A Rurrenabaque jungle tour with eco-credentials
The jungle is full of stories. But in order to hear them, you need a shrewd interpreter. In the Madidi National Park, Bolivia’s portion of the Amazon, that means a native guide who calls this place home. Fortunately for us, during our three-day Rurrenabaque jungle tour, we had just the man.
Discovering the jewel of Bolivia: Madidi National Park
The Madidi National Park is the most diverse biologically protected area in the world. Created in 1995, the park exists to protect and preserve not only the area’s diverse ecosystems but also the cultural heritage of the park’s 31 indigenous communities. During our three-day Rurrenabaque jungle tour, it became clear just how vital that work is. As much as science can attempt to catalogue the park’s great variety of life, it is the people whose livelihood depends on the jungle can truly understand its secrets.
Right now, the Identidad Madidi project is in the process of cataloguing the great variety of life that exist here. It’s unlikely to be a quick job. With just under 19 square km in size, the park’s terrain covers the high Andean bogs, savannah and forests. It extends down to the Amazonian jungle and grasslands over an impressive altitudinal range of 6000 metres. Along with 3% of the world’s plants, 3.75% of its vertebrates and 11% of the world’s bird species, Madidi also counts more than 3,000 people currently living within the park including those of Tacana, Leco and Quechua origin.
Destructive rumbles in the jungle
Despite such richness and diversity, threats against the park still loom. Over the last decades, there has been pressure to build two roads through the heart of the park. These would connect La Paz with Brazil and Peru, while simultaneously opening the area up to commercial deforestation on a grand scale. Another project that has haunted the region is the Bala Dam project, which proposes flooding 2000 square kilometres of the Rio Beni to harness hydroelectric power. Added to all this, tentative explorations for petroleum have also taken place, and drilling for oil was authorised by the government in 2007. As yet, these projects remain unrealised. However, a catastrophic loss of habitat and animal life would result if any were to go ahead. It makes the valuable eco-tourism in the area all the more important, at once a form of education and economic benefit for local communities.
Setting off on our Rurrenabaque jungle tour
We started our trip from the picturesque setting of Rurrenabaque on the banks of the Río Beni. Steep hills decked in rich jungle foliage rear up at the edges of the town, a reminder that you are just one step away from the wild. Our guide, Domingo, was born here but recalls a very different town from the village of his childhood. “Back then it was just 25 families. Now, there are 24,000 people living here.” I’m curious as to whether this is the effect of tourism, but that’s not the whole story. “Many people want to live here,” Domingo explained. “It’s a centre of commerce and a beautiful place with access to nature. For Bolivians, Rurre is like the American dream.”
We sailed along the Río Beni at 9am in a narrow motor boat with a small canopy to protect us from the beating sun. As Rurre disappeared behind us, it seemed we were quickly transported into the depths of the Amazon. The brown river widened and the impenetrable jungle rose up on both sides. This entrance to Madidi is via the La Bala mountain range, the site of the proposed dam. The river narrows as it passes through the steep walls of the mountain forming a natural gate on either side, and the boundary to the park.
The Mashaquipe Eco-Lodge
We arrived at our lodge drowsy from the sun and a stop to make our own fresh sugar cane juice with members of a local community. The Mashaquipe eco-lodge is close to the banks of the river, set in a clearing behind a curtain of foliage. All the buildings are made in the traditional style of the area, wooden huts with a roof of palm leaves. There’s a central comedor decorated with carved lampshades made from coconut shells. During the trip, the food was a highlight. The chefs conjured up perfect examples of traditional Bolivian fare: soup and chicken with rice for lunch; huge buffet spreads for dinner with fresh catfish caught in Rurre; and breakfasts of eggs, fruit, pancakes and fritos – delicious fried concoctions of flour and cheese. It was easy to forget we were in the jungle. Except for one lunchtime, when we were reminded loud and clear, as we heard a worker sending a shopping list over the transistor radio. Lists of groceries were punctuated by long crackles over the line. “He’s online shopping!” quipped a traveller. It was about the closest to civilisation this place could get.
