After the buzz of the Salt Flats I was a bit deflated when I learned a few towns near Uyuni that I was hoping to visit for my last week in Bolivia were plagued with ongoing miner protests. I was told that I could still go, but I may very well find myself stuck in one as the buses were often cancelled when such conflicts flared up.
Scrambling for something fun to do, I was recommended to fly up to the north of Bolivia to the tiny town of Ruennabaque and do a tour in the Amazon Basin. This sounded like a fabulous idea that I didn’t have any money for, but when I learned it was hot and tropical, I booked it immediately. Having just left one of the coldest places in Bolivia, I was in desperate need of a heavy dose of sunshine and thought of little else.
Just flying in to this place was quite the experience as the jungle was so thick and hilly and the turbulence on bust; I thought our little plane was actually going to clip some trees on the landing. I know I wasn’t the only basket case on the plane because I could hear a host of gasps and ‘oh-my-god’s’ from other passengers. I did my best to tune them out and instead concentrated on not throwing up in the lap of the guy next to me since it was merely a matter of time before I did. As I got off the plane and walked into the world’s smallest airport, which I’m still not convinced isn’t just someone’s house, my land legs slowly came back and my excitement for the adventure began.
The three-day tour was on the Pampas del Yacuma in the Amazon Basin, and required a three-hour bumpy ride from Ruennabaque to get there. Once we arrived in the little town of Santa Rosa, we reached the entry point of the river but still had to take a boat ride to get to our lodge. It felt like we’d never get there.
As we rode down the river, my anticipation for the experience was palpable. Channeling my inner Heart of Darkness, I looked forward to both the isolation of the river and remoteness of our lodge and could feel how much I needed both. Thankfully, the tour was exactly what I had hoped for. Generally, our group of four exerted very little energy, instead enjoying long and lazy boat rides far removed from any city, car, person or technological device.
We spent most of our time surrounded by wildlife, looking for wildlife, photographing wildlife, and in my case, wishing I could hug said wildlife – monkeys, caiman, capybara, macaws and other birds, all the while basking in the sun and cruising on the water.
We went fishing for piranha as well, using old school rods made of sticks and string and chunks of meat as bait. I was surprised at how small and harmless they appeared, that is until I peered into a piranha mouth full of razor sharp teeth that would shred me to pieces if given the chance. Thankfully we beat them to the punch though and enjoyed many a tasty meal at their expense. Suckers.
We also enjoyed beautiful sunrises and sunsets and river excursions in the dark, following nothing but the stars and our guide to get us home safely. Speaking of guides, Sandro was one of a kind and made the trip even more memorable. He comes from a long line of Shaman and isn’t just a guide but a prominent researcher who is a wealth of knowledge about the area. He also has a wicked sense of humour and made jokes when we wanted them the least, usually when there was something in our close proximity that could eat us.
And he routinely made these grunting-growning sounds which apparently attracted animals but sounded more like a mix of having sex, vomiting, gagging and I assume, dying. We did see a ton of wildlife which may or may not be because of them, but I was convinced that sometimes his noises and antics were just for our amusement as it sent the three of us rolling with laughter every time.
Another highlight of the tour was getting the chance to swim with a pod of pink dolphins. Yes, dolphins. And yes, pink. The whole experience was as exhilarating as it was scary – swimming in pitch black water with wild dolphins rubbing up against you while piranha jump in the distance and caiman sunbathe on the shore. Our guide told us that as long as the dolphins were around we were safe from the other predators and we kind of believed him; nevertheless, we made him come in the water with us just to be sure. The dolphins are known to play with people sometimes, often pushing makeshift water toys around and nibbling on your feet. I didn’t get to experience the toe-biting as some others did, but I can’t lie – I swam around both fearing and hoping it would happen.
We also went looking for anacondas one afternoon and even though we didn’t find any, the hike on land was a nice change as was seeing our crazy mo fo of a guide drudge through swamps with nothing but a stick, poking anything and everything to try to find one (while the three of us waited on shore under a shaded tree, of course).
Another crazy experience was a night hike in the dark to look for animals. Yes, we had headlamps but do you think Sandro let us use them? Not really. After walking quite a way into the bush, we came across a large tree with massive roots, so we sat down to wait. In the dark. For animals. Sandro obviously started up with his grunting-growning-having-sex-vomiting-gagging-dying noises as we giggled and waited to potentially have our faces eaten off. Thankfully, we only attracted a harmless little marsupial that looked less like a dangerous bloodthirsty killer and more like a cute stuffed animal or Disney character.
And as if we couldn’t laugh anymore during the experience, when the guy in my group was bitten on his neck by some red fire ants and we all huddled around to inspect it, out of the blue, Sandro picked his nose and wiped it on the bite – apparently a home remedy of the Shaman. We don’t know if it was in fact a home remedy or perhaps just a way to mess with tourists; either way, it had us in stitches.
This tour was so different than anything else I’d done on my trip. Most of my experiences were action-packed and required an exorbitant amount of energy exertion from start to finish. This, however, was generally relaxing and tranquil and serene.
Perhaps it was for those reasons or because it was the last hurrah of my backpacking adventure, but it was kind of emotional for me. I knew I was going home soon and had some tough decisions to make, things to work on, and people to purge – all for my own good, of course – but knowing I only had a few days left of the care-free life made me relish in it all even more.
So I delighted in every boat ride; I tried to imprint every glimpse of nature in my mind; I recorded every sound I heard in my memory; I closed my eyes when the wind hit my face and leaned in and up when I felt the sun. I did anything and everything to ensure I would never forget what this trip did for me, where it took me, and what I accomplished.
After the tour ended, I decided to stay in Ruennabaque instead of La Paz for my last few nights. It was quaint and warm and safe and became the perfect place to decompress and get my adult head on straight. To my surprise, it also happened to be Bolivian Independence Day so the little town came alive with military marches, parades and a ton of music.
Aaaaah yes, the music. As much as I loved that my hostel was in front of the main square which gave me a front row seat to the action that lasted until the wee hours, the overzealous band started up again the next day. At exactly 5:38.
IN THE MORNING.
Aside from having marching band tunes stuck in my head all the live long day, it was great to see such national pride and celebration from the young to the old. It was also amazing to feel such kindness and hospitality from everyone I met. And I mean, everyone.
As I made my way back to La Paz for one last afternoon, I was so grateful for my last adventure which gave me strength and warmed me up in more ways than one – such a nice parting gift.