Sylvie and I booked 2 tours—a 3-day Pampas tour and a 3-day Jungle tour. We went to 4 or so booking agents while on “Gringo Alley” in La Paz. I had read that tours are cheaper and easier to book here in La Paz then in Rurrenabaque (the city where the tours start/end). Most places charged 600 bolivianos ($86) per tour per person. The tours include food, transportation (from Rurrenabaque) and all included services. Sylvie and I booked both tours with Go Bless Tours. The woman helping us was very helpful and even made us ISIC student IDs—though we did have to pay $23/per ID. I had created less-than-authentic admission letters for the two of us in order to qualify as international students. The cards will save us money over the course of the year. My old card has saved us $30+ on Machu Picchu and one museum ticket already.
We had two options to get to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia—an 18-36 hour bus ride or a 4- minute flight. A round-trip bus ticket cost $35/pp, while the round-trip flight cost $200/pp. As much as we wanted to save $330 and take the bus we opted on the flight. We decided to fly out first thing on Sunday morning and start the tour immediately. We arranged to have the tour pick us up at the airport in Rurrenabaque. We then plan to spend one night in Rurrenabaque between tours and another after our second tour. Our booking agent told us to be flexible in that we may start with the Pampas tour or the Jungle tour.
We ended up negotiating a tour price 590 bolivianos per person per trip. We still had to pay $22 per person for entrance into the Pampas and $18 per person for the Jungle. Between the flights, the 2 nights in Rurrenabaque, cabs to/from the airport, extra meals, snacks, admission to the parks, and tips for the guides our week in the Jungle will set us back less than $900.
Getting to the La Paz Airport was quite an adventure for us. We woke up early (before 5) in order to leave our hotel at 5:25am. We walked through the darkly lit streets of La Paz, something neither of us felt too comfortable doing, in order to find a bus stop for the public bus destined to the airport. They do not have official bus stops but somehow we managed to find out way to one of the unofficial pick-up locations. After waiting for over an hour, on the cold and dark street corner we started considering getting a cab. Finally, by 6:30am, we saw a minibus with the word “Aeropuerto” in black letters across the front of the vehicle. We hailed it down and it stopped. Unfortunately some guy, a real asshole, jumped in front of Sylvie and took the last remaining seat on the bus. Sylvie told him how, “[She] was very upset how [he] took our seat”. I flicked him off as the bus drove away. There was one more bus that drove by 5 minute later but didn’t stop because it was already filled to capacity.
We hailed a cab, with the help of some well-dressed guy on the street. The guy had instructed the cabbie to take us to the airport and then said something in a low voice. I think he said something like, “please take them there, please”. I thought the buy was being genuinely nice until I saw him give a hand gesture to the bad driver. Sylvie and I both saw it and felt a bit scared. We’ve heard too many bad stores about the cab drivers here in Bolivia. I won’t rehash them now!
We unlocked our cab doors, ready to tuck and roll the moment the situation presented, but we never needed to. We arrived at the airport 15 minutes later. I later read that it’s best to keep the doors locked to prevent kidnappers from coming into the cab.
At the airport Sylvie can’t find her Passport. We talk the ticketing agent into letting us fly without it and Sylvie uses her PA driver’s license. We think—I hope—the passport, and Bolivian Visa, is in her overnight bag and that she just forgot to bring it with her on this trip…we’ll see if that’s the case.
The agent told me I couldn’t take my can of bug repellent on the plane and asked me to check my bag. I didn’t want to check it so I told her that I would throw it away. I didn’t. I was able to carry that, plus a lighter, through security without a hitch.
Getting to Rurrenabaque couldn’t have been easier. Sylvie was quite nervous about how small the plane was (a twin prop 20-seater). She told me she was 90% certain she was going to die. I took her hand and held it for the entire plane ride. We met a lovely German couple traveling for a year on their way to the Jungle. They started 2 months ago in Argentina and are working their way north to Peru. They also plan to spend 4 months in South America.
The flight was beautiful; there were mountains on both sides of us for much of the 40-minute journey. We landed on the only runway at the Rurrenabaque airport—a semi-gravel stretch of ground splitting through a jungle of trees. Sylvie was shocked how much smother this flight was than the larger flights she was used to talking
After arriving in Rurrenabaque we were greeted by our tour guide where we learned we would be going into the Pampas for our first trek. We met up with 3 other girls (two from Belgium and one from the UK) that complete our group of 5 of this trek. We piled into a 25-year-old land rover and drove down a gravel road at 40-60km/hour for 3 hours. The road was completely straight leading from the airport into the Pampas. After 3 hours of being jarred around the back seat, and after a very lovely 30-minute lunch stop, we arrived at a muddy river.
We helped the guide load an old splintered long and narrow boat with supplies. We were on this boat for another 3 hours where we rode it up stream to our lodging for the next two nights. During the boat ride we, where we sat 2-by-2 on rusty-hinged single seats, we saw so much life. There were hundreds of alligators and capybara littering the banks of the river. Later we came across dozens of monkeys and a few pink dolphins. There were many types of birds all over the place. At one time all 5 of use (not the guide) were sleeping despite all of us being afraid of falling off our seats into the alligator infested waters. The guide found great amusement in driving over the bamboo/reeds growing in the water—I was constantly being slapped in the face by the plants.
