Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bolivia – Thawing out in the Pampas

Enough of this cold weather! We have been frozen like Popsicles ever since arriving in Cusco back in mid June. La Paz is even colder (more about our La Paz impressions later in the month).
We are fed up with wearing layers of shirts under two jackets and sleeping under at least 3 thick wool blankets (the weight of these almost presses us flat by the morning). And taking a hot shower is dreaded as it feels like icicles form immediately after stepping out of the shower. Another byproduct is that all the shivering seems to also remove that last little layer of fat left on our bodies. Yikes, our protection against the cold is gone now too.

Fortunately nearly two thirds of Bolivia lies in the tropical Amazon basin... and that's where we are heading!

We booked a flight on TAM from La Paz to Rurrenabaque, simply called Rurre by most Bolivians. You might remember: we normally prefer to take local road transport and only fly when needed. Well, in this case, our option was an 18-20 hour one-way bus trip on a mostly unpaved road or a 50 minute flight. Exactly, sometimes flying is better...especially when we have the opportunity to fly with the Bolivian Air Force. That's right, TAM stands for Transporte Aéreo Militar which is a civilian arm of the Bolivian Air Force.

Heating at an airport terminal?
Not here with TAM

If you now think that we are about to fly in a fighter jet with G-force suits and an oxygen mask performing Top Gun maneuvers then we have to disappoint you: TAM is not that exciting. But we find out soon that TAM is indeed different. We have to take a 5:30am taxi to the airport, actually to the Air Force base that shares the runway with the La Paz International airport. The military police check point temporarily "confiscates" our cabby's driver's license but lets us pass freely into the base.

We are at the military terminal exactly 60 minutes before departure: as requested. But there is no TAM staff to be seen anywhere. The terminal basically has one check-in counter and is (of course) not heated. Twenty-some other travelers join us in our "hip hop" dance from one leg to the other, desperately trying to stay warm in the near freezing temperature. Finally, 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time, an employee leisurely arrives to start the check-in process... remind us again why we had to be here one hour early?

Primitive check-in scale, in Bolivia
can you check-in a motorbike!
Check-in is fast and we can proceed to what appears to be a departure lounge – also not heated of course. In the meantime, it's sunrise and we can observe how our plane is towed in front of the terminal. To our disappointment it's not a camouflaged bomber or military transporter – simply a very old civilian propeller plane.

Half an hour later, we are requested to board. There are two staff members at the "gate." One is concerned to double check that we paid our 10 Bolivianos ($1.45) airport tax and the other fiddles with our boarding pass. Security check? Apparently not as important as the departure tax!
We hope that all other passengers share our logic that it would be really stupid to try to hijack a military plane.

The plane actually looks
halfway decent
Once we get on board, we see that the interior is a mix between civilian airline seats and military fixtures such as hooks for parachutes and braces to mount whatever extra military gear. The overhead compartments look like the ones in a chicken bus – no worries that they will open during take off and landing: there's no hatch or latch to start with. The plane is also not heated either: this flying tin can has been sitting in the cold all night. We try not to touch anything that is metal (which is a lot) in fear that our skin may instantly super-glue to the ultra-chilled surface.

But there are at least seatbelts. So we close them and wait. Suddenly a uniformed official is dashing to the front of the plane and starts checking something. It's those notorious departure tax receipts that need another inspection. It turns out that a couple beside us didn't have them and refused to pay the fee. Now we understand the close scrutiny...almost $3 of revenue lost.
The interior is a bit strange though.
Are these hooks for parachutes? Will
we get one for the safety briefing too?

On his second walkthrough he actually wants to look into a few pieces of the carry-on luggage... Now we feel secure :-S. The safety briefing is basically only the chime sound when the fasten seatberlt/no-smoking sign comes on; that's it, we haven’t seen a flight attendant yet and are now rolling full speed to the runway.

The plane rattles worse than the he chicken buses in central America as we get airborne... hopefully they check the nuts and bolts on their planes more thoroughly than they search the hand-carry luggage. At this point, a hijacking incident of a TAM plane seems less likely than the plane falling apart mid flight.

