The Bolivian Amazon: The Madidi Jungle
On a 4-day, 3-night Madidi Jungle/Pampas tour in Bolivia.
It didn’t matter if my eyes were open or closed. Everything looked the same either way. I had to trust that my guide was still in front of me. That if I lifted my arm, it would graze his back.
Of course, he was there. If he had moved I would have heard him. The crunching of dead leaves below his boots. The snapping of twigs. That was exactly why we’d turned our flashlights off and were standing, still, in the darkness of the Amazon jungle.
Earlier, in the daylight, we’d seen capuchin monkeys swinging through the trees, wild pigs stampeding, a capybara — the world’s largest rodent — hanging out by the river, a cliff of macaws amongst more types of birds than I ever knew existed.
How our guide on this 2-day Madidi jungle trek in Bolivia knew when there were animals about, I don’t know. Sometimes, it was easy. The monkeys hooted as they swung from branches. The pigs had a definitive smell: when the sweet scent of honeysuckle and cut grass was replaced by the stench of fermented garlic you know something was near. The macaws were where they always were. And that capybara, he was just hanging out in the open.
Other times it was a distinct bird call that lead our guide to know something was near, to respond with a deep throated, “hoo hoo hoo,” like a baritone frog or high-pitched whooping whistle. To talk to the birds.
But more often it was subtle something, something that I couldn’t pick up that would stop our guide in his tracks, that would have us all do the same. Stop. Stare. Wait. And finally, hopefully, see something small moving in the distance.
At night, the jungle was different.
At night, our flashlights illuminated the leaves in minuscule sections, hoping to catch the eye of something. A monkey. A fox. Maybe even a jaguar.
All we’d seen, so far, that night, was a bat. A bat that flew out of nowhere directly into the path of my head. I managed to duck at the last second, avoiding any possibility of returning a Bolivian vampire.
But we hadn’t seen any birds, any monkeys, anything. We could hear the muffled gurgle of the rainforest. We knew there were animals all around. But they were good at hiding.
At night every step we took sounded disturbing. The crunching of the leaves. The snapping of the twigs. Sounds that didn’t sound quite so jarring in the daylight.
That’s why we were standing still with our flashlights off.
It was pitch black, though looking up offered a respite where patches of the indigo sky illuminated with stars would peak through the canopy.
We were waiting. We were hoping to go unnoticed. We were hoping for something.
For what exactly, I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t uncommon to see a jaguar. But what would happen if one was there? What would happen if I turned my flashlight on and a giant cat with rabid teeth was standing in front of me, watching? Do you run? (You don’t run.) Do you stand tall, pretend to be bigger, stronger than the beast? Do you cower, wrap yourself in a ball, hoping that maybe he just gets an arm off of you?
“What do you do? What would I do?” questions raced though my head as we stood there in silence, in darkness, in waiting.
But when we turned the flashlights back on, there was nothing. Just that gurgle of sounds. Just those leaves glowing under our flashlights. Just that feeling that something could be there, something could be watching, that didn’t want to be seen. And we continued our hike back to our cabins.
While in Bolivia I took a 4-day, 3-night Madidi Jungle/Pampas tour. To take a tour you can fly for one hour to Rurrenabaque from La Paz on Amaszonas for about $100 each way. Or you can take a bus that’s over 24 hours and might kill you and will most definitely make you puke. I opted to take a flight. Which was still the bumpiest, scariest, smallest flight, ever. But it was just for an hour. Not 24. I met people who booked their jungle tour online or through tour companies, but there are about a million companies in Rurrenabaque so you can just go and compare and see what’s leaving when the night before you want to go. Or you can be like me and get a few suggestions from the internet and then book with Mashaquipe because they have a good reputation, their own eco-lodges in both the Madidi Jungle and the Pampas, and don’t seem as flashy as some of the other recommended places. (They had really good food too.) Because you’re lazy and don’t feel like asking around. If you’re like me, that is.