29th January 2000: Rurrenabaque, Bolivia (day 192 overall)
After our previous few days in the Jungle enjoying only meagre breakfasts, we’d remembered a place we’d seen in Rurre which did an English breakfast and so set out to find it. The owner said they had no bacon because the flight from La Paz was cancelled but he gave us an extra egg instead and overall the breakfast was not bad – but certainly the best we’d had in several days.
Over breakfast, we discussed how to approach our next intended adventure which was to head into the Pampas – a large wetlands area of north east Bolivia. We booked a three-day tour with Flecha Tours and then took a trip to the small supermarket to pick up a few supplies. Mark and Jono decided to climb a nearby hill overlooking Rurre whilst Irinia and I wandered around town. When they came back – they were covered in mud and scratches but said the views across Rurre and the river basin were great.
Back at the hotel, I continued my research into travel methods and destinations in Chile and Argentina. The cost over such a short time is frightening but it would be a great shame to miss out on some of the wonderful things there were to do.
In the evening, we went out to our usual favourite – the Social Club – where we met Ono, Catherine and Andreas who we’d met on the recent jungle trip and we all shared dinner together. It was going to be an early start tomorrow so not long after, we said our goodbyes and took an early night.
30th January 2000: Pampas Trip Day 1, Bolivia (day 193 overall)
Having locked most of our unneeded stuff in Flecha’s deposito, a Bolivian lady who would be our guide took us to a waiting minibus. We were slightly annoyed to find, that along with the four of us, there were already six people also on the bus since they’d promised a maximum of eight. But that’s how things go here so we got over it pretty quick.
On the bus were three more English, two Germans and a Dutch guy and we all got along fine except for the Germans who didn’t seem very friendly. Our minibus travelled for a long time which would have been about three hours if not for the long unplanned stops on the way.
The first such stop was when it began to rain and the dirt road immediately turned to slushy mud. The bus initially did quite well sliding side to side but making reasonable progress but then in a particularly deep patch, we slid entirely off the road and into an even more muddy area. Together with the driver and guide, we all dug, pushed, collected wood to shove under the tyres and pushed some more. Irinia and the German girl began to bond by giving the rest of us moral support from the side which was very commendable! By the time we had maneuvered the bus back on the road and underway, we were covered in a thick layer of mud and feeling quite drained with our efforts in the humidity and heat.
Our second stop was less dramatic but came when we reached a wooden gate across the road which had been padlocked shut. There was a small hut nearby but despite the driver blasting his horn several times – no one emerged. Nothing happened some more and our driver and guide just looked calm, tipped his chair back and took the time to relax. There was no further explanation to any of us and only shrugs from the guide to a couple of questions about how long we might wait. It was still raining hard outside so we sat in the minibus without much more we could do. About twenty minutes later, our driver and guide suddenly perked up and without any word to us – got out of the bus, ducked under the gate and walked up the road until they disappeared from view. An hour later – they had not returned. By now, the rain had finally stopped and we had taken to wandering around the small garden area around the hut. We were debating various “what if..” scenarios but after another 30 mins went by, we finally spotted our drive and guide returning. They were carrying a small set of cutlery in a plastic bag and proudly declared that we could start lunch. This all seemed very strange but we were hungry and started to eat. We were barely half way through when the door of what we thought was the abandoned hut opened and an old man and three kids emerged and started to potter around. It was getting a bit surreal! Two more trucks had pulled up behind our minibus and their drivers just waited without question so we did the same. All in all, we waited for about 3 hours before the old man from the hut casually walked over to the gate, produced a key from his pocket and swung it open. I thought perhaps he had only just figured out why three trucks had been waiting in front of his hut for the half the morning! Our guides said nothing and acted like this was perfectly ordinary so we all jumped back in and we headed onwards to our first campsite.
Our lodge for the night was a log cabin based beside a wide dark river. Mosquitoes were everywhere and covered us in swarms that no amount of swatting could prevent (and also just covered our clothes in small bloody blotches of squashed bug). The river and countryside was very pretty with the trees of the jungle stooping low to the river’s edge. The cabin was basic and the beds each had a rather ripped up mozzie net pretending to offer protection. A group was departing as we left and one of them welcomed us with the words “Welcome to hell…“. We recognised Stefan in the departing group who we had previously met in the jungle tour and he alone had opted to stay an extra day.
After unpacking and lathering ourselves with mozzie repellent, we jumped in a long skiff and set off down river. The river was narrow at this point and in the trees on either side we could see many ‘Birds of Paradise’ which I recognised from the very first books I ever read about the Amazon which had captured my imagination ever since. Deep in a bush, we also saw a family of capybaras although they ran away before we could grab any photos. In the water, small turtles would swim and dip under as our boat approached or sometimes they would perch on small exposed logs. In the trees, we found two or three howler monkeys relaxing and watching the setting sun only turning towards us with expressions of curiosity as we passed. The skiff pulled into the shore and we took a little walk through the forest but we only saw more birds.
