Me Tarzan, you Sweaty – Madidi National Park

We were determined to shoehorn a visit to the Amazon into our plans somehow, it seemed crazy to come all the way to South America and not visit this most vivid, vibrant and bio-diverse of places. We had thought initially that it would take quite a lot of effort but it turned out that visiting the Bolivian Amazon was very easy. Rurrenabaque is the second most visited place in Bolivia, below Uyuni and above Titicaca, and we’d never heard of it. There is only one small problem, aside from trying to pronounce Rurrenabaque, and that’s getting there. Logistically it’s easy, a 35-minute flight from La Paz, but mentally it was an enormous challenge for James who endured 35 minutes of torture as the old forty seater plane juddered, bumped and bounced the whole way. Everything improved as we stepped out into the muggy air and looked around, we were truly in the middle of nowhere.

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The entire population of the plane was bundled on to two minibuses and driven a couple of hundred metres to the terminal/old house where we gazed out of the mosquito net windows, waiting for the motorbike-with-trailer to deliver our backpacks to “baggage reclaim”.

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There is only one taxi service in Rurrenabaque and all of the tour companies use it, so, once again, the entire population of our plane simply climbed into the nearest available vehicle to be deposited at various stops around town. We were dropped at the Madidi Jungle Eco Lodge offices to check in for our tour and then deposited at Hotel Rurrenabaque, where we would be staying that night. The accommodation was fairly basic but the room had a fan, for which we were grateful. That night we had a pretty good dinner with all of the other tourists at Luz de Mar before loading ourselves up with water and insect repellent, ready for our foray into the jungle the next day. Rurrenabaque felt very familiar to us, it was much like Marissa, Ella, Palolem, etc. a town that existed before but now seems to function only for tourism. The other thing that it had in common with these places was that it was really, really warm.

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The accommodation at our hostel may have been basic but the breakfast was excellent; the pain au chocolat were very dense and filled with brownie mix type chocolate, Caro is still talking about them today. We’d been told to be at the office for 7:45am but breakfast didn’t start until 7:30am. Liking neither to be late nor to be hungry, we bolted down our breakfast and practically ran to the office, making it for 7:47am. We then waited for an hour for everyone else to gather, we’d forgotten that we were on jungle time now.

Eventually all 7 passengers were gathered and we made for the riverbank and boarded the longboat that would carry us 3 hours upriver and into Madidi National Park. Despite looking rickety it was actually perfectly comfortable and the time passed easily watching the jungle and the abundance of birdlife slide by. We tried not to feel anxious when one of the guys started bailing out at the back of the boat, at least we hadn’t seen any crocodiles yet.

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At the lodge, we were settled in to our rooms, given a mountain of food and then had a couple of hours to kill before our first activity. Down time before our walk was filled with blog writing, surrounded by the screeching, scurrying, scuffling jungle. James ensconsed himself in a hammock, Caro hid behind the mosquito netting.

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In the afternoon, we set off on our first trek into the jungle. There is a web of trails leading from the lodge into the surrounding jungle and our guide, Peter, knew them all like the back of his hand. This was helpful and comforting to know as we would have been lost pretty much instantly; it all looked the same to us, dense, green and hosting an inordinate number of mosquitos. We had been warned to wear long sleeves, long trousers and gallons of insect repellent but this could not deter the buggers entirely and Caro, as usual, ended up getting eaten with her left eye puffing up as the bitey bastards went for the only bit of skin not covered in fabric or deet. There are a couple of things to bear in mind if you are going to go delving into the Amazon rainforest, the bugs are one thing, but also, it’s enormous and relatively sparsely populated so we didn’t see an enormous amount of wildlife, although we could hear screeching and chattering all around us. Paul tried to get us to walk as quietly as possible but if you aren’t accustomed to it, it’s pretty challenging to walk quietly over dead leaves and branches.

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Despite not seeing huge numbers of animals, Peter imparted his extensive knowledge of the plants and trees uses by the indigenous populations, including painting our faces as camouflage. Caro originally looked less than impressed when he chose her as the first compulsory participant.

