40 per cent of South America is the Amazon rainforest. 40 percent! Yet we were perplexed to meet numerous travelers who weren’t going to visit the world’s biggest rainforest. We on the other hand love rainforest’s, and the chance to visit the Amazon was on our Bucket List when we planned our big trip. With the Amazon going through 5 of the countries we were visiting, the only question was; where to visit the Amazon from?
The intent was always to visit from Peru, and head to Iquitos. Unfortunately, this way was working out too expensive for us as we would have to get a plane from Lima. The majority of budget travelers seemed to visit from Bolivia, so we said we would do the same. Our Amazon experience would begin in Rurrenabaque.
You have two choices for getting from La Paz to Rurrenabaque; take the bus or take a flight.
The bus is cheap and cheerful but also long and dangerous. Price is at most 80 BOB (€10) from the Terminal Provisional Minass – Yungas. The bus is advertised to take excruciating 18 hours to make it to Rurrenabaque, but we had heard lots of stories of delays and it takes up to 26 hours in some instances. So stock up on plenty of food and water for the trip! The bus takes the new ‘Death Road’, where lots of accidents have been reported in the last few years. This is due to a mixture of winding mountaineous roads, and crazy Bolivian driving.
The flight to Rurrenabaque to La Paz is short, safe (relatively) but expensive. It is just a 40-minute flight from El Alto Airport, and you cross some of the most amazing scenery. Return flights work out at about $195 return.
We nearly always go for the cheaper option on this trip, but this time we couldn’t do it. Due to the massive difference in time between the two methods of transport, the safety concerns, and the fact that the flights weren’t that expensive – we just had to go for the flight.
Rurrenabaque is a small town in the north of Bolivia, situated along the Beni River. “Rurre”, as locals call it, is Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon and has become increasingly popular on the gringo backpacking trail.
We based ourselves in Rurre either side of our Amazon adventure, staying in the cheap Los Tucanes de Rurre, which cost just €14 a night for a private double room. The town is fairly well built up with plenty of restaurants to chose from. Importantly there are also other facilities such as pharmacies (for last-minute mosquito spray) and cheap clothes shops (for some white clothes, supposedly to fend off the mosquitos).
Of course, the most popular establishments in all of Rurrenabaque are tour companies. This region of the Amazon provides two main types of excursion; The Pampas experience and the Jungle experience.
There is a wide range of companies that offer Amazon tour’s from Rurrenabaque, and everyone differs completely in price. The first thing to note however is to wait until you get to the town to book your trip; you will save a lot of money. They will always accommodate last minute bookings!
Pampas Tours involve traveling on a boat and having a look for different types of animals that can be seen along the riverbed. A 3-hour drive to the banks of the river Yacuma is normally the starting off point. You can see numerous animals such as capybaras, caimans, and monkeys on the Pampas tours. There is also the option to go piranha fishing, as well as swimming with pink river dolphins.
Tours are most commonly done either as a 2 Day/1 Night or 3 Day/2 Night option. Most tour companies package them in with a Jungle Tour also.
The Pampas Tours are described as the better option for wildlife watching, while the Jungle Tours will tell you more about the insects and plants of the rainforest. Of course, there still is the option to spot some wildlife, if your tour guide is good enough!
Another option which we came across when looking for a company to experience the Amazon with were Madidi Travel. They sell themselves as being an eco-friendly tour operator, with a lodge and restaurant onsite. The owner bought large parts of the rainforest in order to stop the destruction of the rainforest. She then transformed it into the Serere Eco-Reserve, that completely protects everything within its reach.
The fact that Madidi sold themselves as being eco-friendly was what clinched our decision to go with them. You will find that alot of the other companies in Rurrenabaque will provide tours and opportunities that let you handle/touch/interact with some animals (touching baby caiman is a prime example). This isn’t something we believe in, we can all appreciate wildlife without having the necessity to touch them. Be wary of the tour agencies that offer really cheap tours, your impact on the environment when it comes to making a decision like this is a lot greater then you can imagine.
We booked a 5 day/4 night experience with Madidi Travel directly in their office in Rurrenabaque. The total price was 2000BOB per person, roughly €260. We booked one day in advance, and the cost included everything – transportation, food, guided tours, and accommodation.
