With my only knowledge of La Paz airport deriving from the dramatic opening chapter in Marching Powder centred on drug trafficking, I was extremely surprised when I got there and it made Newcastle Airport look like a hub of excitement and International traffic. The solitary option for comida was Subway, a very overpriced and under-tasting Subway at that. And with an 8 hour wait there were only so many juicy Footlongs I could handle….
After a painstaking wait, and then boarding a plane that looked like it came out of a Christmas cracker, it became apparent that the Israeli/non Israeli ratio on board the plane was significantly lopsided. On what could have been no more than a 20 seater plane,plus 2 pilots, there were a maximum of 6 people from alternative nations. This would have been less noticeable had they not all seemingly been a large group of friends whose selfie-taking included a shot with the pilot and a complete disregard for social etiquette. Anyway, the earphones went in allowing David Gray/James Blunt to drown out the white noise, prayers were made that my 3 day tour of the Amazon would be more forgiving in its demographic distribution, and the 45 minute flight passed without incident and thankfully without turbulence. The flight from the unforgiving altitude of La Paz to the Amazon basin and its stifling heat in such a short time is a marvel in itself, and the views that accompany the flight are one of many many reasons not to endure the alternative 18 – 30 hour coach trip.
After a smooth transition through passport control in the airport which looks like it doubles up as a barn – without doubt the smallest I’ve seen in any country/movie/comedy sketch – I shared a taxi to the hostel with some fellow English travellers from my flight. The hostel was brilliant for my needs in that I had a bed and access to a swimming pool for the first time since Palomino, Colombia. Before I permitted myself the pleasure of a swim I headed the short walk into the town in order to book my ‘Pampas’ tour for the next morning. Jorge from Up Close Bolivia had recommended Escorpio for content and mainly price, and as this was the first company I stumbled across I quickly checked them out. Having been quoted 500 Bolivianos for the 3 day/ 2 night tour without any haggling, I quickly accepted and arranged my pick up for the following morning.
There is a lot of information on the internet when researching Rurrenabaque regarding the ecological benefits/deficiencies of some of the tour groups, but in my experience the majority of the mid to low priced tours carry out the exact same activities and even combine parties when Jeeps aren’t filled. Therefore unless you are willing to pay top dollar for a stay at a specified Eco-lodge, which most backpackers aren’t, it seems to be much of a muchness. The price I paid is as low as it gets and my tour didn’t involve any practices that I felt were destructive or any more ecologically damaging than entering the Amazon basin with a boat load of tourists can be.
Anyway, I headed back to the hostel and took advantage of the pool before the sun set and had my first shower in what felt like a week but was closer to 30 hours. Having left my better half behind in Sucre, I decided to take full advantage of ditching my shackles by making friends with… a handsome Portuguese lad. Not wanting to seem too boring by going to bed at 9 pm, I socialised with my Portuguese amigo and a few others who had just returned from their Pampas Tour that day. Still unable to find a suitable middle ground between being completely boring and being out till 5 am, I was out till 5 am. Rurrenabaque can do that to people. With an 8 am pick up, and delaying my sleep further by being unable to open a normal dormitory door for around 15 minutes, things did not bode well for the following morning.
Dragging myself up in the morning I felt appropriately disastrous and after quickly packing anything I could see, thought it suitable to take a nap in public next to the swimming pool at 7.55 am. Not long after I was awoken by Portuguese Thomas as my pick-up had arrived and I was soon dopily sitting on the back of a motorbike with my arms around the machete-toting driver. Despite the short ride, this was enough to temporarily sober me up. My mother had always warned me; not-to-ride-on-the-back-of-a-motorbike-without-a-helmet-in-Bolivia-with-a random-machete-wielding-guy. After stocking up on paracetamol and blue Powerade, I was quickly in my allotted Jeep with my fellow tourists and we were en route to the Amazon soon after.
