So our journey continued with a flight on Bolivia’s Military airline, TAM, from La Paz to Rurrenabaque.
It was a bit too bumpy for my liking but in the 50 minutes we were flying the change in landscape was very dramatic. We flew over snow-capped peaks and milky turquoise lakes then dramatically the mountains dropped to densely jungled lowlands.
The airport in Rurrenabaque was pretty tiny and after landing, the plane taxied along a dirt road to the terminal building. As soon as we landed we could feel the massive jump in temperature – My God it was hot!
Rurrenabaque is a nice little place surrounded by green hills and the Rio Beni, a tributary of the Amazon River. It was really nice to be back in a hot climate and it reminded me very much of the Izabal region of Guatemala.
Our three day Pampas tour began at 8.30am the next day when we met at the tour office to be transported by four wheel drive the three hours to Santa Rosa.
The roads were muddy and pot-holed but we definitely had the best driver who saw himself as a bit of a Michael Schumacher, which led to his nickname Mick; he liked that very much.
After lunch in Santa Rosa we were split into groups and put on long boats to be taken the two hours to the Lodge. While we were waiting we saw our first pod of pink dolphins playing in the river. They are smaller than sea dolphins, have longer and thinner snouts and have pale pink bellies. I was amazed to see them so soon as I have heard of people who have gone on the Pampas tour and not seen any.
The boat trip was great; we saw birds of paradise, turtles, caimans, parrots and black eagles but the best thing we saw was tiny yellow squirrel monkeys. We pulled up alongside a tree full of them and the curious wee things came to check us out. Our Guide gave them a banana and as soon as they saw it, about 20 of them jumped on the boat and were climbing all over anyone he held the banana near, including Robbie. They are the cutest things!
We arrived at our lodge and were given our rooms. The Lodge was a number of small huts connected by boardwalks over the river shallows.
There are two caimans, one scarily massive one, that ‘live’ under the boardwalks. I think the Kitchen gives them scraps so they keep coming back. They seemed pretty lazy and some people were getting very close to the smaller one but our Guide said it bit someone recently so I’m pleased I didn’t!
There were also lots of squirrel monkeys hanging around the lodge and eating the vegetable scraps out of the compost heap.
We went back out on the boats to a nearby place with a soccer field and a small drinks shop to watch the sunset. All of the other groups also went there so there were a lot of people. After having dinner back at the lodge we went on a nocturnal boat trip to spot the glowing red eyes of caimans. We saw a couple as well as a baby caiman that our Guide plucked out of its nest (some of the Guide’s practices were definitely questionable!).
Day two started early, watching the beautiful pink sunrise over the river, then after breakfast back at the lodge we set out on an Anaconda hunt. I wasn’t too keen on this as I don’t like snakes but went along anyway.
We were given gumboots to wear but most of them had holes in them, this didn’t matter in the end as we ended up trudging through knee deep muddy water which went over the top of the boots anyway.
The search was fruitless and after an hour and a half we gave up. I can’t say that I enjoyed it; so many mosquitoes, blisters from the boots and smelly muddy water. The boys were disappointed but by sheer luck (hmmm) our Guide found a water anaconda in his bed when we got back to the lodge so they got to see a big snake after all. I gave it a miss and had a much needed shower instead.
We had free time after lunch then got back on the boats for some more wildlife spotting. We saw all the same stuff as yesterday as well as howler monkeys, red monkeys, sloths and a toucan.
We went fishing for piranhas but didn’t catch any. As it is still technically the wet season (despite the constant sunshine) the river is flooded and it is less likely to see piranhas, capybaras and anacondas.
No matter, I was completely blown away by all of the wildlife we did see. It was relaxing sitting on the river with a fishing line while the howler monkeys howled nearby. I haven’t fished since I was a kid but I miss the tranquility of it. Me and Trav are thinking of buying small lines to fish with when we are in Canada.
We were awoken early on Day three by some rude monkeys making a racket in the trees above us. There were loads of red monkeys, squirrel monkeys and a couple of cappuccino monkeys hanging around the camp so we visited with them until breakfast.
The aim for our last day was to swim with the pink river dolphins and it was what I was most looking forward to. We went to a wide part of the river which looked like a lake and sure enough there were about 3 of the dolphins in that area.
Unfortunately they weren’t as playful as the ones we saw on the first day and weren’t much interested in us. We followed them around a bit then I jumped in the water when we saw one surface near us. As the water was so murky we only saw them when they surfaced briefly then wouldn’t know which way they went so despite trying, I only got within about 5 metres of one.
