Pampas baby!

Trip Start Aug 12, 2011
Trip End Jan 31, 2012

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Where I stayed
Toucan Hostel

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, November 5, 2011

La Paz had a dramatic entry- we crested the edge of the higher plains and the outer suburbs gave way to highways and skyscrapers and the rest of the city in the valley below. We didn't hang about but went straight to a travel agent and arranged a tour out to the 'pampas' or flat plains amongst the jungle in the amazon basin. Our crop-duster bound for the jungle hub Rurrenabaque left first thing the next day. The impending storm blew our plane around as we came over the cordillera and down to the jungle. We'd never seen so much jungle, going on and on and on- broken only by the bright orange of the rivers.
Rurrenabaque was nice enough; lots of bars and gringos but we are getting used to that. Lots of hammocks around the place too. We stayed the night there before heading off early next morning for our tour. The first day was action packed, before reaching the pampas it is necessary to suffer a three hour bone- jarring jeep run to Santa Rosa. When our jeeps turned up we thought we would be set as they looked like two very smart and sturdy red pajeros, little did we know. The first couple of hours went well. The only minor mishap being a stop at an evil toilet (an acolyte of the Inca trail school). Mim spotted a toucan out the window which caused much excitement! The real trouble happened about 10 minutes from our lunch spot in Santa Rosa. We felt a clunk and a slight drop and then our driver got out of the car to examine one of the back wheels. It turned out that the wheel had come free from he axle shaft. A friendly driver from another tour company kindly tied a rope to the back of the car and towed us backwards a couple of hundred meters to he nearest mechanic's shop. After lunch, the jeep reappeared ready for action - the axle had been arc welded to the tyre rim! We did wonder how the tire would be changed down the track. When we made it to the restaurant we learned that they had adventures in the other car too. A short way out of Rurrenabaque the radiator had blown and when they got going again in the replacement car that was sent, they had to stop shortly there after to change the tyre. We all made it however and once we were all transferred to our canoe we were able to get to know our group. We were joined by two Dutch couples, two Brits from Liverpool, a Puerto Rican and our guide Domingo. In the first three hours on our 'canoe' (it had seats and was motorized) in the Madidi national park we saw more animals than we had ever seen outside of a zoo:
- a toucan
- capybara (lots), a funny animal of the rat family that we concluded looked like a cross between wombat, guinea pig and hippo.
- alligators and caiman (disturbing numbers, given swimming was on the agenda for day two)
- freshwater 'pink' dolphins
- two blue and yellow macaws
- tortoises
- three species of monkeys
- kingfishers
- eagles
- many many other kinds of birds whose names were in Aymaran or Spanish
-grapefruit sized toads and tree frogs
The ecolodge in the pampas was set on stilts and boardwalks connected the sections. It overlooked the river with trees around about that housed the local howler monkey family. Our beds had mosquito netting provided, although we had brought along 55% DEET insect repellent just in case. Others in our group had 80% and even 98% DEET- however worryingly these also faded fabrics and removed nail polish.

 We were woken at 5am by the unearthly racket of the howler monkeys. We later headed out for a walk across the swamp in search of the elusive anaconda! Our hopes were not high owing to the presence of two other tour groups also wading in gumboots through the same swamp. There were countless alligators and caiman lazing about the place - just to make things interesting. However, as we'd set off a toucan flew overhead so maybe this was a good omen. We started out, and our guide reassured us anacondas are much faster in the water than on land and that they are not venomous as they belong to the constrictor family. Still, the idea of wading through swamp your knees in gumboots in alligator and anaconda territory nearly caused one member of our group to have a panic attack.
We set off around a largish lake, eyes peeled and flanking our snake phobic friend. About halfway round things were getting pretty swampy and still no sign. Then one of the guides gave a yell and reached into the shallows trying to grab something. All the tourists made a bee-line for him, and he held up probably the biggest snake we've ever seen. Our guide Domingo told us it was roughly 3 meters long, and around 7 years old. Apparently they can get to 100 years, and Domingo had seen one as wide as his thigh - rumour has it of snakes easily twice as big but the famers don't have any cameras...
Wrestling with anacondas was quite tiring, so we regrouped in the hammocks after a lunch. Then it was piranha time. There are three species, Domingo told us, of which the red one is the most aggressive. We caught a few of them on our fishing expedition- it's quite a knack. You have to be lightning quick because once you have a bite they quite literally have stripped your bait off the hook. This means yanking the line in fast, and because noone wanted to get out of the boat (because of the alligators) it's wonder noone ended up in the water with all the yanking and rocking. It's ok to be in the water, so long as you're not bleeding. That really sets them off. And humans aren't a staple for alligators, only when they can't get anything else. Domingo bundled up our catches to add to our evening meal and we headed to a riverside field to watch the sunset and drink a beer. Several other tour groups were there and some impromptu games of soccer and volley ball were started. We enjoyed the spot so much that only our growing hunger could induce us to go back to the lodge for dinner. We were consoled by our first sight of fireflies. After dinner we headed out for a paddle in the canoe (no motor) to enjoy the fireflies some more and listen to the night sounds. 

The howler monkeys did their thing again the next morning, except we were one step ahead. Domingo convinced us that getting up before sunrise and going for a another noiseless cruise was worthwhile. The mist off the water accompanied by the morning chorus and birds flying overhead was breathtaking. Breakfast was pancakes, fresh fruit and fried dough balls - surprisingly more tasty than you might give them credit for. To end the tour, Domingo found a larger stretch of the river where the dolphins tend to congregate. Whilst the dolphins are around, he told us, there are no caiman or alligators - noone had been eaten swimming in the river (yet. He didn't say anything about the piraņas). The river is not the clear, blue colour that you are probably imagining. It is more a bright brown-orange from the mud and because of this you cannot see anything in the water. Nevertheless, several of us summoned our courage and went for a dip. Treading on the river bottom released a stream of foul-smelling gas bubbles from the rotting vegetation. Not the most enticing of places, but it was very hot and humid. Then we did the whole trip back again on the river, the jeep (no incidents) and waited in a snack bar next the airport/paddock for our plane to LaPaz. 
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