By the time we returned, it was night time and with the darkness – it was a good time to go looking for crocodiles. The light from our torches would be reflected by crocodile’s eyes to appear as bright red dots and thus easier to find. The more spaced apart the dots – the bigger the crocodile! However, despite how easy they were to see – they were not so easy to catch!
First of all, we found a little nest of Cayman who our guide said were about 10 days old. The guide lifted a couple out of the water where they were swimming – they were like miniature crocodiles who made a little squeaking sound and very cute.
A little further on and after several attempts, our Bolivian guide finally caught a large Cayman. It was about 2 meters long from nose to tail and struggled violently but our guide managed to get a rope over its mouth and clamp it shut which calmed it. Apparently, these crocodiles are very dangerous as when they shut their mouths on their target – quite apart from the big sharp teeth, they close with huge force and then proceed to shake violently which can rip limbs from their prey. We each tentatively held the croc and had a picture taken. It was a beautiful animal to look at and hold and a lovely moment of the trip. Whilst it was in my hand, having been perfectly still with everyone else, it took the moment to struggle shaking its body powerfully from side to side. I struggled to hold it but luckily had a firm grip on its upper body and tail so was able to hold into my body until it calmed again – but feeling the force of the animal was amazing. The guide than placed the croc down on the ground, undid the noose around its mouth and then jumped well back as it jumped into life and launched its way down the river bank back into the water.
After this lovely experience, we returned to the skiff and headed homewards. After an hour or so travelling in the pitch black in this croc infested river – our engine chose to cut out. For half an hour whilst the guide attempted to make repairs, we floated downstream – getting further away from our camp. I’m not sure what he did but after much tweaking and pulling the start cord over and over – it finally caught, spluttered into life and we were back underway. Back in camp – our supper was already waiting and we ate hungrily over the talk of the day’s adventures!
31st January 2000: Pampas Trip Day 2, Bolivia (day 194 overall)
Today we were hunting for anacondas! We were out of bed early and back in the boat to head down river. The anaconda is the world’s biggest snake officially reaching up to 20 meters in length but Indian legends talk of 50 meter giants! They typically live up to 110 years but the same legends talk of snakes over 1000 years old!
We were heading to a lagoon where they were known to be found and it took us about 3 hours in the boat to get there. I was feeling pretty sick from something or other and had thrown up several times already before we left. I wasn’t sure what was causing but perhaps it was FEAR!! On the boat – I threw up over the side several more times along the journey and I was feeling pretty weak and dizzy. The others were really kind in helping me out the other end and to wade through the swamp into which we plunged. The swamp was waist high and infested with goodness knows what. We were barefoot and could feel the mud oozing below our feet. The muddy water was filled with thick grasses sticking up all around us that we had to push aside to get through. After about an hour’s walk, the swamp dried out a little until we were just ankle deep. Ahead of us was a more open section of water – a small lagoon about 100 meters across. We waited and watched a number of crocodiles float still and silent not too far from where we were still standing in the same water wondering if we were going to be dragged underwater at any moment!
The reason for being bare footed was that anacondas lie on the bottom of the swamp buried in the mud and we were trying to find them with our feet. We had no luck. Our guide told us to wait where the water was shallowest and keep an eye on the crocs while he carried on searching around the lagoon shore.
It was an hour before he returned carrying a 2.5 meter beautiful green snake and he passed it around to us to hold – telling us to keep a firm grip on the head and the tail. Unlike boa constrictors which suffocate their prey, the larger anacondas just crush their victims. Whole cows have been found inside the bodies of these snakes since farmers hunt them to protect their cattle. It was an amazing animal and I could feel the power of its thick body. Eventually, we let it go gently back into the swamp.
The journey home was longer since it was upstream but eventually we got back to camp without further adventure. At this point I could hardly stand from dehydration and continued nausea so collapsed into bed. The others went off to swim with the pink coloured river dolphins which inhabited these parts and the guide stayed with me making me cups of tea made with a bark he said would cure vomiting. It tasted gross but a few hours later, my nausea had subsided and I was beginning to feel better.
The others returned saying the swimming was a little boring since they only saw glimpses of dolphins swimming away but we shared dinner together and played some cards before I headed off to bed again. The others had cracked open a few beers and I listened to them playing a increasingly lively card game before I drifted off to the sounds of the pampas night.
1st February 2000: Pampas Trip Day 3, Bolivia (day 195 overall)
It was back to swimming with dolphins this morning but the guide suggested it would better elsewhere and we took another two hour ride in the boat. We came to a wider section of the river and could see a couple of dolphins swimming around and occasionally breaking the surface. We all jumped in and took a swim but like the experience of the others the previous evening, the dolphins generally kept their distance only coming within a couple of meters once or twice. We enjoyed our swim anyway and I was just happy to be feeling better again so we all had a laugh for an hour or so before heading back to the boat.