We finally arrived at our lodge and got ready for tea. We had coconut cookies, popcorn, and hot cocoa.
After tea we took the boat to another location where we waited for it to get dark. Once dark we switched on our headlights and boarded our boat. We saw the reflections of our lights in hundreds of eyes along the river—alligators. Although the bugs at this time of night were horrible and it was quite cold the experience was really great. Our guide caught a smaller alligator and brought it on our boat where we were all able to handle it and take photos of it. Our guide doesn’t speak English so we’re being forced to learn Spanish even more.
Dinner was amazing as well! We were all in bed by 9 and slept till 7:30.
Breakfast was such a treat: fried dough and jam, freshly made chocolate doughnuts, scrambled eggs, toast, bananas, papaya, apples, oranges, and hot tea.
After breakfast we put on heavy rubber boots and went down river a bit by our boat. We traversed the swampy terrain for several hours in hunt for an anaconda when we finally found one. It was a small one, relatively speaking, at only 7 feet long. We took a few pictures holding the snake and then headed back to our boat. Our guide told us that the entire ground we walked on during this trek was 3-5 feet under water during the rainy months (around January).
Lunch was even better than breakfast: vegetable soup, lentils, rice, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peas, grilled chicken, beets, and potato salad.
Now were taking a little siesta. At dos y media (2:30) we meet back on the boat for piranha fishing. We get to eat what we catch! I’m hoping I catch one.
Tonight we have a free night so we’ll hang out with the other girls on our trip. Tomorrow morning we get to swim with the dolphins. The guides throw chicken in the water, away from us, to keep the alligators from eating us!
There is another group staying at our ‘lodge’ that is comprised of mostly Israelis. Although they didn’t travel here (from Israel) together it’s become apparent that Israelis find other Israelis and simply travel together in packs. It’s actually a little obnoxious. They speak in Hebrew and separate from all other people. What’s the point in traveling if you simply form cliques with people just like you? What Sylvie and I find very upsetting is that they still speak Hebrew with each other all the time when there is only one other person in their group who speaks Spanish and some English. I hate seeing him by himself because I’ve felt that way before myself (in a group of all Dutch speakers). And yes the Israelis speak English fluently. They are fresh out of the military so they are young, but that’s still not an excuse as to their immaturity.
We went piranha fishing in the afternoon—Sylvie caught 1. I caught half a dozen but had to throw most back because they weren’t large enough to keep. We ended up with 10 or so fish after a few hours of fishing. It was so much fun…putting chunks of beefs onto fishhooks and throwing the line in the water. We got bites within the first 10 seconds. The hardest part was yanking the fish out of the water while they were attacking the beef. Typically the hook gets caught in their mouths, but that’s not how you fish for piranha.
At dinner we had ground beef noodles, rice, vegetables, salad, and the piranhas (fried). I tried to eat as much as possible as to not waste them. I was able to eat three of them. They tasted very mild and were very bony. After dinner our group sat around and talked for a while.
In the middle of the night Sylvie woke me up and she told me how sick she was. She threw up 4 or 5 times over the course of the night. She sat out while we ate breakfast and I prepared her a little something. I stayed back with her in the dorm while the others went out to swim with the dolphins (and alligators)
She is feeling a bit better now but still a bit queasy (this marks the 7th ailment she’s had since we started our travels). We enjoyed our time feeding the monkeys with the extra breakfast food.
Sometime during the morning while Sylvie and I were both out of the room some monkeys stole our bag of treats. The mag must have weighed 3 or 4 lbs. We hate peanuts chocolate covered rice and raisons, banana crisps, and Mentos. Those cheeky bastards!
After 2 hours in the boat and another 3 hours in a minivan crammed with 11 people we were back in Rurrenabaque.
After a relaxing night of walking through the city or Rurrenabaque Sylvie and I ate breakfast at the hotel and got to the tour agency by 8:00am sharp. We met the three others on our Jungle trek. A ‘couple’ from Holland and a solo traveler from the UK. We were lucky yet again with a small group. We took a short bestride across the Beni River to buy tickets for the Madidi National Park. We were all waiting in the park office but Sylvie was nowhere to be found. She came limping in a few minutes later with a large frown and mud up to her ankles. Apparently she was so anxious about being late that she had inadvertently stuck both of her feet into very fresh mud. The mud swelled around both her shoes and sucked her under…she looked around but found no branch to pull herself out. As he struggled one of the cooks, a friendly woman, on the boat locked eyes with Sylvie and laughed. Sylvie managed to get her shoes out of the mud but not without first pulling both feet out of her shoes and exposing her socks. She looked like a swamp monster with her shoes covered in mud 3 inches thick!