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The area has only been protected since 1995, but luckily it escaped intensive logging of the biggest trees and so we got to see many examples of Amazon giants as we walked. Surprisingly exhausted after a 3-hour trek, we took much needed cold showers and ate another enormous but tasty meal. We had been told by our guide in La Paz that bananas attract mosquitoes, but this didn’t deter the lodge from serving banana in some form at every meal.

On the morning of day 2, we headed out again in to the jungle for another 3-hour walk.  It started with the considerable racket of calling Howler monkeys, but, unfortunately, we never actually tracked them down. It was a walk of small but cool things: a tree full of bats, a small bright green snake, viewpoints out over the river and thousands and thousands of leaf cutter ants marching in vast columns across the forest floor.

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After lunch and a few hours relaxing in the hammock it was time to don slightly damp clothes again and head out in search of monkeys, which Peter was super excited to try and find. He really loved his job. James had absolutely loved the jungle walks but Caro wasn’t quite so into them; it was cool to go out and see the jungle, but, to her, it all got a bit samey. 6 hours of jungle walking was quite enough and after an incredibly sweaty morning, Caro decided to pass on the afternoon walk. Her reasoning was that, unless the group saw a Jaguar, she wouldn’t feel as though she had missed out.

This was the deepest we ventured in to the jungle with amazing views out over the jungle canopy which stretched away as far as you could see.

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We could hear the howler monkeys and Peter was repeatedly copying their calls. Eventually he got a response and he set off at a pace towards them. Eventually after scrambling through some dense shrub we got a perfect view of a Howler monkey and then six Spider monkeys who were not sure what to make of Peter’s calls. (That’s Peter you can hear calling, he had mad skills when it came to animal noises)

All credit to Zara who actually took this video and sent it to us later. After about 20 minutes of watching them we needed to head back before it got dark.  That night Caro joined the team again when we went out on a night walk. It only took a few steps from the dining room to see the tarantula which lived in the roof. Gross. Once away from the lodge you really got to appreciate the noise of the jungle at night, what was particularly creepy was all the spider eyes reflecting in the torch light. We stopped by a small stream we turned off our torches and watched the twinkling of fireflies.

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The next day we were heading up river to explore another part of the park. On route, we passed two Capybara sun bathing on the river bank, and looking for the world like an old judgemental couple watching their neighbours flaunt the hosepipe ban.

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As we were watching them Caro noticed what we thought was a turtle, which turned out to be a tortoise which had fallen in the river. Peter fished it out and returned it to the safety of dry land as we ventured off in to the jungle.

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The river bank here was covered in enormous bamboo and we felt like the Borrowers as we trekked. We stopped by a small lagoon and were soon joined by a juvenile cayman croc.

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It was cool to see, but he was a real pain as we tried to fish for piranha. We had to keep poking him with a stick, á la Steve Irwin.

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We had a few bites, but only one of our group caught a small one. On the walk back to the boat we passed a few empty tortoise shells which Peter had told us had been a Jaguar’s dinner at some point. The trees above us were a constant racket as the macaws made their presence known.

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After 3 days in the jungle we were ready to be heading back to a cooler climate, yes you heard right, Caro wanted cooler weather. We boarded the boat for the significantly shorter journey downstream back to Rurrenabaque. The jungle was equally as beautiful as we whizzed along. Our stay was topped off by three animal sightings as we went. The first was nice, two young Capybara on the river bank, the second was a couple of Howler monkeys hanging out in the top of a tree, so Caro got to see them too.

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The third sighting was amazing; James managed to pick out a jaguar on the river bank. The boat stopped and we had about 30 seconds before it turned and disappeared instanty into the undergrowth. We didn’t have time to pull the camera out so you will have to trust us that it was incredible. If Peter got excited about monkeys it’s nothing to how giddy he became when we saw the jaguar, James had a massive grin plastered on his face for the rest of the day, and still does now typing this blog.

Back on dry land, we hung around in the office for half an hour before being dropped off at Rurrenabaque airport with all of the other slightly sunburned people. Once again, we were struck with how truly rural the airport was; the bathrooms are outside… that’s pretty rural.

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There is an airport café (also housed in a different building) which is doing a roaring trade from overly warm tourists.

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Our luggage was searched by hand before we were all bundled back in to the minibuses and sent on our merry way. Fortunately, the flight back was much less bumpy and James was still buzzing about the jaguar in any case.

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