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Welcome to the jungle

We hadn’t planned on going to the Amazon, but we decided we couldn’t visit South America for four months and miss the jungle that is world-famous.

The Amazon rainforest covers 2,700,000 sq miles and can be accessed in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and Bolivia

The Amazon rainforest covers 2,700,000 sq miles and can be accessed in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and Bolivia

In the interest of saving as much time as possible (considering we’d created a rather large and impromptu detour from our plans), we decided to fly to and from Bolivia’s ‘gateway to the Amazon’ – Rurrenabaque – where we would visit Madidi National Park.

Our plane was small with only 19 seats, so occasional turbulence jostled it about making for an eventful flight!

Our plane was small with only 19 seats, so occasional turbulence jostled it about making for an eventful flight!

The flight itself was interesting – it was a tiny plane and the pilot was so friendly he was inviting people into the cockpit where he would pose for selfies!

Dale's selfie with our very friendly pilot

Dale’s selfie with our very friendly pilot

Rurrenabaque is a small and isolated town, located on the banks of the River Rurre.  The first thing we noticed was the intense humid heat – like entering a greenhouse on a hot day. The second thing was that there’s not much to do besides visit the Amazon or the Pampas (a vast wetland that’s good for spotting abundant wildlife). In fact, from about 11am until about 4pm everything in town shuts down for a siesta.

The majority of traffic in Rurrenabaque was motorbikes. we even got a moto-taxi to our hostel - my first ever ride on a motorbike!

The majority of traffic in sleepy Rurrenabaque was motorbikes. We even got a moto-taxi to our hostel – my first ever ride on a motorbike!

On the day of our trip into the Amazon, we met our guide – Giovanni – at Mashaquipe (our chosen tour operator’s office). From there, we headed to the boat that would start us off on our journey down river to Mashaquipe’s own eco lodge in the jungle.

We caught a boat down the Rurre - a tributary of the Amazon. The boats don't go too fast... Geo told us it would take a month to get all the way up stream to the Amazon River!

We caught a boat down the Rurre – a tributary of the Amazon. The boats don’t go too fast… apparently it would take a month to get all the way up stream to the Amazon River!

It didn’t take long until all remnants of civilisation were left behind and all that could be seen was the dense jungle that grew up a few metres across from the dry and cracked riverbanks. It was dry season in Bolivia’s Amazon, which meant that we might be lucky and see some wildlife along the river as the animals appear from the thick foliage to drink the water. We did see quite a few birds along the way, including a kingfisher, snowy egrets, a type of heron and a lot of vultures.

Bird spotting down the Rurre River

Bird spotting down the Rurre River

It wasn’t all about the wildlife though; our first stop was at a small farm within the jungle. Gio explained that the family that run this farm live and work there every day – isolated from the community, apart from when they go to the Sunday market every week to sell their produce. Their product was sugar cane and sugar cane juice, which we had a go at harvesting by operating a huge manually-driven sugar cane ‘crusher’.

Crushing the sugar cane was tiring work in the heat

Crushing the sugar cane was tiring work in the heat. The family here starts early and normally work from 4am until it gets too hot.

We also got to try the juice with a bit of lemon and it was absolutely delicious!

We also got to try the juice with a bit of lemon and it was absolutely delicious!

Apparently there are many individual families living at intervals along the river farming sugar cane, but that their livelihoods will soon be threatened by a massive sugar cane juice plant being built opposite Rurrenabaque.

This was a tiny frog we spotted on the way back to the boat - Dale almost trod on it!

This was a tiny frog we spotted on the way back to the boat – Dale almost trod on it!

When we finally reached Mashaquipe’s lodge, we set off into the jungle for our camp. We’d decided to stay deep in the jungle for the first night and return to the comfort of the lodge for our second night. It was hot and sticky work trekking through the jungle at midday, but Gio was a fantastic guide and kept pointing out interesting plants or birds to keep our interest peaked and our minds off of the heat.

Just some of the critters we saw on the way to our camp

Just some of the critters we saw on the way to our camp

When we arrived at our camp for the night after five hours of trekking, Gio was keen for us to drop off our bags and climb a huge hill for something he promised would be worth it. When we reached the summit, we completely agreed. We were standing atop a huge cliff that was swarming with macaws and parakeets of all different colours.

