Fishing for piranhas, eating said piranhas, wandering through grassy plains as wasps sting you at will, swimming with many deadly things… and you’re paying to voluntarily do it all.
Yet another aspect of South America needing no introduction, this is the creme de la creme of world-renowned rain-forests. Conjuring up images of fierce warrior princesses, ancient civilisations and a plethora of diverse wildlife, this was one of the excursions we’d really been ramping up for. You can venture in to this magical place via either Bolivia or Brazil, but Bolivia is renowned as being the cheaper choice. Thus, why we chose that option.
Needless to say, I had no prior knowledge of the scariest bus trip of my goddamn life – that three sleeping pills couldn’t even deter me from worrying about – a wasp sting on my ass that left me convinced I’d been attacked by a snake due to pain levels, and the full body rash I seemed to leave with due to multitude of mosquito bites. So, is it worth it?
Pampas vs. Jungle tour – how to decide
It’s generally the first question you’ll be asked when organising a trip into the Amazon; do you want to do the pampas – the large, grassy plains and swampy areas – or the jungle? The main differences are that the pampas is a lot more of a waterborne activity, and the jungle involves more bushwhacking and trekking through thick rainforest. Here’s how to consider each:
– Pampas: You’ll head along the Yacuma River (no, not the Amazon River), which is the wetlands before you reach the actual rainforest. You’ll spend two or three days around the wetlands, and do most of your wildlife spotting from the boat. There’s also a bunch more activities that most of the tour companies do – piranha fishing, anaconda hunting, swimming with pink dolphins etc – but I’ll go into them in more detail below. This is generally the better option if seeing wildlife is what you’re here for.
Cost? About $80 all up, not including park entrance fees – and IF you’re good at haggling. Depending what time of year you arrive, you can haggle a bit.
– Jungle tour: Most of the times, these are a bit longer, and can take up to five days. The main activity of these excursions is walking. Walking in the morning, walking at night, and walking through the thickets: all the while looking out for different wildlife. You’ll see different animals here than you would do in the pampas – mostly the armadillos, tapirs, night monkeys and night birds (during the nocturnal walk), and some will even tease you with the allure of a jungle cat. Because the forest is thicker in these tours, though, you’re likely to see less wildlife – but the focus is more on the flora and fauna.
Cost: In general, the jungle tours are slightly more expensive than the pampas tours, but the price increase is marginal.
How to organise a tour
You can do it from La Paz, but it will ping you a lot more money than if you just wing it and show up in Rurrenabaque – more commonly known as Rurre, not least for the sake of my laziness in typing.
We wandered the streets for a couple of hours, to-ing and fro-ing between tourism operators, before we settled on a tour for about $80 NZD for three days. As with most of these operators in South America, they’re much the same, and a bunch of different operators will probably throw you together with people who have booked at different outlets to make up one tour. So, as with the Inca Trail and the Salt Flats, you could end up on the same tour as people who paid way more or way less than you. We used this as an excuse to haggle them as low as we could.
A pampas tour in a nutshell:
Well, for starters you’ll be promised wildlife – and wildlife is what you shall get. After a three hour drive to our awaiting boat and guide, we were whisked off down the river, along with dozens of other boats laden with tourists. Hardly the off-the-beaten-track Amazonian adventure we had envisaged, we thought, but as the boats sped up or slowed and we all spread out, things got a bit more immersive.
Within minutes of being on the water, you’ll see alligators, turtles, and birds of myriad colours. The next three hours is a rush of feeding squirrel monkeys – who will frequently rush onto the boats from a low slung branch uninvited – observing families of capybaras (is it just me who used to play that Amazon computer game? That was literally all that was going through my mind at this point) and being introduced to a baby anaconda, by ways of our guide shoving it in our faces and insisting we take a photo.
It’s at that stage, as you’ve just observed all the things waiting in the murky water to kill you, that you’ll be invited to clear forget all that and jump straight in. Under constant reassurance that the piranhas were further down river, and the only things in this part were pink dolphins, two of the bravest of our boat blindly waded in. I, mind still boggling that apparently creatures in this waterway didn’t swim around and visit other parts of the river, stayed firmly put in my seat. There is something about swimming with fish with razor sharp teeth, anaconda, and alligators that just didn’t appeal…
Besides, the pink dolphins looked a little like a science experiment gone wrong.
