After another day in La Paz, I sleeplessly boarded a tiny, mild anxiety-inducing, double prop-plane bound for the jungle town of Rurrenabaque. A short ride over the breathtaking, snow-capped Cordillera Real mountains dropped us down into the Amazon basin. The chilly, dry, high altitude of the west gave way to the vibrant, green humidity of the rain forest. The unnerving thought of crash landing into the seemingly never ending expanse of the jungle certainly crossed my mind. However, I breathed a little more easily as we bounced down onto the overgrown tarmac that barely passed as an airfield.
My only plan was to spend a few days in the jungle and so after a short bus ride into town, I walked around in search of a tour agency. I found one that had been referenced several times from other travelers. After going through various options with the owner, I asked about a survival tour that I had heard rumors of. She smiled and went and got a different binder. Costing more money and lacking any sort of luxury and comfort, the 3 day survival tour promised to be an unforgettable challenge. I drank some coca tea over the impending decision but deep down I knew what I was going to do. The run of the mill tour was not for me. I bit the bullet. Lets suffer a little bit.
Into the Jungle
With nothing more than a mosquito net and a sleeping mat made of bark, I boarded a motorized long boat along with half a dozen other gringos and a few native guides and entered the Madidi National Park. The journey upriver took about 3-4 hours and was enjoyed with a mouthful of coca leaves wadded in my cheek and skillful driving against the swift current.
Pulling off to the embankment in one of the calmer s-turns, we were greeted by some animated locals that were preparing a lunch for us in the jungle under a shelter made from large blue tarps. For myself and a couple of others doing their own survival course, this was the last promised meal until returning to be picked up by the boat.
After lunch, I met Miguel; my survival guide. His long black hair and cheek full of coca leaves complimented his obvious weariness. Having just finished a more pampered jungle tour, he was going right into leading me around the jungle for three days. Speaking only Spanish, it was going to make for an interesting time.
A mere 12 feet into trek out of camp, we stopped and Miguel picked up a seed he found on the ground. He popped it open and smeared its bright red contents onto my face with his fingers. I was going full native.
Slipping off of a fallen tree-bridge within 15 minutes, I managed to make sure that my shoes would be wet for the entire experience. But the brisk pace of Miguel and sensory overload of the jungle quickly diverted my attention back to keeping up.
I was again reminded to be careful when I was bitten by several fire ants on my neck. Having always wanted to know what it feels like, I can now confirm that their name is well earned and a second experience of being bitten is unwanted.
After a couple of hours we stopped to drink some water. The drawstring bag I was given to carry my mosquito net and bark mat was not built for comfort. Using a single large leave, Miguel cut and weaved a brilliantly designed backpack with straps made of vines. It held my mosquito net and sleeping mat well and was exceedingly more comfortable than the drawstring bag. I was beyond impressed.
The last few hours of the initial trek were rushed as we raced the setting sun through the dark jungle. Arriving to a rocky beach on the side of the river, we situated ourselves under a makeshift shelter as a light rain began to fall. Our goal was to catch a fish with a hand line. As the hours crept by, we continued to catch nothing. Our growling stomachs matched the intensity of the mosquitos that refused to quit.
One of the first survival lessons Miguel imparted was to periodically shine your flashlight onto the river and jungle behind you to check for glowing eyes. Of which the owners are usually carnivorous; such as jaguars and caimans. One of our routine checks presented a caiman sitting about 15 feet from us in total darkness with only its eyes breaking the surface of the water. Moments later, it snagged our fishing bait and just like that we were in a battle to catch a caiman. Miguel took the reigns on this one and he did his best until about 10 minutes into the battle, the bait popped out of animal and onto the sand. Our potential meal and even better story just slipped away.
The night continued. More conversation and the wait for the fish to take the bait. I ended up falling asleep on the rocks for a short time only to be awoken by Miguel, to tell me it was time to build a shelter to sleep.
