Jungle Trekking in Bolivia
Rurrenabaque Travel Blog› entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
We had never been to South America and now that my best friend had been stationed in Bolivia, it was our opportunity to visit. Ed Ryan, my friend, had suggested that he organize the activities in Bolivia while my wife, Vicky, and I find the most economical way to fly there and back.
The first step was looking for a round-trip flight from Sarasota, Florida to La Paz, Bolivia, via Miami International. Like most tourists to a new country, we bought a travel book on Bolivia so as to be somewhat familiar with the customs, people, climate and things to see. What we learned was that Bolivia has the highest capital city in the world, La Paz at 12,000 feet above sea level, the highest golf course (they say to add 30 to 40 yards to your stroke), the highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca, the highest developed ski slope at 17,000 feet, the highest train line which goes to 15,800 feet, and the highest commercial airport in the world, El Alto at 13,314 feet.
When we landed at El Alto Airport, suddenly we would feel our heartbeats quicken as the cabin pressure adjusted to the thin outside air. It was a strange feeling to be out of breath just walking to the airport terminal. While the sun was starting to rise over the Andes mountains, Ed and his wife appeared near the exit of the terminal. We proceeded to Ed's house, descending from teh ALtiplano (a high, dreary plain that extends from 800 miles at altitudes of 12,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level), into the valley leading to La Paz.
La Paz is actually surrounded by mountains, the most notable being the great snow-capped Illimani at 21,500 feet. The first impressions are that for such a poor city, it is relatively clean.
After a relaxing first day, we set out to drive to lake Titicaca, the highest nagivable lake in the world. It lies about 60 miles from La Paz and looks more like an ocean than a lake! It is over 140 miles long and 60 miles wide. We took a small hydrofoil to the island of Suriqui, where we visited a small museum displaying the famous tortora reed boats. The reed boats have been used for centuries by the inhabitants of the lake. Dr. Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer and master scientist, solicited the help of the top shipbuilders of Suriqui Island to design and construct his vessel the RA II.
On the following day, we were to take a commercial airline to the jungle town of Runnenabaque in the Beni region of Bolivia, but the flight was cancelled due to weather conditions. Fortunately, Ed had some contacts in the Bolivian air force and we could "rent" a Bolivian air force Cessna and pilot to fly us into Runnenabaque. Little did I or my wife know that the plane was unpressurized and we would be lying at 18,500 feet for an hour to get over the Andes.
What really made me nervous was that both Ed, an air force pilot himself, and the Bolivian pilot seemed to be lost over the jungle.
The morning of our expedition we piled into one large dugout canoe powered by a 55 hp outboard engine. Our first camp was at a clearing along the river that had been used previously by hunters for setting camp and the guides were quite familiar with the territory. At this point the scope of this expedition was apparent as I talked with Silvestro; Ed was going hunting with the Indians and Silvestro was there to collect bushmaster snakes for venom extraction at the Univesity of La Paz.
The question was what were my wife and I doing there? Apparently helping to finance the expedition! Nonetheless, we went along with the group into the jungle during the night in pursuit of animals. Silvestro made sure that we understood not to stray from the group, as a bite from a bushmaster would mean certain death. We followed his advice. Either the animals knew the danger of humans or there weren't any around, because during the whole night we heard just a few noises around us and saw nothing. One of the noises sounded like an outboard motor purring, but the guides told us it was a jaguar.
On one of these trips our guide was attacked by a jaguar and his arm is a testament to what one of these cats can do. His forearm was crushed by the jaws of the jaguar and had not been reset, making his arm appear to have two elbows! He saved himself by shooting the cat with his other arm.
The next day we broke camp and set down river to a new campsite. The river is constantly changing directions, we were told, and therefore maps of the area become obsolete after a few years. As we pitched our tents, I noticed a curious red ant with a large head and pointed it out to our guides. A serious look overcame their faces as they mentioned "sepes". These ants, we were told, will eat a whole nylon tent in one night and eat the clothes off your back while you sleep. We thought that this was just another tall story for tourists like ourselves. We thought that until 3 a.m. in the morning when we heard yelling and laughing coming from the guides' tents, where we saw what "sepes" do to clothing. Their shirts, pants and clothing bags looked like they were shot with buckshot.
We left camp that morning and headed back to Runnenabaque for our return trip to La Paz. The Cessna arrived and we boarded. During the pre-flight check, the pilot noticed that something was wrong with the plane. After shutting down the plane and looking at the engine, he noticed that one of the two magnetos was not working. he decided to take off anyway - we were very nervous! We made it back to La Paz without any problems and made preparations to return to the United States that night.