Our 45-minute flight from La Paz to Rurenabaque was a short but perception-altering experience. Had we not decided at the last minute to visit Bolivia’s Amazon basin, we would still be associating Bolivia with bowler hats, shortness of breath, llamas, woven alpaca textiles and extreme temperature swings on the altiplano. Our 19-seat, twin-engine propjet “bumped” down on Rurrenabaque’s dirt runway amid clear jungle skies -- according to Lonely Planet’s web site this was one of Bolivia's 1,068 airports with unpaved landing strips. Arriving in the Amazon basin, we entered a different world; a world of canoes, insects, humidity and hammocks.
We checked into our hotel, jumped into our hammocks and the difference from the altiplano was immediately palpable. The breathlessness that accompanied physical activity on the altiplano was gone, our skin and hands were no longer perpetually dry and we welcomed the cacophony of birds, bugs and frogs calling in the night. Rurrenabaque is the jumping-off point for river trips into the Amazon basin; we had picked a 3-day tour of the pampas, the vast wetland savannah with rivers teeming with wildlife. The night before departure, we bought some last-minute provisions: water, snacks, a miner’s flashlight and batteries. I also needed a khaki long-sleeve shirt to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We checked at a local market by the river and some of the shops on the main street selling predominantly used clothing, many items still having a Goodwill tag. I bought a beige shirt that looked very similar to one that I donated to a local Goodwill store many years ago.
The next morning we took off in our jeep for the 3 hour ride to our lodge on the Rio Yacuma, a distant tributary of the Amazon. Along the way we spotted toucans, storks, herons and one sleepy, leaf-munching sloth. The moment we arrived at our lodge, a pink river dolphin jumped out of the water to mark our arrival. We settled in to our rooms and the kids immediately found a frog family living in the tank of the toilet. After lunch we set out in our 20-foot long canoe and watched turtles sunbathe while caimans of various sizes eyed us from the banks of the coffee-colored river. Within minutes we saw about a dozen capybara, the world’s largest rodent, milling about near the shore. These brown “water-hogs” are about 2 feet high and 3 feet long and are plentiful because no man or animal wants to eat them. In Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, he describes the appearance of the capybara: “Both the front and side view of their head has quite a ludicrous aspect, from the depth of their great jaw.” Later in the day we viewed several types of monkeys before heading back to the lodge.
The second day we toured a different section of the Yacuma. We navigated a bend in the river, glided near a dense thicket of trees and were immediately beset upon by small, gold-colored monkeys, who boarded our canoe without permission and liberated us from our oranges. There were about 15 of them in total and they were extremely curious…that is until the oranges were gone. In the afternoon we went piranha fishing. While the kids caught many river sardines and a few catfish, our guide was the only one to catch a piranha. None of the fish were suitable for a meal so we threw them all back. That night after dinner, we got our flashlights and went looking for caimans. Orange eyes peered at us from both sides of the river as insects were magnetically attracted to our flashlights. We observed the Southern Cross up in the sky and watched fireflies glitter in the larger trees, making them look like Christmas trees.
On day three we swam with pink river dolphins. We found a deep spot in the river where a couple dolphins were swimming and waited until our guide got us comfortable with the idea of swimming in piranha-infested water with zero visibility while 10-foot caimans watched from the shore 25 feet away. Wilber, our guide, explained to us that the caimans are afraid of the dolphins and that we were safe from the piranha as long as we were free from cuts or blood. After about 20 minutes we got up enough courage to jump in. To our surprise, the dolphins stuck around to swim with us, playing with a ball we tossed to them, gliding in and out of the water and at one point giving us a big splash of water. These dolphins once swam in the Atlantic, but changing geography and 25 million years of evolution have changed them into blind, freshwater, bottle-nosed creatures with smaller dorsal fins. Obviously sight was not needed in muddy water but Wilber explained to us that the longer nose and smaller dorsal fin enabled them to more easily reach into bushes for crabs and small shore animals.
Earlier that same morning we also went on an anaconda hunt, getting out of our canoe and walking along an elevated dirt road for a few hours. We didn’t spot any anaconda, but getting out of the boat put the pampas in its proper perspective – flat, endless, wetland savannah for thousands of miles. While life along the river is more interesting, this view was more indicative of the pampas. Just as our trip to the Bolivian Amazon (which comprises two-thirds of Bolivia’s land) gave us a more representative picture of the country, getting out of our canoe put the pampas in perspective.