Into The Amazon: Bolivia’s Gateway To The Jungle
Pan-American Transmissions: Part 10
“Pan-American Transmissions” is a travel series from Special Contributor Diego Cupolo as he travels south from Nicaragua to Argentina. He has few plans, a $10-a-day budget and one flute-playing gypsy companion. Check back as new dispatches are posted from the road.
“The ‘call o’ the wild’ is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure.”
Percy Harrison Fawcett’s words bounced in our thoughts as we rumbled down the Andes into Bolivia’s Amazon basin. Ania and I had just finished reading David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, a tale of Fawcett’s wild expeditions as he hacked his way through the jungle, eventually vanishing in search of what many called “El Dorado,” the forgotten kingdom of gold.
Stories of wrestling matches with anacondas, flesh-eating maggots and hostile indigenous tribes filled our imaginations while our bus turned and weaved through 20 hours of rocky, muddy, terrible, tombstone-ridden roads on the way to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon. “Rurre,” as locals call it, is known for being one of the easiest, most cost-effective jumping boards for anyone looking to dive into Fawcett’s old stomping grounds.
You could say we were excited. In this long voyage through Latin America, visiting the Amazon was never part of the plan. Ania and I figured it was out of our $10-a-day budget, but that was before a company from Dubai bought a batch of my photos. We immediately threw down our reservations, stocked up on insect repellent and chose to use the winnings on a small expedition into the world’s largest rainforest.
Of course, when we arrived, the reality wasn’t quite like we imagined. Like many Amazonian settlements, Rurre isn’t the exotic riverside village it used to be. It’s been thoroughly saturated with tour companies. Regardless, the town remains a necessary stop for jungle adventurers, because how the hell else are you going to make it in and out of the Amazon without a decent guide?
Here’s the run down: a three-day tour costs about USD$75-$100 per person, but be aware, Rurre has one general rule: All tour companies lie. The only thing you can do is find the agency that lies the least. That said, the two main tour options are: a) a relaxed, wildlife-sightseeing three-day boat tour in the pampas (wetlands) where visitors stay in riverside cabañas, or b) an adventurous, machete-hacking three-day selva (jungle) tour in the nearby Madidi National Park where visitors hike through the rain forest, build their own shelters and camp with jaguars.
Ania and I splurged and did both. The pampas tour turned out to be a bit too laid back for our taste, most of the activities involved sitting and eating so I won’t talk about that here. On the other hand, the jungle tour left us soaking wet, bite-ridden and completely satisfied. With all the ways to die in the Amazon, just one day inside this venomous jungle is enough to spark a new appreciation for life and, at the same time, gain a deeper respect for old-fashioned explorers like Fawcett, who went missing not far from this region a little less than 100 years ago.
Day One: Meet the Locals
We got off the boat on the shores of the Beni River to meet our guide, Taz, an ex-member of the military who grew up in the Amazon, our cook, Marcia, who was Taz’s cousin’s aunt’s sister, and another local named Alberto, who was training to be a jungle guide. Ania and I unloaded the supplies with Amir, an Israeli psychologist, and three male models from Paris who videotaped everything we did. This was to be our jungle crew.
Though the guy in tour office told us we were going to Madidi National Park, we soon learned we weren’t technically in the park, but just across the river in Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve (remember the general rule). This would’ve been a frustrating revelation, but we shrugged it off since we were in the Charka Indigenous Territory, a small jungle community that recently opened itself to visitors and agreed to teach us about their way of life, something that wouldn’t have been possible in Madidi.
We left our packs with the cook and walked through the thick jungle until we reached an opening where children were running around a large straw hut. On the ground in front of the structure, a white duck lay quacking, with its body twisted and its feet in the air. A mother and father came out and greeted us with big, nervous smiles.
“What’s wrong with the duck?” our guide Taz asked.
“Oh, the duck?” the mother said. “A pot fell on him while I was washing the dishes this morning. I think it broke his back. I guess, we’re going to have to eat him sooner than we expected.”
Everyone laughed and the duck remained still. The father then gave us a tour of his land. He had a small farm in the middle of the jungle, complete with banana trees, and showed us the stumps of old mahogany trees. Both Madidi and Pilón Lajas were converted into nature reserves fairly recently and most of their high priced lumber had been exploited in the ’80s and ’90s.
“Finding a mahogany tree in these jungles is harder than finding a jaguar,” Taz said.
We went back to the hut and the father brought out a gigantic bow and arrow. In this region, few people use hooks to catch fish, instead they hunt them in the night with the same handmade bows and arrows their ancestors used. We tried out our archery skills on a water bottle. Out of everyone, Ania was the only one able to hit the target.
