Tell Letterman that Steve saw AND touched a monkey

Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
Trip End Aug 22, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Steve says that there isn't enough "material" for him to give this one a go, but I disagree.  While there may not be the usual hilarious anecdotes that he relies on, we have enough great pictures AND video to warrant an entry.  Not to beg or anything, but keep reading, so Steve can't say this entry was a failure.  I promise you monkeys, an almost naked girl's butt and trees so poisonous, you have to flush your eyes with your own urine or you go blind.  Now that your expectations are nice and low, I can tell you about our trip to the Bolivian Amazon.   

Day 1 - Arrival in Rurrenabaque

If you look on the map, Rurrenabaque looks like it's close to La Paz, not warranting a long bus ride.  This was what we planned on doing.... until we found out it was an 18-hour bus ride on Bolivia's not-so-stellar "death road"-type highways.  We splurged $100 round-trip on a flight, operated by Bolivia's military.  After a flight on a small plane, we landed on the tiniest football field ever, also known as the airport's airstrip.  Immediately, the tourists on the plane started to spray themselves with bug repellant.  Uh oh, this doesn't sound like my kind of paradise. 

We hopped onto a bus from the airport, and landed at Rurrenabaque's one main street, flanked on both sides by many tour operators, a few restaurants, and a few hostals.  That's all you can find in Rurrenabaque.  I can't even find a souvenir t-shirt, that's how behind the tourist infrastructure is.  Luckily, we would only be spending a few nights here... or so we thought.  For some reason, we decided to eat lasagna and it was very tasty.  Lasagna Count:  Steve 1, Sara 1

Day 2 - The Pampas

We arrived early for our tour, meeting Pieter (dutch) and Ollie and Lucy (english), our companions for the Pampas.  Nothing says "hello" like spending 4 hours in a small jeep together, along with our driver, guide Mateo and the cook.  We broke the ice by getting stuck in the mud... Steve even had to help out.  I, of course, was too busy taking photos of this monumentous occasion to lend a hand myself.

Basically, the Pampas are a huge swamp.  After 4 hours in the Jeep, we transferred to a long boat for another 3 hours with our asses on wood.  Luckily, the scenery was much better. 

Our guide started off a bit shaky... for example, saying "vulture!" while pointing at a small black bird that was obviously a crow.  Along the way, we saw pink dolphins (am I allowed to say I thought they were weird looking and kind of ugly?). 

We pulled over to see at a small yellow monkey on a branch and suddenly monkeys started popping out from everywhere.  Turns out our guide was prepared with a banana.  Steve was a willing participant for putting the banana on his head and so was Ollie.  See their great photos.  (I don't have my rabies shots, although I do still go out with Steve) 

We arrived at our camp, and it was no Hilton, that's for sure.  Small bed, pillows that had never been washed, mosquito net, out houses, you get the picture.  Not up to the certain Washington correspondents' standards.  As soon as it was dark, it was apparent that we had friends, lots of friends in the Pampas... the mosquitoes.  Despite my best efforts to avoid being bitten alive, it was like being in the middle of a swarm of bees all the time. 

Pointless Tourist Exercise #1 came after dinner... a boat ride in the dark looking for alligators.  Nothing better than sitting on a wooden seat, in the dark, small little flashlight, surrounded by buzzing mosquitoes, trying to madly slap them away, with the guide saying, "See those red eyes over there?  No?  Look very closely way back there, you should see two little beady red eyes? No?"  No.  I did not see anything but was rewarded regardless with countless mosquito bites on my butt.  They really liked my butt.  (No jokes please, they know the good stuff)

Day 3 - The Pampas 

Luckily, our camp had two resident alligators.  The one who seemed to like us best was called "the pirate", as he only had one eye.  Steve and Pieter fed him breakfast one day, I kept my distance.  Although some tourists from other camps were using this stick to point the alligator... that sounds smart, doesn't it? 

