Waters of life

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Don Quixote Hotel

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, January 27, 2006

So, after surviving The World's Most Dangerous Road, what's next?

In the course of our travels, we'd met several people who told us about the Pampas of Rio Yacumi, a lowland wetland area near Rurrenabaque in Bolivia´s northern Beni Department. 'Rurre', as it's mostly called, is also a base for exploring the rainforests of Madidi National Park. However, we'd heard that Las Pampas is much better for viewing wildlife, so our plan was to shop around in Rurre for a three-day tour to the Pampas.

The Death Road continues...

But first, we had to survive a looooong (minimum 15 hour) bus ride to get there. On Saturday 21 January, after a relaxing night at the Don Quixote Hotel in Coroico, we headed down to Yolosa to catch the 1.30pm bus to Rurre. We ended up waiting in this dusty, smelly little cluster of roadside shacks for about five hours... our bus only arrived around 6pm. There were four of us - Canadian Cal and his Dutch girlfriend Barbara had completed the bike ride that day and decided to take the same bus.

Well, all we can say about this bus journey is that the Death Road continues well past Yolosa. As the light faded, the bus wound its way down the narrow, precarious little track... we tried not to look! The scenery remained magnificent, though: the road runs in a narrow valley and green slopes tower overhead.

The dinner stop turned out to be equally stomach-turning. Rich and I ordered 'la cena', the set menu dinner, which is usually a safe and cheap option. Not this time - we got served tripe!!! It literally stank. Thankfully we were able to upgrade to barbequed chicken for an extra 5 bolivianos.

We slept quite a bit on the bus and awoke at about 5.30am on Sunday morning to find we weren't moving. Got out and saw that our bus was stuck in a queue of traffic (other buses, trucks). A walk to the front of the queue revealed the reason... the road had caved in! A 10 metre wide gap with fast-flowing river yawned in front of us. Well, we'd been warned that bus travel in this region during the rainy season could be slow due to road damage.

Well, the driver told us that another bus would be coming to collect passengers at 2pm (it was about 7am now!!!) so we crossed the river in search of alternative onward transport. Cal and Barbara hopped onto a very crowded truck, while Rich, I and two Hungarian girls got onto a minivan who was charging a small fortune. But we were just desperate to get going, so we agreed to the price. Turns out it was still quite a distance to Rurre: we got there 5 hours later. The road was really bad - cut-up and muddy - we all had to get out and walk a few times, and once, when the van got stuck, the guys had to push it free.

Phew! We finally arrived in Rurre about 1pm, all hot and bothered. The place had clearly had plenty of rain, and the streets by the riverside were flooded. After a shower and a bite of lunch, we shopped around for a Pampas tour and signed up with Anaconda. Cal, Barbara, and Andrea (an Aussie we met earlier that afternoon at our hostel in Rurre) had all signed up with them too, so it promised to be quite a fun crowd.

On to the Pampas

So, on Monday morning 23 January, eight of us, along with our guide Luis, piled into a four-by-four for the three-hour ride to the Rio Yacuma. Just short of our destination, we had another encounter with rainy season road damage. This time, the road had been transformed to a vast, muddy lake, so we had to leave the Land Rover behind and wade - with our luggage and food supplies for the camp - for about an hour. The sun was blazing down, there were mozzies everywhere... needless to say an unpleasant experience.

We finally boarded a motorised dugout at about 4pm and started our journey up the Rio Yacuma. At the start of our journey, we spotted our first pink river dolphins. These amazingly adapted creatures are quite plentiful in the river, and over the next few days in the Pampas, we saw at least a dozen or so on every boat ride. We really weren't expecting to see so many!

The Pampas of the Yacuma River are vast wetlands harbouring a great diversity of wildlife. Thankfully, the area is protected, largely because it is home to river dolphins. After our wading efforts, we sat back in the boat, relaxed and took in the unique scenery - green belts of rainforest trees beside the river; vast, flat plains of reeds and aquatic plants in the marshlands.

The river itself was black in colour, and rather smelly in places... the rainy season floods had flushed out hundreds of usually stagnant lakes and marshes. There was no dry land in sight, just water, water, water.

In the course of the three-hour boat ride, we spotted many birds, including eagles, herons, darters and the massive 'Condor of the Pampas' (not a condor at all, but reminscent of the Secretary Bird in SA). We came across a troop of squirrel monkeys; Luis produced a banana and started feeding the little chaps, much to everyone's delight (though it's totally un-ecofriendly to feed wild animals).

However, the highlight was a slow, brown bundle of fur high up in a tree... yes, a sloth! Luis was very surprised to see it - apparently they never spot sloths along the river - and started climbing the tree and pushing down branches to give us a better view. The little fellow felt a bit threatened, I'm sure, and hastily (for a sloth) swung around to the far side of the tree.

