Home Planning a trip Travel Stories Bolivia travel stories

Travel stories: Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

Boat trip into the Bolivian Amazon

By Dan Chalmers


It was not the best way to start a three day boat trip into the Bolivian Amazon.

And it insisted on getting worse.

Firstly, myself and two university friends had celebrated the fact that we were going on this trip the night before. This ended rather messily at 4.30am in a Bolivian discotheque in Rurrenabaque, village on the Rio Beni, north-eastern Bolivia. Dancing to salsa interpretations of Madness and fending off the inhabitants. And waking at 7.30am in the hot fetidness of the hotel with no air or water before sitting on a bouncing truck for four hours. Concentrating on keeping my head together. Pot holes and swamp plains. Herds of white cows with the camel-like hump drift in and out of the heat haze. The sky is enormous. We guzzle liquids and drip into sleep painfully. To wake at the riverside, packing the low wooden boat with petrol and
supplies. The heat rises another notch and I have somewhat worryingly stopped sweating.

The absurdities heighten for an intense two minutes of frenzied activity as one of the other guides is standing next to me, washing his feet in the shallows. A strange guttural yelp forces its way out of his mouth and he is flung back forcibly, five feet onto the sand.

And starts shaking profusely and bleeding all over the place. The other men rush over and the small collection of buildings is a panic. My guide, Luis, and I pick up the man and rush him to the nearest truck by which time the pale man is convulsing. Blood everywhere.

People shouting advice. Fear. And he is driven off. A sting-ray. We pack the low boat and set off down the lazy brown river, uncertainties rising but that event has knocked any remnants of a hangover clean

This trip was a random idea that we talked ourselves into whilst in La Paz and accustomed as we are to bringing these types of dreams into fruition, it is a bizarre feeling indeed to be sitting in this vessel drifting through the fertile undergrowth. It starts slowly and comes on like a natural rush. Firstly we notice the great grey turtles basking on parched roots and then the lazy white storks and enormous hummingbirds. Herons and black kites. Swarms of butterflies. We have given ourselves up to Luis and his friendly wife completely. Totally
in their hands as the boat chugs through clogged-up vines and underneath the spread of vast trees. And it feels good. Good to watch with intent eyes as Luis skillfully maneuvers his vessel amongst the overhanging undergrowth and draws it to a halt.

It is a thick darkness that we sit in and and listen to Luis explaining how to unfocus and look 'through' the dense foliage to the bank behind. Heather sees it first; a jewelled- green alligator a good eight feet in length cools off two arms length away from our flimsy protection. Just to the right, a crocodile of three or more metres shares the damp hideaway. We sit and stare, tying to understand the prehistoric inevitability of these predators who have not evolved because they have had no reason to. Five minutes pass, the alligator becomes restless and slopes off into the undergrowth and the crocodile bores of the staring match. With a quiet splash, he slides under the boat and disappears. We depart. Rapidly. The visions continue.

I feel as if we are floating through a living zoo with no fences and no trenches. It is all slightly hard to grasp as the air fills with a vast swarm of aquamarine macaws, turtles line the shores and pink river dolphins breach all around. We trust Luis implicitly as he tells how it is safe to swim with these playful creatures. Apparently there are the kings of the river and no crocodiles dare approach their territory. Jim and I strip off, dive into the filthy water, bob around nervously and scramble back to safety as soon as is polite.

Our home for the two nights is a perfectly positioned clearing with mosquito nets hung under heavy tarpaulin canopies. Not that these protections make any difference. We are ravaged to the point of insanity by thick clouds of enormous mosquitoes. More than I have ever seen. Jim's back is join-the-dots of wide red welts and our faces have morphed into strange alien shapes after a day of industrial strength repellant. We are basically washing in it every day but still they come, eating through clothes and driving us mad. The river or bed are the only sanctuaries. It is a shame that these voracious devils make conversation around the wonderful dinner spread almost impossible because it is a learning and enjoyable time. Then Luis eases us into sleep with his guitar and soft voice. Simple Bolivian folk songs. I am glad he is here because otherwise the cacophony of bizarre noises emanating from the jungle would have been too much. My jitteriness is not helped by the wooden slats that are my bed cracking in the middle of the night sending me crashing to the floor. One minute I am deep in heady slumber, dreaming of turtles and sunsets, the next I am lying on my back on the cold mud ground convinced that they have come for us.

