keep having fun!

  3. Wonderful, Elissa! Beautiful pictures and great posts. I love the rings, too. And the monkeys!