The basin of the Bolivian Amazon is a magical place. Just a 45 minute flight from cold and rainy La Paz and you're stepping off your small Bombardier CRJ-200 plane into humid jungle heat amongst swaying palm trees and green forest for miles. As you take a deep, clean breathe in, there's life in the dusk air.
Ten minutes away, the town is thrumming. The long, tree-lined roads are filled with motorcycles not cars (if you need a taxi get used to hugging a stranger). It's evening now and tropical music beats from open door bars where locals are dancing. In the square groups of children laugh and play despite the deep night sky that hangs clear above us. Teenagers practice a choreographed cultural dance in the streets, preparing for the big Rurre birthday festival. The scent is thick and floral and clean. No one wears much clothing. What you do wear clings sensually to your skin. Dogs are everywhere and seem to share the same lazy love for life as the locals. Outside a buzzing joint, several lope over to us for a pat as we sit at a little wood table for pizza. An Italian woman has moved here and set up shop selling real wood-fired, thin crust Italiano pizza to the locals who zip by on their bikes for take-away slices in little plastic bags. The pizza is delicious and cheap and the cerveza is ice cold and even cheaper.
In fact the food in Rurre (as the locals call it) is delicious - an anomaly in Bolivia, a country where the bread has the same appeal as a paper towel. For years expats have visited, fallen in love, and stayed. Lucky for all, some have brought their countries' cooking here too. In the morning locals swing by a French patisserie that churns out some of the best pain chocolat, quiche, and bechamel croissants I've ever tasted. The girls who work there are hired from the town and serve up fresh pressed oj and REAL - not instant - coffee. Surprise surprise, our breakfast is dirt cheap. And dinner. For $7 each, A Swiss-German couple will cook you two courses - peanut soup and chicken Milanese for example - buy you a bottle of wine from down the street and serve you homemade bread with fresh olives and, here's the real treat, good cheese. Queso in Bolivia is horrid. If bread here is like paper, cheese here is like a school eraser. Flavourless, chewy and overly salted in order to keep in the hot climate. These expat saviours do business by importing delicious and varied cheeses into this tiny jungle town thus keeping the other expats happy. We ate here three times in the three days we spent in town.
We were so satisfied by the food and the heat that we didn't seem to notice the swarm of mosquitos following us around in clouds. Or be bothered by the real clouds that brought monsoon like rainstorms. Storms that would last on average 10 hours, non-stop, and force the town to shut off the water to avoid tank contamination. Storms that would wake you from deep happy sleeps with the ferocity of their thunder. One night we sat at the edge of our beds watching our long gauze curtains suck in and out of our open air room. We laughed at the feeling of rain on our hot skin as sheets of it blew past, flooding half the floor. When it rains in Rurre it rains. Our very last night we witnessed a rain storm that lasted from 11pm until 3pm the next day. Until 3pm no toilets or showers and no flights, including ours. We ate well that day.
But food is not the reason travelers flock to this town. The jungle is. Thanks to an Israeli traveler who, in 1981, tried to reach Rurre with two friends and no guides. The expedition inevitably got lost, split three ways and while Yuri Ginsberg made it to his destination, the other two were never found. After he released a book about his adventure, Israeli tourists flocked to the area. Remnants of the boom can be found in old Hebrew signage EVERYWHERE and Bolivian guides who still speak better Hebrew than English (though attempts at Yiddish are not understood).
Protected as Madidi National Park, a guide/tour is required to visit and the experience is divided into two options: pampas or jungle. Animal lovers choose the pampas; flat plains and narrower, shallow rivers; perfect to spot parrots, monkeys, alligators and capybaras. Bring your camera. Bring your wellies. And for God's sake bring your bug spray. One could easily differentiate between tourists who had yet to go on a tour and tourists who'd just come back; the latter were literally splattered with angry red bites - head to toe.
We chose the jungle. We wanted to sleep under the trees like the Mowglis of our childhood imaginations and maybe swing on a giant vine or two. We found an option to stay with a local guide, Nilo, and his parents. Because of the limited accommodation - just three guest beds - it was bound to be a private experience and also one without itinerary; open to us to chose our way.
