Pampas del Yacuma
Trip Start May 31, 2008
33Trip End Jul 31, 2009
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So said W. Axl Rose before performing Welcome To The Jungle live, a song which I couldn't get out of my head on Wednesday afternoon after booking my flight and heading to the airport in La Paz to catch a Bolivian domestic to Rurrenebeque. Actually, the former sentiment from Axl was indeed one which also crossed my mind at least once during my time in the national park at Pampas del Yacuma, Santa Rosa. I was in the Amazon Basin and things at times seemed to be a bit sketchy to say the least!
Having been accosted by Tracy (from NZ and distinguished traveler of 38 countries no less) for a taxi share to the airport I made use of Lokis Hostels facilities after very little sleep on the overnight bus from Uyuni, getting a shower, getting my washing done, shoes shined, hostels booked for my return as well as checking out a bit of La Paz, including the Witches Market in the awesome ancient part of town and the Coca museum
La Paz KICKS ASS. It's got that edginess of a third world city, it has views of Snow capped mountains around each block which blow you away, it has old culture mixed with new, altitude and steep hills, crazy people shouting at you from taxis, people passed out on the street, markets with Llama fetuses (aforementioned Witches market - VERY weird!), it has it ALL seemingly. But I had no time for it all and had to dash for the unexpected fulfillment of a lifetime ambition to see the Amazon, the heart of mother Earth itself.
After perhaps the most spectacular flight of my entire life (even better than flying over the Himalayas from Ladakh - flying out of the mountains which nestle La Paz itself is truly breathtaking) our 21 seater propeller plane landed on the grass runway at Rurrenabaque, perhaps the most quaint little aiport I've ever seen. The landing was smooth and the entrance into the humble airport itself cordoned off by one simple little fence. The first thing to hit me was the heat and humidity. In 24 hours I have NEVER experienced SUCH a contrast in atmospheres, from the thin freezing cold air of Uyuni at around 3700 meters to the tropical swelter of this place at about 180 meters. With just a t-shirt and a hoodie I felt overdressed as Tracy and I got the shuttle bus to the main town
After meeting up with Binita, a laid off former employee of JP Morgan from London (the SECOND person to be travelling as a result of the financial collapse, the first being an American who lost his job with Lehman Brothers in California who I met in Salta) and friend of Tracys from earlier on her trip we checked in with the Indigena Tour Company who were running our 3 day jaunt and prepared ourselves for the next days activities.
Around 9:30am the following day we had met the rest of our group which was 11, split in two with a guide each. Our other two party members were Fernando and Marik from Czechoslovakia, two middle aged guys who were on holiday in S.A. for a month and who had met in the airport at Prague and spoke little English. First up was a 3 hour drive to our drop off point at the river, the tour itself comprising a visit to the wetlands of the Amazon Basin, therefore we had to get into the national park itself first. The ride was a little demoralizing to be honest, having landed in 'The Amazon' I had the preconception that everywhere would be thick with Rainforest. I should have guessed that the environmentalists weren't shitting me when I looked out at mile after mile of cleared land and cows feeding. Depressing isn't the word, and I instantly began to regret putting down the carnivorous option on the food preference for the tour the night before
We met Yuri, a gregarious middle aged local and our guide for the next three days at the river a little later and, after dousing ourselves in sun-screen and insect repellant, embarked on our long boat for the two hour ride to our destination of the Indigena 'Ecolodge'. First impressions of the river were spectacular, our first companions being Pink River Dolphins which surprised us by making themselves known from the off. I can't describe how odd it was to see these creatures in a river system, I guess a parallel could be drawn with how odd the dolphins themselves look compared to their ocean dwelling siblings... These guys are a little ugly, but nonetheless they brought an allure to the water which only their kind can for me... they looked awesome!
From here on in the Pampas provided stimulation and entertainment, intrigue and amazement which I have never experienced before... the overriding theme on reflection being a balance of nature which I hadn't seen in my life before, a balance which I can only describe as truly perfect and achingly beautiful. In just the trip to our destination we saw the planets largest rodents the very cute looking Capybara, many of the 'curious by nature' little Squirrel Monkeys, Black Crowned Herons, Cormorants, Savanna Hawks and Red and Green Macaws..
