Swimming with dolphins in the Pampas

Trip Start Apr 18, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Los Tulcanes Rurre
Residencial Japon
Fluvial River Lodge

Flag of Bolivia  , El Beni,
Monday, November 14, 2011

We flew into Rurrenabaque in a glorified tin can of a plane, we were flying with TAM, which is the Bolivian Militarys' commercial airline. Our flight from La Paz left first thing in the morning, so we got a taxi from our hostel (where we had left our big rucksacks) and went up to El Alto (The High) which is the name of La Paz airport. We got a lift from there into the military base which is right next door, even though it was 6 in the morning we were still treated to a large military parade complete with tanks and marching bands. The plane itself seated between 25-30 people, and had merely a curtain to prevent you from entering the cockpit. The flight took around 45 minutes during which we lost over 3700m in altitude, arriving in Rurrenabaque which sits around 215m. We landed on an asphalt runway (only recently installed) before we taxied to the "terminal" over a grass runway. The "terminal" was just a house, a large house, but still just a house. We jumped on a bus into town, and went to find a hostel. We stayed for one night in Los Tucanes de Rurre, which was fine, it had a pool table and offered free breakfast which is always a bonus.

Having booked our tour in La Paz we had very little to do on our first day in Rurre'. It was an absolute scorcher so we ended up finding the local swimming pool and spending our day utilising the cooling powers of the water. We also familiarised ourselves with the town as we had an early start the next day and wanted to make sure that we knew where we needed to be. We had some dinner in one of the better restaurants in town, before heading for bed for some preparation sleep, we had a big few days ahead!

Our trip left at 8 in the morning, we arrived at the tour agency in high spirits, looking forward to seeing the various wildlife that makes the pampas tour so special. Our first leg was a 3 hour 4X4 journey along an exceedingly dusty and bumpy road. We had 2 Americans, 2 Swiss, 2 Germans and an Israeli in our group. We all squashed into the Toyota Landcruiser and set off, our bags under tarpaulin on top of the jeep. After an hour or so of a very bumpy ride it started raining, then it started pouring. Our jeep wasn't the finest vehicular specimen, every half hour or so the driver would have to pull over and put water in the overheating engine. We also blew a tire about half way along the road, luckily we had picked up a spare before we left Rurre'. Finally we came across a lorry which had jackknifed across the road. It was still upright thankfully, but there was a queue of around 5 other 4X4s waiting for it to get back on the road so they could continue on their way. Our driver had no such intentions, slamming the Landcruiser into gear and rally driving around the truck. One more jeep followed successfully before another tried and got stuck, resulting in all of the passengers having to get out and help push the jeep out of the mud. Finally we arrived at the river mouth, with our long boat and guide waiting. We got all of the gear off of the jeep and bundled it into the boat. It was at this point that I discovered that my bag, and all of its contents, were absolutely soaking, nightmare. I didn't have any time to deal with that then, so I just shoved it onto the boat under, hopefully more effective, tarpaulin.

The boat ride up the river was about 3 hours in the pouring rain. We did see a number of animals on our way, including Capibara, which are kind of like oversized guinea pigs. We actually saw an alligator creeping up on a family of capibara at one point, we never saw the culmination of this example of wildlife in action however. Other animals we saw on our wet sojourn up the river were turtles, alligators, caimains and a number of cool birds.

We finally arrived at our river lodge, it was basically a number of cabins with tarpaulin roofs raised on stilts and connected by wooden walkways. Eilidh and I had been lucky enough to get a private cabin (just a bedroom and toilet) so when we arrived we opened my bag to inspect the damage. It was worse than we feared, all my clothes were drenched, as was my passport and all the cash we had. Luckily for me, my passport was wet but the stamp ink only ran a wee bit, one of the Americans on our tour had the same thing happen to him and all his stamps disappeared!

We spent the rest of the evening getting to know the rest of the people in our group, before our guide came and got us all back in the boat. Thankfully the rain had finally stopped,  but now it was pitch black so we all brought our torches, we were going out to see alligators and caimans at night! We puttered along in our boat, which was about 15 foot long and had 9 glorified garden chairs in the bow for us gringos to sit on, while our guide, Toto, handled the outboard motor at the back. As we were shining our torches around we noticed red glints looking back at us, these were the alligator/caimans eyes staring at us from the water. This was slightly disconcerting, especially when they began moving towards the boat. There were loads of red glints staring back at us, as well as lots of fireflies flying around the trees surrounding the river. Toto stopped us at one point, turned off the motor, told us to turn our torches off, and let us drift along the river for a wee while. It was very peaceful, as well as dark. He added to this by letting off some female alligator calls, trying to attract more gators towards us! We ended the evening by heading back to the cabins and getting some grub, not bad at all considering it was rustled up in the jungle! The camp only had electricity from 7pm to 10pm, so after dinner we went and had a quick read before lights out!

