Bolivia: Infested in the Amazon

2002047026b rio beni hills Whilst high up in the Andes in South America, my travelling companion Andy and I wanted to go down and explore the Amazon, and witness this big swamp, which is home to thousands of species of plants and animals.  We had just travelled through the Atacama Desert in Chile up onto the altiplano in Bolivia.  La Paz, the world’s highest capital at 12,000 feet above sea level gave us colourful markets to explore.  In the next week though we would swap this cool, dry, high-altitude climate for the largest natural greenhouse on earth, the luscious green but insect-riddled Amazon basin.

We endured a gruelling 18-hour long bus journey weaving down towards the Amazonian town of Rurrenabaque some two vertical miles lower than La Paz.  The journey mostly through the night was perilous and I later learned that the road to Rurrenabaque is arguably the most dangerous in the world.  Sometimes the single lane dirt track gives way on one side to a drop of thousands of feet into the cloud forest.  I was so thankful that the darkness concealed a terrifying glimpse into the unending chasm, until dawn when I was aghast at just how close to the edge our bus wheels came, almost bringing certain death.  In Sweltering heat we arrived literally at the end of the road entering the ramshackle Rurrenabaque.  Despite the sun gleaming, the air was heavy and moist with thick lush green vegetation surrounding us.

Following a full day’s recovery Andy and I approached some local tour agencies to assist our journey into the rainforest.  For what seemed a cheap deal we eventually hired a local Amazonian guide and a mad professor-looking South African bloke acting as an interpreter.  We loaded up a canoe complete with an outboard motor and chugged along a mucky brown wide river called the Rio Beni.  I thought that I recognised the colour green until this day in my life sailing along an Amazonian tributary and got blinded by the true richness of the colour on the riverbanks.  We caught our lunch in a purpose built bamboo fish trap, learnt to fillet the poor freshly caught fish and then roast them over a fire that evening.  The highlight of the day came when we opted to go for a night paddle in our canoe along the misty, moonlit river. After nightfall the rainforest came well and truly alive.  The screeches of monkeys in the trees were accompanied by the call of various species of birds coming home to roost.  That night my heart beat fast as I lay inside just a mosquito net on the floor of the jungle in the knowledge that nearby a jaguar prowled.

The following day we wanted to really immerse ourselves in rainforest so we moored our canoe and took to machetéing a path into the foliage.  Our second night in the rainforest really was an unforgettable event.  Already bitten to pieces from sand flies and mosquitoes we decided to build our nightly camp.  Unknowingly at the time our location was not so well thought out.  We spent the entire night infested with ants, but not your common garden sized ant, some of these soldier ants were one inch long.  In their expert role in leaf cutting, the ants mistook our mosquito nets and tarpaulin for leaves and promptly dismantled our camp piece by piece during the night.  Even the T-shirt I was wearing finished the night like a string-vest.  Months after the event I still itched at the thought of my night in the rainforest, being ravaged by the leaf-cutter ants.  After dawn on our return back to our canoe we found the prime culprit, an ants nest the size of a house.

I was mightily relieved to arrive back at our canoe for a leisurely boat ride to relative civilisation, a small Amazonian village.  How the local people survive in these areas made me appreciate the more modern things in life.  The local peoples’ main lifeline is the river and the rainforest.  I felt like an alien dropping in from another planet, forgetting that indeed this was still our same planet earth, just a spectacular overgrown part of it.  The moral of this tale?  I might have chosen to visit the Amazon basin as part of a proper organised tour.  If you are considering a visit to somewhere as wild as the rainforests of South America then make sure it’s with a reputable tour company.