The Amazon Rainforest is a subject that both Mike and I enjoyed learning about in our childhood, and for Mike it has been a dream to visit the rainforest. So what better place than the Madidi National Park in Bolivia, which has over 1000 species of birds and more protected species than any other park in the world. We decided to splurge on this adventure and stay at the Chalalan Eco-lodge, which is 6 hours up river from the nearest town so in the very heart of the park. The eco-lodge is completely community-based, and all proceeds go directly back into their indigenous community. It sounded like a perfect way to experience the rainforest.
Rurrenabaque is the gateway town to Madidi National Park and is accessed from La Paz via a 24 hour bus ride or a 40 minute flight. We opted for the flight. On May 19th, which was also my brotherâ€™s 40th birthday, we headed to El Alto Airport which is one of the worldâ€™s highest airports at 3660m. As we were getting checked in for our flight, we saw a couple that we had met on our Torres del Paines hike back in April. Katie and Simon, from Sydney, were also headed to the jungle on the same itinerary as us. Sometimes the world of travelers is quite small!
Our 40 minute flight was on a 19 passenger twin prop-engine plane. A few minutes after take-off, we were flying through the Cordillera Real mountain range with snow-capped peaks on each side of the plane. After 30 minutes or so the plane began making banking turns which felt really odd. Then the captain, who we could see in the cockpit came on the radio announcing that we were returning to La Paz due to a hydraulics warning light. So our nice 40 minute flight turned into an hour flight back to La Paz. After a few hours to get the light fixed, we were back on our way to the jungle with a few less passengers who decided it was too scary and a few passengers a bit more nervous than before.
We safely arrived and were greeted by hot, humid, oxygen rich air as we had descended all the way down to 100 m above sea level! It felt great after being in such a high, arid environment for the past 3 weeks. Rurrenabaque is a tiny town next to the Beni River, and we spent the afternoon and evening enjoying the tropical feel.
The next day the real adventure started with our 6 hour boat trip up the Beni and Tuichi rivers to Chalalan. We climbed into a dugout canoe with a speed boat engine and started upriver. We had been told it was a 6 hour ride there and only 3 hours on the way back, which was hard to believe at the time. However, after a few minutes on the river, we found out why as the currents were super strong with the occasional rapid! I was happy to be wearing my life jacket.Â
As we moved away from town, the wildlife began to appear on the sides of the river banks. We saw tons of birds including egrets, herons, a red headed woodpecker, vultures and many more. We also saw a 6â€™ long spotted caiman sunning itself on the sandy riverbank. The real highlight of the morning for me was seeing the worldâ€™s largest rodent, a capybara. They were the size of a small dog and had narrow heads. They live near the river banks and swim very well.
The Chalalan lodge is 2 km inland from the river. As we walked, our guide, Yed, started pointing out the wildlife. We saw a sleeping, howler monkey and heard a toucanâ€™s call, but the animals that captured our attention were the farming ants. The ants carry pieces of leaves the size of a quarter down from a tree and to their nest. There they use the leaves to grow fungi, which they eat. In the opposite direction, we could see the ants returning to the tree to get another leaf. It was fascinating to watch this family of ants working so well together.
Finally, we arrived at the lodge in a pretty clearing on a lake surrounded by the rainforest. All the buildings are made with renewable resources in the traditional way. The floors are mahogany, and so is the furniture all handmade by the local community. The roofs are made with palm leaves and will last 20 years. Our room was walled with woven grass, and we had a hammock hanging on the porch. It was a perfect base for our 4 days in the jungle.
Our afternoon excursion was a short hike on one of the many trails surrounding the lodge. As we walked, Yad explained the different levels of the rainforest and how each level has its own eco-system. We saw a few insects, including an inch-long bull ant whose bite on your hand can make your whole arm go numb. The real highlight was a herd of peccary, which are wild pigs. We could hear them chewing on palm nuts from a distance so we started to walk off-trail to get a closer look. As we moved closer, the stink became strong and the chewing louder. We did get a glimpse of the big, hairy pigs but not close enough for a picture because as soon as they heard us off they ran.
