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Friendly guides, fire ants and gangs of monkeys

Bolivia has saved a wide swath of its Amazon for ecotourism, but Tyler Stiem learns this territory is still a long way from tame

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

As we cross the northern fringe of the Andes, the airplane windows begin to sweat – a portent of the coming heat – and little by little the mountains dissolve into a sea of foaming green. The plane sweeps low over jungle calligraphed by service roads and tawny rivers, finally touching down on a grass runway. As we taxi toward the terminal building, I consider my luck: This is the first plane to land in Rurrenabaque in three days.

I've abandoned the cosmopolitan moonscape of Bolivia's capital, La Paz, for the buzzing equatorial wet of the Amazon. With its gravel streets and cafés catering, alternately, to locals and adventure tourists, Rurrenabaque is a town in transition: newly prosperous, at once cheerful and seedy, buoyed by the competing interests of the ecotourism and logging industries. The air smells of rain and fresh-sawn wood. Clapboard houses overlook a square shaded by palms.

I'm en route to Parque Nacional Madidi, which, along with the Manu Biosphere Reserve in neighbouring Peru, makes up one of South America's largest protected areas. As you would expect of any 19,000-square-kilometre swath of primary rain forest, Madidi teems with a staggering diversity of animal life – it's home to at least one-10th of the world's bird species and boasts a monkey found nowhere else on the planet. The simian in question, the Madidi titi, was “discovered” in 2004.

“This was strange to us, because we've known about the monkey for centuries,” my guide, Alejandro Alvarez, says as we board a motorized canoe and begin the five-hour journey into the heart of the park. Alvarez belongs to the Tacana Quechua people who run Chalalán Ecolodge, where we're headed. The clash of local and official knowledge is to be a recurring topic during the trip, the titi a symbol of its absurdity. Alvarez won't promise a sighting – they're secretive animals – but he won't exclude the possibility, either.

The Rio Beni flows widely and powerfully through low jungled mountains. Balding slabs of rock menace the river; the wind teases their stringy comb-overs of vine. Gradually the mountains flatten out and the water takes on a more turbulent aspect, rippling like flexed muscle as it humps over sandbanks and troughs the shallows. A capibarra lopes along the riverbank.

Two boatmen share the task of navigating these almost-rapids. One operates the rudder while the other guides the boat with a long stick, testing the depth and signalling to the rudderman when to ease up on the throttle, when to turn. I ask Alvarez whether the poler, a teenager dressed in fatigues, is military. My guide looks amused. “He just likes the style. But he will be very happy that he fooled you.”

The other passengers are deposited on a muddy outcrop in what, to the untrained eye, looks like the middle of nowhere. They disappear into long grass with grocery bags hanging from their wrists. Only as we reach the middle of the river can I see signs of the village beyond: a helix of smoke above the trees, the peaked roof of a hut.

The establishment of the park, in 1995, was a minor political coup that anticipated the indigenous rights reforms of president Evo Morales a decade later. As Alvarez explains, the Madidi region had been a jigsaw of logging concessions, “owned,” like much of the Amazon, by the country's elite and the rogues who cut deals with them. For years, environmentalists pressed the government to protect Madidi's plant and animal riches from clear-cutting, without success.

In the early 1990s, activist Rosa Maria Ruiz mobilized the region's politically disparate indigenous groups. Their protests, coupled with a study by Conservation International that determined that Madidi contained the most biodiverse rain forest in the country, were enough for the World Bank to declare it a priority conservation area. The Bolivian government finally relented.

Chalalán is the park's oldest and perhaps best-known eco-lodge, built and run by the villagers of San José de Uchupiamonas, two hours farther upriver. The outbuildings – a pavilion, kitchen, shower block – and the six or seven sleeping huts are made entirely from wood culled, by special permit, from the surrounding forest. Their shaggy palm-thatch exteriors belie elegant decors of hand-planed hardwood. Electricity is generated by solar panels and water is pumped from the nearby lake.

On the path leading from my hut, a very young spider monkey sits chewing a banana. He tolerates my approach, wide-eyed but otherwise relaxed, and with an outsized hand squeezes the fruit as a baby would a proffered finger. Wasps buzz around his head. The cook has been feeding him scraps since he showed up a couple of weeks ago.