Setting off on the Bolivian Titanic, a leaking long flat canoe with an outboard motor, we cruise the opaque brown Beni River under a blue sky lined by green. The most beautiful green: everywhere. We sleep in a large raised tent under ruffled pink mosquito nets. We meet Nilo's, father, Manuel, who shows us how to cut rice, wash it, and dry it on large tarps in the sun. He pulls fruit from the many different trees and we sample these sweet fleshes, strange to our palettes. Nilo guides us on long treks through the thick, overgrown jungle; slashing at vines and fallen trees in our path with his machete. We climb high to a look-out that towers over the great expanse of Madidi. Green, green, green for miles interrupted only by the serpentine, brown Beni.
The diversity of plants on our trek is spectacular. Many of them are medicinal including giant ayuruasca vines and plentiful coca leaves (the type used for cocaine and munched on for a high). One massive tree is hollow as a drum and full of water. We scurry to catch a glimpse of the tiny, red squirrel monkeys that swing from the branches high above us. We are startled by the wild jungle chickens that cluck and screech at us from the brush. We are very startled by the baby anaconda we see at dusk; as long as an arm span and oily black with a white tipped tail. If baby is on the path, mama lurks in the bush.
The insects are horrifying. Kamikaze mosquitos, red fire ants once used for torture, tarantulas tucked into conical webs, and the "vente-quatro": an inch long ant with massive pincers. One bite and you are in for 24 hours of extreme pain and fever. They were everywhere. Miguel is bitten one day in the rice field and suffers through it until medicine can be administered. Our skin is peppered with mosquito welts. There is no relief: they even get us at night through the nets over our beds. When we head to an interior stream to fish, misguidedly sporting flip-flops, our feet are attacked by the burning stings of fire ants that swarm over the sticky mud.
But the fishing trip is a success. We catch three small ones using only worms and a fishing line attached with a hook on one end and a cardboard handle on the other. We want to catch and release. But in the jungle everything has its purpose and Nilo severs their spines, wraps them in big leaves and takes them to Miguel who will use the fish as bait to catch his dinner out of the Beni. Everything gets used; out here there is an inherent respect for flora and fauna. Washed up by the stream, Nilo finds a stone axe head. An ancient relic from the original jungle civilizations and no doubt very valuable. This is the fourth piece he's found in his lifetime and a spectacular blessing for him. He silently thanks Pwchumama, the Bolivian Mother Nature and giver of gifts, and makes a note to give back to her in some way tonight.
We trek through the jungle to find a waterfall. It's opaque brown and smells like cow dung from the farms far upstream but we swim anyway and try not to get any water in our mouths. It's cool and refreshing and the black stone is worn smooth like a carving. We lay down to dry on the sun drenched rocks and stare up at the green leaves dancing in the ample breeze. We close our eyes and try to decipher the beautiful birdsong around us. If you forget about it, you can't smell the shit.
The shit is it. The bugs are it. This is it. The jungle. And it's fan-fucking-tastic.
We spent three nights in the jungle. A welcome break from the boozy nights of Rurrenabaque - until we share a tent with a fifty-year-old Argentinian named Jorge. Jorge has come to photograph animals; mainly birds. He shows us his pictures with the kind of perverse obsession of a pornographer, zooming in on shots of the mating monkeys he managed to capture. He wakes us, child-like, at five in the morning to join him in pushing the ancient sugar cane grinder. We decline and try to go back to sleep amongst the cement truck squeals of the grinder outside our tent and the hoots and hollers of sweaty Jorge. On his last night he insists on getting beer and rum from town and we make a pitcher of mojito: a whole bottle of rum, a cup of sugar, mint, and limes - sin soda. He sets up his camera so that he can surprise us with flash pictures, mid-convo, using his handy remote. The pure mojitos prove too much for Jorge as only a few drinks and several photos in he throws up on himself and passes out at the table. Soon he wakes up again for another round of spew, this time under the table we sit at. It's Jorge's bed time and tiny Nilo, who only reaches Ol' Jorge's knee, carries him to the tent. In the morning, Jorge, without shame or regret, wakes us early before he leaves, crawling under our mosquito nets for a goodbye kiss. Later when we rise, the chickens have erased any trace of him from the dirt ground and the last we hear of old mate is from Nilo: he puked again in Rurrenabaque and departed for La Paz (a painfully high altitude) with a splitting headache. Jorge: as much as you grossed us out, we hope you made it home.
What is Dirty Roads?
We are two girls, dedicated to an elevated travel lifestyle. We trek the Earth with camera and pen in hand to document an experience. We believe in respecting the land and the indigenous cultures we encounter, tasting authentic and delicious handmade foods, challenging our world views, seeking incredible beauty, and above all going beyond our nerves. Travel is not travel without a dusty face.