Theres snakes out here this BIG!! (Andy)

Trip Start Oct 04, 2009
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  , El Beni,
Saturday, July 3, 2010

Rurrenabaque (Rurre) is the largest town on the Amazonian basin in Bolivia.  It has just about everything you would expect of a normal city just at double the price.  It sits directly  on the Beni river which allows access to both the Jungle and Pampas in the Madidi National Park.  Hence the reason I am here.

Nothing very exciting happens in Rurre.  It lives off the tourist industry that is the benefit of its placement next to one of the worlds best rainforest parks.  I spent my day trying to find a "Mirador" hike that my Lonely Planet book talks about but that actually doesn't exist.  I still had a good day making my way around the river and seeing some of the landscape.  But I took it easy since the next day would be the start of my pampas tour, the real reason I am here.

The pampas are a protected area in Bolivia much like a savanna or wetland.   Itīs not actually considered the rainforest but it is home to many of the animals you would find there.  Supposedly you can see alligators, turtles, many different types of tropical birds, capybaras (really large hamster looking things), spider monkeys, howler monkeys, river dolphins, piranhas and anacondas  (to name a few).  I decided on a 3 day 2 night tour with a company called Fluvial tours ... mostly because it was the cheapest.  Tomorrow morning I would be off to spot some wildlife!

The day starts out with a somewhat grueling three hour ride in the back of a jeep through dirt roads.  I am still so sore from the bus ride which makes this ride that much more painful.  My group consists of the three Swiss tourists from the bus ride into Rurre and 4 UK girls, 2 of which came in on the bus that morning and are obviously exhausted.  Its a good group, the swiss are a bit older and although aren't much of conversationalists are definitely more my style.  I get annoyed incredibly quickly with the "dude i got so wasted last night" group of travelers.  I probably would hate the 20 year old Andy if I met him traveling.

We find out after a few close encounters with oncoming traffic that our driver is trying to drive as close as he possibly can to any vehicles driving towards us.  He says that its to protect the windshield ... less chance of a rock flying up and crashing through the windshield if we are close to the car.  He says this with a completely straight face even though there are two enormous smashes where rocks have hit on the windshield.  Slowing down would never be an option.

On our way out there we also meet our tour guide, Mario.  Seems like a really nice guy but a bit on the quiet side.  I have found tour guides in Bolivia to not really be that talkative, which is obviously a problem when its your job.  Mario seems to warm up to me a bit when he learns that I can speak Spanish fairly well ... he's not really warming up to the others.  Ha, in reality he really only talks to me and then I have to tell everyone else whats going on.  When we stopped for lunch he called me over and took me around the grounds to check out a pig slaughter and some jungle ducks (i immediately love this animal ... I mean who knew there was such a thing as a jungle duck).  I had to go back to the group and then lead them on a tour of the same things.  Kind of makes me feel important.

The next section of our trip is a three hour tour down the river leading through the pampas to our campsite.  We all pile on to what looks like a very rickety boat and take our seats, two across and 4 rows.  Immediately, and I mean immediately, when we start going down the river we start spotting wildlife.  I get extremely over excited and don't realize that this is what it will be like for the entire 3 hours and start taking pictures like a madman ... I must have looked like a complete idiot.  The first half an hour I was taking pictures of everything .. "ooohhhh that log sort of looks like an alligator!" picture ... "That branch moved a little bit there might be something there" picture.  Little did I know that I would be inundated with wildlife to the point that I would actually stop taking pictures of them ... its amazing how little time it takes for things to become normal and then even a little dull.

The first animals we find are turtles sunbathing.  There are several of them all piled on top of each other trying to soak in the warmth from the sun.  Whenever we get a little too close for comfort they all bail ship and dive into the water.  I probably shouldn't enjoy messing with them as much as I do but I keep asking Mario to get a little closer to them just so I can watch them take a dive.  Its like synchronized swimming or something.

We next come upon the most intimidating and, from what I saw, most abundant animal on the river, the crocodiles.  Ranging anywhere from a foot long to 5 feet, they littered the banks of the river for the entire trip.  Our guide Mario tells us that attacks on humans are extremely rare since we are normally so much larger than them and that they mostly eat fish and small animals.  One of the UK girls said they met someone on a trip where a girl was bitten for getting too close.  Just like most of the rest of South America there aren't really any safety precautions in place ... so get as close as you want.  I'm probably going to be keeping my distance.

