Our first trip to the Amazon jungle in Peru, where we lived alongside the Shipibo tribe in the small village of San Francisco de Yarinacocha, had converted us to the new age Tarzan and Jane. We were addicted to jungle life, and we wanted more.
Eager to return, but this time to discover and observe more of the Amazonian wildlife, Bolivia’s Rurrenabaque and its popular ‘Pampas Wildlife Tours’ seemed to tick all boxes. But after much research to include tagged Instagram photos, we were a little sceptical.
Not to be in any way judgemental and certainly not to offend, viewing photos of tourists hugging sloths and holding pythons wasn’t what we considered a “wildlife tour”.
We feared that any tour we booked would thrust us into an inhumane world where, like always, humans disrespect and disturb the surroundings for selfish reasons. Whether it is in order to get that perfect selfie, touch a wild animal or act as if they’re in a scene from The Jungle Book, it’s wrong. So wrong.
So we continued our research with the hope of finding and then avoiding the unethical tour agencies. We continued to read the reviews, investigate the online stories and scrutinise the photos. We then went door to door with the tour agencies, always weary and extremely distrusting.
Before we share our findings, we must ask our fellow backpackers and adventurers to please, please, PLEASE respect the wildlife. If you really do seek that selfie, by all means, visit a zoo or an animal sanctuary that allows such carry-on. But we beg you, do not enter the Amazon, intrude on its life and ruin it for the observers and animal lovers. Because it has to be said, if you truly are an animal lover, you will be in full agreement with us here.
And folks, this includes feeding. Don’t encourage the wildlife to run towards tourists to be fed, don’t ruin their ability to fend for themselves and do not meddle with the circle of life (it does, after all, move us all…)
Table of Contents
From La Paz to Rurrenabaque:
Although, according to our research, the only way to reach Rurrenabaque is starting from La Paz, the good news is that there are a number of methods to travel to Rurrenabaque.
With many opting in for a 1 hour flight via a 15 seater plane (check JetCost.com) with prices around €150 return, others delve deep into the pockets to fork out on the pricey bus and boat option.
But budgeteers may want to join the locals on a 18+ hour public bus that travels partially on Bolivia’s Death Road. The journey was enjoyable, we got our cheap thrills and experienced the infamous road that takes the lives of over 200 people per year.
Buses to the jungle leave from Terminal Provisional Minass – Yungas, a little outside the centre of Villa Fatima in La Paz.
Collectivos to the above bus terminal pass by San Fran Plaza. Take any that have ‘Villa Fatima’ displayed in the window. The 30 minute drive costs only 2B (€0.25).
When you arrive, ignore any taxis and tours who may mislead you by providing inaccurate information, and instead cross the open-aired terminal towards the buses all going to ‘La Selva’.
We took the 2.30pm bus with Trans Total for 60B (€7.50). They might quote 80B (€10) but do not pay more than 60B! Although the bus looked like it was about to fall apart, the service was decent, left and arrived on time, had reclining seats, lots of legroom but no toilet.
There are other companies that also journey to Rurrenabaque but leave early in the morning. And to be honest, the earlier departure the better as it ensures you can enjoy Death Road in daylight.
We wrote a quick blog with more details and a little insight to our experience. Spoiler: we loved it, had no scary stories and arrived on time.
Enjoy a read here.
Accommodation in Rurrenabaque:
Arriving safe and sound, let’s talk about some accommodation options. We stayed in two different hostels while in Rurrenabaque, spending a night in each of the two budget-friendly options.
Tucanes de Rurre Hotel:
Extremely happy with this accommodation, the comfortable private room with two double beds and a shared bathroom costs 35B (€4.40) per person.
Located on the corner of Calle Bolivar, it includes a free breakfast of coffee, juice, toast and spread.
Although it doesn’t have a kitchen (not many hostels in Rurrenabaque do) it does have a preparation area with delph and a fridge to store food.
