Marvellous Madidi

Trip Start May 05, 2013
Trip End Nov 06, 2013

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Flag of Bolivia  , Beni Department,
Monday, August 19, 2013

We leave Rurrenbaque at 9.00am for the 4 hour journey by boat up the River Beni to Madidi Jungle Ecolodge deep in the Madidi National Park, one of the most untouched and bio diverse places on the planet. First we must cross the Beni river to San Buenaventura to buy our park tickets and from there it is a further hour to the park entrance where we must register before continuing on into the park proper. The entrance to the park is marked by us passing through a gorge through a range of mountains which mark the eastern boundary of the park. In the far distance we can see the foothills of the Andes which mark the western boundary. In between there is nothing but rainforest and river.

We have been fortunate enough to travel in rainforest and wilderness areas in Asia, Africa and Australia, all have been exceptionally beautiful but this really does take the prize as the most unspoilt and pristine area we have yet visited. As we meander up the river, the forest just seems to go on forever. We see very few other boats or people and feel very privileged to be in such isolation, so far from any real impact of man. We are in a large motorised canoe which, because it is the dry season and water levels are low, has to wind its way through the shallow areas. The river varies in width from around 50 metres to over 300 metres and it is very easy to see the flood plain where the river reaches in the rainy season when the level rises by 2 or 3 metre and the width of the river quadruples in places. All along the river there are giant trees semi submerged in the river where they have been washed away in previous season. On virtually everyone of these trees, large and small are perched cormorants waiting to catch fish.

One thing which is immediately noticeable and a bit of a surprise, is how cold it is. The sun is shining but we are wrapped up in fleeces and jacket as it is so cold on the river. The weather seems to fluctuate between very hot (30c) and very cold (10c). Thankfully though, the humidity appears to be very low. Not at all what we were expecting.

The boat is manned by two people, the guy operating the outboard motor and the man at the bows whose job it is to spot the shallow parts and direct the driver using barely perceptible hand signals, to avoid the places where the boat would bottom out. In a lot of places the water is to shallow for the outboard to operate so the guy at the front has to use poles to punt the boat through. In one part the water is just too shallow for us so we have to disembark and walk a while.

Along the way it is incredibly relaxing just to sit and watch the rainforest slip by as we move up river, although there is one bit of excitement as we spot a family of wild pigs swimming across the river. The boatman stops a while to let us watch as the family of three pigs, mummy, daddy and baby pig swim across the fast moving river. It is touch and go for a while but all three eventually make it only for baby pig to go off in an entirely different direction from mum and dad!! How it turned out we will never know!

The trip up the river has been an event in itself but eventually we arrive at our home for the next 5 days which is only marked by a giant tree trunk on the bank which is used as a landing stage. A short walk up the bank and we are greeted by our guide, Raoul who shows us around the lodge which is basically comprised of four buildings, two for bedrooms, one shower block and one for a kitchen dining block. The accommodation is basic but very comfortable and very well run by the San Jose community who run and own the other lodges in the park including the famous ( and expensive !) Chalalan Lodge.

After a very welcome lunch (the food here turns out to be really very good!) we set off with Raoul for a 3 hour walk into the jungle along one of the dozen or so trails which lead out from the lodge. Our first task is to learn to walk quietly so as not to frighten away the animals. Not easy given that the forest floor is covered with leaves, twigs, branches and just about everything else that makes a noise. Gradually, over the next few days we manage to get the hang of it and it becomes a bit of a competition to see who can make the least noise.

Unlike, say Africa where the animals are abundant and are mostly to be found on open plains, spotting the wildlife here is a lot more challenging and we watch and learn as Raoul showed us how to identify the animals usually by sound, sometimes by smell and ultimately by sight.

Sighting the animals, exciting though it is, is not the main reason for coming here. Just being able to walk in one of the few, virtually untouched, areas of rainforest in the world, is, in itself reason enough to come just to marvel at the incredible diversity of vegetation that surrounds us. Over the coming days we will get to walk in many different areas, all of which are a little different. Different types of trees, plants and vines etc. as well as different habitats for the various animals and birds. One area seems to be the domain of howler monkeys, another capuchin monkeys etc.. The one thing they all have in common however, is insects, particularly mosquitoes ( although, nowhere near as may as we had feared). Having contracted malaria once before, I am in no rush to experience it once again and fortunately it is not prevalent in this area, although dengue fever is so we are ultra careful to spray deet copiously over our exposed skin.

