Although not exactly in keeping with the postcard images of the Andean plateau, much of Bolivia is covered in tropical forest. Along with eight other South American countries, it shares the Amazon Basin. The Wildlife Conservation Society has declared the Bolivian Amazon to be one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It is home to many of the earth’s most endangered species. What does this mean for travellers? Well, you can visit the Amazon here at a far cheaper cost than almost anywhere else on the continent!
Rurrenabaque, located 410km from La Paz, is the starting point for most trips to the Bolivian Amazon. Getting there requires either a 15-24 hour bus journey or an hour long flight with Amaszonas or TAM. The bus journey involves travel along some poorly maintained roads (even by Bolivian standards). Therefore, many opt for the luxury of the $200 flight. However, be aware that many of the planes are tiny nineteen seaters. Nervous fliers and tall travellers, you are in for the experience of a lifetime! A small army of taxis and motorcyclists await each flight and they will compete to whisk you into the metropolis…Trust me, there is no reason to wait around at Rurrenabaque Airport.
Metropolis might be a bit of an exaggeration, except in comparison with neighbouring San Buenaventura (click here for information).
Rurrenabaque acts as the bustling small-town gateway to the Bolivian Amazon. From early in the morning its streets come alive with the sounds of motorbikes. Despite this, Rurrenabaque is a place to swing in a hammock with a book, to eat fresh fish at the riverfront and, above all, to plan your Amazon adventures. Most of its ‘sights’ can be visited on foot. And there is always a motorbike driver to take you to the top of the nearby hill! From there you can admire the views across the Beni lowlands.
The aim of any visit here must be an Amazon tour and there are two choices. Either you can visit the jungle and stay in a traditional community or you can do a Pampas tour to see the wildlife. A week in the area should allow you to do both and still have time left to swing on your hammock back in Rurrenabaque.
San Miguel del Bala offers highly recommended jungle trips to a traditional community upriver. To get a full flavor of life in this Bolivian Amazon community, it is better to take the three day tour that can usually be arranged in either Spanish or English. The first day involves the transfer upriver by boat where you will observe traditional craft making, eat lunch and have the option of trekking through a watery canyon. The latter provides the opportunity to see all your favourite creatures such as scorpions and tarantulas up close.
After breakfast the following day you will travel by boat to a lodge deep in the Madidi National Park. This is where you will learn about the medicinal properties of plants and observe animals in their natural habitat. In the evening you will eat a large meal, do an optional night trek in the forest or relax in a hammock under a veritable galaxy of stars. The final day involves a river trip, making your own raft and then sailing back downriver. If you want to get a fuller flavour of this tour, click here to see my trip diary.
While the jungle tour offers a fascinating insight into the traditional practices and beliefs of the Amazon, forest animals tend to be shy and it may prove difficult to get decent photos. If your aim is to see as many animals as possible, then you should consider taking a tour of the lowland pampas. These trips offer activities such as swimming with dolphins, looking for anacondas and viewing a range of animals such as caimans and monkeys.
Competition is fierce and standards are not always what they could be. In particular, should you be sensitive to the treatment of the animals, you will probably want to avoid any operator who shows photos of large groups of tourists holding an anaconda. Shop around, look at the brochures and consider your impact on the wildlife and the local community. Indigena is locally based, uses only local guides and comes highly recommended by many travellers to the Bolivian Amazon.
Practicalities in the Bolivian Amazon
- Salads are usually washed in fresh water, so you will come into contact with new bacteria. Even the hardiest stomachs occasionally succumb…Pack that Imodium!
- If visiting a local community, there may be no light at night. The stars above are indeed a heavenly sight, but if you need to make a trip to the bathroom…Take a small flashlight!
- Have a good pair of heavy walking shoes or boots if you intend to do a jungle trek, but wear light clothing, preferably cotton. It may be the Bolivian Amazon, but it’s still the Amazon, so it’s hot and humid.
- Have zip lock bags for those possessions that don’t react well with water. Your photos are worthless if you take an unintended bath in a canyon or a river.
- Travel light, if possible. You may have to hike through mud to get to your lodge and your guide probably has to carry some provisions for the trip.
- This is a unique ecosystem and a traditional area. Treat everything and everyone with respect. Remember that $200 does not entitle you to expect a luxury safari.
- Bring your medicines and ointments with you. The area around Rurrenabaque is not a serious risk for malaria, but you may have to deal with insect bites, particularly on the pampas trip.
San Miguel del Bala Jungle Tour: http://www.sanmigueldelbala.com/
Indigena (reputable local agency): http://indigenatours.weebly.com/
Amaszonas for flights: https://www.amaszonas.com/