Tuesday, April 12, 2016

South America (Bolivia) - Day 108 - 113: Rurrenabaque and the Amazon basin

Our flight was scheduled for 9:25am, but we didn't hold out much hope of actually getting on it. Still, we dutifully took a taxi to the airport and had some breakfast whilst waiting for updates. After checking with staff at 9am, 10am and 11am, we finally boarded a tiny propeller-driven plane just before midday. I thought the twin otter we took in Fiji was tiny, but this seemed even smaller. After a hairy 45-minute flight we landed in Rurrenabaque, the base for our pampas excursion.

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The town is quiet, with three or four main roads of local shops selling everything from mix-and-match shoes to essential groceries. Gilly found a long-sleeved shirt at a shop selling clothing exported second-hand from the US, for the princely sum of one pound. Our hostel was El Curachil which was run by Diego, who used to manage Loki in La Paz. The room was basic, but adequate for a night. We had a long lunch at Luna and took advantage of the free caipirinha voucher Diego gave us. Without any exaggeration it was the best caipirinha we'd had since Brazil, so we were obliged to buy two more to make sure it wasn't just a freak stroke of luck. It wasn't.

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Back at the hostel we met Ash and Rhys from New Zealand who we played The Game of Life with whilst trading travel stories over beers. They'd been volunteering at an animal rescue in the jungle for a week, which basically involved helping to build it. It sounded pretty intense, especially with the heat (coming from the cool climate of La Paz, the jungle humidity was pretty uncomfortable in Rurrenabaque, let alone the actual rainforest). They were doing a tour with a different company the next day, so we decided to all head out together for dinner to El Nomadico. This was an Australian-run restaurant which was apparently renowned for its fish curry, so we were happy to oblige. It was simply fantastic - one of the best meals I've eaten in South America. It's funny how you can stumble on some amazing food in weird backwater places; Gilly and I still talk today about the incredible fried fish with chilli we ate in Houy xai, an otherwise unremarkable town on the Laos border. Another excellent caipirinha accompanied the curry (and a starter of garlic bread which we've seen surprisingly little of on this continent), before we turned in ready for the start of our three-day tour the following morning.

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The kiwis took us to Panadería Paris for breakfast. We'd tried to get there for lunch the previous day but it was closed, as they sell out fast. I can see why, as their pastries and breads were delicious. After stuffing two croissants into my maw, I bought two more bread rolls, some sort of mushroom pastry thing and a couple of brownies for the trip. Our group consisted of two German girls, Pia and Lise, an Austrian couple, Inga and Gottfried, and Samantha from Hong Kong. From the Dolphin travel side, our driver was Fabi and our guide was Obidio who spoke very good English, and who had been doing this job for sixteen years. He was originally a jungle native, so knew the area incredibly well. We had a hot and sweaty three-hour ride in a land cruiser along a dirt road, passing through the city of Reyes before reaching Santa Rosa for a lunch of rice, salad, potatoes and meat of unknown origin. From there we piled onto a long boat with our bags, Obi, and a stack of food for a two and a half hour cruise down the Yacuma river. The amount of wildlife we saw was staggering. It included: white necked herons, egrets, hotzans (wild paradise chickens), capybaras, tiger herons, yellow squirrel monkeys, cormorants, whistling monkeys, red howler monkeys (sleep 70% of the day), brown capuchyn monkeys, water herons, a couple of pink dolphin tails and a brief sighting of a Cayman. My favourite though was the wild toucan (the coolest of all birds), spotted unusually close to the river which is apparently quite rare. The sun beat down, and being dressed in long sleeves and trousers meant a lot of sweating. I couldn't imagine doing this in July or August when the mercury can hit forty degrees...

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We arrived at our accommodation after passing various ramshackle huts owned by other tour companies. The Dolphin Travels pad wasn't bad at all - decent-sized bedroom and comfortable beds, flushing toilets and showers (cold, but welcome). Obi gave us some juice, biscuits and popcorn before we headed out on the boat again to see an unspectacular sunset with a heap of other groups at a bar/football field. There were fireflies dotted about though, and the beer was cold, so it was a worthwhile trip - especially on the way back when we got our torches out and scanned the river for caymans. The only clue you have is two glowing orange eyes reflecting the torchlight; we got within a metre of one and watched him sink into the river vertically like a submarine. It was eerie. We came back to a meal of mince, fried rice, veg and pasta. The amount of food that had been prepared was impressive given our remote location. There was even electricity from around 7pm, which was helpful for charging tired batteries but also turned a much-needed shower into a fight with hundreds of mosquitoes clamouring around the lightbulb. We played a game of Mao Mao (basically Uno using a standard deck with less cards) with a German guy and an English couple who were on their last night at the lodge, before the power shut down at 9:30. That was our cue to head to bed, where I spent a good half hour trying in vain to empty the mosquito net over my bed of mosquitoes (it was smaller than the bed, so a pretty futile effort), before giving up and letting them bite me if they wanted. At the end of the first day we'd killed about fifty between us, but Gilly was definitely in the lead.