Discovering medicinal plants
That afternoon, Domingo took us on our first exploratory walk through the Amazon. We were sheltered from the sun by the dense jungle canopy, but the close, humid air was like steam clinging to us. Mercifully, we stopped every few metres as he pointed out a new plant, fruit or tree. Domingo’s father was a traditional medicine man, and brought his son to visit jungle communities throughout his childhood. Far from being a dying art, plant-based remedies are still popular in this region. “When people go to the hospital, the doctors will try out different treatments,” Domingo told us. “Often, they end up worse than they were before, or dead. People are suspicious of modern medicine. They prefer to use plant-based remedies where they can.” Indeed, central markets all over Bolivia have stalls with natural remedies, often labelled with exorbitant claims as to the many ailments they can cure.
On our walk, Domingo pointed out the deep red roots of the acaí tree, now well known as a super-food for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Its bright red roots are also used to create a drink that kills parasites in the stomach. Another plant, known as the monkey tail for its furry brown covering, can be used to make a drink that helps to purify the kidneys after a heavy drinking binge. We marvelled at the walking palms whose trunk splits into a collection of marching ‘legs’ at the base. Perhaps the most fascinating of the medicinal plants is the uña de gato, or cat’s claw, named for the curly twigs that grow on the branches. This plant has been found to be effective in fighting early stage prostrate and ovarian cancers. Even better, for those lost in the jungle, it stores fresh water that can be accessed by cutting them open and drinking straight from the branch. “This is what I teach on the survivor tour,” Domingo says.
Warriors and shamans
A little deeper into the jungle, Domingo demonstrated how a certain plant could be used for camouflaging a hunter’s scent and appearance. After a few minutes mashing the unremarkable green leaves in his strong fingers, a deep purple juice emerged. He daubed crude warrior stripes on our faces. “Hunters cover themselves completely with this to mask their scent and confuse the animals. It allows them to get right up close, and attack.” Another infamous plant is used for a different type of hunting: in the astral realm. The ayahuasca vine – now renowned for its use as a spiritual psychedelic by Western tourists – was once the preserve of the shaman. Wise men would use the plant to allow them to travel through the jungle in visions and locate a certain plant or animal.
Apart from being thoroughly knowledgable, Domingo is a fantastic storyteller. Another of his personal experiences with the healing powers of the jungle involves the fearsome bullet ant or paraponera clavata. He pointed out one of the giant insects as it crossed our path, being careful not to get too close. The bullet ant bite is one the most painful in the world. Indigenous tribes in the region have a coming-of-age ceremony that involves a boy putting his forearm into a nest and keeping it there for ten minutes. Once, exploring the jungle with his father as a boy, Domingo went to the bathroom and accidentally squatted in the ant’s nest. He was stung several times.
Running back to his father, he was alarmed to see him grab a tough-looking vine. “I thought he was going to whip me as a punishment!” Far from it. In fact, the vine is the best known antidote to the ant’s venom. Domingo showed one to us, twisting it to break the skin and reveal a bright green flesh with an astringent odour. Another amazing ant found in Madidi is the Eciton army ant. Its mandibles are so strong that they can be used to suture a wound. Domingo demonstrated, picking one up and attaching it to the back of his hand. The ant wiggled wildly in his fingers, but the mandibles piercing his flesh were going nowhere.
The search for wildlife
The next day we set out for a 3km trek. We were headed to a jungle camp where we’d stay the night, hopefully unmolested by mosquitos. Along the way, we were hoping to see some wildlife. On our first entrance to the eco-lodge, we’d been greeted by some howler monkeys lounging in the tree tops. “Lazy monkeys,” said Domingo. “They don’t move much.” Their more lively counterparts in this part of the park are the spider and squirrel monkeys. These were on our list. But spotting a monkey in the jungle is no walk in the park. Luckily, we had the secret weapon of Domingo’s uncanny ability to imitate any bird, beast or monkey you could name.
We’d been walking for some time without seeing much, when he stopped suddenly and raised a silencing hand. We froze and gazed up into the impenetrable canopy as he called out to the animal kingdom. Guttural growls and complex whistles emerged improbably from his lips. After a short silence, a reply sounded deep in the jungle. The game was on.
