Rurrenabaque – the Bolivian jungle and pampas (I)

Every child’s jungle fantasy – having a long chat with the powerful Baloo, wise Kaa and magnificent Bagheera… who would ever refuse such a meeting?

We had been to the jungle before in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, but those in Peru and Bolivia seemed to be different, special. In Peru we had been to the high jungle in Quillabamba, but what we really wanted was to go deep into the jungle and spend some time far away from civilization, with only the locals, animals (even if not really panthers and bears) and, if need be, the omnipresent mosquitoes. We haven’t had the chance to do that yet, but it’s still on the list, no problem.

We knew nothing about the jungles of Bolivia before we headed there, except for “It’s awesome, it really is”. We read a few lines in the Lonely Planet and chose one of the cities listed, thinking that once we arrived in Rurrenabaque (the chosen city) we’ll figure out how we can get to the depths of the jungle. Unfortunately we realized the only way (that we found at least, without knowing anybody around and not enough guts to go out into the jungle by ourselves) was again through a guided tour. So until other options were to make themselves known, we had to go for the only one available at the present moment.

The trip from La Paz to Rurrenabaque

We arrived in La Paz at 7am after a night spent of the bus from Potosi, and the plan was to get out of there as quickly as possible (just in case we would, God forbid, find ourselves with enough time on our hands for … shopping). Fortunately we found out the buses leave for the jungle between 10.30am to 12pm, so we chose one of the five existing companies (Vaca Diez, which we completely and insistently do NOT recommend) and we were ready to get on our bus at 12pm . So were nearly 50 other passengers… but unfortunately our readiness was totally futile in the absence of a vehicle that we could actually board. I walked slowly to the company’s “office” – which consisted of a table that was more on the street than inside a building – and I asked about the absence of the bus that would take us to the far away land. I was told with just as much softness: “Oh, it’s on the way, stuck in traffic a bit, but it’s coming soon, coming soon.”

I had no reason to doubt the man’s words. But half an hour later when I went back to him and got the exact same answer, this time I needed just a little more information “And when exactly is it coming? ‘” Quickly, coming quickly.” “Like in … 5 minutes? Half an hour?”. “Uhm … quickly. It’s on its way. ” “I understand, it’s been on its way for half an hour already, so what does ‘quickly’ mean? Another half an hour? More?”. “Uhm… Yes, about half an hour. ” It was obvious he had just given me an answer to get me off his back, but I was not going to argue with the man, so I returned to the status of “waiting indefinitely”.

An hour later I was breathing more quickly already and I did not walk over to the man as casually as before. “Ya viene, ya viene… no te preocupes” (It’s coming soon, it’s coming, don’t worry). “No te preocupes? No te preocupes? How can I not me preocupo when I’m here waiting for almost 2 hours for a bus that doesn’t seem to come? At least tell me one way or another, to know should we stay here and wait by the road side, or can we go somewhere to get some lunch?”. “Oh, yes, you can definitely go have lunch because after it arrives we need to load some things on it and it will take a while”. “A while?”. “Maybe half an hour. Or a bit more.” “A bit more?”. “Maybe an hour. Maximum one hour. ”

In the last hour we had watched with fascination as another bus was being loaded, and we knew it would take more than an hour for sure. By the time we left for lunch the bus finally appeared, with “only” two hours delay. Another hour later we returned from lunch to find the bus almost double in height than we had left it: when they said they were gonna load it, well they were gonna load it!

Of course we had to wait another hour for the bus to be fully loaded, so we managed to finally make a move at… 4pm. When we started we did not actually think that the coach would be able to start moving, overloaded as it was with stuff and passengers – the only thing missing was for us to sit on each others’ lap, as the aisle was full of luggages and blankets and small screaming children.