The fast Wi-Fi, hot power showers and chilled outdoor common area fitted with hammocks are also all appealing facilities.
On top of all that the hotel offers free luggage storage, should you need it.
If the above is fully booked, we also stayed at this basic lodging found on Calle Beni, next door to the well-known ‘Garfield Laundry’ (if lost, just ask for the lavandería).
We paid 25B (€3) per person for a bed in a 4-bedroom dorm which we shared with our newfound friend Henrik, a young German traveller whom we met on the morning of our arrival to Rurrenabaque, at a local French bakery (more on that later!).
There is no kitchen and Wi-Fi isn’t great, but arriving into the tropical town at 8 am, our tired selves were not too fussy and sure it was only for one night while we scoured the tour agencies. So if you’re looking for a very cheap place to sleep, this is it.
However, before we headed into the jungle we did avail of their affordable laundry service at only 8B (€1) per kilo.
Our Tour Choice:
Before booking a tour, there are a few things we discovered:
- All tour agencies offer the same itinerary, with each having its own accommodation options located alongside the Amazon River.
- Tour agencies have an agreement where no company should charge less than 1,200B (€150) per person as a rule of fair competition. However some won’t abide and this is OK, especially in low season. This agreement only applies in Rurrenabaque hence why sometimes, it’s cheaper to book your tour in advance in La Paz. Sometimes.
- Be aware of who you book through as some of the smaller agencies are subcontractors for the bigger fish, mostly Dolphin Travel (no pun intended) and this is a company we would steer clear of.
- It’s all about the guide! Although the priority is researching the company, take note of reviews about the guide. Some guides show little care towards the wild thus are willing to disturb it in order to please clients. Not cool guides, not cool at all.
- There is an additional 150B (€19) park entry fee, no tour includes this.
- There is an extra cost if you prefer to have a private room.
We met Pepe from Tour Amazonico in a local French bakery, and had then enquired with a number of locals, including the bakery owner, if the company was a reputable one.
After getting the thumbs up, we went to ask for a price and interrogate. Pepe’s charm, good English and low price was certainly appealing, but of course we probed into their ethics and with hope we would be taken seriously, we stated a number of times that not only were we travel writers but also worked closely with a number of organisations and thus we have a high moral standard.
Convinced of Pepe’s promises, we accepted their two nights and three day tour to include transport, three meals per day and all activities from piranha fishing to pink dolphin spotting for 750B (€94) per person, not including the 150B (€19) park entrance fee.
The most important suggestion we can make when booking with Amazonico is to request Juan Carlos as the guide. Honestly, he made our trip.
JC, as we nicknamed him, grew up in the Pampas and so his whole life he has been surrounded by the wildlife we pay so much to see. The Amazon is his home, the animals his neighbours and his love for it all is clear to see. His literally is the real life Mowgli. Based on his attitude, passion and knowledge, we genuinely wouldn’t recommend any other guide.
The minute we met JC, we explained our fears and dislikes of hearing the touchy feely tales. His disgust matched ours and made it abundantly clear that under no circumstances do we disturb the Amazonian territory and its inhabitants.
Covered in scars, being an inquisitive child growing up, JC has been bitten by pretty much everything that lives in the Amazon; caiman, alligator, snakes, you name it. We’re telling you… if Tarzan and Mowgli were to, in some strange scientific breakthrough, have a lovechild it would be JC.
You can find the Amazonico offices on Calle Avaroa, next to Fluvial Tours and across from The French Bakery (I swear I’m getting to that!).
Head for the Mercado Central, and with the market on your left stay straight for two blocks.
Note: Amazonico and Fluvial Tours are, in ways, affiliated as they use the same accomodation site but have different guides. The tours are maximum 7 people, if even, and although the two are associated we only recommend Amazonico.
What to Expect: Day 1
- 9am departure time from Rurrenabaque, followed by a three hour drive to the entrance of the Amazon, with a lunch stop midway.