Halfway into the journey as the air vents finally start to warm the ice box cabin, we are offered some food. Nope, not military grade Spam but a cardboard box filled with a package of peanuts and a carrot cake... followed by coffee! Wow we didn’t expect that from TAM, their in-flight service is better than on a domestic carrier in the US.

Arriving in Rurre brings the long sought after warmth, although we expected it to be hotter here, we don't mind that it's "only" around 25°C (77°F). We happily tuck our jackets and gloves away and dig deep into our backpacks to get the shorts out of hibernation. We settle in Guesthouse Lobo (recommended, 60B a night, great river views and small pool) and enjoy taking a nap using only one thin blanket! But now it's mosquito country instead.

Palm candelabra.
What a sunset!
We came to Rurre based on a recommendation from Jörg and Dani, a German couple that we met in Rattanakiri/Cambodia who had been here about a year ago and considered their Pampas tour as the highlight of their South American travels.

We have the option to join either a Jungle or Pampas tour. After a bit of asking around, we decide on a Pampas tour as this one promises more wildlife encounters. The Jungle tour focuses on the exotic flora and guarantees more varieties of insects. Humm...tough choice!

Off we go to book our tour: All travel agencies in Rurre have formed a cartel and now uniformly charge 900B ($130) per person for the 3 day/2 night trip. This is a sharp increase from ~500B a few months back before they started the price fixing scheme. Apparently, they weren't making enough money before – cheers! Well the price fixing has fixed that problem. But what seems to have happened is that now tourists only go to the 3 main tour agencies and the other start-ups or smaller agencies don't have a chance to gain customers (they were the ones offering lower prices to compete with the ones recommended in the guidebooks). That's one way to eradicate competition. The big boys win this battle... and a double the previous price they are guaranteed to make a fat profit.

Additionally, the village of Santa Rosa (where the river part of the tour begins) also enjoys digging into the tourist pocket; charging a proud 150B ($22) for a dubious municipal park fee. We can't help suspecting that this fee contributes to an elite few villagers rather than protecting any wildlife. The fee is 50% higher than the famous Madidi national park fee which employs park rangers (This is where the Jungle tours go).

We decide on booking our tour with "Fluvial", the longest running tour company in town. They at least offer us a private room for the 1800 bolivianos (instead of a bed in an 8 person dorm). Note that most of the tour operators have very rustic "resort" camps. They are all built on stilts (think: alligators and snakes now) and have simple cold showers and a few hammocks to lounge in. Also note that an average salary for an office worker in Bolivia is about 800B ($100) per month. So our 1800 bolivianos for 2 nights is far out of reach for the average local.

Twin alligators posing for us with big smiles.
A little taste of what's to come in our Pampas tour

Pampas Tour
Our gang of eight for the
next 3 days
The tour starts at 9am with a 3 hour jeep ride to Santa Rosa on a very, very dusty and bumpy road. After we are lightened of our 150B "park fee", we have lunch and some time to realign our rattled bones and wash our dusty faces. From our lunch stop, it's only another 10 minutes to the river that would be our base for the next 3 day's exploration.

As we unload our Jeep, we see the long and narrow boats pulling into the river bank below. On board are many smiling faces returning from three days exploring the river's wilderness: A very good omen.

We will see lots of these Alligators
We have to wait for about 45 minutes until our guide "Taz" finally shows up. We load the boat with our personal stuff and the food supplies (strangely nothing in grown at the resort and even water is brought in). Seems like a lot of chow for 3 days but it also feeds the staff too! Later it turns out that Fluvial is one of the most popular agencies and has 23 new guests joining the other guests on Day 2 already. A bit crowded but they even own a second resort. Yes, they are clearly the monopoly kingpin of Rurre!

These are the dangerous ones:
Black Caiman
Eight people fit into a motorized, wooden boat. Soon we disembark and within seconds, we spot both pink dolphins and alligators. The alligators are small, only 1-2 meters (3-6 ft) long but they sure do look fierce. We are told by Taz that they are actually pretty harmless. It's the Black Caimans that we have to watch out for. They grow up to 6 meters (20 ft) in length and are very aggressive. But he reassures us that there are only very few large black caimans around these days: they've been hunted extensively in the past for their skins. We wonder if the "park fee" is now helping to protect them, but where are the park rangers?

