“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch
Bolivian Jungle-Madidi National Park
From the cold, dry, oxygen starved towering capital to hot, heavy, humid air in 50 minutes. welcome to the jungle. I’d planned on the 20 to 30 hr bus ride on the beautiful, “most dangerous road on earth” over the Andes to the jungle, but heavy rains in past days discouraged me. A discounted air fare sealed the deal. Perhaps if the weather improves, I will try it as others have said it took only 14 hrs. Besides the worst parts of the road have been circumvented by new road, and are used by only mountain bikers.
Rurrenabaque is the take-off town for jungle and pampas tours for 95% of travelers. There are approximately 30 travel agencies in Rurre, sporting mostly the same tours to the same locations. The common jungle tour is a couple hours up the Rio Beni for 2 nights/3days. This option held little appeal for me, considering the many months I’ve lived in the jungles of Africa, Mexico, Central and So America. Rurre is a jungle tourist town, but has a definite culture and beat of it´s own. As in La Paz, quite a contrast in lifestyles and dress, with the heat dictating tank tops for most.
Below are 2 pics out my door in the hotel I stayed in…quiet and comfy for $6 per night! Needless to say, Bolivia is a very cheap country in which to travel. I often stay in hostels, but opt for private rooms when possible. Young folks tend to party too much for me.
I set my sites on a small, isolated, indigenous village in cental Maddidi Natl Park. The problem is getting there. I decided against a long, expensive, hard to find river route, and took off on the rough ride to Tumapasa, hoping to hike or motorbike over the mountains to the pueblo of San Jose de Umpiamonas. Tumapasa is 32 km/20 mi from San Jose.
On the way to Tumapasa, our minibus driver got distracted by his small boy next to him and crashed the van off the road. The locals were screaming in terror, but nobody was hurt. Fortunately, no trees or cliffs, but the van was now inoperable. I hitched a ride the rest of the way to town.
I stayed in Tumapasa a couple days to check out my options into Madidi and enjoyed the small pueblo. There is a tree near my room here that is home to hundreds of Tojo and Aymarista birds. The large beautiful, yellow winged Tojo creatures make a raucus at dawn and at sunset after their all day hunting expeditions. I love watching their departure and return when they fill the sky! The aging couple sleep well during the night but grandma complains of the noise.
Very odd to be the only traveler in town, after many weeks on the traveller circuit. I met Tanner, a Coloradan now a local after some years of running a puma/jaquar recovery center here…that wildlife refuge is matched only by one in Africa he visited. He said it was very unusual to see travelers here, as few make it beyond Rurre. He introduced me to his buddy Teddy, raised in this area as were his parents, grandparents, etc., who took me into the surrounding jungle. Tanner was living up his name, buying salt to cure the skin of a huge, 10 foot bushmaster he killed and ate. He hates aggressive, poisonous snakes since his Colorado boyhood, and killed it with a big stick. There also is a green snake with the capability of flattening it’s entire body on the ground and launching itself long distances to strike it’s victim. Some shots from my time with Teddy, including some odd fungi.
But I am totally perplexed why Hollister, California is all the rage here…on tons of t-shirts, pants, etc. Nobody can answer why it`s so popular, and folks are shocked when I tell them there´s not much at all to rave about in Hollister. Apparently, the company is owned by Abercrombe and Fitch!
I decided that the 20 plus mile, mountain hike was too much to chance making in one day, and the motocycle taxis are afraid the road is too muddy to pass. There is no food or sleep shelter on the way. So I’m hoping that the past couple dry days will make it possible to get a mototaxi for at least part of the way in the morning. The road is cleared and you can’t get lost, so I feel ok about doing the trip. I have only essentials in my day pack to carry, and I have a lighter and matches to make fire if I need to sleep out in the jungle at night in an emergency. That said, I hope to meet up with locals doing the walk so I’m not on my own.
Still, I had the feeling that this may be one of those bad decisions for which I am rather infamous among family and friends. Said so long to Tanner, who left the next day on his journey to Colorado, and had dinner and a couple beers with Teddy and his son. Have a ride for at least part of the way to S. Jose at 6:30 AM in morning, so will miss the Tumapasa fiesta de Corpus Christi featuring teams trying to climb a 65 foot greased poll!
Franc took me a couple miIes in before the mud turned him back. I hiked, sloshed, and slid my way for several hours straight, thinking I was setting a good pace as I could breathe well in the cool morning, low altitude oxygenated air. Seemed all that Andes hiking was paying off. I was sure I was going to run into at least one snake, and had in mind the 10 foot bushmaster Tanner had killed–so was on high alert. I kept stopping to look for birds and monkeys, but this was the most eerily silent jungle experience I ever had. The thick growth, beautiful colors, and butterflies were exhilarating, making up for the lack of birds and animals.
