Travelling to Bolivia gave us our first opportunity to experience South American's Wildlife. With La Paz as our starting point we had 2 choices: visiting the Amazon basin or the pampas lowlands. Both sounded great, but only having a few days available we decided on the pampas, primarily as the wildlife is more accessible over a shorter time frame, and there was the opportunity to swim with pink river dolphins! We boarded the 45 minute flight on a tiny plane from El Alto (the worlds highest airport) and flew over incredible snow-topped mountains before descending into Rurrenebaque once we could see the lush green jungle and river below.
Situated in the North of Bolivia on the Beni river, Rurrenabaque is the launch pad town for the pampas. With quaint shacks, tropical weather and boats pulling into the harbour with fresh bananas, it was a town we instantly warmed to. The only other way to get to the town from La Paz (apart from by plane) is a cheap but dangerous 20 hour bus ride. After getting there in under an hour, we were glad we opted for the shorter and safer journey!
We had decided to get a taxi from the airport with another couple who recommended us to stay at Hotel Orient, right on the main square. It was a beautiful little hotel, with many tropical plants and hammocks, and as the rates were reasonable we quickly checked in to a double room and spent the afternoon chilling in the peaceful gardens surrounded by birds and greenery before our tour the following day.
Early the next morning after the best nights sleep we'd had in weeks (being out of the altitude) we packed up small day bags, leaving our big packs at the hostel, and set off to the Indigena Tours travel agency who we'd booked with through Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz. The rest of our group's flight had been delayed so we killed time by having a delicious fresh juice at the local market with a free refill!
At 9am we set off in a scruffy 4x4 Jeep along a straight but very bumpy and dusty road. We stopped for a quick lunch of soup, rice and alpaca in a small village where we found some ridiculous fluffy chickens! After 3 hours of driving and very numb bums we finally arrived at the starting point of our tour, the pampas waterways.
No sooner had we stepped out the jeep, pink river dolphins were in sight! We couldn't believe how quickly we saw them, and after we boarded the long boat and set off the dolphins started to follow us, much to our excitement. Within minutes we spotted our first caiman, hiding amongst the riverside grasses, and then shortly after we were inundated with various birds including cormorants, anhinga (snake birds), hoatzin's (punk chickens), turns, kingfishers, hawks, stalks and herons. We started to realise the abundance of wildlife in the pampas, and we were in for a treat.
After seeing more caiman and turtles, we parked up next to a group of thick trees where a family of squirrel monkeys were peeking through the branches. As it was against the park rules to feed the monkeys, it was nice to see how friendly they were without incentive; they even started to board the boat! As we continued we sat back and enjoyed spotting the wildlife, soaking up the sunshine, and cruised down the river whilst running into more pink river dolphins along the way.
Our boat pulled up to the basic but picturesque riverside lodge, and on arrival we were really excited to find a 6ft caiman chilling out under the hammock. We were able to get pretty close to it to get some photos. It was a great reminder of how protected the wild pampas grasslands really were; nature clearly ruled here. It did mean, however, that we were less than keen to take a swim in the water in front of our lodge!
We settled into our room and had time for a quick relax before we boarded the boat once again and headed to a small shack where various tours had congregated to drink beer and wait for the sun go down. We bumped into a couple of travellers we'd met in Patagonia, and had a great hour or so catching up on their journeys and adventures. The sunset over the river was beautiful, with oranges, pinks and yellows reflecting off the still, dark water.
After it got dark we headed back to the lodge for a dinner of rice and vegetables with our tour members. Once we’d finished we were told to put on plenty of mosquito repellant as we were about to set out for a nighttime boat ride! As the rains had just passed the day before there was not a cloud in the sky, giving a spectacular view of stars and Milky Way. Our guide turned off the boat motor and we drifted down the river, gazing in silence up at the most incredible night sky.
