6 people, 5 days, 1 homemade raft = an unforgettable Amazon jungle adventure
The next adventure was about to begin. It started in Sucre when I met a girl who told me of a great experience she had. While in La Paz, she discovered a company called ‘Deep Rainforest‘ who organized a 6 day tour aboard a homemade raft. Each night you would stop along the river and camp. Occasionally there would be hikes to try to spot monkeys or other wildlife. Showers consisted of plunging into crystal waterfalls, streams or for the very brave, the murky pirhana-infested, caiman-lurking waters. Meals would be provided by a cook and supplemented with jungle fruits. She spoke of drinking fresh coconuts and eating papayas right off the tree. But a homemade raft? With no motor? Were there rapids? Do we have to paddle? We just float down the river going along the Amazon rainforest? Okay, where do I sign up?!
We had planned on visiting the jungle town of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia but we weren’t sure how we were going to arrive. You could either take a plane (kind of expensive) or take a 20-something hour bus ride over Bolvia’s infamous unpaved, pot-hole filled roads that hug the mountain so tight and are so narrow that when you pass another bus or vehicle and are hanging precariously waiting for the car to pass, you can see straight down the cliff edge to your death. Taking a raft seemed like the most sensible option in this case.
So while in La Paz, Laurent and I found the office to Deep Rainforest and they helped us suss out all the details. They would provide tents, sleeping mats (our guide ended up forgetting them!) and all the food. The only things we needed to bring were sleeping bags, bug spray, sunscreen, beer and a good attitude. Yes, he really told us to bring that!
We were off! Our hammock-loving life in Coroico had come to an abrupt end and next thing you know, we were standing in the towns plaza rushing off to buy a last minute (or two) bottle of wine for the voyage. We were supposed to meet a van in the towns square opposite the church, which would take us to ‘the crossroads’ where we could catch a bus that had left earlier that morning from La Paz. We had no idea who else would sign up for the adventure with us and so we were eager to see our new raft-mates. We hoped they would be nice and not French (that was Laurent’s wish, not mine!!). I hoped they wouldn’t be annoying because after all, sitting on a homemade raft for 5 days with people you can’t stand is not appealing in the slightest! There is no escape on the raft!
Fortunately we got very lucky. The first two people were already waiting in the plaza when we arrived, a lovely couple from the UK. It turned out they were traveling for a year (or maybe more!) in South America and had sold their things and quit their jobs like we had. Phew! Some common ground right off the bat. They are also keeping an informative, fun travel blog called latinchattin, which you should click on right now to read about some of their adventures!
The van was predictably late but not terribly so. We hopped on board and were off for the crossroads! We waited for the bus from La Paz for some time and finally it arrived, much to our relief. We met the other 2 guys that would be on the raft with us-one from the UK and another from Israel. They seemed nice too and so we felt lucky. That is, until the bus started moving! The bus was going to a jungle, mining town called Guanay, about 4 hours away. The bus ride was probably more of an adventurous ride than the raft! In typical Bolivian style, the roads beyond frightening. Passing the cars/trucks was a near-death experience every time!
Finally we arrived in Guanay in one piece and the bus just dropped us off in the middle of the chaotic town. 6 gringos just standing there with their big backpacks waiting for our guide to show up. We figured we would have to wait. After all, this is Bolivia where things run on Bolivian time. So we waited and waited. Some of the group asked around. And still we waited. Finally after about 2 hours, a short, Bolivian man approached us. His name was Ruben and he was going to be our guide. He had a great smile and a friendly, easy-going attitude and right away I liked him.
He showed us to our accommodation for the night-the Residencial Ritzy. I kid you not. And Ritzy it was not!! But it was sufficient even if the showers were freezing cold! We went out for a beer with Ruben and he explained to us a bit about the next few days. It all sounded great. We had dinner-the only thing that was available was chicken and rice. So we all had chicken and rice. And of course, potatoes. Bolivia, the land of lets-see-how-many-carbohydrates-we-can-pack-in-one-meal
The next morning we were scheduled to leave. We went down to the river where Ruben began to build our raft. That’s right, he actually had to build the thing! He used big, black inner-tubes and a strong bamboo-type wood and some rope and voila! There was our home for the next few days. While he built the raft, we ate breakfast-chicken and rice again-this time served with coffee, I suppose to make it seem more breakfast-like.
Then the unthinkable happened. It started to rain. Not only rain but pour. It was the dry season for crying out loud! The locals rushed off to see this rare occurrence and informed us that it hadn’t rain this hard in a long time. Great. But it turned out to be not so big of a deal, just caused a slight delay. Meanwhile, we all sat around the restaurant & ordered what else? Chicken & rice for lunch.
After the raft was built, our backpacks were put into some tarp-like material and then deposited into a potato sack. This was to be our seats (a bit lumpy if I remember correctly!). Our valuables like passports and laptops were placed into a sturdy barrel. We met our sour-faced cook, we guessed it was Ruben’s mistress, who brought all the food on board as well as a propane tank and 2 burner stove. Tents were loaded in and then we were ready to load ourselves in!
I was honestly a bit nervous at this point and thought ‘what the hell are we doing?!’ Couldn’t we just take a bus or plane like normal people? I started worrying about rapids, pirhana and what might lie ahead. With some trepidation but also excitement, I stepped ‘on board’ and ‘found my seat’!