Your accommodation is basic, but actually rather enchanting. The whole camp is elevated (for reasons we’d rather not dwell on), and connected by raised pathways. Your hut will be basically a dorm room, with basic bedding covered in mosquito nets – which inevitably won’t save you from the plague of mosquitos that descend in silence. Nonetheless, for accommodation in the middle of the rainforest, it’s quite magical. You’ll also use that time to figure out just how over-represented New Zealand is outside of New Zealand, learning that almost half of your group are Kiwis, and wondering if there are even any New Zealander’s left inside the country.
After a dinner with the group, you’ll probably head back out onto the river for nighttime alligator spotting. Feeling every inch the Steve Irwin you are (RIP), the guide will shine a red flashing light over the river that illuminates their eyes. Seeing sinister eyeballs of water monsters staring at you intently is just what you need before heading off for a sound night’s sleep.
The next morning, you’ll be woken by the screeching of howler monkeys in the trees, which sounds hideously inconvenient and a burden on the ears, but is actually fantastic – as you clamber out of your beds and see them playing above you in the trees. You’ll then muddle through breakfast, before pulling on your rubber boots and getting set for anaconda hunting. And before you get all a la Nicki Minaj and thinking something untowards is about to happen in the rainforest, you are actually going in search of deadly snakes. In long, thick grass. With no prior knowledge of what to do if you should happen upon one of these terrifying grass serpents. While this scenario isn’t one you can really anticipate in terms of what to expect, it’s probably not meandering through grass that towers over your head, wading through mud with leaking gumboots, look out for rattlesnakes and cobra (both deadly) and being barked at to walk with your hands above your head and move quickly so you don’t get stung by a wasp. And while we made sure to obey every instruction, boy did we get stung.
Michelle was first to be targeted by the little insects of Hades, which stung her chest and left her heaving with tears. Sympathetic, but certain she was overreacting at the level of pain a wasp could inflict, I was beside myself when I felt a prick to my behind not long after. I grabbed Michelle traumatically, pulling her into some nearby grass, certain I’d been bitten by a snake – such was the pain searing throughout my body. It turns out I did have two puncture marks close together on a singular butt cheek, but it was two wasps that got the better of me. And not until you’ve been stung by a South American wasp, do you know true pain. I cried a lot. More than Michelle.
Regardless of the stinging, the rest of the anaconda hunt went decidedly downhill. Someone accidentally stood on a baby alligator, which leapt out of the water and convinced everyone we were about to die. Without a single sign of an anaconda, and nobody that disappointed about it, we headed back to the boats where it seems the guide had just the ticket to cheer everybody up – piranha fishing. Because what better way to get your spirits up after fruitlessly searching for one deadly being, than go looking for another.
Interestingly enough, catching piranha is actually quite the game. The little buggers thrash around as you plop them out of the water, and it’s quite a thrill when you feel one take the bait. Made Dad’s cod fishing look like a joke. The fish we cooked was chargrilled and served up on a platter for dinner, and never, ever did I think I’d be sitting down for a meal of piranha. Not even after being stung by killer wasps.
After a quick boat trip to a nearby bar – yes, a bar in the Amazon – you’ll watch the sunset, beer in hand and realise what a beautiful part of the world you’ve been party to. Mud, sweat and tears aside, being that close to actual, rugged nature is probably something everyone should experience once in their lives.
Your final day, you’ll take one last decent whizz down the river to take in the wildlife. By that stage, you’ll probably be all but over the alligators – such is their bountifulness in that neck of the . But the turkey birds, the cranes, and the capybara (and, to be honest – the alligators) will never get boring.
You’ll then bid adieu to the beautiful wetlands – whilst crammed in the back of what seemed like a police van without any windows, and unable to put weight on one ass cheek – and at that moment, Nicki Minaj’s lyrical prowess might just take on a whole new meaning.
“My anaconda don’t want none unless you’ve got buns, hun.”
DON’T MISS: The French Bakery. First thing in the morning, get there for fresh pastries (anyone that knows me knows I have one weakness: baked goods) and the best hot chocolate you’ll ever get your hands on in the Amazon (or, elsewhere in South America for that matter).