We set out while the Amazon slept. Weary from the hot dampness of the jungle air, we prepared the boat, our guide started the motor, it sputtered loudly, tearing through the silence of the jungle. A group of monkeys cursed us from high above in the canopy as we left the comfort of our camp to charge through the sticky darkness of the jungle.
We surged deeper into the system of rivers that criss-crossed the Amazonian savannah, hiding a myriad of dangers along its banks and below its inky black surface. We floated through a large channel where the river spread out on either side, the banks invisible in the shroud of darkness, but high above the stars shine more brilliantly than I had ever seen, the heavy air seemed to amplify the brightness and clarity of the blazing giants. The guide points towards the shore on the left side, we cannot see anything. He aims a small torch in that direction, there floating a few inches above the water, reflecting the weak light, were two blood red orbs that shined like fire. The eyes blazed fiercely in the light, two spheres of inferno infused with a millennium of instinct and wisdom, the ancient predator gazed at us lazily. He would blink and the embers would extinguish, only to ignite and watch again. After some time the beast slips silently into the river, barely making a ripple on the blackness of the surface.
We continue down the river until we reach a thin channel on the right, our guide glides the boat into it, the banks are so close I can reach over the side and touch dirt. He instructs us to shine whatever light we have along the banks, armed with cellphones, flashlights and the flash of our cameras we head into the channel. Immediately the river slopes downward and we begin to pick up speed, the water is rushing now, we are hurtling forward through the small stream cutting across the savannah. We round a corner and the sides of the channel are ignited in flames, blazing orbs of hellfire peer out at us from the reeds, there are so many of them, they are like the stars above, but they burn with hunger and hunt. We part the sea of flames, rushing past sinister balls of fire and gleaming white teeth, countless white teeth, like daggers they shimmer in the light, they snap shut and open, they grin. We hurtle forward through a gauntlet of grinning teeth and burning eyes, we come out of the channel and are carried out into the middle of the river by our speed, we float listlessly, without direction, relieved, calm, breathing.
There are no blood red eyes here, only the infinity of the stars above, they radiate down on the jungle, we hear the call of a bird of paradise, and turn the boat in the direction of our camp.
Life in the Jungle
Rurrenabaque is an incredible town surrounded by mountains and rainforest, from the dusty streets you can see the green peaks swathed in dense mists caused by the heat of the jungle. The journey into town had been absolute hell; it had been one of the worst 24 hours of my life, but also one of the best. That is something I learned during my travels in South America, that all the unfortunate experiences that happen to you while travelling are only bad while they happen, afterwards you look back on them with fondness. Our trip through the death road, consisting of almost falling over the side, pushing the bus out of mud in the middle of the night, being jolted around for 24 hours, praying for a military checkpoint to take a leak, and watching bottles of urine roll around the floor of the bus, had been one of the best journeys of my life. The worst things that happen to us make the best stories.
After recharging from the bus trip we woke up the next morning refreshed and excited to head into the Amazon, we wandered around the town and found a guide company that would take us into the Amazonian savannah the following day for 3 days and 2 nights. The savannah is the low, swamp like area of the Amazon, characterized by intricate river systems that separate small islands of land. We spent the rest of the exploring the town, finding some food, checking our emails at a nearby internet cafe ( which was just 4 computers in a dusty open air building) and buying a plane ticket for the return to La Paz. We decided to commit a significant portion of our travel funds to getting a plane back to the city to save time, as we only had a month and a half to travel as well as the save ourselves from the punishment of the bus trip back.
The next day we headed to the guide company and loaded our packs onto the top of a large jeep and jumped in the back, along with us there were 4 English guys who would end up being our partners in crime for the majority of our Amazon antics. They were awesome guys and we were having a laugh together within 15 minutes of heading out. During the 2 journey to where we would take motorized canoes further into the jungle, we came across a large cobra crossing the road; the driver pulled over and ran over to taunt the large snake so we could properly see it. We reached the river where we met our native guide, whose name we all had a tough time pronouncing, and it soon transformed to ‘Pepto’ with the help of one of the English guys.
We jumped on our boat and started towards our camp in the jungle about another 2 hours in. During the ride in we saw alligators, birds of paradise, monkeys, fresh water dolphins and capybaras (the largest rodent in the world). The camp we would be staying at was a collection of rickety wooden huts sitting on stilts above the mud and water to protect us from alligators. Our camp was comprised of a two huts for sleeping, a kitchen, a washroom, a common area and a hut for the guides, all connected by bridges, it even came complete with an alligator named “Pepe” who hung around the kitchen hut collecting scraps, an alligator I got very close to and almost pushed my luck as he came rushing up onto the shore snapping his jaws at my feet.