Following Miguel through the grove of bamboo in the early moments of dawn, we reentered the jungle and went to a more open area with a good vantage point. Hacking chunks of wood for a lean-to, Miguel showed me how to cleverly construct my room for the night. Our mosquito nets hung from the lean-to down to the porous bark mattress. The canopy above deflecting rain. I was exhausted and passed out despite the roar of insects now coating my netting. Not exactly sleeping well, I was awoken by Michael in the late morning. It was time to move.
Bee Stings to the Face
Already hungry and thirsty, we moved further upstream in the hopes of catching fish. A jaguar cub and later jaguar tracks along the beach reoriented my attention away from food toward better awareness of potential predators lurking nearby.
Heading back into the jungle for a moment, three bees managed to locate their stingers into my face and neck. It had been 10 or 15 years since I was last stung but I was reintroduced to bees sting by way of my face. Miguel yelled “Corras![Run!]”. I sprinted about 40 meters down the beach, swatting wildly, while Miguel was keeled over, laughing maniacally.
Hour after hour went by and we moved again. The muggy air draped itself on everything as the sun passed through the afternoon sky. Even Miguel was showing signs of a stressful situation. He exclaimed in some of the only English he knew; “this is the real survivor.” We both just laughed.
With the sun setting on us, we walked more slowly through the outer edge of the forest. Miguel stopped momentarily before quickly launching himself forward and battering something with the back-end of the machete on the dark floor covering. He triumphantly presented me with the carcass of a small frog. At first I thought it was going to be a snack for us but Miguel explained this was going to help us catch a fish. It was an investment. Lets hope it pays off.
We found ourselves on a much bigger and more open beach. Our flashlight check of the treeline revealed the eyes of a jaguar less than 100 meters away. We moved closer to the water but never stopped checking that tree line. About an hour after casting a piece of frog flesh, I got a solid tug on my line. The reeling began and the excitement of an impending meal flooded my mind. Miguel excitedly grabbed the fish once it was on the shore and put it out of its misery.
Miguel craftily slotted the fish between bamboo and cooked it over the open fire. He also used a bamboo section like a pot and filled it with water and bark from a cinnamon-like tree, creating a delicious tea. While that was happening, we built our lean-to for the night. Sleeping on the beach necessitated a constructed cover and so we took a bit more time. Dinner, although not filling, was a great boost of energy and morale.
Despite the mosquito nets, the bugs find you. The second night was no different. Between the insects and hard sand, sleep was not enjoyed entirely. That next morning began with packing up our little bit of gear and heading back into the jungle. Miguel stopped at more trees to explain their uses. Some of their leaves and bark had medicinal properties. Others were for eating or making into tea. After eating some berries, Miguel called me over as he proceeded to cut what appeared to be a thick vine. Delicious, sweet water gushed out and I readily accepted its contents.
Shortly before arriving back at base camp, we stopped and picked various seeds to make into jewelry while we waited for lunch. The wafting smell of a freshly cooked meal filled the area. Miguel instructed me on how to prepare my natural jewelry that he would thread and weave together. In addition to a ring and necklace, he prepared a key chain for my motorcycle that included a tooth from a dead caiman we had found the day before. An over the top accessory I would not display if purchased in a store at home but happily sported when its creation story is handmade in the Amazon on an unforgettable side adventure.
Back to Civilization
The lunch went down too easily and thankfully the trip back down the river to semi-civilization took only about two hours. Upon returning to Rurrenabaque, I bought Miguel some cigarettes as a thank you. It was a tough outing, even by his admittance, but I was grateful for such a humbling and intense learning experience.
Before finding a hostel for the night, I gorged myself on a burger, coke, and milkshake and then later on fried chicken and ginger ale. In just a few days my stomach became a bottomless pit. That night I slept hard but did not get as much sleep as I would have liked, as I had to board an early flight back to the massive city of La Paz.
The reintegration to the congestion of La Paz was abrasive to say the least. Peaceful jungle became concrete jungle. I returned to my hostel to rest and reflect on the last few days of controlled chaos. Experiences like these are part of the reason I refute claims that I am on vacation. This is an adventure to learn.
Start this journey from the beginning: Introduction