A World Winder exclusive by guest blogger Nathan Green
Before going to the jungle in Bolivia, I fancifully imagined an adventure with rickety rope bridges crossing terrifying chasms and fun park style mudslides. Although I had clearly watched too many Indiana Jones films, a trip to the jungle is one of the most exciting and memorable experiences when travelling through South America. What is often over-looked however is the journey you take to get there. If you are interested in visiting the Amazon Basin in the North of Bolivia you will likely start-off in Rurrenabaque which, far from being simply a necessary but bland starting point, is itself a charming and welcoming gateway to the jungle.
Five foot long caiman leaping from murky water, gangs of wild monkeys and swarms of mosquitos. These are some of the potential perils of an Amazon expedition you may already worry about, but simply getting to the jungle in one piece may be the hard part.
Setting foot in Rurrenabaque is achieved either by air or land. The land option is infamously treacherous. It can over-run from 18 to more than 30 hours in bad weather and in the worst case scenario serious casualties and death are very real possibilities. It’s not uncommon for travellers to take the bus to Rurre but then reconsider their travel plans and head back by plane. That said, the Bolivian government has recently signed-up to build a long distance, snaking road all the way from the capital of La Paz. So if you bide your time for a few years or so the road might be a much better option. Until then, it may be sensible to fork-out the extra cash just to be on the safe side.
The airport in Rurre is new, small but perfectly formed. There’s no Starbucks or duty free but there are a few seats and a toilet. The security check consists of a guy with a hand-held metal detector who waves it over your face and crotch. It’s a bit like going into a dodgy nightclub. There are the usual airport and council taxes and you need to pay for the bus to and from the town centre so make sure to bring some change.
When you get into town you’ll see that Rurrenabaque sits on the banks of the river Beni. The town itself is flat but there is a short and rather steep walk a few blocks from the river which heads up to a mirador (viewing point). Unfortunately, I think this may be too far from the water to be called the Beni Hill! Every Sunday there’s a market along the bank on the Beni where you can buy local goods and fresh food. There are also plenty of small shops around the town to buy insect repellent and suntan lotion too.
Rurre has very few cars (close to none) and so the preferred way of getting around is on motorbike. The place is small so this isn’t a bad idea and there’s no short supply. Unless you want to walk, this is really your only option and one that everybody uses. You see older women riding side-saddle with their shopping, children on their way to school or parents with their young kid squashed in between them.
Eating and drink
For such a small town there are quite a few cafes, bars and drinking spots. The Mosquito Bar is probably the most famous and has a sister bar in La Paz. It follows a standard backpackers formula with cocktails and pool table. The bar caught flames and was razed in dramatic fashion just a few months ago but has risen phoenix-like. The bar has retained a small “museum” area of charred floor and seating with a display of some photographic evidence of the blazing night in question.
There are a number of karaoke bars of which you can usually hear cat-strangling renditions most nights of the week. The nightclub Banana Bar is popular with locals and travellers. The temperature inside can reach hotter than the sun levels so dress for a sauna. You’ll get a complimentary drink with your entrance ticket which you’ll have to drink quickly to avoid it evaporating before you have the chance to taste it.
The are plenty of places to eat from snacks to full evening meals. Most places have an almuerzo (set lunch time menu) at cheap prices. This normally starts with a quinoa soup followed by some meat and potatoes. Particular places may have their own special dishes. For example, I sampled some cow’s knee which is not as bad as it sounds. The cartilage is the prime bit and is said to be full of energy and promote vitality but that knowledge didn’t improve the flavour.
No-doubt because of its current status as the jumping-off point for jungle and Pampa tours there are also plenty of hotels. And because the place is small they’re all within a stone’s throw of one another. Because of the timetable for the planes and buses people often need to stay a night on either side of their tours.
There are quite a few street dogs in Rurre. They seem quite content and benefit from the food left them by the travellers and locals. In lots of places in South America you can see dogs roaming the streets, but Rurrenabaque probably has the cutest. The cutest ones seem to be the healthiest so this is rather a case of survival of the cutest rather than the fittest. When you hit the jungle, the animals there can also be very cute- like the baby monkeys- but it would take a real stretch to think the same of the snapping caiman or piranhas.
So, although a visit to Rurre is often thought of as simply bookending a jungle adventure, it certainly has an appeal all of its own. This could keep you there for longer than you expected to rest and recuperate, especially if you let those piranha teeth get too close.
Dr. Nathan Green is a professional statistician and science journalist. He was a British Science Association media fellow and tweets as @n8thangreen.