Next thing you know, we were cruising along the river. No loud engines, no noise, just the sound of the raft meandering through the water. We took some time to all get to know one another a bit and of course I broke out the wine to get things started off right!
The heavy rain earlier worked in our favor allowing the river to run faster and so we arrived to our first camp spot earlier than expected. And what a spot it was. Banana and coconut trees greeted us with their bounty upon our arrival. In no time at all, Ruben was hacking away at fresh coconuts with his machete.
Drinking the fresh coconuts was amazing. Our cook picked some fresh platanos and bananas. One of the guys from our group bought along a bottle of Singani (Bolivia’s version of Pisco but it’s more like moonshine!) so we tried adding it to the fresh coconut water to make a cocktail and surprisingly it worked! Soon we were all passing around the Singani-filled coconut cocktail.
The next few days were absolutely blissful. We floated along the river, stopping once at a town to drink a cerveza & pick some up for the trip (2 cases did us well). Ruben earned the nickname “El Capitan” due to his machete wielding & deft skill at navigating rapids, rocks and anything else that came in our way (standing up on the raft barefoot at times!) Anytime we got off the raft during the day, El Capitan would lead the way-whacking everything in site with his machete. Sometimes he’d rip his shirt off while paddling and jump into the murky waters.
We discovered that the cook could indeed cook! She never wore a smile but we were all blown away by the meals she prepared. When we ran out of bread, she made some fried dough. We had fresh coffee & eggs every morning and hearty lunches & dinners. Our last day, Ruben caught a giant catfish in the river and the two of them fried it up right in the boat! I am talking succulent fresh fish, marinated in herbs & spices-served with a heaping portion of rice & beans. Delish!
Every night we camped and Ruben would make a big fire. We would ration out some beers and enjoy the nature. The first few days, everything was calm and peaceful. But around the third day, we experienced our first bouts with the notorious sand flies. These infamous creatures are said to bite without you seeing or feeling them. I hardly believed it when I read that. Until we lived it. They devoured each & every one of us. We all were busy counting how many-40, 50, 60 bites some of us had! Poor Laurent got eaten alive while using the toilet-au-natural!
Sure we didn’t have showers but swimming in the streams and waterfalls more than made up for that.
Sometimes the scenery was just a lot of greenery and at the start, the river was lined with people panning for gold! It was a surprise to us but there was literally one after another make-shift operation set up. Some were more elaborate & others were just some people with a literal pan. Towards the end as we approached Madidi National Park, the scenery changed quite a bit and we went through several canyons.
Sometimes the water got rough:
I know a lot about food but for some reason, I had no idea how pineapples grew! It turns out they grow in big plants that look a lot like aloe vera. In fact, when I saw one, I thought someone had put a pineapple inside an aloe vera plant! But no, it was an actual pineapple plant. Of course we picked it! And we got down some papayas fresh from the trees too! That was one of my favorite parts of the trip. All the fresh fruits picked right from the trees. We had platanos, bananas, papayas, 2 kinds of coconuts-regular ones and golden, avocado, pineapple and fresh cacao! Everyone was kind of amazed that chocolate comes from a fruit that looks like this:
And how about our group? Indeed we were lucky. We all got on well. Lots of talking & laughing going on. Other times we would just sit in silence, each one of us absorbed in our own thoughts. The guy from the UK would read a lot and the guy from Israel was busy trying to learn Spanish. Sometimes we would call a ‘beer o’ clock’ and all partake in a drink together. Other times we would just enjoy the beautiful views. Laurent had his portable speakers with him and so we took turns playing each others Ipods. From Michael Buble (sorry Kate!) to Adele (which Ruben surprisingly liked-Adele is so universal!) to some sing-along inducing dance music we had ourselves a little party on the raft.
Eventually our raft took us all the way to Rurrenabaque. It’s a small town set in the jungle with motorbikes for taxis, karaoke on every corner, cocktail bars sporting icy cold concoctions, hammocks swinging in the warm breeze & it was just hot enough to make you want an ice cold beer every hour. We were sad to be back although a real shower after 5 days without was going to feel amazing!
Our raft members and our beloved El Capitan and even the grumpy cook, Lenore, all went out and partied the next two nights together. Poor Lenore looked bored to tears hanging out with a bunch of gringos but Ruben was the party man! The second night we found him across the river and he had obviously been drinking all day! By the time we got to him, he was pretty wasted but it was great to see him for one last time. He truly was the best guide I have ever had in my life. And despite Lenore’s sour face, she earned major kudos for cooking such delicious food every day. We stumbled upon a non-gringo place at one of the karaoke bars much to the locals dismay. They did not appreciate our version of ABBA’s ‘Money, money’!! People were getting up to leave with their glasses still half full! Oh well. We had a blast. What a way to end our adventure doing a final rendition of Sinatras ‘My Way’ our voices echoing out onto the dark, jungle streets.
So, if you happen to be in La Paz, Bolivia with the desire to go to Rurrenabaque, run right over to Deep Rainforest and book this trip!!! Cost was $1,740 Bolivianos ($250 US) for 6 days (5 days on the raft)-all inclusive including tents & all meals. In Rurrenabaque we stayed at El Curichal Hostel-very basic but okay for $20 US per night (with a private bathroom & breakfast included). To return to La Paz, we booked with Amaszonas directly through Deep Rainforest for a discount. Ask about this, if booking the tour. The best part about flying out of Rurre is the airport! It’s merely an old house set on a farm field! The most unique airport I have ever seen!