The macaws in flight were beautiful - but they made a massive racket!

The macaws in flight were beautiful – but they made a massive racket!

The macaws had made holes in the rock face and these were their nests – which they leave en masse at dawn and return the same way at dusk. It was amazing to see them swoop and soar from all around us before settling in their homes.

Some of the spectacular macaws and parakeets playing and settling down for the night in their homes

Some of the spectacular macaws and parakeets playing and returning to their homes for the night

Macaws only ever have one mate for life and we saw many that were in pairs. But we also saw lonely individuals and groups of three – this is because, if one of a pair dies, the one that is left will either stay alone forever or befriend another pair to make three.

Three macaws flying together

Three macaws flying together over the jungle

Unfortunately we didn’t see a jaguar on the distant riverbanks (which can happen if you are very lucky), but we were very satisfied with the colourful display that the birds had shown us. On the way back to the camp, we were all starting to feel pretty hungry and weary when Gio suddenly cried ‘Monkeys! Quick!’ and went haring off into the bushes.

We ran through the undergrowth, trying simultaneously to look up at the canopy for signs of movement, avoid colliding with trees and follow in Gio’s exact footsteps – so we wouldn’t step on any hidden critters. Then we saw them – dark silhouettes high above us moving quickly and effortlessly through the trees. They were black spider monkeys – the largest type of monkey in Bolivia – they stick to ‘pure’ rainforest so the only way to see them is in the jungle. Those spotting ‘abundant wildlife’ in the Pampas would never see these!

A black spider monkey

A black spider monkey

The monkeys didn’t stick around, but we all got a good look and felt elated to have seen something so exciting. We finished our journey back to camp in the dark and even saw the occasional firefly whiz passed us along the way.

After a tasty dinner (prepared by a chef who had reached the camp by boat), we were ready for sleep in our jungle homes – under tarpaulin and a mosquito net.

Our home for the night

Our home for the night

The sounds of the jungle were our lullabies that night and we were all tired enough to get to sleep right away.

During breakfast we were discussing our plans for the day when Gio suddenly jumped up and pointed into the bushes where we saw a small flash of black disappearing into the undergrowth. We quickly followed our guide, who had dashed off again, and saw a second black blur shoot across the path just ahead of us. It was enough to catch a glimpse of it – a very speedy weasel-type creature that was black with a brown head. They were tayras, which are quite rare to see because they are very shy creatures. They were probably attracted by the smell of the fruit we were eating for breakfast!

The only picture we could get of the Tayra before it disappeared into the foliage - you can just about see a dark creature behind the leaves

The only picture we could get of the Tayra before it disappeared into the foliage – you can just about see a dark creature with a brown head behind the leaves

After the exciting start to the morning, we were keen to get going and packed up our bits to head to the river – where we would make a raft to drift back downstream to the eco-lodge. We headed through the jungle and almost immediately came across a huge group of wild pigs.

Again, the pigs were obscured by foliage so photography was difficult - but we caught this one through a gap in the leaves

Again, the pigs were obscured by the undergrowth so photography was difficult – but we caught this one through a gap in the leaves

The pigs travelled one by one in a massive line and the line would follow a sequence of male-pig, baby-pig, female-pig. Gio said they always travelled in this way and that the dominant male would lead at the front, while the oldest or the sick would be at the back. He explained that if a jaguar were to attack a pig in the front or middle of the line (eg a baby) the group would fight away the jaguar, but if a jaguar targets one of the sick or old pigs, the line would keep moving – leaving the other behind. He described the system as beneficial for both the pigs and the jaguar because the pig gene pool was kept fit and healthy, while the jaguar got a meal without much hassle.

When we reached the riverbank we helped our guide lash together some logs and set off on our (precarious) float downstream.

Find some logs, lash them together and hey-presto - a raft! (Albeit not a great one)

Find some logs, lash them together and hey-presto – a raft! Albeit not a great one – it was a bit sinky…

Luckily, we had a very good navigator and managed to get around most of the shallow parts and rapids without much trouble – although the raft almost overturned at one point when we got stuck at the side of the tree trunk that had fallen in the water!