The next day we were up early, got some breakfast, pulled on our wellies, and went out anaconda hunting. The anaconda is one of the worlds biggest snakes, and lives in South American swamps. Before we arrived at the swamp we found out why our camp was raised on stilts. We were going past another camp when we saw an alligator making its way up the bank towards the buildings. Toto got us all out of the boat and we headed up towards the camp. Toto, with no fear, walked straight up to the gator and gave it a pat on the nose! It looked like the gator was on the bottom of the gator chain, it was missing numerous claws, and was scratched all over. It looked like it had been on the receiving end of a few beatings from the bigger gators/caimans in the river. Toto motioned for me to come and have a pat as well, which I did, before Eilidh worked up the courage for a pat as well.

Anyway, back to the Anaconda search..... In stark contrast to the day before, it was sweltering heat, around 35 degrees C and we had to be wearing trousers and wellies. Needless to say, the sweat was dripping off everyone after about 5 minutes of swamp walking. This was definitely the least enjoyable aspect of the tour, apparently they have not found an anaconda for a number of months but persist in taking the tours out to look for one. We spent two hours walking through the hot, humid, buggy swamp on a totally fruitless endeavour, before finally calling it a day and heading back for lunch. We felt grateful that we only spent a couple of hours looking, as we heard of other groups being out there for over 4 hours in the midday sun, not fun.

Just before lunch we were visited by a number of small yellow monkeys, our guide gave them a banana so they ended up coming up really close. There were loads of them, it was fun just to stand and watch them jump from tree to tree, some with babies on their backs even as they made the 4-5 foot leap.

After lunch we got back in our boats and set off once again. This time we had our fishing rods with us (block of wood with fishing line tied around it) for some piranha fishing. We stopped the boat in some shade and got to work catching our dinner. It took a while for anyone to catch one, apart from the guide who caught one on his first attempt. We were fishing with chunks of steak, not the smartest trade off in my opinion, tiny bony fish for tasty steak. Finally the fish started being hooked, they were doing plenty of biting before hand, they were just conveniently forgetting to stay on the hook once they had munched all the steak! Eilidh caught a wee tiddler, which was an improvement on what I caught, which was a couple of branches and an old boot. Toto almost caught a foot long catfish, I saw it coming out of the water on his line, it was huge. In the end Toto used all the piranhas the group caught to try and lure the catfish in, but unfortunately it was not to be. We also caught our first glimpses of the fabled pink river dolphin, they are elusive creatures, just poking their heads up here and there. It is a bit of a mystery as to how they even ended up in the rivers, we think that they would of been trapped in the rivers when the Andes were created, meaning they will have been there for hundreds of thousands of years.

That evening we went to to watch the sunset at a communal site that all of the groups and tour operators use. They had beer, football and volleyball, perfect combination for an enjoyable evening. I played a bit of football with the American guys before the 3 of us went and joined some Frenchies and Germans for a spot of volleyball, very enjoyable. Eilidh sat and had some beer with our Swiss companions before we headed back to camp.

Our final day was the one that everyone had been looking forward to, swimming with dolphins day! We all piled into the boats, eager to get our first proper sighting. We got to a spot where Toto indicated we should get in, we had seen the dolphins but they were quite far away. Eilidh, as fast as I've ever seen her move, was in in a heartbeat. I tried to get some snaps off with the camera before realising it was extremely difficult to get a shot before the dolphins dived back under, so I jumped in too. By this time another couple of groups had joined us, and before long there were at least 20 of us in the river. An English couple and Eilidh and I allowed ourselves to drift down the river a bit, away from the boats. This turned out to be a master-stroke, the 3 dolphins surrounded us, swimming under our legs and generally just playing around. They seemed to particularly like the English guy (strangely enough) and would circle him constantly, splashing him with their tails and generally just making a nuisance of themselves. Eilidh and I had front row seats for their playing around, and I even managed to touch one, albeit with my foot. The current of the river was quite strong and was dragging us away from the boats, we weren't too bothered until we saw an alligator chilling out in the shallows. This gave us a moment of panic as we tried to get a bit closer to the boats, apparently we needn't have worried as the piranhas, alligators and caimans keep clear of the parts of the river where the dolphins are, supposedly.

After this amazing experience we headed back to camp for our final lunch before getting all the gear back in the boat and heading back up the river. Thankfully this time the sun was shining, and we got to see all of the animals out bathing in the sun or in the gators case, hiding in the shade. We arrived back, discovered we had the same jeep and driver as on the way there, before departing once again for Rurrenabaque. The jeep ride was less exciting on the way back, no rally driving required and we made good time. Once we arrived back in Rurre' we tried to book into the same hostel as last time, only to discover that it was full. We found another place, and spent the rest of the day buying some more havianas, having some grub, before ending the evening with a couple of cocktails.

The next day we flew back to La Paz. It was raining in the morning and we were seriously worried that our flight might not leave. We had spent all of our money, and there was no bank machine in Rurre', so we kept our fingers crossed and hoped the rain would stop. Finally it did, and we made it to the airport/house in time to watch the plane come in. There are few regulations here, we were all stood on the side of the runway and the plane was landing about 10 feet away from us. Next stop, back to La Paz for the Death Road!
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Robert Stannage on


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