Our first day began in the Madidi office where we met our guide and the other person in our group. We were just 3 people in total, so the group size was much smaller than the regular pampas/jungle tours offered in the region. We went to the port and hopped on a dugout canoe for the trip out to the Serere Eco Reserve.
Our trip along the Beni river was educational. We saw numerous trucks and diggers scooping the soil from the riverbed. When we asked our guide what this was about he told us it was Chinese companies, building new roads into the Bolivian Amazon. The idea is to get people, especially indigenous people to move out to the rainforest in order to start a new life. Of course, this involves knocking the trees and habitat of thousand’s of species in order to accommodate the new people. Just another example of humanity’s stupidity…
As we got closer to the lodge we spotted some Capybaras. These giant-sized rodents were just laying out, catching the sun! Some caiman and turtles were also seen. We then docked up and began the near 30-minute walk through the rainforest in order to reach the lodge. The mosquitos and humidity were extreme, meaning we arrived with some bites and covered in sweat!
Our room was lovely, there are no windows, just mosquito nets and we had our own toilet. The downsides to the room were a lack of electricity (although expected) and some humongous insects that I quickly had to remove out the door (to be fair, also expected).
We went for a short afternoon walk close to the lodge and spotted an abundance of wildlife. Red howler monkeys were spotted not too far away from the lodge itself, their infamous screams giving away their location. After walking a bit further into the forest I heard the rustling of leaves behind me. As I turned around (expecting to see a bird on the ground, at most), there was a Tapir – walking straight for me. Startled I let the guide know and it was then he explained that the Tapir was a rescue animal that the lodge cared for – so pretty used to humans.
We got some cool photos with the Tapir before continuing our walk where we saw some capuchin monkeys and a plethora of birds. We returned to the lodge for our dinner and saw our first glimpse of a sunset in the Amazon. That night the sounds of the rainforest were amazing!
Day 2 got off to the craziest start when a troupe of Squirrel monkeys danced past the lodge as we were having breakfast. They put on quite the show as they jumped from tree to tree!
We then went for another walk, this time with the aim to venture further into the rainforest. We spotted a rare squirrel and different birds before Aoife noticed something strange. On a leaf on the ground she managed to spot drips of blood – and it looked fresh. The guide stated that this was most like from a Jaguar carrying its dead prey in its mouth. So we set off in search of the Jaguar, completely enthralled and excited at the potential to see the most elusive of Amazon species. But then our fellow member of the group, a young Danish girl told the guide that her stomach didn’t feel well and she needed to head back to the lodge. The guide, desperate for the chance to see the Jaguar for himself, asked the girl if she could just go in the trees, as this was a very rare chance. She said she couldn’t so we had to make our way back to the lodge.
We took a short walk afterward, one member down and managed to spot some Coati, a hummingbird, and a yellow woodpecker. Good, but not quite Jaguar good.
After lunch, we were joined by 2 more people – both girls from Denmark – what are the odds! Our activity in the afternoon was to go out on a canoe on the river and hopefully see some caiman and go piranha fishing. We saw the caiman, who actually swam the whole way up to our boat. It was actually quite unsettling he was that close. Then our guide began to bate him out of the water by feeding him. It then made sense why the caiman was approaching us. He clearly always gets fed like this. This was disappointing as one of the reason’s we chose the company was due to their eco standpoint. Feeding the animals is not eco-friendly, eventually, they will always expect and rely on it – and even worse, they will begin to trust all humans!
Our piranha fishing wasn’t as successful, the string with a hook and a bit of beef at the end wasn’t too attractive for the carnivorous fish! We hopped off the canoe onto another part of the reserve and managed to spot some Spider Monkeys in the distance. These playful animals were the 4th different type of monkey that we had seen in just 2 days – pretty incredible.
After dinner that night we went on a night walk. At night the rainforest really comes alive and you can see a lot more animals and insects than during the day. We managed to spot a tarantula (right outside the lodge), a scorpion and some other creepy crawlies. The night walk was pretty disappointing – we had done a similar one in Costa Rica which was amazing, but this one was just average. The guide walked way to fast to be able to spot anything, so we weren’t too surprised!
That night as we were in bed the weather completely changed. Vicious winds started coming in and the temperature changed from humid, hot weather to actually be quite cold! Although you expect rain in the rainforest, we didn’t really expect to be cold. Apparently these were due to winds coming up from Patagonia – how typical!