Pink fresh water dolphin in sight
The murky river water, or shall we say "chocolate brown water",  is also the home of piranhas and pink fresh water dolphins (also known as Amazon river dolphin), the latter one not being a dangerous animal, for a change.
A family of capybaras ignores the gator.
Why aren't they afraid?
Taz explains that the dolphins are the kings of the river and that the waters are safe for humans to swim as long as there are dolphins nearby (the crocs and piranhas are according to his theory too scared of the dolphins and stay a safe distance away).

A turtle orgy!
During the 3 hour trip to our camp, we see lots of wildlife including: turtles, many bird species, lots of pink dolphins, alligators, and crocs in all sizes up to 5 meters (Didn't Taz say that large caimans are rare here?). We see lots of capybaras, a large rodent (looks like a rat crossed with a pig actually) that grows up to 1.5 meters (5ft) in length.

Yellow squirrel monkey
At one river bend, we spot a tree with a large family of yellow squirrel monkeys. As we pull up closer, they get quite animated. We are not sure whether to take out our camera and get some nice pics or whether to keep everything protected...still having the aggressive monkeys from Ometepe in our memory.

But the little tree huggers seemed quite calm, so we take the camera out. A tourist on another boat is silly enough to take food out of his bag and feed a monkey, before you know it; they are all over that boat.
They are not shy at all: being fed by
stupid tourists is nothing new.

We were impressed that the guides as well as many of the tourists immediately reprimand the guy. Julane is one of the loudest yelling, "You are not supposed to feed them!!!" But the "hunger" of the monkeys was raised and they swarm our boats for quite some time, they are not shy at all... this is obviously not the first time that they are being fed by tourists.
Although that encounter was nice for photos, it is stupid to feed the monkeys. For the rest of the trip this guy was singled out as the "monkey feeder"... not a particularly popular nickname to acquire in an era or Eco-awareness!

Is that a croc in front of the camp?

The Fluvial lodge, our base camp
for the next 3 days
We reach our camp in a pretty knackered state. The 3 hour dust treatment followed by 3 hours of baking in the hot sun does take its toll on one's energy level. We can't wait to take a shower in our rustic jungle cabin.

Our main protection is being elevated.
Most dangerous beasts stay on
the ground, except the mozzies.
Dinner is served (simple spaghetti with tomato sauce... boring). Soon with dusk approaching, we head out again in our boat to watch the nightlife on and in the river. Our flashlights scan the river banks for the reflection of reptile eyes; and, we know that there are many around. But it seems that they are less abundant now or just hard to spot, even though Taz explains that they are more active at night and love to hunt in the dark. Maybe they are all just waiting submerged in the chocolate colored water, until a well fed tourist falls off the boat?
Alligator at day...
After awhile, we get the hang of spotting the croc's eyes, they gather in big groups under the mangroves. Taz decides to pull into one of the mangroves with a couple dozen reflective eyes shining as brightly as the stars overhead.
It added a bit of spicy action to our trip as the alligators splashed up a ruckus and people in the front of the boat screamed loudly.
The alligators (or perhaps they were the aggressive caimans, in the dark as splash is a splash!) didn't like our presence at all. It's hard to say who's more scared right now: the alligators or the humans.
and at night.
Fortunately the only casualties that night were severely pin-pricked legs; the mosquitoes are the definite beneficiaries of the night river cruise. Thankfully, we have a good mozzie net over our bed. The bug spray doesn't seem to be very effective here!

The next morning after a good breakfast (much better than the dinner), we head out to the Pampas. Somehow we felt much safer in the protection of our boat or in our above ground, stilted camp. So why must our feet touch ground? It's time to chase Anacondas: that large snake that kills its prey by strangulation. This is one of the advertised highlights of the Pampas tour and we are all very anxious and excited. Although trading our comfortable hiking shoes for clumsy rubber boots is not too enticing. (Julane wears a 37 and ends up with a size 39. Patrick wears two mismatched galoshes. We hope it won't be a long hike today!)

