Flying into Rurrenabaque was an adventure in itself. Rurre is a small town smack dab in the middle of the jungle in NW Bolivia. It’s the jumping off point for most jungle or pampas (grasslands) tours and is designed around the tourism industry, full of cheap hostels, good happy hours, and hammocks. But reaching it is another story, especially in the rainy season. The road is often washed out by heavy rains and it’s not uncommon for buses to get stuck along the 20 hour drive. We elected to fly- a much more reliable route. Until a few months ago a grassy field served the as the air landing strip, rendering the airport useless whenever a heavy rain came, but the town’s newest addition-a paved runway- is now the pride
and joy of Rurre, even though the pavement actually ends about a mile from the “terminal” (aka waiting room), adding a bit of a challenge on rainy days when the plane can’t roll over the grass to deliver it’s passengers. We had beautiful blue skies on arrival, but our departure day greeted us with showers. Our flight was delayed “until the weather improves” with ended up being about 5 hours, all of which we spent sitting around and waiting. Once they finally cleared us for flying, we had the task of making it from the waiting room to the plane, which had stopped at the end of the runway. We were loaded, along with out bags,into two big white vans. When the first van got stuck in the muddy ruts, our van attempted to leave the mud path and drive around them. Of course we ended up spinning our wheels in even deeper mud, and walking the half a mile to the plane, all arriving muddy and wet. But hey- we made it.
But the airport is not even a fraction of our Rurre story. In Rurre we enjoyed tropical drinks, delicious street food, live music, and hammocks. But the real reason we had sweated our way into the muddy, mosquito infested corner of the country in the first place was to disappear into the jungle for a few days. Our tour was planned for 3 days, 2 nights, with a group of 5 other young travelers from Argentina and Spain. We packed up one change of clothes and lots of DEET and boarded an outboard motorboat to head up the wide brown Rio Beni. About 3 hours upstream we started our walk into the jungle of Madidi National Park. Only a dozen or so tour companies have permission to camp inside Madidi. There are some really cool small companies run as cooperatives by local indigenous groups, but we made an executive decision to go with one that was half the price and had a decent reputation.
It turned out to a fortuitous decision because our guide, Eloi, was absolutely incredible. Eloi was 60 and grew up in the jungle. His knowledge was unending and his presence was extremely strong and peaceful. He’s the kind of rare person I would trust with my life after knowing him for less than a day.
Our base camp was more than I had imagined- meaning we actually had running water and hence a nice cold shower. Never mind that it was pumped from the river and a nice deep brown color- when I stepped under the cool liquid spray, nothing else mattered. We stayed in basic wooden cabins with thatched roofs and simple camping cots that did little more than keep us off the ground but did come with tightly woven mosquito nets (suddenly my most valuable possession!). We also had a dining room with a picnic table where we took our meals, which were above and beyond my expectations- vegetable salads, fruit, meat, rice, kool-aid, tea…delicious!
From camp, we basically walked through the jungle, usually for 3 hours at a time. Despite the thick jungle heat we’d put on our long pants, tucked stylishly into our socks, and long sleeve tops that would soon be soaked through with sweat. Almost as soon as we left camp the light would change to the point where all time orientation was lost. It could have been dusk or midday for all you could tell underneath the canopy. We did morning and afternoon walks, as well as one night walk. Unfortunately on our night walk we had a full moon which means no animal sighting. Well, not NO animals. We saw more than enough GIGANTIC insects, spiders, fireflies, and one frightened little mouse sitting on a branch. But no pumas, jaguars, or tapirs (a 400 lb cousin of a a pig/horse/rhino) which is apparently what you can find on pitch black nights.
The day walks were my favorite though. They reminded me of scuba diving in the way we attempted to move silently through the world- tiptoeing over the deep decay that covered the ground, silently observing the big and small worlds around us, trying to move through the jungle without disturbing. If Eloi heard something he’s stop in his tracks and we’d all follow suit trying to sneak up on animal scenes.
With in the first 15 minutes of walking on our first day we came upon a troupe of 100 wild pigs, called chancho, snorting around in the mud for nuts and fruit. I was terrified- not because I’m actually afraid of boars, but because the only experience I have with wild pigs is from Belize 4 years ago with my dad where our guide regaled us horror stories about how the pigs will chase and trample you to death unless you manage to climb a tree first. And there weren’t many climbable trees that I could see in this situation. The first thing you hear is a firecracker like popping sound- the chancho crunching nuts in their jaws and clacking their teeth together in communication. Then you notice the grunting (a sound which Eloi could imitate to perfection). Before long, one of the troupe notices the human observers and loudly starts clacking their teeth together to warm their companions. The clacking is loud and echoes through the group at amazing speed as the groups takes off running through the trees (away from us) to escape our threat. Suddenly, before you have time to move or take a picture, all that’s left is thousands of hoof prints in the mud and a absolutely indescribable smell. The only thing in my 27 years of life that has come close to preparing me for the reek of chancho is the smell of a billy goat when he’s trying to attract a mate- apparently he manages to urinate all over himself as a make-shift goat cologne. But the pigs were worse. Their scent would hang in the air for the next 5 minutes and then magically dissipate. I soon learned to tell if there was chancho anywhere in the premise by the first hints of that smell. (By our last day, I swore I smelled them every time I walked onto the porch of our cabin, but then I realized I was only smelling our sweaty clothes and muddy shoes drying in the wind- yuck!) Anyway, the chancho never attacked- they always ran away, although Eloi assured us that they can be dangerous. When the locals hunt them they have to make sure to catch one that has wandered away from the pack. Killing a family member in front of 500 angry hairy pigs is a baaaad idea.