With the rain pounding down our 3rd morning in the Amazon forest was spent making jewelry! Rather than go out in the rain (we were told most of the animals don’t like rain and so won’t be out anyway) we got creative – making rings and necklaces out of the palm tree nut. It was actually a pretty fun way to pass the morning!
In the evening we donned some waterproof jackets and headed out to explore. The animal activity was low, but we did manage to spot the Serere bird – the bird which lends its name to the eco-reserve. All in all, we didn’t see much on this day, but it was nice to get out for a wander!
The weather was slightly improved on Day 4 – no rain, but the temperature was still quite cool! We started the day by exploring a bat’s nest, which was located on the inside of a tree!
We then all had a go at a hanging vine swing (aka a Tarzan swing), one of those things you just have to do in the jungle! We spotted a large group of red howler monkeys on our way to a banana plantation, it is used to grow all the banana’s for the lodge for the year.
After lunch, all of our Danish friends departed and were replaced by an enthusiastic set of twins from Holland. It was quite refreshing to be with people who were as excited to be in the Amazon as us.
The weather also picked up and we headed out on the canoe again, spotting bird’s aplenty along the way. At this stage my hands had calluses and cuts from the paddle in the canoe, that’s how much rowing we had to do.
We went across the river to do some more exploring and came across a group of locals who were pushing a boat the whole way from the lodge to the other side. These locals, all chewing large amounts of coca, told our guide that the owner of the lodge had stolen their boat, and they were merely taking it back. Our guide, wisely, was not going to engage the group of men, our Dutch friends, however, were more than ready to fight them. Clearly they didn’t see the machetes. We all agreed that it was better they were dragging a boat through the forest than an animal (e.g. a Jaguar), as happens frequently around the world.
We went for some more piranha fishing and this time we were alot more succesful in getting a catch. They might have been small but a piranha is a piranha! As we headed back to the lodge the sun went down and we could witness the most amazing Amazon sunset.
That evening after dinner we had another night excursion, this time to see the eye’s of the caiman at night time. A bit of a strange excursion to be honest, but we did see the silver eyes, beaming in the river. It was kind of spooky! Overall this was probably our favourite day of the stay in the Amazon.
Day 5 was our final day, but we still managed to get 2 excursion in. First, we hopped on the canoe again and headed onto the river before sunrise in order to hear the sounds of the jungle come to life. We saw the usual variety of birds and monkeys before heading back for breakfast.
After breakfast we again headed off in the canoe to the other side of the river. The tapir, from Day 1, followed after us, swimming along side the boat for a few minutes (and trying to bite the paddle). It was such an amazing experience seeing him be so playful.
When we arrived on the other side the guide told us he was looking for a sloth. After a nice chase around the jungle Aoife eventually spotted the sloth, just chilling out right over our heads. We have seen sloths before, but to see one in the Amazon was pretty special!
We also went to a small lake where the guide said he has seen an anaconda before. When we got there he disappointedly said that the chances of seeing the anaconda were slim because of all the rain the last few days. But he had seen one there recently! This was really annoying as on the first day (before the rain had even started) I told the guide that the one animal id love to see would be an anaconda. He said it was impossible!
So ended our final activity in the Amazon and we headed back on the boat to Rurrenabaque.
Would I book Madidi Travel again if we were to do it all over again? Probably not. To be honest, it didn’t feel like a jungle experience. Having been to Costa Rica and staying in jungle lodges, this felt a lot less authentic. The reserve itself is really new, not very dense, and lacks alot of the insects that would make the Amazon, the Amazon (if that makes any sense).
Although the idea of the lodge is great, I think they struggle to always abide by the principals. Our guide was feeding the caiman in order for them to come over every time. He also would shake the trees with the monkeys to make them make noise. This wasn’t exactly what we hoped for from an eco-lodge. There was also a young kid living at the lodge (maybe 5/6) who was left alone with some of the rescue animals. This kid was quite badly behaved and indeed our last memories of the lodge were seeing him kicking a baby anteater’s cage, just to annoy it!
If we were to do it again I think we would do a Pampas and Jungle tour – just one that is considerate of the animals and the surrounding!