Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick

Second to Madidi Park, the most popular attraction for visitors to Rurrenabaque is Bolivia’s vast grasslands known as The Pampas.  A guided tour seemed to be the way to go so we organized one from Rurre and it came to about $145 for a two-day, one-night tour – quite pricey for Bolivia!  The guy at the tour company, a real slick used car salesman type, told us that we had to meet at the office at 8:30AM sharp the next day for our departure.  He said we needed to make sure that we left on time to beat the other companies and to avoid the dust.  Certainly an intriguing reason for an on-time departure.

After a restless night of sleep in one of the dumpier room offerings in Rurre we walked over to the tour company for our 8:30 appointment.  A small SUV was waiting for us and there was a bit of commotion as the guide’s underlings strapped stuff to the luggage rack.  The salesman neglected to inform us that there was very little space in the vehicle so I had to quickly pull some essentials from my pack before storing it in the company office.

The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?

Leaving Rurre the road quickly went from pavment to cobblestone to dirt.  The next 50 miles of bumpy road looked as if it was made of ground-up brown chalk and each passing vehicle, pedestrian, and cow stirred up an impressive amount of the stuff.  The calm winds that morning made the dust just linger over the road and many many times our driver plunged our vehicle into dust clouds we couldn’t see through.  Three hours to go 50 miles – yep, still in Bolivia.

An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.

At the camp near San Rosa, our guide told us that there would be a bit of a delay before our rooms and lunch were ready.  He suggested that we go relax in the hammocks for a bit.  Thirty minutes passed, and then an hour before lunch was served.  After lunch the guide told us that our first boat trip into the Pampas would start at approximately 4pm.  At this point Amy and I were pretty frustrated with this tour company.  We booked a two-day tour and we burned almost the entire first day in a car or hammock.

After the lengthy siesta we loaded up in one of the motorized canoes and headed up the river to see the pink river dolphins.  The winding river was flanked by short water-loving trees and there were large wading birds everywhere we looked.  The terrain reminded me of the Florida Everglades but the density of wildlife was seemingly much higher.

Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)

It wasn’t long before we spotted some capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, as well as some monkeys.  The capybaras, which top out at around 100 pounds, were surprisingly calm around us photo-snapping tourists.  At one point Amy got within just a few feet of one that was grazing on the riverbank.

Pink river dolphins, too, were easy to find but photographing them proved difficult.  They would frequently break the surface with their fins and snouts but it was next to impossible to predict when and where they would come up next.  We were given the option to swim with them but Amy and I declined and left that to the two Australians that were with us.

The next morning we were up early for our second boat ride on the river.  With howler monkeys howling away in the distance we loaded into the boat just before the sun came up.  A short while into our ride we heard something crashing through the trees along the river.  Our guide pulled over to the side and before we knew it yellow squirrel monkeys were running around on our boat.  Unfortunately, some of the tour groups feed the monkeys so as soon as they see a tour boat they jump on board and look for food.  They must have been disappointed in us though because we didn’t give them any more than stares.  One of them managed to catch and devour a huge water bug while we were stopped.  Crunch, crunch, crunch!

Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect

The variety of birds that we saw during the ride was absolutely incredible.  All sorts of herons and ibis plus a few storks and spoonbills as well.  Rounding each corner of the snaking river revealed more and more birds.  Equally plentiful were the caiman sunning themselves along the banks.

By midday we had all had enough of the boat riding.  Hours in a rickety metal seat in the blaring sun was enough and we were happy to return back to the camp.  After a quick lunch we loaded up in another vehicle (this time even more packed) to make the three hour trip to Rurre.

Black Caiman
Black Caiman

All in all, I would say that the Pampas are a great place to visit if you want to see lots of wildlife in a hurry.  By Bolivian standards, the tour was very pricy and it makes me wonder how much money one could save by traveling independently to San Rosa and arranging boat trips from there.  The next post will be my last on Bolivia and then the blog will take a turn for the South Pacific!

The Pampas
The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Cappuccino monkey
Cappuccino monkey
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Oropendola nests
Oropendola nests
Tropical comorant
Tropical comorant
Caracara and friend
Caracara and friend
Caracara
Caracara
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey
Yellow squirrel monkey
Monkey on the boat!
Monkey on the boat!
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Black Caiman
Black Caiman
Caiman
Caiman

Our guide
Our guide

Visiting Madidi National Park is a multi-day process once one makes it to Rurrenabaque.  Wandering the streets of Rurre we passed dozens and dozens of agencies offering tours of the park.  We had read online that it was best to avoid the cheapest options in order to get a responsible company that treats both the park and the animals ethically.  We also heard recommendations for a number of community-run park tours: Chalalán, San Miguel de Bala and one other.