After settling into our home for the next two nights our parties were put on the boat again to another spot up the river where we were to meet a bunch of other tour parties for a communal BBQ and drink at Sunset. Now I don't normally jump straight into a kick about , but something about coming from altitude and meeting a bunch of guides who were keen to kick some Gringo ass made me first to volunteer for a bare-foot game of footy against Bolivias Amazonian finest. Soon enough a bunch of Israelis were up for the challenge (including a MASSIVE bloke who I was pleased to see volunteer for the goal), completed by a few other cigarette wielding Brits and we were away... running through cow shit, retrieving the ball from under barbed wire fences and swamps and generally sweating like bastards! The humidity was a major factor which I will therefore blame on our 3 - 1 spanking, but the main point was FUN which was found in abundance..
I freaked out a bit to be honest, mainly inside... mainly at the prospect of my Peruvian trek to Machu Pichu being wrecked for next week. At a glance it looked like a serious injury and Tracey and a few others looked like they might pass out when they saw the thing... anyway, it was no big deal, after Yuri pored straight alcohol onto the thing (which caused me to request a beer, quick sharpish!) I realized that it was merely a large blister which had come away during the course of the game. Admittedly I'd lost a large chunk of skin, but twas merely a flesh wound and I was grateful my trip and tour had not been ruined! I thought about how soft our feet our compared to those who don't wear shoes and made a point to take more care of mine from hereon in!
After a night time hunt for Alligators which only yielded a sighting of some babies the next days first activity was hunting for Anacondas in a swamp! You could say I had my reservations about this one... first up because we were informed that we were to be walking through swamp which was supposed to come over our wellies and my foot was lacking in skin somewhat but also because the night before we had been informed by a local whilst relaxing in hammocks that an unusual and relatively freezing weather system was coming over the Andes for the next day, bringing with it RAIN. Booo!!!!
Sure enough, I reached for my blanket during the middle of the night and awoke to a grey, contrasting world which was again about as opposite to the clear blue skies and humidity of the previous day as one could imagine
Searching for Anacondas is not easy. First, they're brown. The floor is muddy brown, bespeckled with reeds and as you trudge through the water everything moves, much like a snake would move I'm sure if he heard me coming! Add to this the fact that there WERE quite a few mozzies about, as well as multiple other insects, by this time ist had started raining and the strategy we had been told to adopt for finding said Anacondas had seemed to fall apart... as our guide Yuri seemed to disappear off into the undergrowth... and I suddenly began to feel rather nervous.
I had tried to take a compass bearing and looked at the time as we headed away from our departure point further into the swamp. 10, 15, 20 minutes passed with no sign of a snake and no sign of our guide. What were we supposed to do if we DID find a big reptile wrapped around our leg? After a bit of discussion on this point with Binita I decided to start talking about perhaps heading back to the boat, a little fed up, and where was Yuri anyway, wasn't it a bit unprofessional of him to leave a bunch of Gringos in a swamp? As soon as I voiced this fear sure enough Yuri seemed to appear out of no-where, almost I thought as though it was a test of our nerve, to see how long we could last
My respect for the swamp was multiplied when we found Phil, an American guy from the other party who had a big brown hairy Tarantula on his arm, almost two thirds the size of his hand! We were all quite excited to see this amazing creature and each of us had a go at holding the little fella for some photos. As he crawled up my arm tentatively a small seed of an idea was planted in my head and as Phil announced his intention to take the spider back to our lodge one of my favorite album covers slowly revealed itself in my mind.
However, this idea was yet to come to fruition as the two groups joined together and our guides took one last look for an Anaconda... we were all a bit fed up and ready to leave... and the decision was made to call it a day (a little disappointed, a little releaved). As we set off I realized that my Candian friend Dan was not with us. Who had seen him last? No one had seen him since we'd arrived, he'd pretty much gone off on his own! After a few moments the group started shouting his name. I gave a good effort but there was no response. It was really pissing down and the guides suggested we go back to the boat. I was keen to do this after my little panic before, but I also thought he'd be back at the boat, doubting he would have spent all that time on his own, at least an hour. At the front of the group except for our guide I was the first to hear he wasn't at the boat, so I was a bit disappointed after a while of being sat there with just the two Czechs, bailing water out of our leaky boat, feeling like a bit of a spare part as I heard the rest of the group shout his name from afar. Visions of a search party being sent out with Dan not being with the rest of the group at the lodge that night, left alone in the swamp for the night began to race through my head. I couldn't sit there for very long dammit, so after about 5 mins I got up off my arse to go back and look for the lad.
