There is no easy route to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. What looks like a very short distance from La Paz on the map is actually either a treacherous fourteen hour bus ride or a much pricier one hour flight. Given the obstacles, I was surprised to find that when my travel mates and I arrived in small town in Bolivia's Amazon basin, its entire face has been changed by tourism.
Rurre's streets are spotted with businesses that cater to chilled-out budget backpackers and higher-end eco-tourists alike. Tourists can choose from a number of hostels, find traveler pubs and restaurants, and even soak in a lounge pool with a bar that overlooks the town on the side of the Beni river. Everyone is there for the same reason: to choose one of the dozens of tour operators to whisk them into the Bolivian rainforest (selva) and/or the swampy savannah (pampas).
After some legwork of talking to various tour operators about prices and itineraries, we decided to go with Escorpion Travel, who accommodated us with a three day tour that included two days of jungle and one day of pampas. Competition is fierce among tour operators. Your final decision about a company and tour guide will affect almost every aspect of your jungle and pampas experience, from the food and lodging to the insight you'll gain about the jungle and its local communities.
The best part of the Escorpion experience was our guide, Puma. Puma was born and raised in one of the area's indigenous communities. He didn't learn Spanish until he started school at age 8. He has spent months on end just living within the jungle on his own. He knows its secrets and surprises, which he'll show travelers on his jungle tour.
A few things from our jungle tour that I recommend that everyone try:
Swing on vines
Does jungle vine swinging really happen outside of cartoons? If your guide is like Puma, it can and it will. At one point on the jungle tour, we stopped and waited as Puma rigged a bundle of thick vines that hung from massive trees into a swing by fastening a stick to the bottom that we could sit or stand on. It was strong enough to bear the weight of two people. We each stepped up to try out the vine swing, which was mobilized with a running push from the bystanders. Only one trunk collision.
Handle enormous spiders
After a few hours of jungle trekking, Puma stopped and crouched down at a large hole in the ground. He knew this particular hole and its resident very well -- it was black tarantula the size of my fist. We watched, wide-eyed, as he coaxed the spider out and sedated it with the smoke of a cigarette. He had clearly built some rapport with this spider, who was crawling around on his arm. We were even more stunned when he offered to pass the spider along to each of us to hold. Looking back, I'm not sure how any of us agreed to it, but in the trance of the moment, we each dared to handle that marvelous arachnid.
Drink from a water tree
Puma stopped at the branch of a certain tree and started hacking away at two points, freeing a segment of it. He explained that this was a water tree. Because of this tree, he said, it is possible to survive on the gifts of the jungle with nothing but a machete. Pure, drinkable water could be found and tapped from these trees. He tilted the segment of the tree almost vertically, and we filled our water bottles and mouths with the clear water that streamed from it.
On the afternoon of the second day, our guide Puma led us to a bank of the Beni river to try our hand at the local livelihood of fishing. Equipment was very basic -- just a spool of fishing line with a small weight and hook at the end. Puma baited the hook with a small piece of meat and I started asked about technique. How do you cast this line? "You just throw it out there." I threw my line out into the current and waited. I felt different kinds of tugs, unable to discern between nibbles and snags. I'll leave this livelihood for those who know it.
The rainforest is called the rainforest for a reason, as we found out on the second day of our jungle tour. Even in the middle of "dry" season, it rains. Hard. We woke up to the sound of thunder claps and torrents of water pouring down on the thin plastic tarp that was the roof over our heads. Jungle trek part II was not looking likely, so we did what any crazy pent-up tourists would do -- put on our bathing suits and reveled in the rain. What started out as some casual mud sliding and a swim in the river quickly turned into a leaf-themed costume party. In a twist of roles, the locals brought out their camera and started taking pictures of us.
Ecotourism in and around Rurrenabaque
Various community-based ecotourism initiatives have helped the indigenous people of the area reap the economic benefits of tourism. Ecotourism has also engendered various local conservation projects and enforces the importance of the highly bio-diverse Madidi National Park as a protected area.
Visitors can participate in ecotourism by staying in well-recognized and accredited ecolodges such as Chalalan Ecolodge and San Miguel Del Bala.