When the sun hung low in the sky, we went back near the river to set up camp for the night. On the way, I almost walked through the web of a blue-yellow-purple spider that was the size of my hand.
“Watch out!” Taz said while pulling my arm back. “That spider has six times the venom of a rattlesnake. If it bites you, you have two minutes to live.”
We arrived at the camp site, alive, and began clearing an area to set up the mosquito nets with a tarp overhead. Amir, Ania and I did the work while the three Parisians watched. One of them took out a bottle of cologne and sprayed himself. Taz laughed.
“You brought cologne?” he asked. “What the hell do you need that for? You going to the club tonight? All that stench is going to do is scare away the animals and bring more mosquitos.”
As the night darkened, the jungle animal chorus amplified. The cook made grilled steak and rice for dinner, not bad, and then a few members of the Charka community stopped by our campsite to welcome us. They played the flute, passed around a bottle that read “Potable Alcohol — 190 proof percent,” and talked about the challenges of living in the Amazon.
We learned the community had a school, but no teachers. A river, but no potable water. And the wild pigs, which once sustained their diet, weren’t coming around as often as the used to. They also said that less than three decades ago, it was common for boys to get married and start families between the age of 12 and 14. These days, they wait a little longer.
The jungle creatures were singing with full strength by the time the potable alcohol ran out and we put out the fire. Everyone crawled into their mosquito nets to call it a night. For whatever reason, we were sleeping on the ground, not in hammocks, but Taz said it was okay, so I just closed my eyes and hoped for the best.
Day 2: Many Ways to Die in the Jungle
The next morning I woke up alive and without snake bites, which was good. I then took a squat in the forest and learned the origins of the name Madidi National Park. Ants. Many, many ants. They swarmed all over my waste before I could even finish. It seemed odd so I asked Taz about it and he said “madidi” means “ants that eat shit.”
“Yeah, I don’t know who decided to give the park that name,” Taz said. “But that’s the kind of ant we have in this region.”
Taz went on to say the jungle ants can strip the flesh from a dead animal within minutes. Their teeth act as scissors and on rare occasions ants have been known to feast on farmers that dozed off after a long day’s work.
“These ants move like streams,” Taz said. “If you get caught sleeping in one, they will carry you away. Piece by piece.”
He then talked about the dreaded Canduri, a tiny fish that can enter the urethra or anus of unsuspecting river bathers. When a Canduri inserts itself in the male organ, it can be extremely difficult to remove and the victim is left with two options: amputation or death by some terrible infection. Women have it a little easier, they don’t usually face death, but Taz said it’s best for both genders to wear underwear when bathing and to “Never pee in the water!”
It was a heavy conversation for our morning toast and jam, but a necessary one. Regardless, it felt good to be in the jungle, under the tall trees and to be surrounded by explosions of green in every direction. We were answering what Fawcett described as “the call o’ the wild.” This time, it can in the form of a stench.
“Pigs!” Taz said, breathing deeply through his nostrils. “I smell a herd of pigs! Be quiet.”
I didn’t smell anything. Taz kept sniffing the air, listening.
“They’re less than 400 meters in that direction. Quick, follow me,” he said.
Taz picked up his machete and woke up one of the villagers, who also got his machete, and we all went quickly into the bushes to hunt some wild pigs. Every 50 meters or so, Taz and villager stopped, sniffed the air and listened for the ruffling of leaves.
“200 meters,” Taz whispered, pointing into a wall of leaves. “That way.”
The pursuit went on for about a half an hour. Each time we stopped to listen, the long moments of silence made me realize how city life had dulled my senses. In the end, we got close, but never caught up to the pack. Taz blamed it on our foul insect repellent. Apparently, pigs have a powerful sense of smell and they knew we were coming. The village pig feast was postponed.
We passed the rest of the day, hiking and looking for jungle animals. Some time before dinner, we went back to camp, packed up and moved deeper into the jungle, next to a small river where we would spend the second night. Amir and and I began clearing a new area for our tarp as the Parisians looked on again and the cook started collecting firewood.
Then there was a terrible scream. “Ayaaaaa!” The cook went into panic. A small viper wrapped around her wrist while she was picking up a branch, but she was able to swing her arm fast enough to send it flying through the air. Alberto, the guide-in-training, chased after the viper, caught it, and then cut it’s head off saying one bite from the little guy could kill a human in less than two minutes. Nice to know, considering we’d be sleeping on the ground again. Still, Taz said it was fine.
We washed up in the river — wearing underwear, of course — and ate a couple of decent-sized fish Taz had caught with the bow and arrow. Not long after, we set out into the jungle again, this time in the dark, and spotted some very large, horrifying creatures. I never knew snails could grow larger than my open hand.