It’s the noise of them crashing through the branches that gives monkeys away. When the next sound came, we were ready. “Run!” shouted Domingo, and we clumsily scampered behind him. His enthusiasm was infectious. The path turned a corner and he stopped, pointing up into the branches. “Look!” he whispered, “a mother and baby.” Two black shapes swung through the branches then disappeared. Domingo’s guiding finger moved to another part of the jungle. “There’s a whole troupe!” We followed them for as long as we could, until they left us far behind.
That afternoon, we reached jungle camp, a surprisingly hospitable place with its own kitchen and dining room. Half way through our evening meal, Santo, the cook, leapt to attention. “They’re coming!” he said, and both he and Domingo jumped up and headed outside. A herd of wild peccaries had arrived at the camp! Tentatively, we followed.
We have company
There, at the edge of the kitchen hut, we could hear them. Grunting and snuffling, interspersed with a strange language of clicks. The beam of the torch illuminated several snouts, legs and beady eyes shining orange in the glare. Several curious individuals separated themselves from the mass of bodies and came right into the kitchen. They were digging into the soil for salt, Domingo told us, and the herd could be as many as a hundred strong.
We waited for them to leave, but bedtime arrived and the group hadn’t dispersed. I’ll never forget using the jungle toilet that night. With only my head torch reflecting onto the mesh hut, I sat and listened to the sound of the peccaries. It seemed that I was completely surrounded, with only the flimsy hut separating me from these wild animals. I ran the short distance back to the camp, imagining myself pursued. Of course, they weren’t at all interested in me, and continued their salt snuffling unawares.
Two little piggies
Incredibly, in the morning, we awoke to the grunts of the herd. They’d stayed all night, Domingo told us, because a sow had given birth to two piglets. Peccaries follow the alpha of the herd, who will determine their movements. “A few years ago,” Domingo told us, “an alpha inexplicably jumped from a steep cliff.” The entire herd followed. Most were killed. “When the local people found out, they all rushed to collect the meat.” Peccaries are still hunted by some indigenous groups. To protect them, the guides leave salt in the areas trodden by tourist paths, attempting to keep them in safer territory.
Rollin’ on the river
On the final morning, we hiked back towards the river. We were going to build a balsa wood raft and sail back to the eco-lodge. Domingo used a series of knots in a single piece of rope to hitch the logs together. We assisted by holding the logs in place and the rope taut. Finally, we all climbed on. Just six of these incredibly buoyant logs was enough to support five of us. With Domingo steering at the helm, and the crew fitted with wooden oars, we set sail. This was the main form of transport for jungle communities until recent times. We travelled with the current, simple enough, but heading upstream would be a real challenge.
The raft carried us over swells and small rapids. The river widened and cliffs arose topped with dense foliage. Domingo pointed out a beach where he’d once seen a jaguar. A big cat sighting wasn’t to be ours on this trip, but we did see a pair of blue and yellow macaws – rare for that part of the park – fly right over our heads. In a calmer section of the river, we jumped in and let ourselves be pulled along by the currents.
That afternoon, back at the eco-lodge, we enjoyed a jewellery-making session with Domingo, using natural materials. The next morning, we’d be setting off early back to Rurrenabaque. It was a tranquil afternoon. We completed our crafting session at the mirador overlooking the Río Beni. Far below, another group floated along the river on their raft. The jungle hummed. For a few moments, we could imagine living in its tangled bosom.
Tips for taking a Rurrenabacque jungle tour
- Remember to take insect repellent and long-sleeved trousers and a top to protect yourself from mosquitoes. They’re everywhere!
- Make sure you fully research the tour company you use. Of the many companies selling Rurrenabacque jungle tours, only a select few are licensed to enter the Madidi National Park.
- We took the 18-hour bus from La Paz out, and flew back with TAM. The bus ride will give you some spectacular views, but you’ll be on the edge of your seat along the treacherous mountain passes. Take the plane if it’s within your budget for a hassle-free trip.
- You can also combine a jungle and pampas tour to experience two very different but beautiful environments.