- Meet the tour guide and board a long boat for a three hour ride up the Amazon river towards the accommodation. Spotting wildlife along the way
- Arrive, settle in and have a small snack-like lunch before reboarding the boat to go watch the sunset from a local family’s farmland.
- Alligator night spotting, using headlamps and then home for a buffet dinner
What to Expect: Day 2
- Breakfast, early anaconda hunting (not literally hunting!) and return for lunch.
- Back on the boat to find pink dolphins with an option to swim with them. Guide should also bring you to find sloths. Back to accomodation for buffet dinner.
What to Expect: Day 3
- Early at 5am start to catch the sunrise.
- Piranha fishing before returning for a final lunch which is whatever you catch.
- Pack and prepare to return to Rurrenabaque.
What to Prepare:
First of all, prepare and pack a light bag the night before. There really is no need to bring everything you own.
Here are a few suggestions as to what to bring:
We visited in early November and although the weather was hot and stuffy, in both Rurrenabaque and in the Pampas, we had a day of heavy hurtin’ rain showers. So if like us you lack decent rain gear, we picked up some high quality ponchos in the local Rurrenabaque market for 25B (€3). Not only did it keep us dry but it helped fend off the vicious mozzies whose vampire powers were useless against our new rain capes.
Comfortable hiking shoes are a must (wellies are supplied when Anaconda hunting – again, not actual hunting – obviously!) but do bring less sweaty footwear such as flip flops for when you’re hanging out in the cabins or on the boat.
Swimwear is ideal, especially for those who wish to take a dip in the Amazon river along with the pink dolphins. Something we didn’t do, but yet we still enjoyed a bikini and shorts day on the motorboat.
Do not forget to pack long sleeves and trousers. As soon as the sun sets we would change into jeans or leggings to save our sunkissed skin from the itchy wrath of the ferocious jungle mosquitoes. Leggings won’t exactly help since they’re tight fitting but my wardrobe doesn’t exactly have much variety and it was better than bare legs! If it helps, and you have some (unlike my inner goth!) wear bright colour clothes as dark clothes attract mozzies more. The little blood-sucking feckers.
Suncream, sun block, sun hat, anything with U.V and anything with a bit of shield or shade. The sun is strong, and you are never undercover. You will be burned and you will suffer some stinging skin. Prevent that from happening as much as you can.
It goes without saying but bring mozzie spray, the DEET kind. The minimum 10% DEET kind.
We were both unfortunate to be struck with a dose of mid-Pampas food poisoning, yep… lucky us (we think it was Rurrenabaque’s finest fried chicken). The worst part was that with vomiting, comes the shits. So not only do we wish we brought our own toilet roll, we also regretted not bringing some form of medicine. Dioralyte, pepto bismol-ish tablets, anything really. Be a Mammy, be prepared.
The electricity at the wooden lodging is limited, power is supplied by a generator that kicks in after dark. The plug sockets will be ransacked, so bring a power bank. A fully charged one.
As you can imagine, it gets quite dark in the jungle. If you have a torch or a headlamp bring one (not just the one on your phone as this will drain your battery!). If you don’t have one, mention this to the tour agency who will supply one for you. Amazonico did! It will come in handy, and is needed for spotting the glowing eyes of the river-hiding caimans.
Our Pampas Experience:
Bringing all our bags, we arrived at the Amazonico offices at 8.30am. Pepe stored our backpacks and anything of importance in a secure room in his house, and declared full responsibility for all the stored items.
We loaded the 4×4 and by 9am, we began the 3 hour drive towards the Santa Cruz park aka the gateway to the Amazon. Myself, Luke and Henrik were joined by Eden, Justyna and Marcell, and the bonding began. Two hours in, we stopped for some lunch, a buffet of rice, spaghetti, salad, mince meat and a drink.