As I headed out I saw Tracey coming back towards the boat. Have you found him I enquired, hopeful and relieved when she said they had found him thanks to waving her coat around above her head. Dan later confirmed he had had to climb a tree to see where everyone had gone. I was glad I hadn't been in his shoes, I'd have probably screamed like a girl!
Screaming was not on the agenda as we gave our Wellies back a bit further down the river and I approached Phil with the idea to try and recreate the album cover of 'Earth Vs The Wildhearts' for a Facebook profile photo. I had gained a great deal of respect for Ginger for allowing himself to be immersed in black oil with just the front of his face showing, complete with Scorpion and Millipede roaming on his face. I used to be really nervous about creepy crawlys before I started travelling and think I almost had arachnophobia until I did my tree lopping job in Aussie where seeing Huntsman spiders was the norm, but this would be the ultimate test. I was real nervous as Phil brought my furry friend to my face and Dan took some shots, but after a while of him being on my head I began to relax. Unfortunately the spider seemed to prefer my hair to my face and we couldn't encourage him any further than my cheek, which left a feeling on there for a few hours later. The whole experience was pretty cool though, despite not getting a perfect shot, and I felt quite proud of how far I'd come from 6 years ago...
After lunch we realized that an army of Squirrel Monkeys were on the move through the Lodge and spent a good amount of time feeding them and watching them play and fight, as well as feeding out Alligator friend below the kitchen some chicken bones from lunch. Later in the day we headed out dolphin spotting and Yuri took us to a part of the river which was safe for swimming. I was a bit nervous about swimming in the Amazon, not knowing what is below is always something that plays on my mind the first time I go in new water, so I didn't spend as long as some of the rest of the group who managed to get their toes nibbled by the creatures as they passed us by!
An awesome sunset and some drinks and a game of 'Celebrity Drink While You Think' followed and after a good nights sleep we ventured out for the last time to go Piranha fishing. Yes, you guessed it, the same waters we had been swimming in were home to quite beautiful Red Piranhas, as well as smaller Piranhas, catfish and sardines. Yuri assured us that the Piranhas didn't like the deeper water we had been swimming in the night before, and were more likely to attack people in a lake where they would be in larger groups, matter of factly adding though that there were probably likely to have only been 7 or 8 of the critters swimming below us as we tried to befriend the dolphins the night before!
After a good effort by our group fishing and only one Sardine caught by Tracy, and a couple of the Piranhas caught by Yuri (perfect for some photos) we rather despondently headed back to the lodge for the last time for lunch ( including a taster of a morsel of our Red Piranha which proved to be very nice and whose remains I hand fed to our resident Alligator, up close and personal!) before heading back to Rurrenabaque via a boat ride where yet more wildlife prevailed and again then to our destination by 4WD. After a much needed shower (my first since leaving Rurrenabaque - EWE!) our two groups met for a meal followed by a visit to the Mosquito bar and then on to the local 'Bannana Nightclub' to watch with bemusement as the locals danced the night away arm in arm to Bolivian Bossa Nova cheese which we all found a little difficult to dance to with our Western feet to be honest.
I sign this blog off as I look out onto the mountains heading back into La Paz on the plane taking with me some very special memories of a special place which I hope is not the only one of it's kind in the future. The conservation efforts made by the Bolivian government to preserve the nature in the relatively vast swathes of this, the poorest country of South America are particularly admirable seen as they have not yet discovered all of the natural resources there that belong to the country. One would hope that other South American countries might take a leaf out of Bolivias book and preserve places such as these which keep the balance of nature preserved so well for future generations to experience. I'm sure there are very few other places on Earth which demonstrate so vividly how well balanced and interconnected Mother Nature is, particulalry in the bosom of the planet where life is still relatively unspoilt by man. If everyone saw this balance with their own eyes I'm sure we'd all realise the importance of not damaging it in the way we are...