Dinner was an amazing feast of catfish cooked in palms leaves and a variety of vegetable sides, finishing with a wine soaked banana for dessert. What a feast! After dinner, we participated in a coca chewing ceremony including an offering to Pacha Mama, mother earth. The proper way to chew coca actually doesnâ€™t include any chewing. After the wad of leaves and baking soda is made, you just tuck it into the side of your check and suck for an hour or so. The flavor is mild, and it did give me an energetic buzz feeling. The evening was capped off with traditional music and dancing. It was a great end to our first day in the jungle!
Day 2 in the jungle started with a 5 hour jungle trek and a canoe ride on the lake to return us back to the lodge. Yad scored some gum boots for us to wear since it was really muddy, and we would be crossing a creek today.
We learned about walking trees which have roots that will move to allow the main trunk to move into the sunlight. The roots have thorns for defense because the wood is soft. There was one tree that moved its trunk 10â€™! Yad found a cinnamon bark tree for us to smell, and we learned that the bark can be used in tea to help relieve stomach issues. We all took a turn smelling the tree bark, which reminded me of treats from home.
As we were sniffing the tree, Yad heard a toucan call in the distance, so off we tramped off trail in search of the toucan. It was very high in a tree, but we could make out its distinctive long beak with no problem. The call was very pretty, and it was fun to watch it swing its beak around.
Ants continued to intrigue us, and we saw army ants with both workers and soldiers. The soldiers have white heads with sharp pincers to ward off predators. The local people use the soldier heads as sutures for cuts.
The adventure of the morning turned out to be crossing the creek which looked more like a small river to me. We all picked up sticks to help us with our balance. The water was higher than my gum boots, so I ended up with 3â€ of water in each gum boot and soggy socks for the remainder of the hike. I was happy to see no caimans or piranhas in the river where we crossed!
The morning finished with a nice canoe ride home with the boys paddling and Katie and I sitting back and enjoying the beautiful view. After lunch, we went swimming in the lake; it was refreshing and warm. As we were relaxing, the lodge had some more visitors: both squirrel and capuchin monkeys. They were eating the oranges and grapefruits growing in the trees around the lodge. It was really cool to watch the monkeys bang the grapefruit trying to get it open. They were efficient eaters, and after a few minutes, there were piles of peels on the ground around the trees and then they continued on their merry way.
Our afternoon activity included both another canoe ride and then a hike to a lookout point. The reflections on the calm lake were incredible with pretty white clouds, blue sky, and the green tree line perfectly showing up on the lake. It was awesome! The hike to the lookout was short but rewarding. The lookout gave us an amazing view over the lake and across the green treetops to the mountains which are the parkâ€™s boundary. Every direction we looked was bright green trees. As we enjoyed the view, two macaws flew overhead and landed in a tree nearby. Macaws are the worldâ€™s largest parrots, and they are monogamous for life. If a partner dies, the living partner will usually find another widow to spend time with but will not mate again. The macaws were close enough for us to see well, and they seemed to be always touching either with their tails or their beaks. It was really cool, and it seemed like they were showing us how happy they were together.
A night walk through the jungle sounded scary to me as I imagined walking through spider webs and having jaguars watching me from above, but it turned out to be an educational adventure. Yad found a giant tarantula which was the size of both my fists put together and very hairy. She was very shy and was only a few inches from the opening of her nest. Yad used a small twig to bait her a bit so we could see her giant fangs and get a good look at her. I would not want to find one of these in my bed!
Our other evening highlight was spotting green tree frogs clinging onto the tree branches. They were so green and very still even with our camera flashes and headlights on them. They just kept on holding on and looking straightforward.
