We made it out alive, hopefully malaria-free, and unfazed from our last and most daring adventure yet, a trip into the Amazon. The past week has been filled with some low points, all mainly occurring during the 34+ hour busride to Rurrenabaque, but the rest of the trip was spectacular, magnifique, eye-opening, and at some points terrifying. I can not think of a better way to cap off our three month journey. But first things first, let me tell you about the bus ride to hell.
I’d been warned a lot about the bus ride to Rurrenabaque. Travel agents, fellow travellers, and my lonely planet book all warn about how the ride should be avoided at all costs. But with the rainy season coming to an end, the bus ride being a fifth of the price of a flight, and Rurrenabaque sitting no further than 300 km away from La Paz, we just figured how bad really could the 18 hour ride get? Now I know, it might not be 18 hours.
Although La Paz might feature a Death Road, it has a companion in the road to Rurrenabaque. Truly, the Ride of Insanity, which would lead any normal kid who grew up in the fast-paced, stream-lined, efficient Markham, the high-tech capital of the world (signs never lie), to repeatedly bang his head against the glass window. Thank god I have Anna.
The worst part was being stuck in the middle of the jungle on the side of a cliff for 12 hours because a truck had tried cutting a corner to tight and had gotten stuck with half its wheels in the air. The road, at this point, which was 2.5 metres across, was therefore closed. And we were the first vehicle to get stuck. Eventually 100’s of others joined us, and Bolivians of all shapes and sizes attempted to try to pile up rocks on the side of the cliff below the floating tires…. For about 2 hours. Then they decided to just call it a night and try again in the morning.
There are a lot of things that passed through my delirious mind that night, stuck in the middle of the Yungas. Why hadn’t anyone explained to anyone on the bus what was happening? Why was the child sitting next to me peeing into a bucket? Why was there over 100 bolivians watching just one man pile rocks under a tire? Why once there was a good pile underneath did the driver not at least try to move the truck? And maybe if we had stopped at our 30 minute pit stop for 45 minutes instead of an hour and a half we would have made it ahead of the truck. This point actually was nullified after I learnt that we had actually been in an accident without me even knowing. Seems when I had dosed off before dinner the side of our bus was hit by a truck taking out the two front windows. Who knew? Lastly, pushed to the end of all my efficiency and logic, I thought, why don’t we just push the truck off the cliff?
Well in the morning, exactly 12 hours after we had first stopped behind the truck, a construction shovel helped lift it out of its predicament, I don’t know if more joy has been witnessed in Bolivia since the expulsion of American drug inspectors. The next 11 hours went by without a hitch, well besides the bus getting stuck in a mudpile, and the suspension breaking for 30 minutes, and of course that time the engine simply disconnected from the wheels. I now know that Rurrenabaque is the place where buses go to die, and to think our bus was just 2 days away from retirement.
I should say that the part of the ride when we were moving was beautiful. We ended up going on the alternative to the Death Road, which still is quite a precarious drive. We winded our way down the side of tree covered mountains, dropping over 3000 m in altitude, often driving on the side of cliffs with a 500m drop only inches away from the left side of the bus. Glad Anna wanted the window seat. Once we reached Rurrenabaque, and the jungle proper, the view was breathtaking, a vast plain of trees as far as the eye could see. I’ve never seen anything like it before, a horizon of pure green.
We started our pampas (the plains) tour the next day. Pretty much we were going to be spending our next three days on a motorized canoe traversing the river and surrounding swampland. Within 10 minutes of leaving I was in the water swimming with pink dolphins. They never made contact with me, but I think my girlish screams and death threats every time they came near might’ve done enough to scare them away. Pretty cool fact about why we could swim in the water when the pink dolphins were around; turns out every other animal is scared by them. Caimans, alligators, anacondas, piranhas, they all flee as soon as a group of dolphins come near. The dolphins alone could be taken easily, but they always stick as a group, and as a group can peck almost any animal to defeat. After I was told that I wondered if I really wanted to swim with them in the first place.
We arrived at our camp a few hours later, a cluster of huts and plank ways supported by wooden beams above the river. The volleyball net in the middle of the water seemed like a sick joke as the waters were swarming with alligators and caimans. There was a gator right by where we docked our boat, sitting below our cabin, I laughed at the cheap parlour trick. Everyone was taking photos, but I knew the thing was fake, I mean I’d seen enough amusement parks and movies to recognize special effects when I saw it. Look I said, you can even see the paint coming off on its nose. We soon saw its older brother, a 6 metre long caiman glaring at us ½ a metre below the plank leading to the kitchen. I was impressed with the craftsmanship of the designers. They had even made its eyes and nose move. As I pondered how Bolivians were able to import so much robotic technology our guide Taz brought out a piece of meat on a string. I think at the point the meat was devoured in one bite I was willing to accept the thing was real. As for its smaller friend, turns out he was real and friendly, he came over to be petted as soon as our guide Taz called his name. My group didn’t let me forget about my words of brash stupidity for the rest of the trip.
