Rurrenabaque, Bolivia: Jungles, Pampas, and Fabulous Food
November 30, 2013 | By Mitch & Jewels |
We decided to spend a few days in and around Rurrenabaque, a town in northern Bolivia known for being a launchpad for tourists who want to explore this area of the Amazon basin. Internet is not ideal here, so apologies that we are lumping this all into one super-long blog entry instead of dividing it up.
The Flight from La Paz to Rurre
It takes anywhere from 16 hours to 6 days to travel from La Paz to Rurrenabaque (or Rurre, for short) by bus, seeming to average in the low 20-some hours. So, we decided to fly. Amaszonas charges $190 US per person round trip (note: Tam is a bit cheaper, but Amaszonas has flights scheduled some 4 times per day, which makes it much easier to get a new flight if your flight is cancelled, which happens regularly).
Purchasing a flight is stupid easy – we bought ours about 5 days in advance from an internet café in Isla del Sol. We recommend purchasing your flight online: it’s easier to change flight times/days with no fees (something to do with the fare classes, which are different when you use an agency), plus, if/when your flight is cancelled, they actually email you with your new flight info (as opposed to you having to call). The domestic flight area in the La Paz airport is also stupid easy – we had no problem getting through security with full water bottles, shoes on, etc.
On the day we were supposed to fly out, after a full day of waiting in the La Paz airport, all flights to Rurre were cancelled because of bad weather. (Vocab word: “Demorado” means “delayed.”) It’s not uncommon for flights to be cancelled because of bad weather in Rurre, but the weather in La Paz was pretty brutal too: when I went to the bathroom in the La Paz airport, little pieces of hail were flying into the bathroom via the vent. So, we went back to our same hostel in La Paz, stayed the night, and were back at the airport the following day.
The flight from La Paz to Rurre, about a half hour, is awesome. La Paz is quite stunning from the air – the whole city is built into mountains and a valley, and from the air you can see the ribs of rock passing through the city, and there is almost an organic feel to the city plan. Outside of La Paz, there are huge swaths of agricultural land – all divided into brown lots (so much brown!). The rocks are gorgeous, at times with big veins of red minerals. The clouds are super fluffy, and it’s gorgeous to fly over the snow-covered mountains (nevadas), and to see how the tops of the nevadas peek through the tops of the clouds, which layer differently on different sides of the mountain range.
What’s even more incredible is that you start by looking down at brown landscape, pass through over clouds for a few minutes, and then as soon as you get past the clouds, you can see the floor of the jungle below you – a thick carpet of deep greens and winding brown river, with hills and mountains entirely crusted in tree cover.
This seems like one of the only flights where you seem to go down in altitude from embarkation to after take-off – the plane seemed to hug the mountain as we went away from the city (although cruising altitude was actually higher). And, interestingly enough, we think that the cabin is pressurized to a lower altitude than La Paz; we have never seen plastic bottles compress on the airplane.
The “airport” in Rurre is a landing strip, where a bus from the Amaszonas office meets you right at the airplane and charges roughly $1.50 USD per person to take you and your stuff past the little building (the actual “airport building”) to the Amaszonas office in the center of town.
The Town of Rurrenabaque
Rurre is small and lovely, and quite incredible to be in after La Paz. It’s remarkably clean – even the butcher shops, which in other cities might be fly-infested stalls in open-air markets, are clean and well-kempt. The drop in altitude is glorious; for the first time in a couple of weeks we don’t feel winded climbing stairs.
We decided to stay in the Hotel Pahuichi, which is conveniently located across the street from the Amaszonas office. It is about $14 USD for the two of us per night, with a private room, private bathroom, hot shower, but no wifi (which is not uncommon here). And, it has a beautiful courtyard, lovely views (especially from the top floor), hammocks, and a really nice room. We checked out a few of the other places in town and this seems like (by far) the best situation. We are honestly surprised it is not more expensive.
Our first afternoon here, we explored the town just a bit – enough to find a hotel room and finalize and set up our tours to the jungle and the pampas. Some of the tour-operators push hard; Max tours made such a hard sell that we didn’t go with them for their sales-pitch alone… but we enjoyed our free cold coke, banana, and drink tickets to a bar in town. Our general plan is to spend one night in town, then go on a 3-day/2-night jungle tour, spend another night in town, then go on a 2-day/1-night pampas tour, spend another night in town, then fly back to La Paz and head straight to an overnight bus to Sucre. Bonus for us, one of the people we met at the airport (Valentina, a lovely Italian woman who is a doppleganger for our friend Sophie) is going to do both tours with us, so we have a friend around for a few days.
