Capybaras and crocodiles in the Bolivian pampas

Trip Start May 15, 2009
Trip End May 20, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rurrenabaque is Bolivia’s gateway to the Pampas and the Amazon. It’s a 20 hour (apparently hair-raising) bus trip from La Paz, or a 40 minute flight.  Subsequently we met a few people that had caught the bus from La Paz and of the 20 hours only a few were spent negotiating mountain roads the sides of which fell away hundreds of metres down sheer cliffs! Having said that, other than two blokes we met on our pampas trip, everyone else we spoke to opted to fly back to La Paz rather than catch the return bus!

We had decided to fly both ways, but when we saw the size of the plane we almost wished for the bus. The Amazsonas plane looked like a cigarette with wings - you could see right into the cockpit and out the front windows of the plane. One seat either side of the isle, and you needed to almost crawl to your seat because it wasn’t possible to stand upright in the small plane. There were signs that said if oxygen was needed “cabin crew” would hand out the masks (no hosts or hostesses, so presumably this would be the job of the pilot or co-pilot)!  We settled into our seats and hoped for the best - as it was still dark we couldn’t see how close we flew to the mountains leaving La Paz , which was a good thing, though we noticed it on the return flight!

Despite the size of the plane (and perhaps because of the desperate prayers of the Bolivian lady sitting behind Suren ,who sat clinging to the back of his seat with her head covered with a shawl during the landing) we had a smooth trip and landed on the grass runway in Rurrenabaque in time to have breakfast before our Pampas trip that started earlier in that morning.

Rurrenabaque is a laid back little town, and we enjoyed thawing out in tropical temperatures after the cold nights at altitude around Lake Titicaca and in La Paz . After breakfast it was time for the 3 hour 4WD ride out to the Pampas. We stopped for lunch along the way and were greeted by the largest bird we have seen in South America. We later discovered that it was a jabiru stork, the largest bird in the Pampas. It wasn’t phased by the people or the traffic, and stood its ground in the middle of the road posing for photos! This was a sign of the wildlife to come! During lunch we also noticed a few vultures had descended to feast on meat that the café owner had left out in the sun.

Shortly after lunch we arrived at the river’s edge where we began a 3 hour motorised canoe trip to our camp base. As soon as we jumped out of the 4WD we saw an alligator cross the river and a couple of pink river dolphins playing in the water (we noticed that the dolphins tended to hang out where the rivers join).  After only 10 minutes in the boat we had seen all sorts of animals - lots of “sweet water“ turtles, more alligators, black camain (crocodiles), capybaras and lots of birds such as storks, ibis, birds of paradise, various types of cranes, yellow and blue kingfishers, cormorants and numerous others which we couldn‘t name.  The canoe trip reminded us of being back in the Galapagos because of the huge number of birds and animals.  The capybaras were our favourites though - they are the largest rodents in the world and look like a strange cross between a wombat and a guinea pig!

Along the way to our camp, we turned a corner on the river to find a distressed baby ibis perched on a fallen log in the river and its mother (equally distressed) sitting in a nearby tree. The baby had seemingly fallen out of its nest which was in a tree overhanging the river and had a couple of wounds (according to our guide these were possibly inflicted by an alligator) and as the baby could not yet fly it had no way of returning to the nest. Our guide rescued the baby and returned it to a branch just below the nest - much to the relief of mother, baby ibis and tourists!

Further along the way our boat was invaded by a troop of monkeys - fairly friendly and small, these little yellow guys were after bananas and after some persistence on the part of both monkeys and tourists our guide caved in and handed over a couple of them - but not before the monkeys had clambered over all of us!

We now know the meaning of “crocodile invested waters” as we soon lost count of the number of crocodiles and alligators that we saw sunning themselves on the river banks. Despite this our guide still convinced us to go for a swim the next day - perhaps he was getting sick of tourists! It was also interesting to see the river turtles also sunning themselves (usually on semi submerged logs) and they happily shared the river bank with their crocodile and alligator cousins.

We eventually reached our camp to be greeted by a couple of lazy alligators who make their home on the river bank in front of the camp - we weren’t sure how our guide lost his right index finger though when we saw him scratch the nose of one of these alligators on our last day we could take a good guess!  That afternoon we took it easy and enjoyed the sunset over the pampas with a couple of cold beers before heading out in the canoe to ‘search’ for more crocodiles after nightfall.

The next morning we were awoken by the cries of howler monkeys - it’s incredible to think that a monkey can make such a horrendous sound which is more likely to come from a huge ogre sitting up in the trees!! The howler monkeys sat high in the canopy but lower down we saw the aptly named “cappuccino” monkeys and our little yellow friends who came to visit again for the breakfast fruit scraps.

The next day we headed up the river in search of anacondas - thankfully we were given rubber boots to combat the shin deep mud flats following unseasonal rain the previous week . It was hard work trudging through mud for 3 hours - and although we saw hawks, eagles, a spatula billed pink flamingo, vultures and numerous other birds  - no anaconda. However, our guide refused to be defeated, and insisted on continuing the search on his own. Just as we were about to give up and head back to the canoe, he came across a type of anaconda (though quite a bit smaller than the giant constrictor variety) called a false cobra - still, it was as long as we were tall which made it fairly impressive nonetheless! In the afternoon we went for a swim with the pink river dolphins in the junction of a couple of rivers -we tried not to count the alligators and crocodiles along the river banks on the way there and against our better judgement we hopped into the water

The next morning we awoke in the dark to watch the sunrise over the pampas which was an amazing combination of mist overhanging the grassland, the colours of the sunrise and the sounds of birds awakening. We tried to capture the colours in a couple of photos but, as so often has been the case on this trip, unfortunately the photos don’t do it justice! After breakfast we were off to fish or piranhas (which we ate for lunch), and then back in the canoe for the return trip. We were glad to see that the baby ibis rescued by our guide was sitting up in its nest together with its sibling!

The bushman’s friend mozzie repellent had worked wonders in the pampas and Suren was quite pleased to escape with mozzie bites in the single digits though a sterner test was to come in the Amazon jungle after a night’s rest back in Rurrenabaque!
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