After three hours of nervy sleep, we are woken to the soft melodies of Luis and his guitar and the smell of rich Bolivian coffee brewing on the fire. Another day of jungle- inspired lunacy looms. We are filthy, stinking messes with bulgy faces and mud- smeared faces but it does not matter. This is what we came for and we are ready for it. More sights and unbelievable sounds wash over us and around us as we converse with a colony of marmoset monkeys, entice a baby alligator into the boat and tickle its stomach until it is fast asleep on its back with its legs in the air and howl back at the howler monkeys in far away trees.

The pig-sized aquatic rodents that are capybaras lumber about in friendly troops and pairs of pampas condors squawk a throaty warning of our approach. The sun beats down as we drift along and we are drawn into the hypnotic rhythm of the jungle and the plains.

Now, this may all appear as simply a ridiculous list of animal-spotting incidents but this was really how it happened. Therein
lies the buzz, they just kept on coming. Not only was it just one particular specie or family or genie, but all of them, all the time.
There was indeed one fifteen minute period on the afternoon of the second day when this incessant drug trip peaked and it all came on.

From every side. We were contentedly observing maybe three or four pink dolphins breaching and blowing merrily around our boat when a toucan lolled across in front of us, dragging its heavy beak. Herons and huge egrets took off in all directions. A family of turtles flopped off a dead branch into the nearby shadows and a pair of condors squawked hysterically. Howlers joined the party with their bizarre roar-like coughing and a pair of enormous green hummingbirds shot past, shrilling. Where to look ? What to do ? It was all too much, too much natural life operating all around us.

Yet this was not to be the true peak for this came on the third day and truly stood above the rest. There had been talk of anacondas and their discovery but this had become myth when ruled out on the second day due to lashing rain which forces the cold-blooded creature to the very bottom of the swamps. Too cold for it. We had tramped for four hours through mud and swamps and fields of insects and dead capybara corpses but were unlucky.

The third and final day dawned bright and sunny and we set off expectantly across the vast empty plains. The harsh sun belted down on our brains as the group made its way through strange woods and around small swamps until a large lagoon appeared and Luis, fool that he is, made off into it, thigh-high in water teaming with piranhas, We sat and waited. Waited and sat and baked and rather forgot about the whole issue. It seemed implausible and maybe we gave up. But Luis did not, he never does. He circumnavigated the entirety of this large lake and kept on wading, fighting through reeds up to his shoulders and thick mud until, suddenly, euphorically, we saw him rise up from a distance like a strange humanoid stork, run through the water like a hunter, dive headfirst into the murk and pull out a three and a half metre, 40 kg anaconda. Then he proceeded to drag it back to shore in front of us whereupon this immense, primeval thing was curled up into a circle, patted and mumbled to until it lay, dozing, like a domestic pet in the sun.

We looked at it, and then at Luis, this small wiry young man, sweating and panting and covered in stinking yellow snake shit, smiling proudly. We applauded him, and meant it. After a while, this unfathomable expression of ancient power slid off slowly, rather confused but not even slightly hassled by this strange biped furore.

On the last night we were lucky enough to come into sync with a full moon so we loaded torches into the now engine-less boat and set off into the inky blackness to spot the green and red retinas of the crocodiles and alligators hunting in the shallows. As we sat in awe under the bright natural light trying to understand this immensely loud electronic jungle orchestra, Luis told us a sad tale of the future of this place. The Rio Beni is a prime damming site and many multinationals are pressuring the cash- desperate Bolivian government for permission to construct a site just north of here. If it goes through all this land will be lost to inundation. As we bumped and skipped back to Rurrenabaque along the rutted road the next day, man's disregard for the permanence and balance of the Land cane into my mind and I felt guilty. Yet there was also joy that I had seen this place firsthand and had g rasped a small understanding that could be passed on.


You can contact Daniel for further information or for writing opportunities at: Danchalmers@hotmail.com

Research and book a trip to Bolivia

Expedia Great for cheap flights as well as special flight and hotel combinations. Check prices
British Airways at ba.com British Airways often have cheap flight offers and typically have direct flights. Check prices

More travel stories

More travel stories

Highly recommended tour companies

Responsible Travel tours

Support local communities and protect the environment

Find tours

G Adventures tours

Exciting and responsible overland and adventure tours

Find tours


Superb group adventure tours and exciting short breaks

Find tours