“The mother could have been killed by other monkeys,” Alvarez offers. “Sometimes there are skirmishes. They are like street gangs.”

The description fits. As we explore the forest, rival troupes of capuchins and howler monkeys shout and screech overhead. They scramble across the canopy, sending leaves and sunlight fluttering down among the trees. The confrontation ends when the howlers succeed in flushing the smaller capuchins from their territory. Yet food is so abundant here, Alvarez explains, that I shouldn't be surprised to see these same monkeys grazing side by side later on.

Twenty years ago, the boys of San José aspired to become great hunters. Today, that rite of passage goes hand in hand with another: becoming a credentialed guide. Alavarez, who is now in his early 30s, was among the first in his village to make the sojourn in La Paz.

But the year of study in the capital only reinforced to him the value of his own culture. “I realized that I learned everything I needed to know from my father and my brother and the time we spent together in the forest,” he says.

Alvarez extracts a fire ant from the hair on my arm. “See this?” he asks. I haven't; I've been too engrossed in the spectacle above us to notice the columns of ants converging at our feet. He invites me to watch as he places the insect on a smear of flesh that scars his palm. “The venom energizes damaged nerves,” he explains, without elaborating on the scar's provenance. The manly smile soon becomes a frantic grimace. A flick of the wrist and the ant is gone.

Alvarez is still massaging his palm when we break for a siesta and a meal of danucuabi, catfish wrapped in leaves, back at the lodge. Belly full, I sleep a long, dreamless sleep. The sun is setting over the lake when he rouses me from my hammock. He carries headlamps and a heavy-duty flashlight. We walk out into the darkness.

There are, I come to understand, two Amazons. Each invites a different state of mind. The day forest overwhelms you with its heaving, gibbering animal presence. Every prickle of sweat could be a fire ant, every half-glimpsed shadow a predator. And yet for all its attentions, the day forest is indifferent to you. You are another voice, another beating heart among multitudes. You belong.

At night, you enter this world as an intruder. The night forest beholds you, gossips in your ear. You are interesting. Alvarez, his timing impeccable, alerts me to the exciting possibility that we'll see a jaguar.

“Uh, great?”

“You must remember never to turn your back on a jaguar.”

“Okay, but what if…,” I stop myself. He's joking. I think. Ha-ha.

His practised eye no doubt exaggerates the feeling of paranoia. He conjures a watchful animal wherever he points his flashlight: a poison arrow frog, incandescent, beautiful, resting on the trunk of a fallen tree; a spider poised on a golden web; and creepiest of all, a caiman, eyes aglow, lurking in the marshy mud. My guide's calm is contagious, though, and the night forest becomes a kind of theatre. Birds, lizards and nocturnal flowers present themselves in turn. The elusive titi never materializes, but then the question of who discovered what seems utterly irrelevant.

Alvarez saves his best trick for last. With a twig slathered in spit, he lures a tarantula from its burrow. It scuttles and lunges, a fat, black grabbing fist. Instinct keeps it close to the burrow, ready to retreat. As I behold the strange, violent dance, I know I'll recall everything I've seen tonight as though from a dream.

At dawn, after a few hours of rest, we paddle across the lake to see vanilla orchids that grow along the water's edge. Squirrel monkeys watch us from the low branches. Macaws beat their wings overhead, scarlet and gold and blue. Something brushes the side of the canoe. Either I'm still asleep, or a little bit of the night's magic has lingered on.

Pack your bags

When to go

May is a good time to visit, as it is the end of the rainy season, the rivers are still high and the weather has begun to cool.

How to get there

LAN flies to La Paz from major Canadian cities with connections in the U.S. or Peru. From La Paz, Amaszonas and TAM offer daily flights to Rurrenabaque. Adventurous travellers can opt for one of the many daily buses that ply the beautiful, sometimes harrowing mountain roads between the two cities (about 18 hours).

Other activities

A popular alternative to rain-forest treks and eco-lodge stays are visits to the pampas, or Amazonian plains, where river dolphins and giant otters are popular attractions.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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