That first evening, we met up with several people from the airport adventure from drink sand dinner. The meal, at Juliano’s French/Italian restaurant, may have been the best in Bolivia and was quite impressive compared to the usual cuisine here. Our last night, we ended up having dinner at Paititi, run by a Bolivian-German woman who settled here fairly recently – also really fantastic food. At both Juliano’s and Paititi, the food is pricey for Bolivia ($5 – 8 USD for entrees), but super delicious. In the mornings, we keep going back to an amazing French pastry shop (yep, that’s right, legit pastries in Bolivia).
One morning over breakfast, we met this crazy American guy who moved to Bolivia 17 years ago because, in short, prophets said that America was falling out of God’s graces and was going to be destroyed. Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are both part of the New World Order, and communists from Russia and China are going to destroy America. Anyhoooow…
Packing Tips: Jungle & Pampas Tours
We effectively ended up wearing one outfit for the full time of each of our tours, which is a bit stinky but totally fine. We brought an extra outfit in case we got drenched but were fine not dipping into it. Because of some of the bugs, even with the mosquito nets, we often slept with a pair of lightweight pajama pants, which was probably wise.
The mosquitoes and other bugs are pretty bad (we have never seen anything like the density or aggressiveness of mosquitoes in the Pampas). We highly recommend wearing full pants and a long sleeve shirts in both places. Mosquitoes can bite through clothing, especially if it’s tight, and they are attracted to black. So all the girls we saw who brought only black leggings and shorts got eaten alive. We have never seen anything like it… the back of their legs had more areas with bites than not. It was just awful.
We both got our fair share of bites through our clothing. (Especially in areas where pants are tighter or the areas that are exposed when you are using the bathroom). Mitch’s seem pretty minor, but mine are big itchy welts and driving me a little insane. But compared to the other people we saw, we have no right to complain!
Jungle Tour with San Miguel del Bala
We selected a tour company called San Miguel del Bala for our jungle tour experience. They seemed to be super friendly, had great energy and answers to our questions via email, were really well-rated on Trip Advisor and elsewhere, and are actually community-oriented, which is a super big plus for us. And while they are not the cheapest, they are reasonably priced compared to other higher-end groups and we felt good supporting them. (Note: We talked to a girl who went with Max Tours to the jungle, which was cheaper, but apparently they stayed in tents and carried ALL of the stuff for their tents in with them, and drank boiled river water, which is just gnarly. But she still had a positive experience.)
Our guide, Valdemar, was great – super funny, friendly, and confidently led our group. He grew up just across the river from where the San Miguel lodge area is and spent a bunch of time talking with us about the indigenous community. He spoke Spanish the whole time, very slowly and clearly, constantly checking in to make sure everyone understood him and giving us the English words when appropriate. Interestingly, while he knows a few words in Takana, the local language, he said that most people were inclined not to teach their children Takana while they were growing up because there was/is so much racism against indigenous communities so they wanted children to have Spanish as their true first language.
The two lodges we stayed in were lovely – the cabins/rooms were super comfortable and the bathrooms were surprisingly clean and well-kept. The meshing on the windows did a great job keeping bugs out. The meals were great – there was no shortage of food, almost all of it was grown right in the community, and we felt pleasantly full after all of them. Overall, we were happy with the creature comforts.
Our first day, we took a boat ride to their lodge area, dropped off our stuff, and walked toward the local community, seeing plants and such along the way.
After lunch, we went for an amazing exploration of the canon, a crazy natural formation with steep rock walls that you walk between for a bit. The water level was very high for this time of year (it gets chest-deep in Jan/Feb, but is usually just ankle-deep now; we had spots where it got into the rubber boots they gave us and up toward our thighs)… but it was super amazing and well worth it! The photos will do it more justice than words will, although we couldn’t capture any photos of the bats, which were awesome.
Then, we stopped at the community to make and drink sugar cane juice (probably less sugar than a Coke, but horribly sweet until you had in a lot of lime), and watched the kids playing soccer. After dinner, Valdemar showed off his ability to imitate animal noises (seriously impressive) and told us some stories, then off to bed.
On the second day, we took a 2-hour journey up-river into Madidi National Park. The boat ride was quite beautiful and we saw a variety of bird life… oropendulas, herons, storks, macaws, vultures, kites, etc, etc. Then we went on a short hike, during which we saw wild peccaries (nifty!) and I discovered the hassle of fire ants. I don’t know how they got to me – but 3 of them bit me (2 of which were through my clothing). It hurts like a mofo for about 20 minutes but then goes away. It rained a bit around lunchtime, but we had fantastic weather luck and it cleared up for the afternoon.
We went for another hike, this time up to the mirador (viewpoint). En route, we saw another peccary (or as they say, “chancho,” or “pig”) super close. It’s impressive. They travel in large groups (the morning group was 60 or 70 animals; the afternoon group was 100+), and you can hear the sound of the group resonate through the forest, almost like a deep collective panting.