We headed upstream towards camp at a slower pace with our guide looking out for wildlife in the trees. A troop of squirrel monkeys were playing on the branches of a tree over hanging the water and we stopped to watch their funny antics for a while. Mark also spotted a snake in the water which the guide declared was a “yamputa borobo” or something similar and he said it was very dangerous.
Back at camp, we were having lunch when the next group arrived. Our welcome was a little more positive than the one we received and we took their place in the bus and headed for Rurre. The road was dry and there were no locked gates to impede our progress but the journey was long. There was a delay when the bus stopped in a village and again the guide jumped out without saying anything only to return 2 hours later carrying a spare tyre. Further on, the bus stopped again the guide jumped out for what ended up being just to have a chat with some locals. By now, we were all so used to these unexplained stops that we all just went with it and finally, we arrived back at Rurre late in the evening.
After a water-less shower and a change of clothes back in hotel Tuiche, we set out for a drink. The town of Rurre was celebrating its birthday so there was a festival on and lots of the locals were dressed up and in carnival spirit. We enjoyed watching a few festivities in the main square but, exhausted after the long day, found somewhere a little quieter to have a drink and a bite to eat. I settled for a burrito which seems to be one of the most common dishes here.
All in all, the Pampas trip was great as we saw lots of animals but we thought the company was pretty poor. We only did the three-day tour as opposed to the two because the lady in the tour agency had told us we wouldn’t be able to do anaconda hunting or piranha fishing otherwise. Yet we could have easily done this and got home on the second day and we never did the piranha fishing anyway as the guide said there were no piranhas close to where we were. She promised several more things that never happened which annoyed us all but perhaps got her comeuppance when she asked us to write a postcard reference to stick on her references wall. Mark wrote a clever reference which to a person who didn’t speak good English would appear flattering – but to a more fluent speaker would reveal our disappointments. In this way, we hoped she would not chuck it in the bin and we might offer a bit more honesty to future travellers!
2nd February 2000: Rurre Festival, Bolivia (day 196 overall)
Today was Rurre’s actual birthday and so the festival was in full swing and there were many parallel and seemingly unrelated processions roaming the streets. We positioned ourselves to watch one of these. A small brass band provided the music which was the same five-minute repeated song over and over. Around the bank was a group accompanying campesinos, dressed in their full and colourful traditional outfits, dancing energetically to the music. The dancing was done in a stooped fashion bouncing from one leg to the other and throwing their arms around as if they were swinging a child and occasionally a dancer would just stop and wander over to the nearby crowd to start having a chat with some friend before rejoining the fray. Behind the dancers was a host of partiers in fancy dress – usually consisting of bags, cardboard and other plastic ornaments creatively arranged around their bodies. Many of them were on small motorbikes and hooted their horns at every opportunity!
Next, we followed the crowd to see what was billed as a ‘bull-fight’ which turned out to be more of a ‘bull-annoy-and-runaway’! In a field just outside of town, a small stadium had been erected out of wooden beams – the seating of which was raised about 10 feet into the air surrounding a fenced field. People filled the stadiums and underneath, those who didn’t pay the Bs5 entry fee worked their way through the stadium supports and watched the event from between people’s feet. In the field, a big white bull was surrounded by several campesinos, pensively waving their shirts at the bull. The bull would randomly pick one of them to charge at. The campesinos didn’t try any fancy matador tactics here – they just turned and fled chucking his shirt sideways to try and distract the bull! One of the campesinos produced a rope and lassoed the bull tying it to a nearby post while another climbed on its bare back. Upon release, the ride enjoyed about five seconds of bronco fun before being hurled to the ground and having to run as fast as possible! After about twenty minutes of annoying the bull, they let it go back into a holding pen and let another one loose to repeat the whole process. The fights were fun to watch and the bulls were not hurt. As for the campesinos – they were mainly safe from the horns since the pointy tips had been removed. As it turned out – the most dangerous aspect to the day was the stadiums themselves.
At one point in the show, the stand opposite to us suddenly collapsed. People fell amongst a shower of timber to the ground and on top of those who were watching beneath. At the ends of the collapsing stadium people immediately launched themselves into adjacent stadiums and forward into the bull ring – the wannabe matadors jumping forward to try encouraging the bull away from the newly arrived targets. Other people rushed to help free those trapped underneath and it looked like they were able to free most people without serious injury thank goodness.
The bull-fight continued once the crowd had recovered but only a short while later, the stadium right next to us collapsed with several people looking badly injured. By now, we were feeling it best to get off our own stadium and made our way back to Rurre.
Our old favourite – the Social Club – was closed for the festival so we found another cafe which served us a snack for dinner and we chatted about the day. After the Pampas, I think we enjoyed the festival just as much and we didn’t need to travel for hours to go and see it!