Our guide then told us to get out our torches as we were about to go caiman spotting. Finding them was relatively easy as their red eyes reflected off the torch light, but the real challenge was to spot baby caiman that had just hatched. We were shocked at how quickly our guide was able to spot them, as they were only about 20cm long. There was something even more exciting about finding the babies than seeing the adults, and after getting our snaps we headed back to the lodge for a decent nights sleep under a well made mosquito net, pleased with how much wildlife we'd seen on our first day.
We awoke around 6am to the sounds of animals all around us, in particular the really loud howler monkeys who sounded more like King Kong than an average sized monkeys! We had a quick but filling breakfast (pancakes were on the menu!) before picking out some wellies as it was time to go anaconda spotting in the swampy grass land. We knew our chances were slim but set off with excitement none the less.
After 3 hours of wading through knee deep swampy water, and only managing to find some birds eggs, we realised an anaconda sighting was unfortunately not on the cards for us. We had given it our best shot and it was still exciting none the less. We headed back to the lodge for lunch to rest our legs and have a quick siesta; something we considered a huge luxury!
Feeling rested we headed off at 3pm for more wildlife spotting and piranha fishing. After many attempts with small chunks of steak and a rather large hook, we weren't successful, but one of the girls and our guide were able to catch two of the five species of piraña that live in the pampas (blue and gold), as well a dogfish. The fish were released quickly after being caught, and although we hadn’t got anything ourselves, the experience was still fun.
We then headed further into an open area of the waterways where there were taller, exposed trees, and we were able to get a glimpse of some capuchin monkeys and our first sighting of blue and yellow macaws. It was awesome to see these beautiful birds in the wild, and we could even see a couple that had paired for life, preening each other.
Many other birds started to fly over us, and as the sun began to set bats started to dart around the boat, eating as many mosquitos as they could; we learnt they can eat as many as 1000 per night! We were treated to a fantastic sun set on our way back to the lodge, and after being served up another simple but tasty dinner we headed off for an early night before another early start.
After getting up early to watch the sun rise over the peaceful misty river, we had our final breakfast, and set off on the boat to swim with pink river dolphins. We reached a calm, wide section in the waterways, and almost instantly around 6 dolphins arrived. We had got there earlier than the other boats, and we're keen to get in before it got too crowded. It was a little unnerving at first as the water is completely brown (as well as infested with piraña and caiman) but we were assured that if the dolphins were around, nothing would harm us.
As we swam to the middle of the lagoon we started to see the dolphins move closer, and then one by one each of us would get brushed up against by them. They were very friendly, and we were even able to ‘surf’ on top of them, as well as swim at their side. They even nipped at our feet a few times, and we were glad the guide had told us to wear socks! Once the other boats arrived it got a bit noisy, which annoyingly seemed to disperse the dolphins, but we felt incredibly lucky to have had an intimate encounter with such an inquisitive wild animal. We only wish our footage captured just how amazing this experience was.
After an hour or so of swimming our tour was unfortunately coming to an end, and we wound our way back through the network of waterways towards our original starting point. To our luck we spotted a capybara out in the open grazing on a patch of land, and were able to get really close to this fantastic creature and the largest rodent in the world. It was a great end to what had been an incredible, nature-filled tour.
Once we reached the end point we docked up for the last time and got into the 4x4 Jeep for the 3 hour bumpy ride back to Rurrenabaque. On arrival we checked back into Hotel Orient, and spent the remainder of the afternoon swinging in the hammocks and lapping up the heat. We had heard that there was a great little restaurant called Juliano’s close by, so after our basic jungle food we decided it was ok to pay it a visit. With a huge steak and a seafood paella followed by a creme brûlée, it was a perfect end to our stay.
With fantastic weather, brilliant wildlife not to mention the unforgettable encounter with dolphins, the pampas trip reaffirmed our love for wildlife. It made us realise that being out in the wilderness and spotting animals was something that we truly enjoyed, and left us itching for more. Luckily for us we were travelling north, meaning there would be many more opportunities to explore South America's nature in the mighty Amazon rainforest.