June 10, 2014
The airstrip of Rurrenabaque, where the Andes meet the Amazon basin, is about a mile from the airport. When you get off the plane (often a twenty-seat propeller plane), you walk through the mud to a bus; luggage is piled on the roof; and it drives you down dirt roads to the airport, a tumble-down building with a couple of untied horses hanging about. A backpacker’s haven, the town has a few peaceful spots, but it’s mostly a jumping-off point for in-depth exploration of the jungle and the wetlands of Amazonia.
June 11, 2014
Mashaquipe is an excellent tour operation owned and run exclusively by about a dozen indigenous families in the Parque Nacional Madidi and the Pampas del Yacuma. Our guide, Ismael, grew up with his family in the Madidi jungle and is conversant with the uses of seemingly every plant that grows here. In the morning he takes us on a long, thin motor boat against the strong current on the Rio Beni, as wide as the Mississippi in places, but much fiercer, to where it meets the Rio Tuichi, just past the notched mountain ridge called El Bala. We stop on the way to visit a sugar cane field. Ismael cuts us some cane, which we chew with delight; we then use a hand press to squeeze the juice out, mix it with a squeeze of what looks like grapefruit but isn’t quite, and drink it out of bowls made of half shells of some other fruit. It tastes like lemonade but much better. The fruit of the cacao also tastes like lemonade—it comes in big yellow pods, and inside is pure white; you suck the white fruit and the black seeds that remain are what becomes, after drying and roasting, chocolate. We try other fruits too on a long walk through the jungle; one tastes like a cross between coconut and banana; when overripe, a larva grows inside the nut, and Ismael shows us one before eating it—it tasted like coconut, he says. We see about a dozen capuchin monkeys in the trees above us; they seem about as curious about us as we are about them. One female has a baby on her back but doesn’t hesitate to jump thirty feet down to another tree when she reaches the end of her branch.
June 13, 2014
In the mid-afternoon yesterday we don big white rubber boots and take the boat from the ecolodge a ways down the river. From there we hike to a camp in the thick of the jungle. After our campfire dinner, nocturnal monkeys entertain us overhead, not minding our flashlights. We walk under the full moon to an open area full of streams and dead trees with tarantulas on them, waiting for prey—certainly the spookiest night walk of my life. We see fresh tapir footprints, but no tapirs—Ismael tells us its too bright tonight to see many animals. Earlier, while gathering wood for the fire, we saw macaws and toucans and fresh ocelot and deer tracks.
This morning we wake up to rain and the snorts of wild turkeys. After breakfast we climb a steep mountian, seeing a few squirrel monkeys on the way. Atop a cliff we get a commanding view of the jungle. In trees on the cliff and below are dozens of brilliant red-and-blue macaws. When they fly—always in pairs (except for the youngest) and seemingly synchronized—their iridescence is breathtaking. A wooden tombstone in Hebrew marks the site where one Gil Hoffman got too close to the edge. Israelis flock to the rainforest here, mostly because of a book by Yossi Ghinsberg called Back from Tuichi. We go back to the camp, pack, and hike to the Tuichi, where Ismael builds a raft out of seven balsa logs. On the rafting trip back to the ecolodge we encounter a few rapids, jumping off and swimming alongside from time to time; Jacky, Ismael, and I take turns steering with a fifteen-foot pole. We see a black tayra—from the weasel family—on the cliffs as we pass by; it looks like a small sloth.
In the afternoon, Jacky helps Ismael make him a beautiful bow and arrow meant for spear-fishing and Thalia helps him make her a beautiful black ring out of a nut. Meanwhile I take a short walk on which I see a couple more capuchin monkeys and a herd of twenty or thirty peccaries who make clicking noises as they walk through the jungle.
June 14, 2014
Ismael takes Jacky and I for a five-a.m. (pre-dawn) walk in hopes of spotting some nocturnal creatures, but once again, we’re out of luck—all we see is a bat. We take the boat back to Rurrenabaque, a spectacular voyage amid mist-shrouded mountains. Then we drive on a road that seems to consist of nothing but mud for about three hours. It’s astonishing to watch the driver manoeuver through thick bogs that most drivers would get hopelessly stuck in (as do several others we pass). It starts pouring. When we get to Santa Rosa, we take a boat up the Yacuma River to our new camp, getting very wet. A cold wind has sprung up. In the afternoon, in boots and ponchos, we fish for piranhas—Karen and Ismael each catch two and Jacky catches one (they’re the tastiest fish I’ve ever eaten). The kids enjoy it a lot—it’s their first time fishing. But the rest of the day’s plans are scotched by the continual hard rain. The landscape here is all flat wetlands with monkeys seemingly as abundant as squirrels in Chicago, and piranhas as common as minnows. If it stops raining tonight, tomorrow will be a better day; but now all our clothes are wet, it’s hard to keep warm, and we’re itchy from bites and filth.
June 15, 2014
A leisurely four-hour boat ride through a landscape of trees and bushes with hardly any land big enough to walk on in the morning; a quick swim in the river after lunch; a tough three-hour car ride through unbelievable mud and past a dozen stuck trucks in the afternoon—and through it all we see more animals than we can believe possible. Pink river dolphins are anxious to play in the morning when we stick our boots in the water or throw an empty plastic water bottle in; but later, when we get in the water to swim, they’re too intent on fishing to pay us much attention, though one of them nips Thalia’s leg. A giant anteater, black with tremendously shaggy hair, crosses the road and then a stream, all slow and steady, a baby clinging to her back just in front of her long, curtain-like tail. Another anteater, much smaller, climbs along tree branches like a monkey. The howler monkeys are far slower, far more laid back than the dozens of squirrel monkeys on one big tree, who never stop moving and aren’t the least bit shy, coming within inches of us, clambering up and down, taking fruit from our hands, and making lots of high-pitched sounds. One of the dozen or more alligators we see sits with his mouth wide open, absolutely motionless, even when we get within inches of his head—it takes a great effot to provoke him to move. The capybaras—the largest rodents on earth—look like a cross between a woodchuck and a hippo. And then there are the birds. The most numerous are the hoatzin, partridge-like birds with a spiky-feathered head whose eye is encircled in blue. The largest are the jabiru, huge-beaked storks with black heads, red collars, and white bodies. Then there are the egrets, other storks, kingfishers, three types of hawks, toucans, roseate spoonbills, anhingas (called patas serpientes—snake ducks—in Spanish), an ovenbird, orioles, terns, doves, swallows . . .