Around a bend we come to a tree that seems like its moving on its own.  Mario yells to the group "mira mira! monos!"  The tree is covered in small spider monkeys jumping from limb to limb going crazy upon the sight of our boat.  Now either Mario thought it was a good idea to have us go crashing into the tree or he just plain lost control of the boat but in the end we landed right smack in the middle of monkey heaven.  Immediately they descend upon us heading straight for the food we were bringing to camp.  5 monkeys start tearing at the bunch of bananas while the UK girls are screaming.  It was hilarious, mostly since I was in the front of the boat and could watch as an innocent bystander.  Mario starts moving the boat away from the tree and the monkeys bail ship.  Two of them don't get out in time and are stuck on the boat.  I really want to hold a monkey but all I can think about when I see them is the movie "Outbreak."  One crawls over my lap to get to the other side and leaps into the safety of the trees.  Unfortunately, it is going to have to find its way back and unless another boat comes along its probably going to become dinner for the crocs.

Continuing down the river its hard not to be in complete awe of this place.  Every where you look there is some kind of animal and when you come around a bend there is always some type of bird (i called all of them storks mostly because I didn't know what they were ... except for the jungle ducks, they were my favorite) that takes off in flight when they spot you.  Crocodiles were absolutely everywhere, you couldn't go 20 yards down the river without spotting a new one.  A little more elusive but still out in numbers were the capybaras.  The best way I can explain what a capybara looks like is picture a giant hamster about the size of a large dog but with much more body mass.  They were cute little buggers and a lot of them were nursing a new litter.  According to Mario, with the exception of eating the babies on occasion, the crocs and capybara live pretty much in peace.  Actually he said the only large animals that have any problems with the crocs are the river dolphins.  Supposedly whenever crocodiles venture out into deeper water the river dolphins enjoy t-boning them just for the hell of it.  To be completely honest I'm a little scared of the river dolphins.  We spotted two on the way to camp.  They don't look like the cute dolphins you see on TV.  They don't have much of a dorsal fin so all you really see coming out of the murky brown river water is what looks more like an eel.  They never breached and unfortunately there aren't too many left in this area, so we never actually got a good look at them.

We arrived at camp around 3:30 and checked out the place we would be spending two nights.  It is actually quite luxurious for a camp in the middle of the pampas.  There are small cabins complete with a bed, mosquito net and night table.  They have a cafeteria style cabin for eating and a lounge area filled with hammocks.  Not really roughing it in the wilderness for the 3 days I guess.

We headed out that night to view the sunset from another campsite.  This other campsite built an elevated bridge to see over the tree line and view the sun setting.  The bridge was not built with safety in mind and with about 20 people on it felt like at any minute it could collapse.  I sat myself next to a large tree hopefully giving myself a chance in case it did collapse to jump on a tree for safety.  This all seemed possible in my head.  We took in the sunset, a few people ordered a round of beers (beers in the jungle ... great idea), and we relaxed for the night.

The next day was the one I was really looking forward to.  Today we head into the real swamp land and search for the anaconda.  The night before I was running through all the great "Anaconda" movie lines that I knew and I was bursting at the seams to use them.  For those of you that have seen the movie, anacondas are, to put it simply, bad ass.  From the boa family they can grow to lengths of 20 feet.  They are non-venomous and feed mainly on river animals, having very little contact with humans.  Unfortunately, Mario told us that we wouldn't be running into any anacondas about 5 feet out here ... kind of ruined my expectations.  Then secondly, when I tried my first "Anaconda" movie line rendition and did an Ice Cube impression with a twist "You don't have snakes out here this BIG!!!" I got absolutely no laughs ... not a single one.  In fact people looked at me strangely.  It turns out no one on my tour has seen the movie "Anaconda."  What the crap!!!!  Thats like half of the fun of being up here, practicing my Jon Voight accent from the movie.  Alas, it was ruined.

The hunt for anacondas took us through knee deep swamps in our water boots that only went shin high.  Mario let us know that the anacondas would probably be sitting on top of the water taking in the sun.  To me, it seemed a little more likely, based on my experience watching the movie "Anaconda," that they would be lurking underneath the water stalking us like prey.  So anytime I saw what looked like an anaconda path in the swamp I would step down on it trying to rial the animal.  Probably wasn't my smartest move but I was really desperate to see one and figured with the knife Mario brought he could pry it loose from my body relatively quickly, that is unless it swallowed me whole while alive in about 5 seconds ... such as it did in the movie.

In the end, I left disappointed.  No anacondas today.  We walked around the swamp for 3 hours and came up empty handed.  Mario and another guide went off to a more remote location to try and look for them where the water would be up to their waist and I ended up being the only one that followed.  Probably the scariest thing of the search weren't the prospect of anacondas but the 4 foot crocodile sitting 20 feet away from you while you were in waist deep water.  Those things are intimidating.