We arrived back in time for lunch and went for some much needed showers and a rest before our afternoon trek. While we were resting, Gio came knocking at our doors urgently saying: “Come quickly! Monkeys!”. We ran outside to see him standing under a tree that’s branches were shaking with activity – when we got closer, we saw a family of monkeys (including one carrying a tiny baby on its back) making its way through the trees in the camp. They even had a small snack-break at one point, which meant we had time to get some decent photos!

Monkey family chillin at our camp

Monkey family chillin’ at our camp. These are howler monkeys – Gio said they are the laziest monkeys around and move fairly slowly compared to other species with plenty of rest-stops.

When we were ready to set off, we headed back out into the jungle where we spotted more birds (including a woodpecker and a toucan!) and headed back for dinner. After dark, we went for a ‘night walk’ to see if we could spot tarantulas and other night-beasties. We didn’t find any tarantulas, but we did see an owl monkey up in the branches, which I think is better.

Obviously, night time is not the best time for taking photographs and the owl monkeys were too far away and fast to get a picture of. This bird was the only thing that we managed to get on camera!

Obviously, night time is not the best time for taking photographs and the owl monkeys were too far away and fast to get a picture of. This bird was the only thing that we managed to get on camera!

On our last day, we went for one last walk into the Amazon before our boat ride back to Rurranabaque. Gio showed us many different types of flora that can be found in the jungle, including a strangler-fig and a walking tree!

The walking tree is shorter than the canopy high above it, so it has hardly any chance to reach the sunlight – instead, it’s adapted fast-growing roots that are above ground to help it slowly move to patches of sunlight on the jungle-floor. The roots die quickly, but new ones form quickly too and (if speeded up) it would give the impression the tree was walking!

The walking tree is shorter than the canopy high above it, so it has hardly any chance to reach the sunlight – instead, it’s adapted fast-growing roots that are above ground to help it slowly move to patches of sunlight on the jungle-floor. The roots die quickly, but new ones form quickly too and (if speeded up) it would give the impression the tree was walking!

The strangler fig starts growing while attached to a host tree – it grows from the top down, so it gradually reaches the jungle-floor over time, by which time it has grown branches that wrap around the host tree from top to bottom. The tree also grows from the outside in – eventually squeezing the host tree so tightly that it blocks off all access to sunlight and kills it. Gio said that, once it’s attached, the stranger fig will always end up destroying its host – but if it’s not found a good ‘sturdy’ host tree to grow on before it can sustain itself, the host might die and fall down too early – killing both of them in the process. Although it sounds quite brutal, this process happens over hundreds of years and Gio told us that the fruit from the tree sustains many species of animals and that its shape (with a hollow middle where the host tree has rotted away) acts as a shelter for many too.

The strangler fig starts growing while attached to a host tree – it grows from the top down, so it gradually reaches the jungle-floor over time, by which time it has grown branches that wrap around the host tree from top to bottom. The tree also grows from the outside in – eventually squeezing the host tree so tightly that it blocks off all access to sunlight and kills it. Once it’s attached, the stranger fig will always end up destroying its host – but if it’s not found a good ‘sturdy’ host tree to grow on before it can sustain itself, the host might die and fall down too early – killing both of them in the process. Although it sounds quite brutal, this process happens over hundreds of years and the fruit from the fig tree sustains many species of animals and its shape (with a hollow middle where the host tree has rotted away) acts as a shelter for many too.

During our walk, we spotted yet more monkeys – and again a different type! I was amazed we’d seen such a variety and Gio told me that, although you might see more animals in the Pampas, you’d be seeing the same types of animals over and over again. Whereas in the Amazon, you could see many different things (or nothing, depending on your luck)!

A capuchin monkey high up in the trees

A capuchin monkey high up in the trees

And I had to show the toucan we spotted too!

And I had to show you the toucan we spotted too!

We were sad to leave when we got on the boat for the last time, but we were really glad we’d made the trip into the Amazon and felt really privileged to have seen the amount of animals we did. I knew the rainforest would be a brutal dog-eat-dog place, but (thanks to Gio) I learned that it also offers life to millions of creatures – each of which has a purpose and helps keep everything in a beautiful and harmonious balance. This was a definite highlight of our trip so far.

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