On March 21 we roused ourselves at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight to Rurrenabaque, which lies at the edge of the Andean foothills to the north of La Paz. In many ways, this was the single biggest adventure we had planned of the entire trip. We would be nearly a week in an area renowned worldwide for its biodiversity, named as one of the top 20 destinations in the world by National Geographic and described in the Lonely Planet Guide as “the Amazon as it’s meant to be”.
The decision to fly to Rurrenabaque was an easy one: $112 for a one-hour flight versus 21 hours on a bus. We flew on TAM, the airline operated by the Bolivian military, but found it rather lacking in anything resembling military precision; the 7 a.m. take-off didn’t happen until close to 9 a.m. – no explanation given. Felix asked me if we would be landing at an airport (funny question) and I assured him that of course we would; we had taken off from an airport so we would have to land at one. Wrong! There was a runway, to be sure, but no terminal, no building whatsoever. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to eat my words. (How many other times in the trip have I offered equally naïve assurances, like “Surely this is the kind of place that will provide toilet paper” or “The bus is almost there now; it can’t be too much longer”??)
After some more waiting, while everyone’s luggage was carried from the plane one bag at a time and heaved on top of a waiting shuttle van, we were driven into town an d straight to the TAM office where an agent of the tour company we had contracted with was waiting. When the business formalities had been taken care of, we met our guide, Ronaldo, and walked with him about three blocks to the river. We climbed in a waiting wooden canoe about 25 feet long with an outboard motor, a few rickety, rusty folding seats, and a tarp hung over our heads across a few 2×4’s to keep off the light misty rain.
With our flight arriving so late, we had been concerned that the tour might have left without us. But as it turned out, we were the only ones booked for those particular days at the San Miguel del Bala eco-lodge: an accidental private tour! Low season for tourists, we guessed correctly. For the next 45 minutes we zoomed up the Rio Beni, whose current is so strong it would take only half that time to do the return trip the following day.
Other boats passed us, many of them carrying mounds of bananas to market, and many of them powered not by a regular outboard motor, but by a pump (see photo). These have the advantage of working in very shallow water (presumably handy at other times of year) and being very easy to repair, but they are bloody loud!
Pulling over at an unremarkable spot along the muddy shore, we disembarked and followed a short path leading to a round hut constructed of palm wood, woven leaves, and mosquito netting, the interior being furnished with seven hammocks and a dozen interpretive signs explaining the Tacana culture, history, and way of life, which mostly revolves around fishing. Within minutes, we were welcomed with glasses of fresh-squeezed tropical mystery juice and given a brief tour of the beautiful grounds of the eco-lodge, constructed of local materials by the 35 families of the community of San Miguel in 2005.
We were surprised to learn how much has changed for the community in the past decade. In spite of their proximity to Rurrenabaque, most community members had not ever used a telephone before about 10 years ago (which is shocking considering that everywhere else we’ve been in Bolivia it seems as if EVERYONE has a cell phone – cholitas in Tarabuco, llama herders on Isla del Sol, you name it). In fact, when the first tourists came to San Miguel and the community was told that there would be visitors arriving the following day, the response of many was, “But how do you know? How do you know when they will come and where they are from? How do you know their names and what they like to eat?” It must have seemed like some sort of magic or prophecy.
Ronaldo told us that the people were actually afraid at first, or at least very shy about interacting with tourists, because they didn’t understand what tourists wanted or why they were coming. Now, however, they are very comfortable with tourism, not afraid of visitors or bothered by their presence. Many are now adept using the internet. And the eco-lodge appears to have brought them significant benefit s, not the least of which is the ability to stay in their village instead of having to take cash jobs in the city doing menial labour or selling Coke and Barbie dolls on the street. On the ground just outside the dining room of the lodge there is a stone-mounted plaque commemorating the opening of the lodge and acknowledging its builders, funders and supporters. A local resident is quoted as saying, “In my life I have slept so much, but never did I dream of this” (i.e., that this could be possible). The Spanish sounds more poetic.
That first afternoon we took a hike to a place called El Cañon de los Picaflores(Hummingbird Canyon) which indeed had a hummingbird nest at its entrance, with two tiny hairy tufts inside, which we took to be baby hummingbirds, though we couldn’t get a very good view. Unlike other canyons we’ve visited, this one was extremely narrow; so narrow, in fact, that one could climb past the deep water sections by just bracing one arm and leg against each wall and shuffling forward, Spiderman-style, at least at first. Soon, however, the water became too deep and we gave up trying to keep the water out of our wellies. Ronaldo got a great laugh out of the kids’ delight at just getting thoroughly soaked (they even dunked right under).
The second activity (while we were still dripping wet) was a visit to the San Miguel community, located only about 1 km from the lodge amidst patches of sugarcane, rice, corn, palms (including coconut), citrus and banana trees. The atmosphere could not have been more peaceful. Two women gave us a demonstration of how sugar cane is pressed into juice. Actually, we were the ones who did the pressing as one woman fed in the lengths of raw cane into the press and the other twisted and turned the cane back on itself for a second pass through the press.
An astounding amount of juice came out of just four lengths of cane, which filled a plastic pitcher exactly full, yielding five tall glasses of fresh sugar juice, which the women then served up to us on a silver tray. They advised us to try it straight up first, and then offered us a plate full of cut limes to squeeze into the juice, which balanced the sweetness very nicely.