By the time we got back to camp our mouths were full of spiderwebs and our feet were tired from a long day of hiking in the mud. I went under the tarp and started setting up my bed when I noticed a giant black tarantula perched on my backpack. It just sat there, looking at me, so I showed Taz and he started playing with it, letting it crawl up his chest. Apparently, tarantulas aren’t dangerous.
“They bite, but they won’t kill you,” he said.
On that thought, I went to sleep.
Day 3: Many Ways to Live in the Jungle
The third day was a half-day, but we probably learned the most about the jungle on our final excursion. After breakfast, Taz brought us on one last hike to explain the traditional and medicinal uses of various jungle plants.
There were trees that could numb pain like Aspirin and trees that could cure impotence like Viagra. One tree could cure malaria while another could stabilize snake and spider bites. The jungle was full of helpful trees and plants, the trick was knowing which ones to use.
“It’s a shame because many tourists get sick and don’t know about all the plants that are here to help them,” Taz said. “The tree that stops malaria is the most important one. It stops the sickness right away. You just have to know how to find it.”
He then showed us a tree whose bark smelled like garlic and was used to repel mosquitos. There were trees with edible fruits and even a tree with thick vines that were full of water. Taz cut a section for us and we drank the jungle’s freshest water from the porous branches. Delicious.
With the abundance of plant species in the Amazon, the list went on. Some trees walked on their roots, having the ability to move into more sunlight, while others acted as parasites to their neighbors, suffocating competitive species. Most interesting of all, one plant held a natural toxin that locals squeeze into rivers to “make fish sleep.” It’s a special way of hunting, Taz said. The toxin temporarily paralyzes fish, making them float to the top of the water, and locals pick out the largest ones leaving the younger ones to grow older.
Maybe life in the Amazon wasn’t so hard, after all. Like anywhere else, it’s a matter of knowing one’s surroundings and taking advantage of the resources. With everything we learned about the trees that day, it was clear that a large civilization could have existed within these jungle walls. Just as Grann concluded in The Lost City of Z and like Fawcett suspected in search for “El Dorado,” the Amazon is more livable than most people imagine. You just have to get over the venomous snakes and spiders.
Then it started to rain. We took shelter under a tree and, to pass the time, Taz showed us how to chew Coca leaves while he talked about his time in the Bolivian military. With a mouthful of coca, he told us about gun fights with narcotraffickers near the Peruvian border and how he spent months in the jungle with documentary crews to film jaguars. Taz was a good guy. Aside from all his attempts to sleep with Ania, I’d say he was one of the best guides we could’ve hired.
Returning to Civilization
When the rain stopped, we hiked back to camp, packed up and set out for the Beni River again. The jungle left us covered in bug bites, some of which left scars that I can still see as I write this, but the discomfort was worth the experience. As Fawcett said, “One learns little from a smooth life.”
Old-fashioned explorers would’ve probably laughed at our three-day guided tour, but I think we did well for first time jungle adventurers. No one died and we learned more than we expected about the Amazon, its plants and the way its residents live with the forest, not against it.
The community members came to the river bank to send us off while Ania, Amir, the Parisians and I loaded up the boat. As we said our goodbyes, a teenage girl gave me a big hug and a strange smile. She didn’t speak Spanish and there was a little mud on her cheeks, but in those wide, joyful eyes I saw the same lust and curiosity that must have met the gaze of jungle explorers more than 100 years ago.
It was good to know such wild places — and people — still existed in the 21st century. We got on the boat and headed down the Beni River towards Rurre. Unlike Ania and I, Fawcett never made it out of the jungle. His disappearance remains a mystery — some say he was eaten by cannibals, others believe he entered a parallel dimension — but what we know for sure, is that Fawcett, the last true explorer before airplanes and Google Maps, pursued his ambitions as far into the wild as any explorer ever went and this is worth some contemplation.
“There, I believed, lay the greatest secrets of the past yet preserved in our world of today,” he said. “I had come to the turn of the road; and for better or worse I chose the forest path.”
By Diego Cupolo
Coming up next from Pan-American Transmissions: The Driest Place on Earth: From Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni to Chile’s Atacama Desert. Read all of the other Pan-American Transmissions entries here.
About the Author
Diego Cupolo is a freelance photojournalist currently on the road to Tierra del Fuego. Most recently he served as Associate Editor for BushwickBK.com, an online newspaper in Brooklyn, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Star-Ledger, The Australian Times, Discover Magazine and many other publications. View more of his work at DiegoCupolo.com.