Visiting the Amazonian jungle has been one of the absolute highlights of our South American travels so far.
We think a trip to the continent just wouldn’t be complete without some type of visit to the Amazon.
Unfortunately we lost our camera the day after leaving the region, but thanks to the generosity of Kai, one of the members our great group, we still have some photos to share the splendour.
When many people think of the Amazon, Brazil is the country that comes to mind.
It actually covers 9 different countries on the continent, and extensive deforestation and sky high prices in Brazil means travellers often go looking elsewhere for a better experience.
After Brazil, Peru and Ecuador have the most developed tourist infrastructure and therefore attract the most visitors.
We however chose to visit the Amazon in Bolivia, attracted by lower prices and smaller crowds, without giving up much on biodiversity or conservation.
Rurrenabaque serves as the base for the Amazon region where most tourists head to experience the jungle in Bolivia.
Rurrenabaque gained international attention when three foreign travellers ventured into the jungle with only an Austrian as a guide, who later proved to be a bit of a con artist.
Yosi, one of the survivors, wrote a book called “Lost in the Jungle”, which became the basis of Hollywood film “Jungle” released in 2016.
Besides being a pretty decent film, it also acted as a stimulant to the tourist industry that formed after the initial event.
Rurrenabaque can be reached by a short and scenic 30 minute flight from La Paz, or a long bus whose duration starts at 15 hours and increases from there, depending on the weather and road conditions.
Speaking of which, in the Amazon region there are really only two seasons, the dry season which runs roughly from April – October and the wet season from December – February.
The lush jungle doesn’t come from nowhere though, the annual rainfall is approximately 1900mm and precipitation can be expected all year round.
We chose to fly in on the airline Amaszonas to save some time and keep the comfort levels high, but the price difference (approximately $200 vs $20 USD each for a return trip) definitely swayed others.
The Jungle v The Pampas
The jungle and the pampas are the two key attractions for nature and wildlife near Rurrenabaque.
Tours are offered from town to both these locations, with different strength and attractions.
The jungle is a more classic Amazon experience, with both primary and secondary forest offering a massive variety of vegetation.
The pampas on the other hand are a wetlands that concentrate far greater amounts of wildlife, especially in the dry season.
They provide much more guaranteed viewing as the animals are drawn to the river.
The Madidi national park, created in 1995 after strong lobbying by local and international parties, forms the main protected area where most of the jungle lodges are located.
The entrance to the park is about 2 hours upriver by motorised boat, with the various lodges then located further in.
There are approximately 6 key lodges in the park, plus the Serere Sanctuary in a private reserve to the north.
We chose the Mashaquipe lodge based on overwhelmingly positive reviews, great reputation for sustainability, excellent communication and their offering of a combination jungle and pampas tour to maximise utilisation of our time.
The Pampas del Yacuma is the other important area about 2 hours drive in the opposite direction from Rurrenabaque.
It is also a protected area, although farms and other agriculture are very evident.
During the wet season the rivers burst their banks, most of the area becomes flooded, the wildlife disperses and the mosquitos multiply with a vengeance.
In the dry seasons the rivers retract, and the wildlife follow them in.
The jungle is essentially nature’s pharmacy and storehouse, filled with elusive exotic animals and plants.
If we learnt anything from our trip it’s that there is probably a plant to solve just about every ailment, and an almost identical looking plant that will instead prove highly toxic and/or fatal.
Those arriving in the jungle expecting to cross paths with a multitude of wildlife like jaguars and snakes are likely to leave disappointed.
The magic of the jungle doesn’t lie in sheer quantities of animals, the reality is it is hard to spot them in the dense vegetation.
A great guide like our very own Sandro however really brings the surroundings to life, pointing out many animals we would have almost definitely missed, and sharing their knowledge of the bounty of the forest.
Some of our highlights included the garlic leaf whose wife repellent properties lasted for hours, and the anaesthetic leaf stem that just about all of us chewed on at Sandro’s urging, leading to numb mouths for quite a few minutes.
Another absolute gem were the night walks in the surrounding jungle.
While slightly spooky, turning off all lights and standing absolutely still and listening to the surprising amount of movement was unforgettable.
For example on our last night walk Sandro tracked a tapir to a clearing, where we got to experience the racket a 300kg creature can make.
The other animals were also enthralling, with the ubiquitous insects, countless varieties of birds like the grand macaws and many mammals including different types of monkeys.
There were squirrel monkeys which travelled in large groups through the jungle, and red howler monkeys which took a nap amongst the trees in our lodge.
Most of our time was spent walking the marked trails, learning about the properties and uses of the plants and a short visit to an indigenous community.
We also had the opportunity to build a raft, cue Jacinta imagining the raft scene from Jungle.
The reality was significantly more relaxing as we realised paddling wasn’t even required and we could float downstream lazily watching the world go by.
We opted for a combination jungle and pampas tour, so after an early morning transfer from the jungle lodge we arrived back in town where we could access our main luggage.
Not long after, we embarked on our 2 hour, bumpy voyage in the 4wd to the river access.
The first stop was a roadside pause to admire a sloth doing what sloths do best – nothing.
Thankfully it wasn’t too long before we arrived and we transferred to the motorised canoe.
Many of the lodges in the pampas are located close together, with a nearby bar serving as a central gathering point, aka the “sunset bar”.
We were very pleased to confirm that our lodge was set apart far from the nightlife action.
It’s not that we don’t mind a good cocktail to celebrate the going down of the sun, but we were there to enjoy the wildlife of the animal kind.
Even during the short 10 minute boat ride from our drop off point at the river to our lodge, it was obvious that the experience was going to be quite different.
There were caiman absolutely everywhere, a very close cousin to the crocodile and alligator.
We had a shorter amount of time to spend here, but across our two days we took several trips up and down the river, walked to watch the sunrise, went (successfully) looking for an anaconda and hung out in hammocks with our crocodilian friends watching on.
During our stay we saw capybara (the world’s largest rodent), countless different types of birds, yellow monkeys, howler monkeys, an anaconda, pink river dolphins and much more.
Where in the jungle each animal encounter was a special event, in the pampas they were never out of sight.
So much so that we hoped for times without the caiman and the birds we called swamp chickens so that the other animals would come to play.
That was until we had the classic moment of a plump capybara sitting right next to a group of apparently not so hungry caiman (sorry that photo is lost!).
We loved visiting both the jungle and the pampas, and can’t imagine having to choose between the two.
One of the big strengths of the Bolivian Aamazon was being able to experience the two different ecosystems from one base.
If we were forced to pick, the jungle just had a special aura and truly felt like nature.
For people very short on time the pampas offered a great array of wildlife, and even with a mediocre guide you could have had a great time.
For the budget traveller Rurrenabaque and the surrounding areas offer a compelling value proposition.
Fantastic wildlife and biodiversity, well protected primary rainforest and diverse ecosystems.
All of that at the best prices in South America, with cheap transport options available.
We can safely say it was a great decision to visit the Amazon in Bolivia.