3 hours on the boat and we finally got to our Jungle campsite. We docked our boat right on the river’s edge and carried all our gear, along with all food and bedding supplies, for ten minutes until we arrived at the Fluvial jungle site. There were 3 sleeping quarters, 2 showers, 2 bathrooms, and a dining hall with kitchen. We rested for an hour until lunch was served then we went on 3 hour jungle hike. During the hike we saw two types of monkeys, many types of medicinal plants/trees, and some rodents. We stalked some jungle pigs and came pretty close to half a dozen of these hogs before they got spooked. I found the jungle garlic, a tree with garlic that smelled like garlic, to be the most interesting. What was also pretty darn cool was when our guide took his machete and hacked down a branch of this tree and then split it in half—he then let us drink the water that drained from inside of it.
In the middle of the night Sylvie woke me up pointing her main spotlight at shouting and me “Scott, there are animals outside”. I thought to myself, “I hope so, or else I am asking for a refund”. I rolled over and went back to sleep. It came to me about 2 hours later that Sylvie was actually asking for me to accompany her outside while she took a pee. She ended up going outside by herself…she was so frightened that a jaguar would strike her down while she was peeing that she couldn’t even bring herself to go all the way to the bathroom. She made it a foot outside the door and went. She was so hasty that she accidentally wet her own shorts…they are now hanging on the clothesline to dry.
The meals have been a delight, with more veggies than what we’ve grown accustomed to recently. This morning we went on a 4-hour hike through the thick of the jungle. The heat was unrelenting and the humidity was the worst I’ve ever felt. Even now I am sweating bullets on my bed as my mosquito net does a very good job of blocking any sort of cross breeze from entering my personal space. Thanks you fucking bug net!
It was so difficult to sleep in the humid heat but it finally cooled off enough to get into my silk sleep sheet by midnight.
We are taking a 2-hour siesta before we go fishing on the main river. We went fishing for 2 hours and I caught a catfish, maybe 4 pounds or so. The Dutch couple caught a fairly heavy, 10-pound, fish that is related to a piranha. I tried to kill the fish by whacking the machete across its head several times but the massive blows failed to kill the large fish. Sylvie was very very sad to see the fish gasping for air. She flinched and looked away as our guide stuck a branch through in its gills through its mouth. I think killing the fish first would have ben the humane thing to do. The guy driving the boat also caught two fish, one that is similar to a salmon. The catfish will be fried for dinner and the other fish are being cooked on top a fire.
Robin, Sylvie, and I are just sitting around now and chatting about life and travel. He’s 34 and this is second time traveling. He’s been going since January and finishes up in December. The last time he traveled he was gone for 3.5 years.
I stuffed myself at dinner, just like I’ve been doing at every other meal these past several days. The catfish we ate was the best I’ve ever eaten…and I lived in the south for over two years! We cooked the Salmon-like and Piranha-like fish over an open flame and they both were excellent. The one piranha-like fish was large enough to feed all of us but they prepared the fish on top of a full feast. After every meal the chef leaves the extra food for the monkeys. And we’ve only been able to eat just over half the food served to us so my guess is that the monkeys are quite happy. Robin was the only one in our group to go out for the night walk last night. We have one more jungle trek this afternoon before lunch but I’m not sure if any of us are going to go. We’ve had our share of the jungle and none of us are confident that we’ll see anything that we haven’t already seen. After our lunch at 11:30 we set back for the 2-3 hour boat ride to Rurrenabaque.
Getting to Back to La Paz at airport we ran into Mo—our friend we met during hike of the Salkantay trek. He had just gotten off the flight from La Paz. He had taken an overnight bus to La Paz to catch a flight into Rurrenabaque. He was going to take a last minute tour before his flight home in 3-4 days to San Francisco. He had been quoted $240 for a 2-night tour in the Pampas. Luckily I still had the brochure from our tour company, Fluvial Tours. They were actually written up in the Lonely Planet—but we hadn’t known that when we booked. I told him we only paid 590 bolivianos apiece ($85) and gave him the pamphlet. I told him that it still wasn’t too late to get on today’s tour and to ask if they could pick him up at the airport (as our tour had done). He was still on the phone with the tour company when we boarded the plane—the same one he had gotten off of just minutes earlier. I hope that he was able to catch today’s tour and at the lower rate. He was such a genuine guy and saving an entire day would be a great relief for him as high trip is nearing an end shortly.
Sylvie and I are in the air now, for our short 40-minute flight and should arrive in La Paz in the next 30 minutes. After figuring out how to catch a public bus into the city we will spend the rest of the day looking through her ‘mochilla’ (backpack), doubling back to the post office, and to our second hotel in La Paz—we need to find that damn passport of hers. If it is in fact lost we have two options to take. 1.) She can apply for another American passport while in La Paz and wait 3-5 weeks to receive it (not ideal). 2.) She can get a document that acts as a short-term passport. It is valid for 9 months and allows for entrance into 5 countries. However not every country accepts this form of document. Also, she will likely need to repurchase the $160 Bolivian visa. Ugh, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that she just left it in her main pack.
WE FOUND THE PASSPORT! Now we are just sitting at an Internet café relaxing until our overnight bus to Sucre.
Original Publish Date October 11-17, 2015