I meet my guide, Sergio, in the early hours of the empty streets of Rurrenabaque. With backpacks firmly secured, we walk down to the river to load up our boat and head up the Beni (approx. 1,110 km long) and Tuichi rivers. I am still feeling the effects of the salmonella poisoning from the night before but I am determined to head deep into the jungle as planned.
The wooden boat is slim and painted bright blue. It reminds me of an elongated row boat, with a wooden roof and small outboard motor. We load our boat with our gear, food, water and other necessities. We shake hands with Pedro and Juan, our river captain and guide. Juan will steer the boat while Pedro sits up front and acts as the scout.
The Beni river is a force of its own – strong currents and unpredictable depths – and the people who live along its shores know that they must afford it the respect that it is due. The locals also speak of spirits and other legends that live along the Beni river.
We begin our three-hour journey upstream – Pedro positioned firmly at the front using his bamboo stick to test the depths and giving hand signals to Juan who zigzags up the river. To the untrained eye, it would seem that our boat is out of control however this is the best way to avoid sandbanks, flotsam, and rocks that jut from the riverbed.
The Andes and surrounding mist fade from the background and the landscape quickly changes to red sandstone cliffs and trees. The shorelines are dotted with herons, Amazonia geese and other unusual birds. Black vultures glide on air currents above and the breeze from the boat brings relief from the 30-degree heat. A man floats passed us with his boat laden with bananas that he just picked in the jungle. We are lucky enough to be treated to a rare sighting of the White King Vulture perched high up in a tree.
After three hours, we disembark on the sandy shore, and, loaded down by our gear, we start our slow ascent into the jungle. We hike for about 3 hours before settling down for a carb-fueled lunch: beef stew with rice, quinoa, yucca roots, and carrots. Afterwards, we have what I fondly refer to as “hammock time” from about 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. At this time of day, the sun is at its peak, the heat is at its worst and all the animals are snoozing out of sight and high in the trees.
The next few days look largely like the first: up with the sun for breakfast, 3-4 hour hike, lunch, hammock time, 3-4 hour hike, dinner, 1-2 hour hike in the dark to see nocturnal animals and insects. We covered around 10-15 km on foot, scouting for animals, birds and bugs. The only day that we didn’t follow this kind of schedule was when we went fishing for piranhas during one of the “hammock times”. We fried them up for dinner and they were delicious! Lots of big and small bones however, so they are a pain to eat but tasty.
During our hikes, Sergio helps me to spot the wildlife and shares information with me about the plants and the trees. We climb trees to collect fruit that we will later smash and mix with water sourced from the trees and drink with our lunch or dinner. About 90% of what I have eaten from the jungle has been delicious. There’s been a few things that were less than stellar like the worms. You pick them out of a certain kind of fruit (they eat the nut that is inside the fruit) and eat them. They are small, fat and white. They kind of taste like milk. It wasn’t awful per se but it’s not something I’d do again.
There is no doubt – the jungle can provide. Even though half of what’s in the jungle can seriously harm or kill you (poisonous trees, toxic fruits, snakes, insects, jaguars, etc), what is marvelous is that the other half can heal you, shelter you or sustain you. From leaves that harden and can be used as bowls to palm leaves that are used for the roofs of homes (and can last up to 15-20 years) by the Indigenous peoples that live in small villages within the jungle.
Everything in the jungle can be useful. Sergio showed me how a certain kind of ant is used to stitch clothing or wounds. And it works! He folded the canvas strap of his bag in half, picked up an ant and broke off its pinchers onto the canvas. It stayed stitched in half for the entire day until he removed the pinches! To help settle my stomach and cure me of the salmonella poisoning (looking at you scrambled eggs), Sergio collected some jungle ferns and brewed me a cup of tea (because a cup of hot tea is exactly what you want when it’s 40-degrees and 100% humidity). It tasted the way pine needles smell but it totally worked!
Sergio told me about how people have learned from the animals other the years. For example, when a monkey is injured (i.e.: has an open wound from a bow and arrow), it will come down from the trees, chew on the specific kind of fern, spit it out and then mash it into the wound. Within a day or two, the wound is healed and any trace of infection is gone.
We were quite lucky and spotted lots of exotic birds (parrots, macaws, toucans, red woodpeckers, yellow woodpeckers, jaya jayas, kingfishers, wild turkeys, etc.), animals (spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, tarpiers, and wild boars – that you can smell as soon as they are within 5 minutes of you), insects (spiders, stick insects, butterflies, centipedes, etc.) and amphibians (turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, caimans, etc.).
Speaking of animal spotting, on one of our hikes we stopped to rest by a small river and watch various birds. We were just about to settle on the riverbank when it started to ripple. Sergio laughed because it was a caiman (it’s a lizard but looks like it could be the cousin of the alligator) who was almost five feet long. Sergio had noticed him a while back – it had been tracking us along the river for about 15 minutes! It came up to the shoreline and studied us for a few minutes. Sergio used this time to give me a quick crash course on how to run away if it came up on shore to attack us (essentially, run in a zigzag pattern as caiman’s are only quick when running in a straight line – they have trouble keeping up otherwise). Lucky for me, I didn’t have to use this newfound skill. The caiman stared at us a little longer, did a slow blink, and then sunk back into the water. Phew!
On several of our hikes we had to step over what I call the ant superhighway. Hundreds of ants marching one by one and carrying pieces of green leaves. They are known as farmer ants as they bring the leaves back to their home to help grow their mushrooms which they then eat.
When the jungle path got too thick, we used machetes to slash our way through. It is so much fun but exhausting – my arms definitely got a work out! In order not to get lost, we bent plants and branches…like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. This is my favourite kind of travel. There’s something so raw and pure to be living in and off the jungle for almost a week. Within a matter of hours, you’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to live in civilization. Within two hours, I didn’t care how many ants or spider webs were in my hair (soooooo many because of all the climbing over logs and running through the jungle to keep up with the monkeys) – that’s just par for the course.
At the end of each day, we have a hearty dinner of soup, quinoa/rice/potatoes, veggies and some kind of protein (sometimes chicken, wild boar or beans). We chat by the camp fire (keeps the malaria and zika mosquitoes away) in Spanish so that I can practice as we speak in English a lot during the day (my vocabulary just isn’t advanced enough to understand all the information about the flora and fauna). Around 8 p.m. or so, we take a freezing cold shower by candlelight (no electricity) to wash off the dirt, sunscreen, and bug spray. It also helps to cool you down before bed (because there are no fans or AC in jungle). After my shower, I crawl into my mosquito netting and settle in for bed. I listen to the evening jungle symphony of bugs and animals before falling fast asleep.