Better Than Disney’s Jungle Boat Cruise

Today was an early morning because we were due to leave the rainforest and head to the pampas, the Bolivian grasslands. We were up at 5:15 a.m., 30 minutes earlier than desired, after a terrifying sound came from the nearby woods that sounded like a tree falling onto us. Thankfully it did fall but on us.

By 6:30 a.m. we had finished breakfast, packed our bags, and were on the boat on our way down the river back to Rurrenabaque. There were some significant changes in store for us with the huge amount of rain the previous day. When we arrived two days previously, the river was a good 10 ft lower and had many islands of debris which our driver needed to maneuver around. Today would be even more of a challenge for him. Instead of a nice calm ride, we were faced with eddies, waves, and a literal river of tree, palm, and plastic debris. You could see where the river rose and fell ahead which provided a very unsettling feeling coupled with the sound of rushing water around us. Yikes. Thankfully our driver was an expert and handled the situation like a pro, unlike the two of us who were bracing the side of the boat every so often.

Goodbye rainforest!
Goodbye rainforest!

We made it to town at 8 a.m. and had an hour to kill before our pampas driver would arrive. We used it to explore the town’s main square where the start of a festival was occurring. A band was playing and there was a line of 10 or so people “dancing.” I say “dancing” because it appeared to just consist of a couple, holding Pacenas (not eachother), and taking two steps to the left, then two steps to the right. It was neither complicated nor flashy and, in fact, Doug described it succinctly as “awful dancing.” The rest of the time was spent in the Bala Tours office flipping through their travel guides to learn more about our upcoming travels.

At 9 a.m. our driver reappeared and all the items were loaded in the vehicle. Well, except for our luggage which was placed on top of the car wrapped in tarp along with a branch of plantains, a vat of cooking oil, and 12-packs of 2-liter water bottles, all tied down with what appeared to be an engine belt. Oh joy.

Doug did a great job of sleeping the first half of the ride while Lynn passed the time watching the small towns go by thinking how much she appreciated not living on a rutted out, swampy dirt road without a vehicle to protect me from the passer-by’s splashes like the majority of pedestrians we passed seemed to have to live with. The towns eventually gave way to grasslands and we started seeing more and more birds – herons, egrets, and even rheas (giant birds, look them up). We also finally learned our cook’s name, Maria, when we thanked her for spotting the rheas for us (apparently Jose didn’t know her name either until asking at that point).

On the road in the Toyota.
On the road in the Toyota.
Rheas!
Rheas!
A giant jabiru!
A giant jabiru!

3 hours later, we pulled up at the park’s entrance paid our fee and proceeded a short way until reaching another river. Both of us were a bit confused by this, because it seemed as though the road ended and our only option would be to have the car driven on a rickety, wooden barge the size of a vehicle to cross the river roughly the width of the car. We were not excited about this. Luckily, the driver and Jose had it squared away and we proceed 2 minutes down an even more rutted dirt road where two members of Bala’s staff were waiting to take us on another long, skinny boat to our pampas ecolodge, 2 minutes up the river.

Thank you for welcoming us.
Thank you for welcoming us.

On we went with the nature never ceasing. Right away we were greeted with birds of paradise (the actual birds, not the plant) and howler monkeys jumping from branch to branch and making noises you would expect to hear at a haunted house (it’s terrifying). We spent the next hour settling in and reading our books before getting treated, once again, to Maria’s food for lunch. This time we found the yucca soup particularly good. Maria has also learned that we both enjoy spicy food, so has taken to placing a bowl of chilies on the table for us to add as desired. Both of us did so and Doug may have had watery eyes for a bit because he forgot he had chili juice on his fingers.

Our pampas accommodation.
Our pampas accommodation.
Half the trip was this: laying in bed, reading, and avoiding mosquitoes.
Half the trip was this: laying in bed, reading, and avoiding mosquitoes.

At 3 p.m. we took off on our first pampas tour with Jose at the helm on our long, skinny boat for a most exciting journey. The terrifying monkeys said goodbye and down the river we went, spotting various herons, egrets, and birds of paradise galore! We saw so many birds of paradise and decided that the locals should take to eating them because there are so many, they always seem terrified, and they are the size of chickens. We came across a group of capybaras in no time, wiggling their ears and munching with their little mouths. We also happened upon a number of caimans. Most were 3-4 ft, but one was the size of Lynn and caused Doug to say “Too close! Too close!” while Jose was maneuvering us closer. Another highlight was seeing clusters of the river’s infamous pink dolphins as they surfaced making “Pshhhhhhh” noises with their blowholes. Lynn also learned that the river does have piranhas and anacondas do, in fact, swim leading her to repeat a continuous mantra of, “Don’t fall in. Don’t fall in.” By the end, we agreed that the pampas is a bird lover’s paradise and we were doing our best to learn all their names with the help of Jose’s Birds of South America guide book. We also agreed that this tour far surpassed anything that Disney is marketing as a jungle tour.

We've arrived!
We’ve arrived!
Birds of paradise being skittish.
Birds of paradise being skittish.
You are handsome.
You are handsome.
A tiger heron, looking fat and sassy.
A tiger heron, looking fat and sassy.
"What are you looking at?" - says the capybara
“What are you looking at?” – says the capybara
Jose navigating like a champ.
Jose navigating like a champ.
The Rio Yacuma
The Rio Yacuma
The caiman is getting a bit too close.
The caiman is getting a bit too close.
IMGP3659
Sadly one of the best shots of the elusive pink dolphin.
Lynn is now smiling because she's not so hot.
Lynn is now smiling because she’s not so hot.
A heron being all majestic.
A heron being all majestic.
There he goes!
There he goes!

We had another siesta before dinner time, then proceeded to stuff ourselves on Maria’s cooking. After which we went on our own Bolivians of the Pampas ride (that is supposed to be a play on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride). It was dark with only the stars and our flashlights lighting the night sky. As Jose guided the boat through the darkness of the river, our mission was to spot caimans using the reflection from their eyeballs peering out over the water. And, boy did we. We saw far too many for comfort. This combined with the bats darting in and out of our lights and a few eerie boats of night fisherman did not put us at ease. Thankfully we were back in the comfort of our cabin 30 minutes later, not having lost any limbs.

Doug took care of this situation for the both of us...
Doug sweetly took care of this situation for the both of us…

Daily Walking Mileage: 2.1 miles

Fun Facts:

  • Capybaras are the largest rodent on earth and really enjoy swimming. It helps that they have webbed feet.
  • Caimans like to sit on the shore of the river with their mouths open to get additional energy from the sun. It looks ridiculous and has led to the two of us having our own caiman-like facial imitations.
  • Amazonian pink dolphins are the largest river dolphins getting to be 185 kg and 2.5 meters in length. When they are babies they are still gray and proceed to the pink color as they age.

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