Besides plenty of chancho, we also saw Spider monkeys, Capuchin monkeys, and beautiful (endangered) parrots (always in a duo).(We ate live termites off a tree- crunchy and not a bad flavor.) But the animals weren’t what struck a cord for me. It was the sounds and the smells. When the pigs weren’t around, the jungle smelled of fresh breeze, rotting leaves, mud and earth, and fruit fallen from trees. Then there was the complete absence of silence. When the wind blew, we could hear it rustle through the canopy before we could feel it on our skin. The insects chirped and buzzed from every corner. There were two birds we could hear above the rest- their songs warned us if rain was coming for not. One sounded like a cat-call whistle from an admirer on the street. The other was a four beat song, repeated over and over. Between the two of them it sounded like we’d stumbled upon an off beat whistling choir doing their voice warm ups. One afternoon we got caught in a rain storm. Torrential downpour type rain. As the drops started to fall, we could hear them but not feel them- the thick canopy of leaves catching all the water. Eventually they reached us and the roar of the rain completely engulfed us. We slipped and slid through the sudden mud, leaped over newly formed bogs, and balanced on fallen logs. We walked in silence, but if I had wanted to talk, it would have required shouting over the roar of the sky. We were wet and muddy when we got back, but I would never trade the experience of the rain showering down through layers of jungle canopy. It was beautiful.
The last thing I want to share about our jungle experience is the plants. Eloi knew the flora of that land like the back of his hand. On the first day he picked off some normal looking green leaves, and as he crushed them in his palm, they turned to neon magenta paste- water soluble but useful for body painting. That tree has brothers throughout the jungle, some of which produce magenta, but others that render yellow, blue, and orange paint. The next day, as we passed a tree, Eloi cut into it with a swing of his machete. The thick greasy pomade that dripped out is used to relieve arthritis. Another tree bled a viscous white liquid. Eloi collected it in a cup to take home for his neighbor- when you beat the liquid, it begins to harden. Applied to a limb with a broken bone, it forms a perfect cast. He warned us to
keep our arms and legs inside when he stabbed into the Soliman tree which dripped sulfuric acid. We ate bitter bark that cures stomach upset. We saw bark that cures malaria. Bark that works as Viagra, for both sexes- be careful because the effect is
immediate. The older you are, the more needed. We saw one tree that stood alone in the thick jungle growth, surrounded by nothing but bare earth for 10 feet in every direction. At the base of the smooth trunk was a ridged area. At night, the tree emits a poisonous gas, visible to the naked eye, that kills all vegetation it touches, saving more of the precious light and nutrients for itself. It was called Mata Hierba– Plant Killer. Pick 8 leaves of one inconspicuous tree, dry them, crush them to a powder, and eat them for 3 months of natural birth control, without side effects. Dry three leaves off the Huara tree and smoke them for an alternative to marijuana. The locals call it Huar-ijuana. At two points, Eloi left us and tromped off into the jungle making us promise not to move. (He had told us enough stories about people getting lost that we weren’t likely to wander anywhere).
When he returned the first time he had a 5 foot long branch. When he tipped it up, fresh clear drinkable water poured out and we gulped it down. The second time, he also brought back a branch. This one was also filled with water, but not for drinking. Eloi told us that the reason he looked 20 years younger than he was (which he did), is attributed to the powers of this water. He promised that he could show us an 80 year old woman down the river whose face didn’t look a day over 50. He had bathed his face is this tree’s water when he was 20 years old. He had been instructed to do it again at 50 but had never done it because there was no need- the tree had done it’s job in just one washing. We held out our hands and filled them with the magical water, dousing our faces and necks in the cool liquid. Ask me in 20 years if it’s working. =) The tree of eternal youth. Found only in the Bolivian jungle.
We temporarily left the magic of Bolivia behind for a week of family and the luxury of a Buenos Aires trip with Uncle Doug, a.k.a. Jefe (Boss). Oh the luxury of having ice in a freezer, a real towel, and a shower with water pressure. But I’ll save the wonderful details of Buenos Aires in Style for next time. All my love, Corinna