An hour later, after paying the 150B (€19) park entrance fee, we helped unload the car, met our jungle warrior JC (who speaks really good Spanglish). People prefer perfectly fluent English guides but you can look at it as a way of practising your Spanish while helping him with his English.
Together, we loaded and then boarded the long slender motorboat, fully fitted with wired garden chairs. Comfy!
We spent the next three hours gently floating our way up the Amazon where eagle eye JC called out as he spotted a number of wildlife from specific Amazon birds of all kinds to Capybaras, the biggest rodent in the world and hundreds of stationed and swimming turtles.
Laughter broke as we spotted a lonely capybara humping a small leaf plant, followed by exciting outbreaks of squeaking as monkeys flew across the trees overhead.
It should be said that we stayed at a safe distance to merely observe all the animals.
Further along the river, a small family of squirrel monkeys, the smallest type of monkey in the Amazon, approached the boat. Amazed, it wasn’t until JC explained that this is due to the thousands of tourists and guides who feed them. Because of this malpractice, anytime the little black and yellow cuties hear the motor, they assume it’s feeding time.
So here we are preaching again, if this does happen on your visit, please don’t encourage it and become part of the problem.
They’re nosey and inquisitive specimens so yes enjoy them and their close presence as there’s nothing you can do if they do approach expecting food (in fact do just that, nothing!). They will come as close as possible and might even jump on your head! If your guide is wise he will tell you not to move and let them be as they were.
We did get a good laugh when one of them decided to urinate on our other fellow German passenger Alex, so we took the hint and moved on.
Settling into our home for the next two nights, the cabins were basic but beautiful. All handbuilt, sitting on stilts and connected by wooden bridges and platforms, myself and Luke were lucky to be placed into our own private room even though we didn’t request one (double rooms are that little more expensive).
The private rooms are small but have private bathrooms, while the large dorm rooms have shared bathrooms. All beds include a mozzie net.
We enjoyed some light lunch; juice, biscuits and popcorn before heading back on the boat for a 15 minute ride to catch a sunset.
Remember when we said to bring a torch? This is where it comes in handy! En route back home, as darkness hits and the bats take over, JC encourages us to shine our lights towards the riverbank. All of sudden the darkness turned into a starry-like sky. Catching the eyes of the caimans, their still balls of vision shone bright, and it wasn’t until we did this do you realise just how many were surrounding us. It was magical.
Lights off, the trees above sparkled as the fireflies were in full force. It’s so beautiful, that even though we wanted to see the watchful river eyes, we sat in awe, enjoying the darkness in complete silence as we each took a moment to absorb a slice of the jungle we never thought we would experience.
Homeward bound, it was time for dinner. A beautifully laid table with bread, pasta, rice, mince and salad served with water and juice.
This was when my nausea hit. Over 9 months travelling and not once were either of us hit with any dose of food poisoning. And the one time I suffer, it’s in the middle of the jungle. Murphy, you bastard. I hit the hay early and spent the night visiting the bathroom. Thanking my lucky firefly stars that we were placed in a double room.
The following morning we woke to the hammering rain, or maybe torrential downpour is more appropriate. Despite the gloomy morning, the group headed out to try to spot some anacondas, an unlikely mission considering, like me, these reptiles too prefer to hide from the rain.
So while my head remained firmly in the toilet, Luke took one for the team; stepping into the supplied wellies and draped in his new rain cape, off he went to scout for the large slimy serpents.
Dragging their feet through knee high swamps, and clambering through sky high long grass, moods were a little low as the rain bounced from head to shoulder. The wellies grew heavier with every step, but alas JC managed to keep spirits alive.
He stopped to share more knowledge of every moving critter, and when he noticed that Eden was carrying a large bottle of water, he stopped to make a bottle carrier backpack using only vines. Bear Grylls, who?!
Another unusual scene, the group gathered around a large wasp nest where they enjoyed some tree cover while watching the wasps literally clear the rain water from the hive, on their backs! Although they do require some water to survive (don’t we all!), the heavy rain and overflow created this buzzing frenzy. An incredible sight, one which you can see throughout our snapchat video below.