I sure hope that these
are not the eggs of a
giant croc!
After an hour's walk in rubber boots through a dry field, we reach the border of a big swamp.
Taz gives us the "safety briefing": This swamp is the home of many animals including small crocs, piranhas, and snakes. There are green mambos (only the world's second most poisonous snake), cobras, and anacondas. The latter also bites but is not poisonous. He says that we don't have to worry; the snakes typically bite only the rubber boots. Let's hope they are thick enough to keep the fangs of the green mambo at bay too!

He also comforts us that the swamp is only as deep as our hips and that the ground underneath is solid, without a risk of sucking us down like quicksand. Before entering the swamp, Taz stuffs his mouth full of coca leaves for "good luck", but fails to explain if luck means spotting an anaconda or not getting bitten by a green mambo!

We are having sooo much fun
deep in muck and crap!
One by one, with trepidation, we enter the swamp. Quickly we discover that the rubber boots must be to protect us from snake bites rather than keeping our feet dry – they leak pretty badly. After a couple minutes, our feet are sloshing around in smelly murky swamp water as it slowly seeps into the cracks. But that quickly changes...within ten minutes of our swamp march, we are knee deep in water so the boots are full from bottom to top now. We are now swamp creatures on a hunting brigade.

Everybody in our group of eight (6 mainly petite women and 2 men) are daring enough to walk towards the middle of the swamp...yes the deeper thigh-high area. Another group from our camp (mainly tall French men) stick to the shallow edge. They must be bourgeoisie tourists. ; )
We wade through the smelly swamp and scan the surface for more than an hour but don't find any snakes. Taz is visibly getting a bit nervous; he had bragged earlier that he always finds one or two anacondas. He tells us to not only scan the surface for anacondas sunning themselves, but for us to spread our across the swamp in hopes to scare them to the surface. How? By stepping on of them! Double Yikes!! Somehow this sounds like what nightmares are made out of or war films. So we keep plowing through the muck, by now our pant legs are soaking wet and dirty with this noxious smelling water. And whatever is in our boots is nipping away on our skin... who knows what kind of bugs, critters and leeches might be lurking inside. Sometimes it's better not to know exactly what is going on. Better not to look either.

Look what I got in my boots!
After almost two hours we reach the other end of the swamp; still no snake in sight. Taz is all quiet as we discuss a conspiracy theory to tell the wimpy French (who abandoned the search after 20 minutes) that we've seen four giant anacondas and even had to wrestle one. On the way back to the river, we have to cross two more small swamps. Suddenly, Taz holds up his hand for quiet and crawls into the bushes. When he comes back, he asks if we've seen the cobra? None of us did; we will never know if the cobra was there or if Taz made this story up to save his pride.

Stop laughing at us!
We will find anacondas someday.
The walk back to the river was not all that fun: when was the last time that you walked for an hour with stinky waterlogged feet inside hot rubber boots in the blazing sun? Admittedly, our discomfort might have been lessened if we had actually seen an anaconda for the effort.

The first thing we did back at camp was shower to get that rotten sulfur swamp smell off our bodies. The only trophies we got that adventure was itchy skin that haunted all the way to La Paz and permanently stained pants.
Tip for all future Pampas tour visitors. Bring dark pants and socks or be ready to throw the light colored stuff away afterwards: they will never be 100% clean again.

Lunch that day was by far the best meal of the 3 day trip and gave us enough energy for the afternoon activity: Fishing! What kind of fish do you catch in the Amazon basin? Piranhas, of course! And what do you use as piranha bait? Yep, fresh red meat!

