Coming to South America, visiting the Amazon was high on my list of priorities. Having not made it all the way to the top of Brazil yet, Bolivia’s section of the Amazon Basin just north of La Paz offered me my first opportunity to go into the jungle. Not only that, this section is apparently the single most bio-diverse area on the whole planet – so it was far too good an opportunity to pass up.

The town of Rurrenabaque is the central point for most jungle tours and there are two standard ways to get there from La Paz; a nightmare 22 hour bus ride or a much more expensive 45 minute flight. Before arriving however I did a little research on this and found out that two companies have recently started running boat trips through the jungle as an alternative. This sounded like a much more exciting experience and having met both companies one really stood out – Deep Rainforest. They offer two different jungle boat trips; one 3 day trip on a small motorised boat with a maximum of 12 people or a 5 day trip on a tiny raft you build yourself! The former sounded adventurous enough for me – especially as in the days leading up to the trip it had been raining a lot in La Paz.

The tour itself starts from La Paz with a 6-7 hour trip in a car to the tiny town of Teoponte – a formerly wealthy gold mining outpost. Flying up wet, thin mountain roads in a taxi was quite an adventure in itself and at some points it felt a little too adventurous. Our nerves were all stretched to their limits as we passed the site of an accident, a lorry carrying dozens of people had flown over the edge and concerned family members lined the cliff side as we shot past at an inappropriate speed.

A flat tire on the second vehicle meant we were running an hour late as we reached Teoponte. This combined with an evil Chinese mining company causing some problems on the river meant our guide Raul had to change the schedule slightly. We had been due to get on to the boat and sail down river for an hour or so before making camp and taking a night walk in the jungle. As it was we had to check into some very basic (but nice enough) accommodation in the tiny town and spend an evening there instead. We were promised that we’d still get the night walk on the following night and that with some clever jiggery pokery none of the activities would be lost.

In some ways it was actually a bit of a bonus stopping in Teoponte for the night. Raul filling us in on this forgotten jungle town’s history; in the 50’s there was a huge gold rush and Teoponte had been right at the centre of it, the town had boomed and many people thought it would be come the capital of the region – an airport was even built (the only town in this region which can make that claim). But by the 80’s the gold had all but dried up and the big companies all left. It’s now pretty much a forgotten outpost, a run down town where the couple of thousand inhabitants still struggle along making their livings as independent miners. Some are now also planting fruit of coca crops in the wet season when mining is impossible – but it’ll never get back to the glory days of the 50’s and 60’s.

It was funny spending an evening in the town. The 11 in our group were a real novelty to the locals as it’s not somewhere gringos normally set foot. We had a pretty decent meal (paid for by Deep Rainforest) and spent the evening drinking at the karaoke bar in town – a huge warehouse building with some very suspect artwork on the wall and one table of local men drinking right in the centre of it. There was no karaoke going on despite the sign outside, but the music was absolutely blaring out the speakers so we set up outside and were soon the main focus of attention for the local children. After a few beers we went back to our accommodation which provided an unexpectedly comfortable nights sleep. The tropical warmth
was certainly a nice novelty after the freezing nights in La Paz.

Waking up in Teoponte we were all keen to get out onto the water. There was a slight delay as Raul frantically tried to get news from the Chinese miners who’d been making a mess further down stream – but after an hour or so we were at the riverside boarding our floating home for the next two days. The boat itself was a long, low, thin thing with a little canopy roof. It was basically a big canoe with seats down the middle where we sat in two’s. Apart from the 11 gringos, there was our replacement guide Ivan (Raul had to leave us to go and negotiate with the aforementioned Chinese miners), his wife (who would be our cook on the trip) and his young son. There were also the boat’s driver (the correct nautical term I believe) and his assistant, who bizarrely sported a very posh blazer for a lot of the trip…

The first day on the river was really fantastic. We sailed for about 2 hours before stopping for a short trek into the jungle to visit a waterfall with a natural pool good for swimming at it’s base. The scenery on route was stunning – cutting through the heart of the jungle with nobody but us on our little boat and the occasional miner panning for gold on the banks. When we tied the boat off and stepped into the jungle, Ivan really proved his worth – giving us some some insight into the jungle and laying out some ground rules for the trek. This was just a short walk, about an hour into the jungle alongside the stream which lead to our waterfall. The lush forest and quick flowing water provided some really beautiful sights as we weaved our way through – and the waterfall provided a spectacular climax to the walk. It wasn’t that hot under the shade of all the trees, so most of us (me included) opted to just admire it’s beauty rather than jump in.

When we arrived back at the boat, Ivan’s wife Carmen had prepared dinner for us to eat as we travelled further down the river to make camp. Her food was fantastic – really delicious pasta which was just what we all needed. After another 4-5 hours we reached the spot Ivan thought best to camp, tied up the boat and were sent off to find wood for a fire. Ivan and the other two crew members took charge of setting up our tents and we set about getting a fire going. Within a couple of hours, just as the sun was going down we had a proper little camp set up.

After another lovely meal from Carmen, we left the security and warmth of the camp fire and set out on our night walk. I got the feeling that due to our delay we weren’t in the best spot for this as there was no clear pathway into the jungle. Ivan found us a pretty interesting loop around our camp nevertheless and walking in silence with just our torches providing light made for a fairly nervy, thrilling little adventure. We didn’t come across much in the way of wildlife, the only living creature being a little frog… it looked pretty mean under the torch light though.

Day three was two longish boat rides divided by a 4 hour jungle trek. The trek was the highlight of the whole 3 days – Ivan’s knowledge and passion for the jungle really bringing the dense forest to life for us. Ivan talked us through the various poisonous or medicinal properties of many of the vegetation, told us about the wildlife that was surrounding us (but doing a very good job of hiding), explained about the native peoples navigational techniques – and how easy it was to get hopelessly lost in the jungle. We learned about the trees hunters use to hide from Jaguars and Wild Boar (which apparently live in groups of 100-200 and can rip a man to shreds on mass) and saw an unexpected array of animals – howler monkeys, a turtle, Pecans and lots of impressively scary insects. Ivan proved to be a great guide and you could hear a pin drop as he talked us through all the ins and outs of the jungle we were in.

After the amazing jungle trek there was just the 5 hour ride to Rurre left to complete. One thing that was very cool about travelling so far along the Rio Beni like this was that you really see the jungle change on route. In fact this boat tour is the only jungle tour in which you see all the various levels of this jungle. It was a beautiful hot sunny afternoon as we completed our trip and we made it into Rurre just as the sun was setting – which gave us one last visual treat to finish this spectacular journey.

Even with the logistical problems at the start of the tour, this was one of the best things I’ve done in South America. It was a real privilege to be part of this small weekly trip along the Rio Beni and it’s an experience I won’t forget for quite some time. If you’re pondering how to get to Rurrenabaque from La Paz – forget the rickety planes and bumpy coaches and get yourself on Deep Rainforest’s little boat!

Resources:
Deep Rainforest website

Contact details
Murillo St. corner Sagarnaga St. #189
Shopping Doryan Of. 9A
Phone: (591 – 2) 215 0385
Mobile: (591) 715 34309
deeprainforest@hotmail.com

Boat trip costs: 1250Bs + 40Bs for a sleeping bag if you need one

Some photos from the trip
See the full jungle photo gallery here…

See the full jungle photo gallery here…