Pampas is amongst the most ecologically diverse terrain found in South America. In the grassland lurk apex predators such at the anaconda whilst the waters teem with caiman, dolphin and piranha. Many presume that the most budget friendly way to explore the Amazon is to travel to Brazil or Uruguay. This is not the case. Just a 45 minute plane ride from La Paz, lying on the Beni river in Northern Bolivia is the town of Rurrenabaque. The sleepy town provides access to the Bolivian Amazon and swathes of pampas, via the Madidi National Park. It is also home to the most competitively priced pampas tours. I booked myself on to a tour and soon realised this was an experienced not confined to the inside of the boat. A journey through the grassland in search of anaconda and a dip in the caiman-infested waters are all part of the package.
To reach Rurrenabaque travellers have two options. Flights out of La Paz airport 400 km away leave twice a day and take half an hour, usually costing between £60-70. For those on more of a budget a 20 hour bus ride costs just £10. Due to the town’s small infrastructure, the planes transporting passengers are charmingly small. They touch down on a tiny airstrip with the jungle pressing in from all sides. The descent from altitude means that visitors will be greeted with a blast of humid jungle air, rather than the rarefied sort found in La Paz.
Accommodation in Rurrenabaque
Hostel el Lobo is located around 1.3km Rurrenabaque’s centre. It contains a pool, bar and hammocks to lounge in. In short, it’s the perfect place to relax before and after a grimy, adventurous excursion into the Amazon. A bed in a mixed dormitory costs around £10 a night
Booking a tour
Many of the tour companies online sell pampas tours for extravagant prices. The best strategy is to wait until arriving in Rurrenabaque and book with a local agency in person, rather than online. Local tour agencies operating out of the town include Mashaquipe eco river tours and Dolphin river tours. I went with Mashaquipe and had a positive experience.
The tour prices are generally between £50 and £70. That’s accommodation, a guide and food included. There are two types of tour available. The first one involves being taken around by a guide, and the second is a little more outlandish. After being instructed in basic survival skills, participants are dropped in the jungle with a machete for a number of days and left to fend for themselves. This writer elected to go for the former option.
Traversing the river
Once settled in our accommodation, which consisted of simple eco-lodges on the river, our group headed out on a boat to explore the pampas. The boat skimmed across the water, brushing the low canopies of trees overhanging with river. Mischievous golden capuchin monkeys play in the trees. Our guide enticed then on to the boat with treats. All along the banks of the river dwelt numerous caiman, basking in the sun. They remained perfectly motionless until it was time to enter the river, whereupon they slipped in with barely a ripple. The only evidence of their presence was a set of reptilian eyes, gazing unflinchingly. In the amazon’s waters, these reptiles grow to an average of 3 and half feet. With the exception of the black caiman, capable of growing up to 5m long and tackling prey the size of river dolphins.
Away from the rushing of the main river, we were found ourselves sat in a secluded mango swamp. Here the eerie quiet was punctuated only by the cicadas and the telltale plop of fish in the water. Red bellied favoured the slower moving water. Although much maligned in the media, piranhas rarely attack humans. They are however, insatiably attracted to the chunks of beef placed on the end of the fishing lines. We spent an hour waiting intently for a tug on our line before hauling the fish into the boat. Later on, we were able to fry our catches and have them for dinner back at the lodge.
Snake in the grass
Anaconda tend to favour swampy habitats and are adept swimmers. As such, the pampas is an ideal habitat for this creature. Despite its large size the snake is moves with remarkable stealth. We spent an invigorating afternoon wading through the grassland in search of one. Our guide led the way, hacking and slashing at the vegetation with a machete whilst we trailed behind. The sun beat down and water seeped in over the top of our wellingtons. Unfortunately, the closest we came to catching site of the elusive reptile was the skin it had shed previously. Nevertheless, this was a thoroughly adventurous afternoon.
In the evening, we set out in our boat armed with torches. Scanning the water revealed an impressively unnerving site. A sea of beady green eyes regarded us. The reptilian inhabitants of the pampas clearly were most active during the evening. Switching the motor on our boat off, our guide paddled soundlessly into the floating vegetation, getting us as close to the caiman as possible. The silence was punctuated by the reptiles thrashing their tales in surprise as we glided past them. Experiencing the pampas at night was a wholly unique experience.
Clearly our guides were bent on burning the candle at both ends. The next morning we awoke around 4:30 am, and stumbled back into the boats, rubbing the sleep from our eyes. The boats’ engines chugged as we were taken out into a flat grassy plane. Gradually, the star-studded sky gave way and we watched as the sun bridged the horizon. This was a surreal view.
Friends with flippers
Towards the end of the tour, we were taken to a small bay and allowed to go swimming. Whilst swimming, I watched the caiman along the bank sense our presence and slide soundlessly into the water. A few moments later, a number of sleek forms darted around me. I yelped like small child and initiated a frantic front crawl towards the bank. My guide, however , merely laughed and shook his head. Fortunately, these weren’t reptiles. Amazon River dolphins are pinky grey in colour and males can reach over 2.5m long. Naturally curious, they came to swim alongside us. I felt the occasional brush and a playful nip on my leg as one of then tried chewing on me. Apparently, I wasn’t that tasty.