Trial by Jungle

Floating (and Hacking) through River Beni Country
By Peter Hutchison
Map of Bolivia

A rain forest adventure awaits those seeking excitement. Take heed—this is not for the faint-hearted!

If you are looking for a jungle experience, Rurrenabaque, a lively town of around 5,000 inhabitants in the northern lowlands, is a good place to start. To get there the two options include a short flight with TAM, which leaves La Paz once a week, or a character-building, 18-hour bus journey.

Sitting on either side of the River Beni, Rurrenabaque's environment forever reminds you that this is jungle territory where many things are forced to take a back seat to nature.

The floating agency on the river front, by location alone, suggests an affinity with nature that would calm the most nervous passengers. From here you need clothes, boots, a sleeping bag, plastic (conveniently sold in the street), a good relationship with your mental state and luck! All the rest is provided for you and before you know it the four-hour journey upstream has begun.

Your first steps into the jungle will be filled with excitement, anticipation and hope. The barrage of information that hits your senses is overwhelming. Within thirty seconds of leaving the boat, the only indication of your way back is sense of direction because the noise of the insects obliterates the sound of the river. Trees of all sizes compete vertically for the sunlight. Parasitic mosses cling to the trunks whilst vines hang from the branches. The sheer variety is bewildering.

As the sun sails across the sky, shadows and light drift across the floor where the activity is just as hectic. Palms grow with vociferous speed. The detritus of leaves, branches and fruit produced from the vertical world litters the forest floor. Here the wildlife begins. Millions of ants and termites perform admirable feats of energy conversion. Fungi and bacteria aid the breakdown, flies feed on the bacteria and the whole recycling process is in place.

The Search Begins
Being terrestrial in nature, this lower subsystem is your main point of contact as you follow the machete-cleared path. Ducking and twisting you realize that the jungle is not the place for above-average height people. Forget bad posture and uncomfortable chairs, the best way to develop a bad back is a fortnight in the jungle.

By this stage you are ready for animals, and tell-tale signs lift the sinking morale: a footprint here, half-eaten fruit there—signs suggesting the presence of monkeys, tapirs and more. The sound of a toucan keeps you looking up in the hope of one small glimpse. With luck you may actually see these animals: without it, you'll just keep looking.

The inhospitable nature of the jungle makes you quietly glad that you only there for a few days. But mankind has created an existence out of this place. If your supplies of insect repellent are running low, your guide will scrape the under-bark of the Ajo-Ajo tree for you. The result: a garlic-smelling substance which, for a while at least, discourages the insects. Other trees offer natural dressings for wounds, antibiotic-like qualities for internal infections and water of spring-like freshness for the thirsty. Others are less friendly—the sap of the Soliman tree is a highly effective poison.

After five hours of quietly meandering through the jungle with no glimpse of anything bigger than a beetle, your patience with insects of an airborne nature may be severely strained. Without humor and a philosophical attitude you may be pushed into prematurely ending your trip. If you have a serious problem with bugs, flies, mosquitoes and wasps, do not attempt this trip. Effective repellent alone will achieve minimal results. Bring a large bottle of tolerance!

A night hike is also included for the keen. Bring a torch! The possibility of sighting snakes, monkeys, caiman, tapir and jaguar are nothing more than that, possibilities. Our adrenaline levels shot up when we were told a jaguar had been spotted, but it was scared off into jungle too dense to follow.

The animal highlight of our for-day trip was a morning trek to the edge of a cliff. From there the Amazon forest spreads out below, revealing a stunning view. With a clap of hands, parrots flocked from the cliff-face below. Always in couples, they majestically flew to a more peaceful roost. The squawking of flight changes into the chuckling of a lovesick pair as they enjoy a more solitary spot. From that angle the forest canopy looks like a blanket. The atmosphere and the mystery of the jungle reappear and the flies, momentarily, take a back seat.

As with any story, when things get a little quiet you begin to suspect something may happen. For us it was rain, rain and, for good measure, a little more rain. Along with the pleasures of waking up in a puddle, small trickles previously only good for paddling become streams two meters deep, and rivers become raging torrents loaded with sediment.

Strong trees of over 70 years float downstream like twigs. The riverbank is undercut, anything above just falls in and is carried away to be carelessly dumped somewhere farther downstream. Without doubt, countless animals went the same way. The sheer power of the river simply removes all obstructions and the remaining mess is like a natural dump yard.

Arriving back in Rurrenabaque the main street is flooded and the boat drops us halfway to out hotel filled with memories of our jungle experience. For you, too, for some unpredictable reason, the experience will be memorable. With more than 30 campsites to choose from and local guides with a wealth of knowledge, no two treks are ever the same, and you will certainly return wiser that you left.

Special thanks to the Bolivian Times, Pasaje jauregui 2248 (Sopocahi), Cassila No. 1696, La Paz, Bolivia, for providing this material.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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