In the end we selected San Miguel de Bala.  While the Chalalán eco-lodge is the best known, it is a long five-hour boat ride from Rurre and was also quite pricey at over $400 per person for a four-day inclusive tour.  San Miguel de Bala’s pricing was lower ($300 per person, 4-day inclusive) and their jungle lodge is only about 2.5 hours by boat from Rurre.  The specific tour that we booked allowed us to stay in their village for the first night (about an hour upriver from Rurre) and then the second and third nights in their jungle lodge off the Tuiche River inside of Madidi National Park.

We departed from Rurre at about 8:30 in the morning on Day 1 and made the quick trip up to San Miguel de Bala.  The lodge was actually a collection of buildings on stilts.  There was a kitchen/dining building and a communal gathering building that were quite close to the banks of the river.  The guest cabins, which each  have their own bathroom, are further up the mountainside.

Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala

After we settled in to our nicely appointed bungalow, we headed off with our guide Simon to see his hometown – the village of San Miguel de Bala.  The village is home to about 30 familes of Tacana Indians and is a short walk down the river from the eco-lodge.  Simon showed us his childhood home, the homes of some of his siblings as well as the village’s church and school.  At one point we stopped to squeeze some sugar cane juice which we mixed with fresh lime – exceptionally tasty!

Squeezing sugarcane
Squeezing sugarcane

At the end of the village tour, one of the community’s dugout canoes picked us up at the village and took us to the eco-lodge for lunch.  The tourist facilities are quite large at San Miguel – I think they can host upwards of 40 or 50 guests but that day Amy and I were the only ones.  Following proper Latin American procedure, we climbed  in the hammocks for a short siesta after lunch.

Siesta time!
Siesta time!

The afternoon tour was to a rock canyon that is about 20 minutes down the river.  The canyon was only about 2-3 feet wide and was filled with bats.  Between the bats, the worms and the huge spiders it was definitely pretty high on my list of creepy-crawly places!  We also got to see some nice birds in the boat along the way.  All in all, a good first day on the tour!

King Vulture
King Vulture


Madidi National Park – Part 1
The booming metropolis of Rurrenabaque
The booming metropolis of Rurrenabaque
Setting out on the 90-minute boat ride from Rurre to San Miguel de Bala
Setting out on the 90-minute boat ride from Rurre to San Miguel de Bala
Jumping fish
Jumping fish
Leaf cutter ants
Leaf cutter ants
The center of the village: football field, school, church.
The center of the village: football field, school, church.
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Squeezing sugarcane
Squeezing sugarcane
Refreshing sugarcane with lime.
Refreshing sugarcane with lime.
Rigging a trap to smash some chanchos (wild pigs)
Rigging a trap to smash some chanchos (wild pigs)
Siesta time!
Siesta time!
The river is thick with fish.
The river is thick with fish.
A spider for ever rock along the river bank.
A spider for ever rock along the river bank.
Buzzards and their king fighting over a couple catfish carcasses
Buzzards and their king fighting over a couple catfish carcasses
King Vulture
King Vulture
I am a giant (with awesome boots)!
I am a giant (with awesome boots)!
The entrance to the rock canyon
The entrance to the rock canyon
Bats
Bats
Our guide
Our guide


When I told a good friend of mine that I flew to RBQ, his first comment was “Isn’t that the name of a sandwich at Arby’s?”  Indeed, it is the name of a sandwich at Arby’s (the Arby-Q) but RBQ is also the airport code for Rurrenabque, Bolivia – Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon Basin.

Rurre is about 150 miles from La Paz as the condor flies and there are two ways to get there.  Option 1 is a long bus ride that takes 18 hours in the best of cases and often as much as 30, and as a bonus, having a ticket doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a seat.  Option 2 is a short 40 minute flight.  Advice from other travelers was unanimous: take the plane!