As we hike, increasingly quietly through the forest Raoul explains to us a little of his culture and how his community is spread out in settlements throughout the entire park, the furthest being some 9 hours upriver close to the Andean foothills. Communication between the communities is by shortwave radio at set times throughout the day. Some settlements have only got electricity (via generators) in the last year or two. All this adds to the feeling of splendid isolation, no telephone, no Internet, no post! All the supplies for the lodge are brought in by boat along with the guests from Rurrenbaque and all refuse is taken out the same way meaning that the environment is maintained in pristine condition.

Despite having to bring everything in by boat an cooking over a combination of open and gas fires, the food here is the best we have experienced in Bolivia, a country where, in many places, customer satisfaction or service standards are not high priorities. This small, community run lodge could teach the rest of the Bolivian tourism industry a great deal on how to look after guests. Nothing is too much trouble and everyone we come into contact with has a smile on their face.

After a couple of days we head out for a night hike into the jungle ( it reminds us a little of our very first night scuba dive- very spooky!). Before we set of Raoul tells us to tuck our trousers (pants) into our socks so as not to allow any spiders etc. to creep into any places we wouldn't want!! With this in mind we are ultra cautious not to brush against any leaves which, on closer inspection are home to some very large spiders and some enormous ants some 2 cms long! The walk is short and only lasts and hour or so but even so, it would be completely impossible without a guide as even after 50 metres or so it would be very difficult to find our way back to camp as the forest is so dense and completely disorientating.

When we arrived at the camp on our first full day there was just us and three American women, the next day we were joined by a German couple, a Greek couple and two Aussie girls. So for a couple of days only the lodge was 75% full. For our final two days we were on our own (a bit like the final days of "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!") apart from Antonio, the semi-tame Tapir who, having been rescued by the camp staff from the river as a baby, is now a regular visitor to the camp. He usually visits around breakfast time and often creates havoc by running madly around the outdoor cooking area until he is given some bananas. When he is not doing that he like to swim with the staff in the river at sundown.

We have seen lots of animals during our hikes into the rainforest and trips on the river. The monkeys we stalked included Red Howler Monkeys, Brown Capuchins and Saddleback Tamarins, all completely different and all living in completely separate parts of the forest canopy. Raoul was able to find these mostly just by listening to them chatter far away in the forest canopy. Also in the forest we we able to find many wild pigs or "white Lipped Peccaries" to give them their correct name. these are found in herds of up to two hundred, usually by listening for the very loud sound of them crunching a particular type of nut, which at first sounded like a machine gun! On the riverbanks we came across Capybaras and a few pigs swimming as well some Brocket Deer.

Around the camp we often saw Antonio the tapir as well as red squirrels, numerous lizards and lots of birds, butterflies.

This place is a paradise for bird watchers we saw countless different birds including:

Dusky Billed and Amazonian Parakeets
Blue and yellow macaws
Green and red macaws
Ringed Kingfisher
green Kingfisher
Stink bird
Orinoco goose
Grey black hawk
Snowy egret
Red necked woodpecker
Black, King and Turkey vultures
Tropical king bird
Social flycatcher
Capped and white necked heron
Great tianoli
Swallow tanager

Our guide was able to identify all of these without batting an eyelid and would give us a rundown of the background of each species.

The animals we did not get to see but live in the area included, ocelots, puma and jaguar although we were shown their hideouts in old tree trunks. Armadillos, although we did see many of there burrows as well as evidence of anteaters digging holes all around the lodge in search of their prey.

Throughout our walks we would come across the "highways" created by the armies of leaf cutter ants carrying pieces of leaf 10 or 20 times there size to their nests. These highways were around 4 inches wide and often stretched for a very long way into the forest until they reached their giant nests. We were also shown the giant ants sometimes 2 cms in length and very poisonous with the excruciating pain from the bites lasting up to 9 hours.

Despite the abundance of insects in the forest, I managed to escape without too many bites ( v. unusual for me) Carolyn was not as lucky with around 200 on her legs at the last count!

Tomorrow, even further upriver to Santa Rosa Lake..
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Jonny on

Have you run out of Cow Face Soup sachets yet?

candcthai on

Hi Jonny,

Thankfully yes! Now longing for a bowl of oxtail!!

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