As I had been forewarned on internet reviews, the journey in the Jeep is terrible, with the road beyond repair for most of the 3/4 hour journey and the usual South American reluctance to use the brakes or the correct side of the road despite frequent oncoming lorries hurtling towards us. However, I quite enjoyed it as I was still marginally drunk and confident enough to yap on to the driver in Spanish for over an hour, although I was never really sure what we were talking about, and then miraculously managed to sleep for the remainder despite the treacherous conditions.
After a very basic lunch, not quite satisfying my Burger King craving, the group soon swapped the Jeep for a dugout canoe and we were officially in the Amazon. No sooner was the engine roaring and the Rurrenabaque tour had delivered on what every review said it would – easily visible wildlife.
Swimming alongside the canoe were Pink River Dolphins endemic to a few South American river systems. The guide told us to jump in for a swim although his lack of commitment to whether it was safe from piranhas or Black Caiman left everybody a bit dubious… Weighing up how refreshing the water would be from the scorching heat with my hangover surfacing versus my fear of being mauled, I was the first to take the plunge into the murky water. After what felt like a lifetime of pretending I was enjoying the swim paranoia free, I was thankfully joined by a few others from the group and we all managed to splash about for a while without losing any digits. A little further down the river our guide spotted some monkeys and headed towards them for a closer look. Another boat had also spotted them and were soon feeding them bananas to entice them on board – an act which many online reviews ,and our guide, justifiably disagree with.
The remainder of the first day consisted of settling into the accommodation which was basic yet ideal for the price of the tour, and then sitting down to our evening meal which, like every other meal we were fed, was absolutely fantastic in terms of quality and quantity. The group then headed out for a night-time Caiman viewing expedition, which was fun and also slightly harrowing having seen the sheer size of one in daylight. In spite of our guide’s highly accurate abilities to emulate animal noises, we were only able to see a Caiman from distance before heading back content with our first day in the Amazon.
The rest of the trip is filled with enough activities to ensure that boredom never kicks in, from Anaconda hunting to Piranha fishing. Prepare to get completely drenched on the Anaconda hunt whilst wading through swamp water in the most basic of protective clothing – wellies with plastic bags around your feet. Unfortunately/fortunately we didn’t encounter an Anaconda, which was to be expected apparently given the time of year. I wasn’t overly disappointed at this, and we did get to see an egg which was equally exciting… Also as expected I didn’t catch a Piranha but the guide caught a load and two others off the tour weighed in with a few.
The final day involves an early start to see the sunrise over the Pampas which is a great experience in itself, and another dip with the Pink Dolphins. For anyone that has a mild interest in Dolphins and swimming with them, this is a great budget way to tick it off a bucket list without handing over loads of money. The budget version does only encompass swimming in their general vicinity however, technically still counts though.
Rurrenabaque/Pampas Verdict – When Aisling opted to avoid Rurrenabaque due to her fear of snakes, I was caught in two minds of whether to go. I also considered Iquitos, Peru as an alternative option until I looked at the cost. Having done it I definitely made the right decision as I got to see the Amazon (basin) for a knockdown price, and didn’t have to deviate too far off my planned route with the short flight from La Paz. I booked with Amaszonas for 1277 Bolivianos (130 GBP) return which seemed to be the going rate. There is a bus that traverses parts of the Death Road for a fraction of this price but is beyond dangerous and takes at least 20 hours as long. As mentioned I booked through Escorpio and paid up to 400 Bolivianos less that others who were in my Jeep but had booked elsewhere. The tour was such good value for money, only matched in that aspect by my Machu Picchu trip (still to come). The food was fantastic and the guide was good fun. Rurrenabaque has developed into a little party town and is excellent for a pre or post Pampas/Jungle tour celebration.
Accommodation Verdict – El Curichal, Rurrenabaque – 20 Bolivianos a night for dorm plus basic breakfast. That is 2 GBP a night for a place with a pool….! Bar-staff were very friendly. Everything else was standard for Bolivia. Overall, it was great value with a brilliant location. El Lobo hostel also came highly recommended by others but as far as I am aware is not possible to book online.