There are about a dozen or so tourist camps on the Rio Yacuma, but, with the river being higher than in previous years, only two camps were not flooded. At sunset, we arrived at our camp, a collection of wooden huts on stilts, connected by boardwalks and surrounded by the dark waters of the river. A one-eyed camp alligator named Pedro lurked in the shallows beside the dining hut. Accommodation was in one dorm room... basic but in keeping with the surroundings.

The next morning, Tuesday, we headed out for a day on the water. First up was a 'water-skiing' session. Forget the fancy slalom skis, we made do with a wooden board! All the girls had a try (and managed to stand up), but Rich was the only guy brave enough to rise to the challenge. And yes, we'd been assured that it was safe to swim in the river despite the healthy alligator population!

We cruised up the river for an hour or so, spotting many birds, spider monkeys, howler monkeys and river dolphins along the way. What an amazing array of wildlife. At a forested island (usually surrounded by dry land) we hopped out in search of anacondas... lo and behold, there was one basking in the sun just metres away from our boat! We leapt out, but as we crept closer, the snake quickly slithered into the water and disappeared. Luis gave chase, eager to pick it up for us, but to no avail. We marched around the clearing for a while, looking at smaller (venomous) snakes and birds.

Another half-hour or so up the river brought us to a wide pool, where the boat was greeted by several river dolphins. Now was our promised opportunity to swim with them - we all got in and found ourselves surrounded by at least eight individuals. They seemed interested, and played around us, giving us a good look at their smooth grey-pink backs with small dorsal fins.

Rich and I floated out on an inner tube and kept very still to see how they would react... a few swam up, splashed us, and then Rich felt one nuzzle his foot. How wonderful is that! Finding dolphins in a river is a baffling concept, but being touched by one is simply surreal.

That evening, after a rest and dinner, we headed out to spot alligator eyes in the dark... no luck there, but the stars were magnificent. At about 11.30pm, just after most of us had gone to bed, another group of guests arrived... they'd had a terrible journey involving washed-out roads and loads more wading than we'd done.

Early on the third morning, at about 6am, we hopped in the boat once more for a 'sunrise' cruise, except we'd missed the sunrise! However, the world was still waking up, and we heard the eerie calls of howler monkeys as we drifted silently downstream. By now, Rich and I had decided to stay on an extra day. After breakfast, we said goodbye to the rest of our group, and joined the new arrivals for another day out on the river.

On our second visit to the 'anaconda island', we finally had the chance to get up close to the serpent. A guide from another camp spotted one in a tree, took him down and held him for all to touch and photograph - it was about three metres long, with a black back and yellow belly. Pretty cool, we'd finally seen our first anaconda!

The second session of swimming with the dolphins was equally thrilling. Rich´s skin-to-skin contact the previous day had been very exciting; inspired, we spent much of the second swim trying to photograph a dolphin underwater (with our camera in its diving case). However, our camera batteries died on us, and besides, the water was too murky and the animals too fast. So we gave up on the idea and simply enjoyed the sight of six to eight dolphins playing around us, nudging an empty ketchup bottle with their snouts and splashing Ben, one of our camp members. At one point we got a very good look at a dolphin´s beak above water as it crushed a clam with its teeth.

That afternoon, we arrived back in the camp to find that the bar had been restocked. A group from the Indigena camp upstream joined us for sunset drinks... ahhh, it had been another perfect day weather-wise. Later that evening, we set out to spot alligator eyes with our torches, this time with more luck. Pairs of red dots glowed by the flooded riverbank. José, our guide, managed to catch a small alligator and brought it aboard for a closer look. He held the poor creature for quite a long time in an uncomfortable-looking position... I wasn´t too happy about this.

Later that evening, as we were preparing for bed, Rich had another close encounter of the serpentine kind. While strolling along a dark section of the boardwalk, he came accross a fallen branch. Just as he was about to step over it, a fairly substantial snake (about two metres) slithered into the water from under the branch. An anaconda, he was sure of it!

On Thursday morning, my birthday, we made a lazy start and left the camp at about 10am. On the way back down the river, we had one last chance to view Pampas condors, eagles, toucans and macaws, as well as spider and squirrel monkeys, and our favourites, the river dolphins. On the road back to Rurre, we stopped for a spot of piranha fishing in a roadside lake. The little blighters were biting, alright, stripping the meat off our hooks, but not a single one took.

Back in Rurre that evening, everyone convened at the Mosquito Bar (theplace to go) for a meal and a few drinks - we´d met some lovely people on this tour. The next morning we set about organising our escape... we´d hoped to fly back to La Paz, but departures during the rainy season are notoriously unpredictable, and this morning was no different. We were told there was no information on departures until the afternoon, so decided to take a bus at 11am... yes, it was back up the Death Road for us!!!

Well, luckily this bus ride passed without incident (no flooded roads etc etc) and we made it to La Paz by 5am - a record 18 hours, which is about the minimum time for the route. We both slept right through the Death Road - the narrow gravel track with hairpin bends and terrifying drop-offs - which we´d cycled down just a week before.
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Nate on

Just read through this to find more info on Las Pampas. So helpful. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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