That afternoon we tried our had at swimming with the river dolphins.  Like I was saying before, I'm not a huge fan of river dolphins.  Type river dolphins into a google images search and see what you get.  Not exactly the type of animal I want to give a big hug to.  Plus we were jumping into croc infested waters.  To ease our nervousness, Mario said that the river dolphins would protect us against the crocs.  I don't think the river dolphins gave a damn about us.

The adventure, while still really cool, wasn't what you would expect from a swimming with river dolphins experience.  It was more, swimming in the same area as river dolphins.  To me it was actually more scary than anything.  You would be wading in calm water and then all the sudden an eel looking creature would appear next to you and huck a loogie in your face.  They seemed sick to me, wasn't really water they were spitting up when they came to the surface.  According to Mario, two years ago in this spot you could swim with 15 to 20 dolphins but now there are only a handful left.  Probably due to the increase in boat traffic and the potential gas dumping in the water the dolphins have gone to seek out better waters.  Such is the problem with nature tourism.  Normally as soon as it has become popular it has been destroyed.

Today is the 4th of July actually.  I haven't been in Boston for the 4th in 6 years.  This fourth I'm surrounded by 4 people from the UK (i told them that they would be referred to as the red coats today) and 3 people from Switzerland (and they would pretend to be French).  Nothing really happened for the 4th, a little depressing actually.  There were actually no other Americans in the campsite so no one to really enjoy it with. Dinner was spaghetti and water ... what I would give for an american burger and a sam adams ... will have to wait until next year I guess.

The next morning we got up at around 5:30 and headed off to see the sunrise ... this was where I encountered my new pet peeve ... people that talk during sunrises.  The whole point of watching a sunrise in the jungle is to listen to the jungle come alive.  The howler monkeys are normally first followed by a barrage of bird calls, its amazing to listen to.  A group decided to chat the whole time and take pictures of the sunrise coming out of their armpit, i was not impressed.

When we returned back to camp there was a group of howler monkeys waiting to greet us in the trees above.  And by greet us I mean use us as target practice.  No one got caught in the cross fire but these monkeys were not just randomly sitting on a place for a toilet, they seemed to have a mission.  I mean they had direct hits on several major walking paths.  A group of spider monkeys were also taking in the show.  They would jump down from their hiding spaces when no one was looking and try and steal food, they were actually extremely good at it.

Later Mario took us out on a mini-Amazon hike through a small jungle environment located close by.  He actually knew a ton about the forest and medicinal uses of the trees.  He stopped at one tree, sliced it open and told us it was extremely poisonous.  Indigenous people used the tree as a fishing technique by cutting it down and throwing it into a small lagoon.  After ten to fifteen minutes dead fish would pop up and dinner would be served.  He never explained how people weren't getting sick from eating poisoned fish.  My personal favorite is when we came upon the tree "only for men."  Mario is a completely harmless guy and because the UK group doesn't speak much Spanish I think they get a little weirded out when he makes a somewhat sexual joke, especially about the "Viagra" tree.  The awkwardness of the situation was hilarious.

Our final adventure for the trip was piranha fishing.  I wasn't even going to ask but I just assumed no one has ever seen the movie "Piranha" about mutant piranhas that can live in fresh water and wreak havoc at a summer camp.  Its a classic and I was well aware that any jokes made from this movie would fall on deaf ears.  The piranhas here are smaller than the horror story variety but still have razor sharp teeth and are absolutely vicious when raw meat is around.  We pulled into a little cove where Mario thought they would be and hooked a small piece of red meat to a line as bait (side-note: hooking red meat to a bait line is extremely cool).  As soon as you put your line in the water the Piranhas would start attacking ... this isn't like normal fishing where you are waiting in a boat for hours for a nibble, you had immediate satisfaction that there was something on the other side.  The problem, however, was that the hooks we were using were massive and the piranhas mouths are tiny.  You had to maneuver a sort of flick in the boat movement instead of the classic hook them by the mouth.  This maneuver inevitably sent piranhas flying into the air and hopefully to the bottom of the boat.  I was not good at this technique.  As a group we caught two piranhas, both of which we set free.  They were tiny little things but had these unbelievably small and sharp teeth.  It was impressive to see one of them out of the water.

And that was my trip.  After some boat motor troubles (there are always motor troubles in Bolivia) we set off for our 6 hour trip back to Rurre.  It was all in all an amazing experience with wildlife that I have never had else where.  Tomorrow I board my flight (definitely never taking that bus again) and head back to civilization in La Paz!

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