Then we had a muddy hike up to a gorgeous viewpoint, where you stand on top of a salt lick and can see over the canopy, where multiple types of macaws fly right underneath you. We also saw other awesome birds throughout the day… parakeets, toucans, trogons, manakins. Plus, we saw curasaws and a capybara from the water!
After dinner, some of us went for a short night hike. It was anticlimactic in terms of seeing animals, but still awesome. We would walk a few meters, then Valdemar would signal to turn off our lights. I would clutch Mitch and Valentina’s hands, and we would stand in silence and pitch-black, barely any light peeking through the trees, listening to jungle noises. Then Valdemar would turn on his light and we would proceed… all the while, careful not to touch anything because of the variety of ants, spines, poisonous plants, spiders, snakes, that could be anywhere, day or night.
On the third day, after breakfast we took a long walk through the jungle and saw some medicinal plants (as well as poisonous ones and nutritious ones), including using bits of heliconia plants to cure babies born cross-eyed, and certain lianas always are a good source of fresh water plus cure diarrhea. Then we made our way back to Rurre so the two other people in our group could catch their flight.
The views from the boat are amazing. In places the jungle touches the river with a small beach of rock, sand, or mud. Elsewhere, there are bits of grass or bushes to the end of the water. And in other places, cliffs of various dimensions reach down. We all took a nice nap in the boat back to Rurre; the sounds of the water and the gentle rocking of the boat made it hard to stay awake.
Pampas Tour with Dolphins Travel
It seems that there are three categories of pampas tours that you can go on. There are expensive ones (which I am wondering if we should have splurged on, but we have done a lot of splurging in Rurre). Then there are a bunch that are in the range of $116 USD for a 2-day, 1-night tour (and only $15 USD more for a 3-day tour). Then there are a bunch that are much cheaper, in the Bs 500 range. (Note, all that in addition to the park fee of $22 USD per person.) We heard that the cheapest ones were really bad accommodations and that the guides are not respectful of the nature and wildlife. It also sounds like for each level of accommodations, all the ones in the same range are about equivalent, so we decided to look in that middle range. Apparently Madidi Jungle Ecolodge (super well rated and reviewed for jungle tours) recommended Dolphins Travel for the Pampas Tour to a friend, so we decided to take Madidi’s recommendation. Sigh.
We were not pleased with our experience with Dolphins Travel, although I am not sure if anyone else would have been better. For $116 USD per person for 2-days and 1-night, it’s amazing that they don’t provide such luxuries as toilet paper or towels. Or that their accommodations were not better. I would say that the comfort level was “sufficient,” but not “good” by any means (especially after the lovely cabins we had in the jungle). The food at the lodge area was good – better than average for Bolivian food. But more importantly, they said that they have a 2-person minimum for a tour, and we were a group of 3 for Mitch, Jewels, and Valentina. While it was a better deal if you could do a 3-day tour, we preferred to do 2-days for our schedule. Unfortunately, while they say they do a 2-day tour, what they really mean is that they will shoehorn you into other groups to make up 2 days so you get bounced from one group and guide to another.
The guides we had were “sufficient” but not “good” (again) – it was just annoying that we had 3 so we never had a full experience where a guide learned what we needed or enjoyed hearing about. I honestly think that if we had had one guide consistently it would have been fine, but Dolphins cared more about making money off us than giving us a good experience. We had Joachin as the driver in both directions; while he wasn’t a “guide” per se, he was actually the best guide in terms of the amount of knowledge he was able to share and communicate. When we asked questions, he answered and then expounded upon them with more information. He was super pleasant for conversation, but only spoke Spanish, which was fine for our little group.
Our official guide (for half of it) was Oscar. Oscar is really funny and incredible at spotting animals in trees so we saw a bunch of things that we might have otherwise missed. He was also great at steering the boat, which was an impressive skill. But, the second we met up with him, he effectively started saying that this is the worst season to come to the Pampas and that it bores him, and he doesn’t know why the office promises you things that are not possible in this season (true for all the agencies).
Our second official guide (with the other group) was Marcello. Marcello was really nice and great fun to play cards and hang out with. But, by our Day 2 (the other group’s final ride back), we were ready to enjoy nice weather and see animals, but he had checked out a bit and the other group was ready to go back, so we zoomed past awesome things and he was not actually looking to see much wildlife. So, for example, Mitch spotted toucans in a tree, and we shouted “Let’s stop! 2 toucans in that tree!” Marcello paused the boat, looked around, then excitedly shouts “Toucans! These are very beautiful birds here. There are 2!” Also, he wasn’t as awesome with navigating the boat and went really fast through the tight areas, which is great to avoid mosquitoes but meant that we got smacked in the faces hard with a bunch of branches.