Also, I have to mention the group of 3 American Moms also at our campsite. They looked and sounded so out of place, that I thought I had stumbled into one of my mom’s old bookclub meetings. They thought it was a good idea to surprise their guide by singing Happy Birthday to him at dinner. Turns out his pleading to them to keep it quiet had been for reasons beyond humility, as we soon witnessed the tradition for the guides to team up on the birthday boy and throw him into the water next to the giant caiman. The whole time the ladies were with us I was just waiting for a stereotypical spousal joke. My prayers were answered the next morning when we feeding monkeys bananas. One of them exclaimed, “ He looks cute, but he’s got a bit of an attitude problem…just like my ex-husband!”
The second morning we went and visited an island to search for anacondas. To me that seemed like just a horrible idea, but everyone else seemed pretty enthused to get out of the boat and walk around searching for things that have 4 kilos of crushing power per square centimetre. Clearly, I was the only one who had seen the J-Lo classic, Anaconda, and did not want to share the same fate as John Voight’s character. The first part of the search was on dry land, but after 5 minutes of searching in bushes which are daily visited by tourists for 8 meter long animals I got a bit cocky and declared, “It all seems like a bit of a show.” Not the right thing to say in front of your guide who’s been doing this for 14 years and had been bitten by an Anaconda 4 weeks earlier. He threw down his machete at my feet, and walked away exclaiming, “Just a show! Just a show!” After apologizing, he then led us out of dry land and into swamp water up to our waist. Thinking this was his way of punishing me, I was quite tentative to follow, and every step I took in the black water for the next hour and half I expected to be my last. I was genuinely terrified, and hoping to god that we would just not see anything alive. We all did see a few deadly snakes, but luckily up in trees instead of in the water with us, and we did make it all back to the boat alive. I don’t think I would’ve quite so brave if I had known then what I know now. Last year a girl had been walking in the same swamp and without realizing it stepped on the head of a caiman. Her upper thigh was promptly bitten and was rushed to a hospital. There’s no way I would’ve ever left the boat if I had known that, and although I’m glad I made it out alive, some part of me thinks the tour operators have a duty to tell you really just what type of risk you are taking.
That afternoon we fished piranhas, and I can proudly say I caught one. I can also say that just because your fishing piranhas, doesn’t make fishing any more exciting or fun, but being able to say I caught and later ate a piranha is kind of cool.
My final story in the pampas occurred on the last day when we went to go find more dolphins to swim with. When we finally reached the clearing where 10 other boats were parked, and I heard yelling as dolphins popped up mere meters from our boat, I overcame my fear of aquatic animals and just excitedly dove in. Turns out I was too excited to take the camera out of pocket first. All 800 of my photos, saved in one place, are now drying in a box of rice. If anyone out there knows of the best way to save wet technology, I sure would appreciate any advice I could get.
Later that day we arrived back in Rurrenabaque, and spent the night out with some of our fellow travellers. It was quite noteworthy however, because it was Holy Thursday and no bar in town could legally sell alcohol on Easter weekend. We had to spend our night going from bar to bar seeing how much the bar owners were willing to bend their rules for gringo cash. The norm turned out to be only cocktails that could be seen as fruit juices, and usually with us out of sight from the street. However, after about 45 minutes at a bar we would be whisked out the bar upon rumours the policia were coming. I know that sounds like a ridiculous way to spend a night, but it was the closest I’ll probably get to living out a prohibition era night out.
Our last day in Rurrenabaque we spent ziplining above the forest canopy. It was incredible, 9 different treetop stations, over a km in wire, and 50km/h speeds. The trip also included a guided hike through the jungle, and the whole thing was organized by a local indigenous group. It was just the authentic experience we were hoping for, as we drank water out of a vine, ate grapefruits out of a tree, touched a giant termite nest, and learnt about all the variations of trees in the forest. That included the walking tree, which because of its above ground roots, can literally move around over time. Ents, eat your heart out.
That night we left Rurrenabaque, but this time by plane. The 70 dollar flight erased 34 hours of uncertainty, growing insanity, and overwhelming frustration. It got us back to La Paz in 36 minutes. It’s not true what they teach you in school, money can buy you happiness, and time.
We now are back in Chile, on our way to Santiago and our eventual flight home next Thursday. From this point on we are hoping for very little adventure, and personally I am ecstatic to get home and watch some baseball. I hope you’ll tune in sometime next week for my last blog, until then go watch J-Lo in Anaconda.