But I kept my eyes on the path to assure I saw any creatures, and to make sure each step was as solid as possible. I wanted no twisted ankles, as the promised locals trekking to and from San Jose were non-existent, and I was beginning to feel rather vulnerable. After a few hours of trudging through mud with my very old keen sandals, I attempted to ford a particularly large mud hole on a narrow tree. I slipped in my muddy sandals and fell into the mud pit, now looking like a defeated mud wrestler.
I had been warned about packs of wild boars that can get aggressive, so kept my eyes peeled. But nobody bothered to tell me, until I got to San Jose, that the locals travel in groups. Seems that they fear jaguars that can occasionally, though rarely, get hungry for whatever is passing by!
After about 4 hours I took a breakfast break at one of the many river crossings, and washed my clothes and back pack a little. First can of sardines and bread. A very old man with not quite straight legs and a walking stick came up on the road I´d just travelled. He´d also come from Tumapasa, and had just caught up with me. We exchanged greetings, and he proceeded on to leave me in the dust. I tried to catch up with him to have company, but I never saw him again. I fashioned myself a walking stick, which was helpful in steadying myself in the mud, and measuring the depth.
I met a Chilean/German couple and their guide who were camping near a river, and we had a good chat about the area, travel, etc.
Then came the monsoon that made the road even slicker. I hid out under a tree. I was pushing myself to a faster pace as the sun was moving quickly across the sky and I did not want to be out there at night. Then the insects, especially the sand fleas came on to my bare legs, as I couldn´t cover them due to the mud and river crossings.
Directly ahead was something that looked like a thin tree branch with the edge sticking up a foot off the ground. As I got closer, I became suspicious…I poked the stick, which turned out to be a jet black 5 foot serpent. It was not aggressive and seemed to fly into the bush at a shockingly high speed…had it come at me that quickly I´d have been toast.
A quick, late lunch of sardines and bread at another river, and off again. By this time the heat and humidity was pressing down on me, my legs and shoulders were getting sore, my pace slackened, I was paying less attention to the path, which seemed absolutely endless, and was beginning to wonder if this was one of my worst decisions. The sun was starting to set, the insects came on fierce, and I kept looking at the muddy road wondering where I would sleep if it got dark. Suddenly, I heard something big following me, wheeled around, and saw a man with a big machete and rifle. His demeanor was initially hard to read, but it became clear he was friendly. He assured me that San Jose was near, but that it was uphill…a very punishing climb in my exhausted state. He patiently led the way for me, allowed a rest stop which I clearly needed, and we finally made it to the pueblo.
Mario told me there were only families to stay with and no restaurants…and there was not much at all to buy in the store. I found a family with a decent bed available. The father (Don Juan) was quiet and hard to understand. I shared a room with one of his 2 boys at home. Turned out the mom was in very bad shape with a painful leg. The leg was too sore to walk on for over 2 weeks, but was not numb, discolored or swollen. She said the pain came from the inside. There was no medic in town, and I presumed it was some type of circulatory problem or infection, and encouraged them to get her by boat to Rurre to get a diagnosis and treatment.
I participated in teacher appreciation day in the village…
I searched the village and inquired with one of the few “upscale” homes with a TV (only 3 in the village) about getting a meal or 2. They were very friendly and invited me to come twice a day for food, which they cooked regularly. My family did not seem to eat with any regularity. The village and surroundings were similar to what I’d hiked through. When I asked where all the birds and animals were, they said that before this became a National Park 20 years ago it was heavily hunted and animals retreated further into the jungle. They still hunt, but “only for consumption” which explains the lack of fauna.
Unfortunately, there were only sporadic boats to Rurre from the river port (30 minute walk from the pueblo), and I was intent on NOT doing the hike back to Tumapasa. With no agreement on when the boats come and go, I got wind of one after a couple days in San Jose. Decided to take it, and waited at the river port. The man initially said his boss told him not to take travellers. After showing no inclination to get off the boat, letting him know that I really needed to get the ride with him, and offering to pay the going rate, he conceded to take me. He turned out to be a very nice man, and we had a good trip back. After a few hours, we stopped at a vacant ecolodge with a fully equipped kitchen. Apparently, Juan Carlos was used to hanging out there after bringing folks in, and the caretaker was gone a couple days. I cooked us a great dish with all the veggies and spices there…they even had ground parmesan cheese in the freezer!
Oh, about the Jaquars…I did run into 2 large, beautiful ones about 50 feet away from me…but fortunately they were on the shore and I was on the boat back to Rurre. I was so excited that I zoomed in too far and got only shots of leaves while standing on the small, shakey boat!
As always, I urge you to take a few minutes and look at pics from real photographers, including a large jaguar about the size of the 2 I saw: Much better pics of Madidi!
“When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.” – D. H. Lawrence