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The rain bucketed down at about 5:30am, hammering the tin roof in a torrent I'd never heard the likes of. I'd left my towel out on the deck to dry, which was decidedly unsuccessful... Breakfast was bread, fried bread, fried dough balls and eggs. Not amazing, but it woke us up enough to get in the boat, head two minutes upstream to the Pampas and then spend a good hour and a half walking around the swamp trying to get a glimpse of an anaconda. We saw a stork and plenty of dragonflies, but the snakes proved elusive; they only grow to 1-2m in that area and they're easier to spot when it's sunny. The German girls thought they saw one briefly but it moved too fast to be certain. We gave up and headed back for a chicken/rice/veg lunch (I've given up mentioning soup since there seems to be no escaping it), and had a couple of hours downtime while the rain restarted its barrage. After a siesta, we went out on the boat again. This time we were heading to an area of the Yacuma which was known for its pink dolphins. I wasn't really expecting to see many, if any, but when we jumped into the river they started to surface not far from us. We were the only boat in the area which might have helped. What I wasn't expecting was how friendly they were. Gilly got nudged by one as it went past, and then it let her stroke it. Then I felt something move against my leg (the river was murky brown so we couldn't see a thing), and the next thing I knew, the dolphin had rolled onto its belly and was letting me tickle it in the water. Then ten minutes later another dolphin (or possibly the same one!) came past and not only let me stroke it, but also take hold of its dorsal fin and tail and tried to get me to swim alongside it. It was a magical experience. The dolphins themselves are a little odd looking, but very playful. They even waved us off after we had finished swimming. That afternoon was worth the price of the trip alone and was topped off by the cooks knocking up a cake in the middle of the jungle from who knows where.

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Another group had arrived that day, which included Mara from Germany, Emily and James from England, and Andre from Australia. Only Emily had booked a 2 day, 1 night trip - the others had all got the same tour as us - but the mosquitoes were proving too much for the folks on the longer trip, who all decided to ditch the rest of the activities and come back with us the following day. It was probably a good decision; we went out the next morning after breakfast to go piranha fishing, but the rain had once again hammered down over the night and the fish only bit when the river was much shallower. As such, we spent half an hour vainly trying to find any sign of the snappers whilst fighting off hordes of mosquitoes (which were out in force thanks to the wet weather) and another hour going up and down the river in the rain, trying to spot other wildlife whilst getting bitten. By the time we had an early lunch at 11, my back and feet were covered in red blotches and they itched like hell. We packed our bags, just in time for the heavens to open again. Our boat ride back was wet and miserable, the subsequent jeep ride hot and uncomfortable.

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We were very much looking forward to getting back to the hostel for a hot shower, then to La Paz the next day to get our laundry done. It didn't happen. We got back to El Curichal to find that the floods had knocked out a water pump, leaving the entire town without water. Furthermore, the rain had washed away part of a bridge which was in construction and flooded the only routes in and out of town. We caught up with Ash and Rhys again, and thanks to their collapsible bucket and 8 litres of water we fashioned a makeshift shower so we at least felt some semblance of cleanliness. The downpour was constant throughout the day, which meant that pretty much all of the flights were cancelled, and that in turn pushed back our flight (due the following day). End result: we were likely going to be stuck in Rurrenabaque for at least one more night. To commiserate, we went out with Rhys and Ash to El Nomadico again for more fish curry and caipirinhas, but this time I asked them to double the amount of spice they put in compared to last time. After looking a bit dubious and telling me I couldn't complain if it was too hot, they obliged and brought out a banana leaf full of amazing fish at a perfect madras-level heat. I cannot recommend this restaurant enough.

The rest of the evening was spent in Luna bar playing pool where, between dubious cocktails, I somehow managed to rack up a winning streak the likes of which I'd never hit before. It was 2:30am before we got back. Our flight was supposed to be at 12:45 the next day, but the aforementioned cancelled flights and yet another torrent meant that we didn't find out until 4pm that it had been postponed until the following day. We hung around and ran into Remy once more, who was also debating his options, but after a few hands of Monopoly Deal on the airport floor, all of us gave up on any chance of flying that day. Back in town, a couple of games of Cluedo filled the afternoon, a steak from El Nomadico filled our stomachs, and after a couple of hours of chat and drinks with everyone at the hostel in the evening, we packed our dirty, smelly, damp laundry ready for an 8:15am flight the next day, hoping that we'd actually managed to make it on. We didn't. We arrived at the airport at 7:15am, stayed there for almost ten sodding hours, celebrated when we heard the plane engines chugging away in the distance, then stood in disbelief as we were told that the pilot couldn't see the runway because there was too much cloud...So he turned around and went back to La Paz. As the locals would say: "en serio??!!" It seems that putting lights on a runway is far too much effort for a Bolivian airport, in a town that clearly receives a shitload of rain for six months of every year. Absolute insanity.

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We were told that the likelihood of a flight going the following day was practically nil, which meant we were essentially trapped here for another 2 nights at least. There was an option to get a taxi for £20 per person to La Paz that I'd have been sorely tempted to take, if we hadn't just heard that a bus had rolled off the same road and down a cliff just two days earlier, injuring 21 people. I didn't fancy gambling our lives for the sake of expediency, so we were resigned to staying put. Since we'd checked out of El Curichal, a load more people had returned from pampas trips and the hostel was full. Fortunately we bumped into another English couple on the street who we'd met at the airport, and who told us there were plenty of rooms at Los Tucanés where they were staying. On arrival we picked up a double room with private bathroom for £10, which was much better value than we'd been paying previously. Almost all our clothes were filthy and stinking so we dumped them into an express laundry service before joining Andre, Rhys and Ash for pizza and wine at La Bella Italia. It's surprising how many good eateries there are in the town, given it's in the back end of nowhere. The kiwis called it a night, while we went back to Luna with Andre and played pool with a couple more Aussies and a photographer called Mark from the Isle of Man, whilst waiting for another day of uncertainty.

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