Hooked on Piranhas
So here we are dissecting our raw dinner steak into small bits, attaching it to a hook, and then bathing it in the opaque brown water in exchange for protein of the swimming kind.
The piranhas nibble at the meat as soon as it hits the water. But these guys are smart, they stay clear of the hook. Whenever we yank up on the line, we pull an empty hook out of the water (or sometimes just a bit of fat remains on the hook...apparently, they like lean meat!). Fortunately, we have plenty of bait with us and knowing that 2 out of 8 tourists in our group are vegetarians, we can afford to sacrifice some more of our beef and still have steak for dinner.
We all catch at least one piranha. Julane got 5 and Jana pulled up a variety of fish including a few minnows which also make good piranha bait. But the winner was the young boy on our boat (the son of the camp manager) who caught one after the other in succession. And he's catching the bigger ones, whereas we adults only get the small fry. We released the smaller fish and then Taz cleaned about a dozen of the bigger ones for tonight's dinner.

Jungle sheila!
While we are fishing for piranhas, there are dolphins circling our boat and crocs are waiting along the banks to feed on the fish guts that Taz throws towards them as he is cleaning our catch.
The piranhas in the water also happily nibble away on the floating guts of their brothers and sisters. It's a food fest right now (see our Video below). Then we remember Taz's advice when we first arrived on the river. What was that theory again? It's safe to swim when the dolphins are nearby – it seems we've disproved that one.

Let's see who's biting now!
Eating the piranhas is certainly more of a memory for the photo album than a culinary memory. They are very bony, have little flesh and taste neither particularly good nor bad (and, "No, they don't taste like chicken!"). As we nibble on the piranhas, we wonder if we wasted all our meat as bait... There is no steak on the table! Dinner #2 is not as boring as the first night, but also nothing to write home about. Oops! I actually just did write about it ;-)

Day 3, the last day, has an optional early start to see the sunrise. Taz was obviously not too thrilled when almost everyone in our group agreed to get up early and see the sunrise; poor guy needs to get up early for us and he tried so hard to convince us that it's going to rain in the morning.

Just before sunrise

All, but one, of our group was waiting at 6am at the boat. Patrick volunteered to be the alarm clock for the team as everyone seemed to prefer getting a wake-up call/knock. (The Swiss just love to be on time!) Even the two girls that stayed up to party until 3:30am got up when he knocked on their door; only a British lad preferred a sleep-in over seeing the Pampas sunrise – and he wasn't even partying last night.

♫ it's a beautiful day.... ♫
We both thought that it was worth getting up, and even Julane – not usually a morning person – was all enthusiastic snapping pictures.

We head back to camp for breakfast before our last excursion: swimming with the dolphins. Out of our group only 3 people decided that they wanted to go for a swim. For the two of us, it was more the thought of swimming in "chocolate colored water" that kept us out of the water than the fear of piranha or croc bites. We had enough encounters with jungle water on our anaconda excursion. The dolphins stayed quite a distance from the swimmers and we probably got a better look at them from the boat then the guys that were in the water.

Butterflies in the stomach...
Or seeing butterflies?

Before heading back to Rurre, we had short lunch – with the long anticipated steak. Nobody was looking forward to the trip back: the downstream river trip only took an hour or so. It's the Jeep ride that we all dreaded. Thankfully our driver had a lead foot (and a nodding head as he nearly fell asleep at the wheel numerous times) so he managed the three hour drive in just over 2 hours in order to get home and have his afternoon siesta.

All good things come to an end
The clouds of dust made breathing hard and there were times when we passed a big truck and couldn't see anything in the thick haze. This part of the trip is the only really unpleasant (yet unavoidable) part of the Pampas tour...along with the free Rolfing butt massage which some people might actually enjoy?!

Since TAM is only flying to Rurre 3 times a week, we had an extra day to kill. The temperature had in the meantime risen to 30°C (86°F): a good excuse to take it easy and soak up the sun before returning to freezing La Paz.

Patrick managed to find the Jungle Café, the only place in town with WiFi, and could work on updating our Blog...which is by now nearly 3 weeks behind. Bolivia is definitely not as Internet friendly as all the other countries that we've visited so far on this trip.

We are flying out at early next morning...back to freezing cold La Paz and our next adventure: Mountain biking on the WMDR. Stay tuned to find out what this acronym stands for.

Video of our Pampas Tour
(Video is not available in a few countries due to copyright rules by some record labels
click  here if the embedded video below is blocked in your country) 

Map of our Pampas Tour

View Pampas in a larger map