Visiting the Amazon was one of things on my South America must-do list. The Amazon! I did a little comparison shopping in La Paz and in the end I found a package trip which included my roundtrip flight and a 3 day boat trip on the Amazon including food, lodging and a tour guide for under $300. My flight was at 6am and with La Paz traffic I thought I needed to give myself about 2 hours to get to the airport and check-in. In the end it only took 45 minutes so that was a lot of wasted sleep time. The La Paz airport is pretty modern. I had heard we would be on a small plane and I was ok with that. When it was finally time to board the ten of us on the flight went through the gate expecting to see a plane. Nope. Instead we walked for about 15 minutes all around the tarmac. No areas off-limits, no concern for safety – we just walked. We walked under planes, around planes, across two runways, over a small field and eventually arrived at our baby tiny plane. It was a plane were you could see the pilots and had to crawl to your seat because it was too small to stand up.
The plane was freezing. We were all bundled up and still shivering. The plane took off and we were flying over beautiful, snow-covered mountains. It started to get warmer and then warmer and then everyone is simultaneously sweating and stripping off their layers as fast as possible. It was like in a snap of your fingers we went from freezing cold, snowy mountains to hot, tropical rain forest. Bolivia is crazy!
At that point I was super hot and super tired and I fell asleep. I woke up to the plane landing and I was absolutely freezing again. It seemed everyone had fallen asleep so we all a bit dazed and frantically putting on layers. We get out the plane and I know something is off. Everyone said the runway in Rurrenabaque was really remote? And it was supposed to be hot? Why does this look so much like the La Paz airport? Oh, because it was. Our pilots had said nothing in English or Spanish but seems we had turned around. After our 20 minute walk back to the main terminal we were told that due to weather the plane couldn’t land and we had indeed turned back. Great. We spent the day in the small domestic terminal. Every hour or so one of the 10 of us unofficially took turns going to ask for an update. Every time the response was the same… um, we should have an update soon. Seven hours later we finally got put on another plane, the last flight out for the day. We made it! We got to Rurrenabaque and as I had been told the runway was TINY. It was just a small, dirt landing strip in the middle of the jungle. Nuts! We all climbed into a small bus provided by the airport and then were told, for a fee drove us into town. Always looking to make a buck!
I had made friends with two really nice Belgian girls during our airport camp-out and they decided to join my tour group. I had missed day 1 of my tour but the company was great and just pushed my start date to the following day. The girls and I found a cheap hostel with a pool and drove right in. The next morning we headed out for our tour. We had quite the tour group. Myself, the two Belgian girls and two more British girls became fast friends. We rounded out the group with an interesting Australian couple which would turn out to provide both frustration and comic relief during the tour and one more couple, a German girl and French Canadian guy who in the end we would all kind of hate. We piled into two cars and then headed out deeper into the jungle.
We met our boat captain, load our tons of things into the tiny boat and we are off! It takes no less than 10 minutes for us to crash at about half speed into the riverbank for the first time. Everyone is yelling, everyone is attempting to duck for cover and Nial, the Australian man begins ranting in what sounds like gibberish but apparently is English? Over the next two hours we will crash into the riverbank another 5 times. Ok, this is not working. The boat captain says there is too much weight in the front so we are trying to reposition things and I end up using a giant gas can for a foot rest. Way fewer crashes now, down to about 1 every 2 hours. Success!
On our first day we saw lots of birds, turtles having sex and some adorable monkeys! Not as many animals and certainly not doing quite the positions we were expecting! We arrive at our lodge but completely miss the dock and instead.. you guessed it, run – full speed this time into the riverbank. The captain, Nelson just gives up. We now have to climb out of the boat without tipping it, unload all our stuff and climb up about 6 feet of vertical muddy river bank. No worries, Grandpa the 1,000 year old tiny, little man who is the lodge keeper will help you. Grandpa, seriously, stop offering me your hand. If I were to accept your offer I will probably end up flinging you into the piranha filled Amazon while I would just lose the little bit of progress I have made myself! We all make it up, covered from head to toe in various amounts of river mud and then we met the lovely Mulan!
Mulan was our cook. Mulan has long black hair in a bun on the top of his head and is super excited to met all of us. Seriously one of the friendliest Bolivians I met during my entire time there. I am still not sure what gender Mulan identifies as but it was not important. Mulan cooked amazing food and was always smiling. When we told Mulan that he reminded us of the Disney movie character Mulan he was THRILLED. Loved it. So Mulan it was!
That first night we went out to the sunset spot where all the different tours hung out for the night. A fun spot with hammocks, volleyball, soccer and decent views. On the way back for the night we went croc hunting! That basically involves shinning your flashlight and being terrified as there are tons of yellow eyes staring back at you. Nelson! Do Not Crash! We make it back fine.