The first night we spent getting to know the other group of 8 that were at the camp, eating some delicious Amazonian food and then heading out for a beer at a makeshift bar at one of the other camps down the river, we sat on the top deck of the building drinking warm litres of beer and watching the sunset go down over the Amazon. It is amazing how beautiful and awe-inspiring the sun looks like in every place that I go, no matter what part of the world I am in, whether it is on my back porch in Innisfil, the patio of a pub in Ottawa, my balcony in Santiago, or a decaying hut in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon, there is something about a beer and a sunset that transcends all borders.
Later when it was dark, we went for a night ride through the rivers to watch for the shining red eyes of alligators. As I described above, we saw a lot of them, churning through tight channels at breakneck speed we passed countless pairs of eyes, sharp grins and scaly bodies. We slept in bunks equipped with mosquito nets to protect us from the onslaught of bugs in the jungle.
The next day we woke up early to go hunting for pythons in the Savannah, unfortunately this concluded in us trudging through knee high water and mud and not finding any snakes. Afterwards we set out to fish for piranha, something I was very excited for. We strung pieces of beef to fishing lines attached to a stick and threw the hooks in, yanking upwards sharply when we felt a bite, our guide was an expert and had 6 fish caught by the time I caught my first. Without mercy he would pull out a long dagger like knife out of his belt and run it straight through the top of the fish, the vicious little teeth gaped open menacingly. He would cut the guts of the fish and throw them back into the water, almost instantaneously the area around the entrails would turn into a bubbling, thrashing mass of piranhas tearing into their former friends. We returned to the camp where we cooked our day’s catch and shared it with the other group. Spoiler warning, piranha doesn’t taste good, I love fish, but these little suckers.. well sucked. I drowned mine in lemon but made sure to rip off the bottom jaw to keep the sharp row of teeth as a souvenir.
That evening all the camps along the river met at a soccer field that had been built on one of the marshy islands, equipped with a small hut that sold beer and alcohol. Knowing it was our last night in the jungle together the English and Canadian guys made a pact to get nice and drunk, so it fell on me to go and barter with owner of the hut for two of the most obscure, and subsequently worst tasting, bottles of rum I had ever seen. With a combination of Bolivian pesos, some random American dollars and an attempt at Bolivian charm, we acquired the two bottles of rum and a few beers and headed back to camp to begin our Bolivian jungle fiesta.
The night was a laugh, we sat around a table drinking and talking, or more appropriately yelling, as we were told to shut up by the other group a few times. Soon enough we had run out of rum and we ventured to the guides hut to barter for a couple bottles of wine they had. We continued the night cheering dirty cups of red wine until we ran out and people started passing out on the floors of the hut. We ventured across the bridges that connected the different huts and fell into deep, delusional, drunk slumber. I am sure everyone reading this has experience a hangover, the feeling of a desert in your mouth, a furnace on your face, and a jack hammer on your skull, but trust me when I say there is no comparison to waking up with a hangover in the hot wetness of the midday Amazon.
We awoke into hell. We trudged painfully to breakfast, where we saved most of our food to go a bit away from the camp to a place we had been feeding the monkeys every day. I know, feeding wildlife isn’t good, but these spider monkeys were incredible. The little guys would come and take the food right out of your hand, prying open your palm with their soft little fingers. If anything can make you forget about how much your head hurts, spider monkeys jumping around inches from you is it.
Before packing up to leave the jungle we set out to go swimming in the Amazon, now these rivers are infested with piranhas and alligators, so why the hell would we want to swim there? The same reason I wanted to drive down The Death Road, to say I could, to stare something stupid in the face and laugh at it and tell my friends back home I did it and am still alive. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there was anything dangerous about swimming in the Amazon, although we had all read about the horror stories of types of fish swimming up your urine stream, or bugs burrowing into open sores, etc. But we would only go swimming when we saw fresh water dolphins, weirdly shaped, soft pink brothers to the stereotypical dolphin you picture doing somersaults in the ocean. I figure that the dolphins don’t get on well with the alligators and piranhas, and so when they are around you can be pretty certain the other two aren’t.
Regardless I only swam around for 5 minutes. You can imagine the murky darkness of a Canadian lake, deep and mysterious, no idea of what is beneath you, now imagine the same murky darkness, but you know exactly what is beneath you, because you have spent the last 2 days watching them and catching them, one a prehistoric predator, the other a soldier in an army of sharply toothed blood thirsty fish, welcome to the Amazon river.
We returned to the camp and grabbed our packs before jumping back on the boat for the 2 hour ride. I had to say I was pretty bummed leaving the Amazon, although it had not been the survivalist experience of sleeping on the ground and living off the land I would have loved to have tried, it was an awesome experience and really pushed our limits in a few ways. Plus we got to meet some awesome guys who we would meet up with later on in our travels to keep the party going. However I was excited to get back to Rurrenabaque, as we had planned one last night in the Amazon, one last night immersed in Amazonian tradition, to try something my travel companions and I had been talking about doing since we lived together in Canada, something that would open our eyes, all three of them.