But ok, we started moving, so what’s worse is behind us, we thought in our extreme naivity. The trip was supposed to last for 16 hours, and just in case that wasn’t enough, of course our overloaded bus turned into a turtle-vehichle and we arrived in Rurrenabaque after 24 hours. The delay was a third of the original time! And in this journey that lasted for a full day and night, we prayed for Valium. The heat was suffocating, and in the of course complete lack of air conditioning, our only hope was to open the window. But opening the window meant suicide, as the dust from the unpaved road hit you in the face ruthlessly before you had time to even think that you’re suffocating. Crying babies and a horrifying music that was screaming out of the speakers until 11 pm, then a desperate woman who woke up screaming in the middle of the night that she wanted to get down because we were going to fall into off the road into the gap (the road we were on was carved in the mountain and it was the size of a single lane, with the mountain to our right and … nothing to our left. Gap. So when we met a car coming from the opposite direction and our driver had to show off his reversing skills, he got pretty close to the other side, and some people really got scared…) Anyway, to sum it up, that was not the calmest and quietest night of my life, and certainly not one full of dreams with fairies and badgers.

Finally at our destination

But, as it happens in happy ending movies, we finally reached our destination, safe and sane (barely, barely). We took a taxi (two motorcycles, to be exact) towards a hostel which I had read about in the Lonely Planet. When we were dropped in front, the sign at the entry said “Hotel”, and the prices seemed to indicate that was indeed the case. We later realized I had read the “Accommodation” section completely unaccurately. But after 28 hours of … well, I guess it’s understandable.

However, as our eyes met the inside of the above mentioned hotel (called Orient), we knew immediately we wouldn’t have the power to say no to staying there, even though it would cost us USD11 per night per person (which is really cheap for a hotel, but compared to the 4-5USD we were used to paying…). Considering the fatigue in our bones, the incredible mixture of sweat and dust on our body (in other words, filth) and the desperate noises coming from our stomach, we could say only yes to the big belly uncle who welcomed us: yes, we will stay here tonight, because we deserve a night here in your little Paradise, after sleeping for 8 months only in places with “s”…
 The uncle probably did not know all this, but he was touched by our appearance of freshly arrived from a pilgrimage, so he served us a fresh mango juice with an attached smile, then led us to our room.

On the way there, our eyes met this

and we knew we had chosen well, and we knew we really were in Paradise. And we behaved accordingly

Finding a tour

In the evening we went out to explore the town, and also to check out the jungle tour options. We had to choose between the jungle and the pampas, and we ended up choosing the pampas because there were many more animals involved (crocodiles, anacondas, piranhas, this kind of gentle creatures). The jungle was more about vegetation, insects, birds and the like, and because we had been in similar setting before (although these were surely different, but still), we chose to see what we’ve never seen before. And if the opportunity arises, to swim with the pink dolphins while at it (now between you and me, this was the main reason for choosing the pampas, as swimming with dolphins was a definite childhood dream).

All good then, till we got to the price. In La Paz we had entered an agency to ask about Uyuni, and the lady showed us their offer for the jungle tour as well, just for our information. But as we were not interested, we didn’t pay much attention. We remember only the price: 590 Bolivianos. So when we were told in Rurrenabaque 900 Bolivianos… we felt a bit dizzy. Later we found out that due to some regulation imposed by the government, the 900 was the minimum they were allowed to charge the tourists in order to stay legal. In La Paz, however, the tour agencies sell it cheaper. Because… why not? So if you plan a jungle tour in Bolivia, remember to book it in La Paz!

After negotiations worthy of veteran backpackers, we managed to get the tour for 700 Bolivianos – not 590, but not 900 either. All good again, until the moment we were to pay. Not enough Bolivianos! Can we pay by card? Obviously not. Is there any ATM around? Yes there is, but it’s only open on weekdays… and today is Saturday. Another way of saying “bad luck”. How about we give you some money in advance and we pay you the rest when we come back on Wednesday? Errrr, no, that won’t work because “this is actually not my place, and the owner is away, and I can’t reach him, and I can’t take responsibility … and … and … and you have to wait until Monday “.

And that’s how we ended up spending our Sunday moving from one hammock to another, biting from a mango or another, slapping a mosquito on a piece of leg where the insecticide hadn’t reached… Well, this kind of hard life occupations :).

(to be continued with the 3 days spent in the pampas)

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