When we got back to the lodge, we discovered a smaller tarantula, the size of an apple, living in a post only 10â€™ from our cabin. We named her Mrs. T and ended up checking on her 3 times a day for the next 2 days. For me, it was to ensure she wasnâ€™t in my bed, and for Mike, well he was just fascinated by her. Oh, and it was a bit frightening to see the remains of her mother outside her nest!Â
Our morning hike on day 3 started off with a bang. Unknown to me, we had been hearing howler monkeys howling at each other since 6am. It was the alpha male and a young male who was challenging for position. The howls sounded like a low rumbling engine. So off we went in pursuit of the howls through deep mud (thank goodness for those gum boots) and vines to find the source of the sound. They were high in the trees but easy to see since they are a reddish, brown color. We saw the huge alpha male while he howled. He stretched his neck all the way out leaning away from the branch. While he howled, all the females laid down low to show submission. After this final howl, the challenge was over and all the monkeys settled down after the four hour standoff. They are lazy and often stay within the same area if there is good food.
In the same area, Yad showed us a devil tree. It was a tree that lived concurrently with a family of fire ants. If the tree dies, the ants leave, and if the ants die the tree dies. The ants got a home and nutrients from the tree, and the tree got protection from predators. It was a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship in nature.
After our exciting start, we had a pleasant walk through the jungle to a lookout. All we could see were green trees. We had to be breathing fresh oxygen with all these tree around us! There was a good spot with lots of vines growing from the high canopy overhead, and Yad suggested that we try and climb them. Mike and I were all for the opportunity to get high and had fun trying to climb the slippery vines. We got filthy, but that was part of the fun too!Â
As we continued to walk, we heard the distinguished sound of munching nuts and we set off in pursuit of the wild pigs. It was a large group and we caught them as they were crossing the trail ,so we got a good look at them. It was exciting, but they sounded angry to me, so I kept looking around for a tree to climb in order to keep myself safe!
Feeling refreshed after lunch and an afternoon swim, we set off in the canoe for a tour around the lake. We saw several caiman youths lounging in the sun. The caiman lay eggs at this protected lake, and once the young caiman grow big enough, they walk the 3km to the larger lake. I was happy to see only small caiman since we had been swimming in this lake over the past few days!
We saw tons of birds around the water edge including a bird that we nicknamed the cow bird because it has four stomachs like a cow. There were also a few macaws flying overhead with their brilliant red wings.
Back at the lodge we enjoyed sunset on the dock with happy hour beers with our friends. The stars were out in full force, and we could see them all including the milky part of the Milky Way.
Our last night at Chalalan was eventful, with a canoe ride around the lake looking for caiman and tree boa constrictors, plus whatever else we might happen to see. We saw a juvenile tree boa which was 3â€™ long but skinny hanging in a tree 6â€™ off the water. His coloring blended in perfectly with the tree branches and we only saw him because of the reflection of light in his eyes.
As we continued around the lake, Mike spotted another boa in a tree high off the lake. He was in the middle of hunting bats. His tail was around a branch, and his body was coiled up and would spring out into the air as a bat passed by. I think we interrupted his hunt as our lights scared away the bats, but it was really cool to watch him in action!
In addition to the boas, we saw tons of caimansâ€™ red eyes around the lake. It was a neat excursion! Of course before I could fall asleep, I had to check on Mrs. T, who was still comfortable in her nest outside our room!
Our last morning in Chalalan was uneventful with just breakfast and packing. Then we walked the 2km out to the river to catch our motored canoe back to Rurrenabaque. On our walk out we heard the toucan calling and a howling monkey. The boat ride back was wet as it rained the whole time. We did get to see a capybara swimming up river. All we could see was its head. We also saw lots of birds hanging out at the waterâ€™s edge.
These past 5 days in the jungle were a major highlight on our year long adventure. It was so magical being in a place that was so one with the surroundings and waking up to natureâ€™s sounds. Our guide and all the staff at Chalalan really had a passion for the rainforest and for its conservation, which made it really special for us to be a part of it! Sometimes our childhood dreams do come true, and sometimes they are better than we had hoped for. This was one of those times!