Anyhow… About our actual experience… the pampas were incredible and totally worth the trip! The night before we left, we were both a bit sick with stomach issues and it rained a ton and we were thinking about cancelling, but we ended up pushing through, which we are glad for. I had always heard of the pampas as lowland savannah-type areas, but the tours themselves are mostly on the flooded waterways since that is where you can see most of the wildlife. But it also, I think, makes a lot of tourists think that pampas are bogs instead of savannahs. Regardless, it’s still pretty amazing. And because of the way the tours take you, you really see a phenomenal amount of wildlife… even during the lower seasons. For us, it was a huge amount of awesome bird life (eagles, falcons, hoatzins, egrets, storks, toucans, macaws, flycatchers, cuckoos, etc.) plus 3 types of monkeys, dolphins, and caimans, a few of which actually live at the lodge so you can (safely) see them up close and personal.
It started with a 3-hour drive through the rainy muddy land to reach the starting point. On the drive, we saw lots of good stuff, including a variety of really neat birds. But, most exciting – 2 rheas (we saw rheas!!) and multiple capybara.
We stopped at a dingy restaurant for a pretty crap lunch that was provided as one of our 4 meals as part of the tour (also annoying since the lunch valued about $1.50 USD, which I’m sure they got a discount on).
Then a 3-hour boat ride through the murkiest bog imaginable. The water is black and tanniny, with a super rotting smell and more mosquitoes than god. There is also a fine oil slick over the water since all of the travel agencies use outboard motors and the water is still. It’s a mosquito ambush from the second you step out of the car. Because it was still a bit rainy (the boats have no cover), we wore our rain jackets plus ponchos to keep our pants from getting wet.
The rainy season usually starts Dec/Jan, but it was 2 months early this year, which means that the water level was 3 meters higher than the dry season and 1 meter lower than the rainiest, and there was much less wildlife than there should be. On the way in, we still saw plenty of animals.
In the evening, Mitch decided to stay back and rest because he wasn’t feeling so well. Somehow the stomach bug translated to a fever, which thankfully broke after a few hours (so he made a miraculous 90% recovery by the morning). The rest of us took the boat out to see the sunset and go to the “bar,” a truly bizarre experience. There is a house near there that sells beer and such and has benches to view the sunset and volleyball and soccer set up. So all the guides take all their groups there to hang out, which is a bit awkward (then the guides all go in the back to watch TV and talk, then collect their groups after dark). On the way, we saw yellow spider monkeys, which were among the cutest things I have ever seen in my life. Unfortunately, I did not bring the camera for that little trip out. (We have a photo of other spider monkeys, but these ones came super close to us and studied our boat from maybe 3 meters away.)
After sunset, we rode back and shined our flashlights on the water to look for caiman eyes, which glow orange at night. We didn’t see many, but it was quite beautiful to turn off the motor and sit in the boat, gently drifting on the water. After dinner, we hung out and played cards.
We woke up early the next morning thanks to the howler-monkey-alarm-clock. Then we went out to watch the sunrise, which was gorgeous, plus we saw capuchin (whistler) and howler monkeys, and a variety of awesome bird life. We went back to the lodge for breakfast, where we discovered that they have manjar, or dulce de leche, in foil packets, and that goes really well on these little cunapés, or donut-type things.
After breakfast, we went out for a swim with the dolphins, which none of the three of us were super excited about, but the group we had been thrown into wanted to do it. The three of us stayed on the boat while the others went into the murky swamp water and the dolphins circled around and nibbled on their toes, which is not uncommon and apparently not fun. The guide said it’s mating season, which is why dolphins nip more. Apparently the river dolphins are born gray like non-river dolphins, but as they grow older they lose a layer of fat (since the water is so warm) and turn more pink, so the pink dolphins are the older ones. (Which we know from the awesome jungle guide, not the not-as-awesome pampas guides.)
Then the guide killed time by driving the boat around on the way back. After lunch, we started our way back, which was a bit frustrating for us. It was sunny out and we were excited to look at nature and take photos, but the other group (and the guide) were pretty checked out by then. One thing that was neat is that the other girls had not yet seen a capybara, so the guide took us to an area where they often are and we were able to get off the boat and walk around and look for one. While it was totally mosquito-ridden, it was interesting to see the coarse, dry grasses and the view back into the savannah-type land that I had always mentally associated with the pampas. We didn’t see a capybara there, but we saw plenty of capybara poop and the area that was smushed down from it sleeping.
On the drive back, we stopped to see some more capybaras, which are super cute… I want one as a pet. The guide also explained that, much like cats, when they want to cleanse their stomachs, they eat minerals or bad grasses to induce puking. I also asked him about a gorgeous blue-black iridescent bird we had seen a bunch of, which is locally called the mauri and is a member of the cuckoo family.