A slim to none chance of finding the popular python, the group were surprised to hear Henrik shout with success. How he managed to spot the very tiny baby anaconda that was snacking on a frog, leads us to believe he has ultimate 20/20 vision. Go on the German!
Unfortunately for Luke and the gang, a nearby Fluvial tour guide also heard the surprised shouts and rushed to the scene. To show off to his group (because why else would you feel the need to do this?!) he attempted to pick up the tiny anaconda, yet failed to not only disturb its lunch but lose it entirely, ruining it for everyone.
This is when JC intervened, gave the guide a bollocking and created a welcome scene, or so I was told.
Back home, I witnessed my drowned friends pour puddles of rain water from their wellies and strip off their new layer of skin before all rushing to lunch. Meanwhile, Luke popped in to check on my weak, sick self whose body finally gave up heaving. He brought me a banana and a piece of dry bread to nibble on and left to warm up his belly with home cooked food.
As I lay in bed exhausted, a large thud jolted my body upwards. Face to face was a small spider monkey who cheekily grabbed my banana and bread and darted for the opening above the door. Worry and amusement washed over me, and before I knew it a swarm of squirrels and even two howler monkeys started to wrestle and screech on our cabin rooftop. All attempting to steal the lucky find.
So take note guys, never bring food into your rooms!
A knock on the door, my very own Jesus came to check on me with a cup of magic in hand. JC told me he whipped together a medicinal drink that was sure to help me feel better. Staring into the cup, all I smelled was orange and all I saw were leaves and tree bark. Parched, I hurled the potion down my neck. Although it didn’t stay down long, after another puking session I fell back asleep to wake with energy, a nice change from needing to puke or poo.
JC rounded the troops for another day out on the boat, but this time we were searching for pink dolphins. Packing a plastic bag, I apologised in advance to the group who sympathetically promised to turn a blind eye should any puking commence. And if that did happen, I was technically feeding the fish. Even if I was dying, there was no bloody way I was missing the pink dolphins.
There were a pod of dolphins swimming below
You would think the swimming pinkys would be hard enough to spot but surprisingly thousands call the muggy brown river home. Now, it is less jumping up Flipper style but more poking their fins out to cause a ripple and a splash.
When JC was content that a dolphin pod was close by he encouraged those feeling up to it to jump in. The water looked less pleasing than your standard river, he admitted that alligators and caimans were close but not to fear that the dolphins were king of the river. And once you don’t have an open wound, you are simply not appetising enough for the four different types of piranhas living below.
Three of the lads jumped in, while we chilled in the boat. Sick or not, I much preferred to enjoy it from a distance and didn’t want to intrude on their home. The dolphins didn’t respond, much to everyone’s disappointment and instead they swam uninterested and too distracted.
After the swim and stare, we moved on to find a sloth. Another moment where we truly believed JC has some magical powers. Eyes glued to the treetops, he succeeded (of course he did!) in finding one lazing high in the branches. And although we have seen many sloths on our adventures from Costa Rica to Colombia, it’s still always a welcomed sight.
Back home for dinner, I was cured. JC and his holy water literally cured me. And while I was ready to demolish any food set in front of me, bang on Murphy’s (Law) schedule, Luke’s face drained and nausea washed over his body. Man down! Man down! So I ate for two.
Our group joined Fluvial’s group and we all hung out swapping stories, playing pool and drinking beer. Exhausted I skipped off to bed and my sick boy.
Alarm bells shook me at 5am, and I leaped out of bed to dress for a sunset. Luke deteriorating fast, it was my turn to take one for the team and join the small few of us who were willing to rise so early. Back in the boat, we floated silently as we listened to the jungle waking. Tranquillity.
