Someday I’ll take a weeklong sail down the Amazon River deep into Brazil, immersing myself in the jungle. But that is an expensive option for another day. This trip, I decided the advantages of a Bolivian exploration of the Amazon basin were worth it: there’s no malaria risk in this part of the country, it’s a lot cheaper, and if you go to the pampas rather than the jungle, you are much more likely to spot wildlife. I had a wonderful, relaxing time, and I had some firsts.
1. Flying in a 19-seat plane
I was not super excited about this one, but this was the flight that was available, so this was the flight I took. There wasn’t even a curtain between us and the two pilots in the cockpit, so we could hear every ominous beep and blip from the navigation system. But the views of the mountains surrounding La Paz giving way to the dense jungle outside Rurrenabaque were wonderful.
2. Fishing for piranhas
I caught one! I haven’t been fishing in probably 20 years, but our great guide, Eloy, took us to a spot he says he always has luck with, and we all caught a piranha within five minutes of throwing our line overboard. When I pulled the fish out of the water, he fought like crazy, and those sharp teeth are no joke (Eloy still has a cut from three weeks ago when a piranha caught him off-guard). We all had piranha that night (it’s not that flavorful and there isn’t much meat, turns out), and at the end of the meal, the other woman in my group pulled apart the mouth and we all felt the teeth. Super sharp.
3. Swimming with river dolphins
Speaking of teeth… The Yacuma River is populated by a species of pink dolphins, and like everything else in the area, apparently, they are armed with teeth. One of the much-touted activities of all the pampas tours is swimming with the river dolphins. What they neglect to mention is that the dolphins’ idea of fun is to swim up below you and gnaw on your feet. You can’t see them coming, because the water is a murky brown, and as someone who has never seen Jaws because that would make it difficult for me to enjoy swimming in open water as much as I do, I found this really freaky. A few times, a dolphin swam up to me so that its rubbery skin was right under my feet, but mostly it was biting. Sure, you’re supposed to remain calm because flailing just makes it worse, but that’s not easy. I liked seeing the dolphins (and they surfaced often, making a whooshing noise like a horse sighing), and it was cool to have them swim right by me, but I didn’t like the biting.
4. Chasing the eerie call of howler monkeys
I loved chasing after the howler monkeys. We heard the males calling to each other, in what Eloy said was a territory dispute, and we walked as quickly as we could in the direction of the sound. It was loud, and every time we thought we were right there because the noise was so loud, we had further to walk. The sound isn’t howling so much as it’s a guttural groaning, or that noise you make when you mess around with glass bottles–it echoed, too. This part of the pampas was very open, as forests go, but we saw no animals or birds on our quick-step toward the noise. Just tall, leafy trees, and empty space filled with the groaning and growling of howler monkeys. It was eerie and cool.
5. Stargazing from a boat while simultaneously looking for caimans
The stars out here, oh man. I got a crick in my neck from looking up; Eloy pointed out the Southern Cross and I hummed Crosby, Stills, and Nash to myself as I picked out an upside-down Big Dipper and the hazy glow of the Milky Way. I would’ve been content to float silently down the river looking up, but we were on a mission to see caimans. Caimans are in the alligator family, and at night you can see their eyes glowing red as they hunt their prey. We saw a couple sets of red eyes, glowing spookily in the dark night, and we even heard bones crunching as one ate his meal. The beauty and the brutality of the pampas in one short night ride.
I also saw a couple beautiful sunsets and many elegant birds. I dozed in a hammock under a palm tree. I ate well and went to bed early; the generator only ran from 6-10, so lights out was a literal thing. I loved the river boat rides, gliding along while the motor purred behind me and the scenery drifted by. I’ll get to the true jungle someday, but in the meantime, this was an excellent alternative.
Check out tomorrow’s post for photos of birds, turtles, and capybaras in the pampas.