Pointless Tourist Exercise #2 was the morning activity... searching for anacondas in the swamp.  I couldn't decide if Steve and I were like J Lo and Owen Wilson in one of the worst movies ever made, aptly named "Anaconda"... or if I was a reporter donning a ridiculous outfit for a far-out stand-up.  "This is Sara Brunetti in the Bolivian Amazon.  I'm in the swamp right now looking for a big snake called the Anaconda.  But my guess is, we're not going to see a single one.... and that this is just an excuse to make tourists wade around in waist-high muck in leaky rubber boots.  And I only own dark clothing, so I'm being eaten alive by the effing mosquitoes.  Back to you, Peter."

Actually, we did see one anaconda.  Unfortunately, it was very small and very dead.  And unfortunately, despite my valiant navigation of the muddy water for hours, I managed to slip with only 5 minutes left.  It was the grossest water ever.  It was what I imagine it would be like if you fell out of your canoe at Point Pelee (Jenny T almost made this happen to me once)   

The afternoon activity can't really be called a Pointless Tourist Activity, because we really did swim with pink dolphins.  The guide said it was alligator-free section of the swamp, but he also said the dolphins were friendly and harmless.  Nope.  What they don't tell you -- those things actually bite.  Our knowledgable guide was insisting that they were just playing... that is, until Ollie showed him his bleeding big toe.  Then he changed his tune, saying it was the aggressive parent protecting its babies.  That's when we got out of the water.  (Pieter's toe was also bleeding, Steve and I just felt a little nip)  I was unable to get any good photos of the pink dolphin, but I promise that they do exist.

We ended the day watching the sunset at a "bar"... basically a hut on stilts in the middle of the swamp.  The guy was only charging 10 Bolivians ($1.25US) per big beer, so we took advantage of it.  Nothing like being a little tipsy as you balance in a boat on the way home, or to make you need to visit the outhouse way too many times!  The beer, by the way, was called "Pilsener Tropical Extra". 

The highlight of this sunset drinking was when I noticed a half-naked girl standing right behind Steve.  Not sure how she managed to forget her clothing or how she managed to ignore the laughing coming from our table as we looked at this picture.

Day 4 - The Pampas

Pointless Tourist Activity #3... fishing for pirranhas.  They tell you that you will catch one and that you can cook it for lunch.  All our group caught was a small catfish, a ?? and a baby pirranha.  Of course, the guide caught a medium-sized pirranha, but we didn't get a taste.  After more swinging on hammocks (the best tourist activity of the whole camp), it was time to leave the camp and head back via boat, then jeep, to Rurrenabaque.  Our group headed out for a real meal and more drinks after a real shower.  Lasagna count:  Steve 2, Sara 1.   

Day 5 - The Jungle 

Being the adventurous Canadians that we are, 3 days in the swamp wasn't enough for us.  We wanted to see the Jungle for 2 days.  We were not at all surprised to see our even more adventurous Belgian friends, the ones we've been seeing everywhere for the past month or more.  The ones who gave us that "good" advice about going to the dreaded Colca Canyon, where I road a mule back up to the top.

So into the jungle.... more time on a long boat, this time into the lush green forest.  Our camp was literally in the middle of nowhere, a small clearing in hundreds of acres of Parque National Madidi.  After lunch, we had a "little" 4-hour hike.  While the mosquitoes weren't as bad, walking in the jungle was very hot, very sweaty, with little return.  Wow, green plants.  Lots of green trees.  More green plants.  We did see some wild boars, a la Lord of the Flies.

Pointless Tourist Activity #4... a night walk to hear the sounds of the forest.  I don't like the dark, I can't see out of my glasses... yet I was plodding around in the mud in a forest where there are pumas and jaguars.  I spent most of my time wondering how Steve and I would survive in the complete darkness if we somehow got separated from the group and we were lost in the jungle.  Our cheap flashlights would die.  We would be stranded in the complete pitch black.  We would be eaten alive by pumas.  This vision kept me motivated to stick with the group.  I haven't walked that fast in the dark ever before.  And again, all we saw were some "eyes"... which of course I couldn't see anyways.  I decided then that I was glad we were only staying for one night.