For about $150 with picked up round-trip tickets with Amaszonas (Z8 to us airline nerds) in their Fairchild Metroliner 23 which makes the trip to RBQ seven times daily.  Check-in at La Paz’s El Alto International Airport was much like the process for any other airline at any other airport in the world.  ID check, a few questions about baggage and the selection of seats.  After paying the departure tax we headed through security for a efficient-and-respectful (read: outside-of-the-USA) security check.

Nice tow for the powercart!
Nice tow for the powercart!

Our aircraft arrived about 30 minutes late and the ground crew set to work on the turn.  Much of this was fairly normal, although, I was entertained when they pulled the power cart up with what appeared to be rust-colored late 80′s Fiat Uno.  Refueling, a walk-around by the new crew, and baggage loading took all of twenty minutes and soon after they called us for boarding.

We had seats in row 9, the very last row of the 19-seat aircraft.   The last row is actually three seats across but the middle was unoccupied so all together we had 18 passengers, a captain and a first officer.  After everyone was onboard the captain yelled something to the passengers in the first few rows.  It may have been about the huge backpack in Mr. Seat 2A’s lap or it could have been a safety announcement, I am not sure which.  Either way, it must not have been too important because a few seconds later the engines started up and we started to roll.

The takeoff roll down runway 28L seemed exceptionally long but I guess most of that was due to the thin hot air at El Alto’s ridiculous 13,400ft (I guess that means most jumbos have to de-pressurize before landing here!).  Once airborne, we climbed to the west for a good while and caught a glimpse of Lake Titicaca before turning back to the east to shoot the pass through the Cordillera Real.  The views through the desolate and glaciated mountains was spectacular though the ride was quite bumpy.  Mere minutes after passing the Cordillera, it was as if the Earth just fell away as the Altiplano gave way to the Amazon Basin.

Just before arrival in Rurre we passed over a couple smaller mountain ranges covered in jungle as well as the town of Rurre itself.  Touchdown on RBQ’s runway 32 was nice and smooth and I got to experience my first dirt taxiway a few moments later (complete with horses roaming about).

Turning on to the downwind leg.
Turning on to the downwind leg.
RBQ
RBQ

Our return trip, one week later, was much the same although the weather was rainy and dreary and we suffered a 3-hour delay.  I am happy to report that the open-air RBQ terminal has a proper complement of stray dogs, a detached eatery and the most outhouse-like bathrooms I have experienced at any commercial air terminal.  My biggest regret is that I didn’t ask the guy running the show if I could come up into the small control tower to get a picture!

RBQ toilet and eatery
RBQ toilet and eatery

When it was time for us to go, we found out that we had to load ourselves back in the bus that had brought us from downtown Rurre.  The dirt taxiway we had used the week before was impassable thanks to the soggy ground so the bus took us out on the runway to meet the plane.  Inboard passengers got to stand in the drizzle while their bags were unloaded then we traded places with them.  Amaszonas doesn’t refuel at RBQ (they carry enough fuel from La Paz) so the turn was nice and speedy, I bet the plane was on the ground less than 15 minutes!

Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)

The 40-minute flight back was surprisingly smooth considering the violent thunderstorms we had had the night before.  My window fogged over pretty badly thanks to the humidity so I did the best I could with the photos.  The view of the Cordillera was again spectacular and before we knew it we were touching down on 10R at El Alto.  All in all a great trip, although, I will admit I was a bit nervous flying a rural Bolivian airline!  Next up on the blog will be our tour through Madidi National Park.  More photos below, just click the thumbnails.

LPB-RBQ
Inbound aircraft arriving at El Alto Airport
Inbound aircraft arriving at El Alto Airport
Nice tow for the powercart!
Nice tow for the powercart!
All loaded up!
All loaded up!
Turning on to the downwind leg.
Turning on to the downwind leg.
Passing Rurrenabaque and the Beni River
Passing Rurrenabaque and the Beni River
On bumpy final into RBQ.
On bumpy final into RBQ.
RBQ
RBQ
Very happy to be on the ground.
Very happy to be on the ground.
The return trip started on a rainy day after a three-hour delay
The return trip started on a rainy day after a three-hour delay
Hand-written boarding passes!
Hand-written boarding passes!
One of the competing carriers.
One of the competing carriers.
RBQ toilet and eatery
RBQ toilet and eatery
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Seat controls (luz, not working)
Seat controls (luz, not working)
Parking next to some classics
Parking next to some classics
Happy survivors!
Happy survivors!

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