It was so hot that even as you were taking a cold shower you were sweating. No point in drying off. For an added bonus you need to wear long pants and long sleeves to for Malaria prevention. We decided to go with 50-50 appropriate clothing and a prayer. Leggings and a tank top. Everything completely sweat through in under a minute. Climb into your mosquito net and then talk amongst your neighbors about the symptoms of Malaria. Give up on that and just play several games of Archie Bunker. Good times!
Day 2! Everyone put on boots and goes Anaconda hunting. Here is the thing… I am so hot I fear I could actually die. I hate snakes. I have no desire to go tramping around for several hours in water that is always almost up to the top of the rain boots all while actively looking for a giant snake. Ugh, Nelson, I think I will pass. Nelson was having none of it. Peer pressured by a Bolivian boat captain it is. Naturally at one point I get stuck in the mud. The mud is like quick sand. I panic. The British girls I am with panic. Somehow one of the girls finding a giant stick and we act out a cartoon style, super over dramatic rescue. As you may have figured, I survived. Later when we told Nelson about our heroic feat he just laughed and laughed. Silly gringas. Whatever Nelson, you know you were impressed!
Ok, so, it´s almost time to give up and then we found one!! Oh god. There is a giant snake in the grass! Nelson just looks and starts telling us scary snake facts. Then another guide and group come over. This guide decided to pick up the snake. Scarier. He is holding it over his head when the German-French Canadian couple comes over yelling. You can´t touch it! Don´t pick it up! Leave it be! The guide does not listen so the French Canadian dude literally hit him with a big stick. A1 what adult hits another adult with a stick? B2 who hits someone holding a freaking ANACONDA over their head? Some sort of fight or flight survival instinct kicks in and I just start running as fast as I can away from the snake. Keep in mind I am in rain boats, running through mud and knee-high grass, in crazy hot heat so I get like 20 feet and I am completely exhausted. After that there is a lot of yelling. The Brits, the Belgians and I just sort of huddle off to the side in awe of the whole situation. We spend the next day and a half singing My Anaconda Don´t, My Anaconda Don´t, My Anaconda Don´t Want None Unless You Got Buns Hon at the top of our lungs while the German-French Canadian couple glare at us.
We spend the rest of day tooling around the river. See tons of capybara, more birds and some pink dolphins! That night we head back to the sunset spot and hang out again. The French Canadian is still pouting. On our ride back we are cruising at full speed and no lights. A fish jumped out of the water and landed in my lap. It is so dark I cannot even see my hand in front of my face much less see what is in my lap. I FREAK! I start screaming A FISH HAS ENTERED THE BOAT! A FISH HAS ENTERED THE BOAT! I am flailing around and so is the Brit next to me. Nelson stops the boat and we can hear the fish flopping at the bottom of the boat. The German girl scoops it up and throws it back into the river. The Brit and I are a complete tangle of arms and legs. We somehow have managed to upside down turtle ourselves on the tiny little folding chairs – stuck on our backs with are hands and feet in the air clinging to each other for dear life. Now, upon looking back this is not the most logical reaction. I mean who shouts A FISH HAS ENTERED THE BOAT? Apparently, I do. I asked Nelson later if that was a normal occurence. He said in his 10 years of guiding he has never seen or heard of that happening and then proceed to laugh even harder than he did about the quicksand rescue situation from earlier in the day. Mmhmm, I´m here for your entertainment Nelson.
Day 3 is our final day on the river and we´re all kind of over it. There are now three groups. The girls – we are just there to have fun and sing as loud as possible. The French Canadian – German who are making PETA proud. And the crazy Australians. Nials is convinced the boat will tip at all times and is constantly yelling at someone to sit still. He also blames everything on the government in his crazy accent. No more rice? Aahhhggghab jusss like da Bolivan goberment! Is it so hot that you feel ill? Aahhhggghab jusss like da Bolivan goberment! Did we run into the river bank AGAIN? Aahhhggghab jusss like da Bolivan goberment!
Ok, final activity – piranha fishing. I have been nicknamed the fish whisperer after the fish-in-lap incident. What do you know… I catch the first 3 piranhas! So we are cruising along, fishing in a few spots. The Australian lady hooks one! Awesome! It´s flapping around and then Nial freaks out, takes off his plastic flip-flop and just starts smacking the piranha with it. The piranha is flying around, stuck on the fishing line and everyone is shouting for Nial to stop but he doesn´t, he just keeps on smacking it. The French Canadian tries to grab the fish away from Nial and the fish ends up biting him and taking a good size chunk out of his finger. Turns out there are 3 kinds of piranhas in the Amazon and this is the most vicious with the biggest teeth. Ekk. We end up going back to camp so he can get first aid, packing everything up and leave immediately.
The trip out was a bit somber at first but we got bored and started singing Pocahontas Just Around the Riverbend! You know, us girls wanna have fun and all that jazz. The flight back was uneventful. We made it out of boiling hot Amazon and back to freezing cold Bolivia in one piece! I can now check the Amazon off my bucket list. So… not as I expected but certainly an adventure!