The second activity was a demonstration of weaving with fronds of a plant that looks very similar to sugarcane (the exact name of which we were told but quickly forgot). After cutting it down with a machete, the woman doing the demonstration then thinned the spine of the frond so that the individual leaves arced off the spine in a perfect fan. She proceeded to weave the leaves over and under each other in a diagonal direction, producing a beautifully shaped shoulder bag in one continuous weave, finishing with a sort of braid that formed a reinforced bottom. As the bag was in progress, she invited both me and Erik to take turns weaving, which we did, finding it to be more challenging than it had appeared when being so smoothly executed by her expert hands. She then quickly whipped up a fan of similarly woven fronds, which the Tacana use mostly in the cooler months of the year to get their fires going. She explained to us that these fans were very important, as temperatures in July and August can drop as low as 17 or 18 degrees Celsius. (!)
Ambling through the community we saw the school, the church, the soccer field, some thatched-roof wooden huts, lots of chickens and pigs and dogs, kids happily bouncing on the limbs of a large, fallen-down tree (with no adults telling them they’re going to get hurt), and some children and adults preparing for a celebration of the anniversary of the school the following day.
Ronaldo didn’t know exactly how old the school was, and seemed to say that no one in the village knew, but they estimated that it was well over 100 years, as the community had been there for at least 150 years. While having a school isn’t new, the cheery yellow building that housed it appeared to be relatively new, as did the solar panel bringing it power, though the satellite dish looked decades old – and many years past any time at which it had been functioning. In one classroom – for middle-school aged students – we saw the names of the students on the wall, a few wooden desks, a world map, a map showing the animals of Bolivia, and some inspirational quotes on the wall, including one that said (translated): A home without books is like a body without a soul. One wonders, though, how many of the students’ very modest homes contained books. Ronaldo told us that most adults in the village, including himself, had not had more than a few years of primary education.
On the second day we boated further upstream on the Beni, then hiked to a waterfall with a little natural pool for swimming, seeing some exciting sights along the way: a capybara, some turtles, an alligator, a BIG spider, lots more of those metallic blue butterflies, an endangered frog with tiny orange stripes (we knew it was an endangered variety because Felix remembered seeing it in the Natural History Museum in Cochabamba) and – most thrillingly – fresh jaguar tracks in the wet mud! (Photo on left shows a capybara.)
Ronaldo also introduced us to many fascinating plants and explained their medicinal uses. The most versatile of these was the motacu palm: the wood is used for constructing buildings; the leaves for making thatched roofs and weaving mats; the roots for making medicine and the fruits for eating (and sharing with the birds).
He pointed out the açaí, that madly popular super-food, which is actually a kind of palm. Among the Tacana,açaí is known to be good for the blood and to provide essential vitamins, especially for children who are too skinny. Its roots can be mixed with those of other palms to treat parasites. Its fruits are surprisingly hard and dry – like wooden beads – and the skins have to be painstakingly peeled off and mixed with water to make juice. Kudos to whoever figured out how to do this efficiently on a large scale!
Ronaldo then demonstrated a way to get clean drinking water in the jungle: using the machete you always carry along, you simply hack off a section of a certain woody vine (called “uña de gato”) about 2 metres long, prop one end on a branch, and position a cupped hand – or your mouth – directly under the other end to receive a steady trickle of refreshing, life-giving agua. Tea from this plant was traditionally used to treat back pain around the kidneys but I have since seen it for sale here in La Paz and it is being marketed as a cure for just about everything.
Ronaldo also explained for us the unsolved mystery of that strange tree with the multiple above-ground roots that we first encountered in the Chapare (shown also above, third photo from the top) : it is called a “walking tree” because of its ability to actually shift its location to one with more favourable conditions (e.g., better light) by killing off one or more of its own roots that are anchoring it on one side and sending down new roots in other directions. So “walk” it really does, albeit on a different timescale than that of animals. Erik was impressed.
Ronaldo showed us a plant called “iridia” that was used traditionally to dye fabrics for weaving. Tearing off a fewyoung leaves, he rubbed them hard on his hand, then Felix’s, then Quinn’s, leaving a dim streak of green. We were (uncomfortably) unimpressed until we saw that after a minute or so the green had given way to a convincing red which then darkened to deep purple. Seeing what had happened to his hands, Felix giddily rubbed some across his cheeks, nose and forehead, painting himself like a warrior.
One final memorable plant was the chocolate tree, whose yellow pods (faintly resembling acorn squash) grow straight from the trunks of the cacao. Once the pod is cracked open, the seeds can be scooped out by hungry little fingers and sucked upon until the yummy, pudding-like coating is gone, at which point the seeds can be crunched (by those desperate for a hit of energy and indifferent to their strong, bitter flavour) or spat out, which is the more sensible thing to do, since the familiar flavour of chocolate can only be had by fermenting, roasting and crushing the seeds, a process which takes at least a week, and is significantly enhanced by the addition of sugar.
All the meals at San Miguel del Bala were amazing; we felt good and truly stuffed every time! The last one was the best of all: fresh-caught fish from the river steamed with carrots, tomatoes and onions in two different traditional ways – first, in a large leaf and second, inside a length of green bamboo. These were served with copoazu juice made from the creamy white fibres and goo that surround the seeds of this tropical fruit, closely related to cacao. It was by far the tastiest tropical juice we’ve tried! If only there was a way to bring it back to Canada.
So that’s how we passed our first two days in the Amazon: in delightful tranquility, under grey skies and light rain, but thankfully without oppressive heat or bugs. So far so good.