Day 6 - The Jungle 

The day before, our guide let us silently through the woods.  A short walk in the woods is fine.  Maybe for some people, four hours of walking is a form of meditation, peaceful and silent.  For me, walking in endless green with no talking only leads to madness.  Especially because the other group told us that their guide spent their walk telling them about all the interesting kinds of plants in the forest.  At the start of long walk #3, I asked our guide (name unknown) in spanish, "Are there medicinal plants here?  I'm interested."  He gave me the thumbs-up sign, so I still wasn't sure if he could talk.

About 5 minutes later, he started pointing and talking.  And talking.  And talking.  We had a fascinating walk, seeing trees that were sources of water, others that were sources of a liquid tasting like milk, others had that material used for (Bolivian) fake teeth, and others that had a liquid so poisonous that if you got it in your eyes, you had to flush them out with your own urine within ten minutes or else you would go blind. 

He even cut down a tree for us to show us the valuable vegetable at the top.  (See the video)  Or maybe he just wanted the vegetable for his dinner... he told us it was good with vinegar, while licking his fingers. 

As an added bonus to the already amazing walk, while the boys were playing Tarzan with a swing over the river, we heard a splash.  We all whipped our heads to the spot, to see something dark and cat-like jump across the river to the other side. No time to snap a photo.  Steve says he couldn't pick it out of a police line-up. But the paw print is proof - we saw a jaguar.  Nameless guide confirmed it.

I was glad to be leaving the jungle, especially because the other group was on a 10-hour all-day hike.  That is not my kind of thing.  I was happy to arrive back in Rurrenabaque, take a nice shower and eat a meal of my choice that didn't include rice.  We ate all of the lasagna at the best restaurant in town, so we had to eat pizza. 

Day 7 - Rurrenabaque 

Finally, our flight back to La Paz.  It's been a long week in the wilderness.  And we need to move on, seeing as we have to meet Steve's mom and brother in just 12 days in Argentina.  As we checked in at 7am, the sky got darker and darker and oops, the rain starts.  Because the airport only has the football field for take-off, any rain means no flight.  Our flight was cancelled for only... drumroll.... 28 hours. 

What could we possibly do in Rurrenabaque for all that time, especially considering it was pouring cats and dogs?  Sara's choice... go back to bed.  Steve 's choice that evening... drink heavily.  Lasagna count: Steve 2, Sara 2

Day 8 - Rurrenabaque

We woke early in the morning to a horrible noise... more rain.  We realized what this meant... another frickin day in Rurrenabaque. 

The 18-hr bus option started to look more appealing, but we were talked out of it by our hostal owner, who told us the ride could easily turn into 30 or more because with the rain, the buses got stuck in the mud for hours at a time.  No thanks.  We tried to organize a 4x4 Jeep to La Paz with 8 people but unfortunately, we had to find the other 8 people.  Never before have I seen so many desperate-looking travelers wandering the streets, asking perfect strangers to share a small jeep for a 12 hour ride.  Turns out, all the Jeeps were gone on the Pampas and Jungle Tours.  Steve's mildly upset because we haven't seen the Belgians today and figures they were smarter than us somehow and are already out of Rurrenabaque. 

The Bolivian military assured us there would be no rain that night or the next morning and we would definitely fly the next day.  Since we figured no one would lie about the weather, especially the Bolivian military, we decided to wait one more day for our flight.  The backlog of people missing flights was starting to build up here, and luckily we were at the front of the list.  More money spent on crappy food, slow internet and fruity drinks (jamaica me crazy, Sean?)  Lasagna count:  Steve 4, Sara 3

At this point, we can't believe that we've spent 5 nights sleeping in Rurrenabaque, and 9 days on this trip to the Amazon.  Not to mention eating a whole lasagna. 

Day 9 - Rurrenabaque

Finally, success.  We fly back to La Paz in the early afternoon and celebrate only once we've landed there.  Of course, we see the Belgians that evening on the streets of La Paz, pure coincidence for about the fifth time in a row.  They've just endured an 18-hr bus ride from Rurrenabaque to La Paz, which makes our time in Rurre look like a vacation, espeically considering that we got back at the same time.  Now, if we can just get to Buenos Aires on time to meet Steve's mom and brother, and find out if triple Domineys equals triple the fun...! 
(Credit for that last time to Sean Smith, who we now try to mention in every single blog.  I think I even got 2 references in this one.)
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