Climbing up the slippy riverbank, having far too many laughs at our clumsiness; the sunrise wasn’t exactly like the perfect photos we saw, and definitely not the best I’ve witnessed. Yet the realisation that you’re standing in the Amazon watching the sunrise is hard to beat. The feeling really is indescribable.
We returned and joined the lazy lumps at the breakfast table, guzzling coffee and already ready for a nap! It was D day, the day we were leaving and I wasn’t OK with that.
Our final Amazonian adventure together was, you guessed it, back on the boat! Accompanied by tender hooks and fresh cow flesh, we enjoyed a spot of piranha fishing. A survival method for the likes of JC and his family, he shared fishing techniques that were passed down generations.
The lads competed while I focused on catching something, anything! And finally, I got a bite. Delighted with myself, I jumped for joy even though it was TINY! Ignoring the giggles, I posed proudly before JC told me to throw it back in. It was just too small to eat and it still had time to recover and live (apparently).
The method we used was literally a piece of string, tied to a standard fishing hook, topped with flesh. It’s quite interesting how the minute you dip it, the fish seem to nudge and elbow each other for a bite, yet they’re smart enough that it is such a challenge to actually catch them.
We returned with the day’s catch (thank God for the lads or no one would have been eating), handed it over to the chef and packed while we waited for lunch.
In the meantime, Luke awoke to down JC’s miracle potion with the hope he would feel better enough to eat our efforts.
Having tried piranha before, also in the Amazon in Peru, let me tell you that if you have to try it – go all out and get stuck in. It’s delicious! Served with mashed potato and vegetables was the icing on the cake for me. My favourite meal on the tour.
Saddened, we made a pact to ignore Luke’s gags and agreed that his “I need to shit” safety word would be “pineapple shnell shnell” but thankfully there were no accidents.
Back on dry land, the Amazon blues hit as we all hugged JC tightly, warned the currently waiting group to mind him for us, that he was the best and climbed back into the 4×4.
The last thing I remembered was seeing a herd of cows block the road, and before I knew it I was back in the jungle. Back on our blue longboat, back laughing at Marcell’s jokes, back to where I had to 360 my head just so I didn’t miss anything. Back to one of my favourite places in the entire world. Back to the Amazon jungle….
Did you really think I was going to forget the French bakery aka my second Rurrenabaque home and the greatest thing about the place?!
If you enjoy freshly baked goods, from croissants, pan au chocolate, mini pizzas, quiche and gooey brownies, to organic coffee, milkshakes and freshly fruit smoothies, Panaderia Paris is a must visit for you. Opened Mon-Fri 6.30am-12.30pm and again from 3.30pm-6.30pm, it also opens Saturdays but only between the hours of 6.30am and 12.30pm.
Sitting directly across from the Amazonico and Fluvial Tour Companies on Calle Avaroa, go and treat yourself in the petite French bakery set up by Tierry, a French born baker of 30 years.
Tierry travelled to Rurrenabaque over 14 years ago to then return and never leave. His coffee is cheap at only 6B (€0.75) per decent sized cup. And sharing his baking talents with four local women, together they make the bread, pastries, pastas, meat and chocolate filled croissants every morning to sell them at prices ranging from 4B (€0.50) – 8B (€1).
Honestly, if you want a treat and a lil slice of some home comfort, have your brekkie or lunch here. Tierry and his staff are so lovely, and his story is fascinating. We visited more times . Besides, it is not unusual to see Tierry fly around on his quad; meeting tourists and inviting them to this bakery, even offering them help with hostels are any questions.
On our first day in Rurrenabaque, our lost selves bumped into him on the main market calle. He gave us a lift to his bakery and spoiled us with treats (we paid, obviously!) to then hand us a map and act as the local tourist office while we munched on his sweet treats.
And with that, we bid you a fun and wild Amazon adventure. Stay safe, enjoy and remember to respect the homes of the flora and fauna. No one wants an intruder, but a guest.
Afterall, a guest is always welcome.