Rob managed to touch one and a couple of other people from other groups got nipped by them. Apparently this is common with them biting people lightly when they are playing. I was a bit disappointed but I hadn’t let myself get my hopes up as I have very bad luck when it comes to swimming with dolphins. I have tried in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia to swim with them in places where it is usually possible but to no avail, so I hadn’t expected my luck to change now.
We packed up back at the lodge, had an early lunch and a bit of free time. Trav and I went and sat on the boardwalk where the monkeys were eating the food scraps off the compost heap. There were about 10 of them including a couple of babies. They didn’t mind that we were there and went about their business, picking apart half rotten cabbages and bananas within a metre of us, just glancing up at us occasionally. I think sitting with the monkeys was my favourite experience of the three days and it was unplanned.
Our last boat cruise was back to where we started three days earlier. There were pink dolphins back at start point again but they weren’t interested in playing either.
We got the vans back to Rurrenabaque and decided to have a few celebratory drinks at the Hostel after a great trip. These turned into a few more then we went to Mosquito Bar. It was my first proper night out since we were in Bogota a couple of months earlier and we had a fun night.
Unfortunately the night ended badly when I kicked a curb and either broke my toe (according to the Toe Doctor website). From what I remember it hurt a lot and was sticking out at an unnatural angle, but I managed to sleep after taking a strong painkiller. I strapped it to my next toe when I woke up and managed to hobble around. Luckily it wasn’t my big toe or I doubt I would have been able to walk at all.
After lunch in town, we spent the afternoon at a hotel pool trying to stay cool in the tropical heat. There was a tame toucan there that let us stroke it but when Rob tried to get it to hop on his arm, it bit him a couple of times.
The Office for TAM was in town so we checked in and dropped our bags, then went to the airport where we had to wait for our flight. It ended up being 1 ½ hours late.
When we finally got back to La Paz it was freezing! We hadn’t considered that we were going to be getting in when it was dark and didn’t have any warm clothes on us. We weren’t the only ones that made that mistake and there were a lot of shivering gringos desperately waiting for their bags.
Our cab driver recommended a cheap restaurant for dinner and he was definitely on to something – best burger I have had in months and only $1.30 with fries. Gotta love Bolivian prices.
We booked the 2pm bus to Copacabana the next morning then me and Trav went to a Café recommended in the Lonely Planet and randomly bumped into our friend Mariella, who was on our boat from Panama to Colombia. It was nice to catch up and we were able to give her tips for the Pampas where she was heading next.
We caught our bus and arrived in Copacabana in the early evening. We found a great Hotel with a private bathroom, cable TV and great lake views. A relaxed evening watching TV was such a nice treat after so long.
Copacabana is a small tourist town right on the lake with lots of restaurants and souvenir shops. There are a lot of trout shacks down by the lake where you can get fresh trout, fished straight out of the lake.
We went for lunch there and randomly bumped into the second friend in two days, Austin. We caught up with him for a while. He was heading to Isla del Sol that afternoon. The altitude was affecting Trav so after looking around a bit, he went back to the hostel while me and Rob climbed the hill beside town for a great view over the beach and the lake. It looked more like the sea and was beautiful; sparkling in the sun.
We caught a ferry to Isla del Sol the next morning. Isla del Sol is where the Incas believed their kind were created and that the sun was born there. It took 2 ½ hours to get to the North of the Island and was a great boat trip although a bit too long.
Our plan was to hike from the North of the island to a village called Yumani in the South, along a ridge. The first hour was the most spectacular. We crossed a white sand beach then rose up the side of the island to a rocky outcrop with sweeping views over the Northern coastline and the lake.
The clear water and white sand beach were remarkably reminiscent of the Mediterranean. We then hiked along the ridge, high above the lake, for about three hours.
With Trav feeling sick and my broken toe it took us a lot longer than most people. Rob was waiting for us in Yumani at a Restaurant with a remarkable view, where we had a couple of beers before checking into our homestay.
Water is scarce on the island so there was no shower, and some places don’t even have electricity. We had amazing pizza by candlelight then turned in for the night.
The next morning we had a long travel day, first catching a ferry back to the Copacabana, a bus to La Paz then a night bus to Sucre.
It is only our second week in Bolivia and we have seen so many amazing places. It is an incredibly diverse and scenic country and a dream destination for budget conscious travellers like us.