After an eternal night on a swaying bus, constantly waking up aware that I could easily fall out of my chair without armrest down the stairs leading to the door just to my right, I finally woke up to see the beginnings of a sunrise. Glorious. Oh, the wonders of a sunrise! I haven’t seen a true sunrise in ages. The sun rises behind our home, behind the hills, and behind the clouds that accompany every morning in Caranavi. However, today the sun rose across a flat horizon marked only by palm trees. The sun rose orange and fiery declaring war on the darkness. My first experience in the tropical flatlands of Bolivia. Finally I have arrived in the infamous Beni about which I have heard so much. Today is a grand adventure. Today I arrive in Rurrenabaque with a group of people from Holland and a few others from Bolivia. Today we will rest and vacation, and I love every minute of it.
Another sunrise, another beautiful morning in the Beni. I woke up early to take part in this sunrise from our terrace on the roof. Orange and angry, the sun rose despite the ominous clouds. Bread and coffee for breakfast and then we loaded into four large jeeps. A 2.5 hour ride over one of the four flat, straight roads I have seen in Bolivia. We arrived at a river that looked like most other rivers I know. Calm, green water lined by tired green trees. We loaded boats made from trees whose sap is so poisonous is burns you instantly. Antonio guided us down the river, our eyes peeled to see which animals would share the river with us today. I have seen many animals from behind a fence, cage, railing, or glass. This time, there are no barriers. Me. A boat. Alligators. Piranhas. I love it.
The first animal we see apart from birds is a dead alligator floating upside down. We take pictures and move on. Soon we see live alligators, lots of exotic birds, and the largest rodent in the world, the capybara. Pink dolphins (the adults are a light pink, the young are gray) swim and play with us in the river. Piranhas lurk, but we don’t see them face to face. Turtles seem to sun on all the banks. Birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors rest in trees, soar through the air, and fish for lunch. A vulture pecks timidly at the water. A blue-winged bird dries its wings after a successful hunt. The largest bird in the Amazon was spotted a few times, probably as large as a seven year old child. My favorite animals were monkeys by the treefull. Little squirrel monkeys who knew they were cute came as close to us as they could get in hopes of finding some food.
We search for animals in the water, on the banks, in the trees, in the air. Everything we see is a habitat. Enjoying the boat ride would be wonderful enough. The cool breeze and warm sun are perfect. Everything is perfect. It was drizzling in the beginning, but not for long. No, this day couldn’t be better.
After three hours on the water, we arrive at the camp where we will sleep. Everything is on stilts because during the rainy season the entire region in flooded. The buildings are half wood, half screen, allowing for the sights, sounds, smells, and temperatures to surround you even while you sleep. We eat wonderful food while the rain pours down, and wait in the hammocks to see if it will stop raining enough to go alligator “hunting” at night. It does. We take our flashlights and shine them on the banks. Soon enough we see reddish orange eyes glowing back at us. We get close to a couple alligators and I start thinking about the absurdity of this. It’s pitch black, the night has just begun, and we are aggressively intruding on alligators who aren’t in cages. They seemed to be peace-loving tonight, and we just looked at each other.
The rain brought with it a cold front that left the rest of our trip in very cold, rainy weather. However, we were still able to do almost everything we had planned to do. We had to skip the sunrise boat trip due to rain, and piranha fishing was canceled because piranhas go to deep waters when it is cold. We did have a monkey jump onto our porch during breakfast, though! Back out on the boats in the morning, all wrapped in our blankets, we were still able to find yet another species of monkey who raises its eyebrows in hopes of finding a mate. More dolphins swam with us, and we reached a wider part of the river where the dolphins like to play. All of a sudden there are dolphins everywhere around us and we pull to one side just to watch. Finally one of the oldest women in our group gets up enough nerve to go swimming with the dolphins. (Remember, it is freezing outside.) Soon after, I jump in as well. About six of us swim with the dolphins, who seem to enjoy playing with us. One circles me and nudges me three times. Loving the thrill, shaking from the cold (though the water was much warmer than the air, which added a jungle-like mist), I enjoyed every minute and then got back into the boat. I was shivering so much I could hardly get my warmer clothes back on. On the ride back to the camp we saw many more capybaras and flocks and flocks of birds, but most of the animals seemed to be hiding from the cold.
The adventure continues during the jeep ride back to Rurrenabaque as the now very muddy roads cause our jeep to slide all over the road. We get a flat tire, but get to stop next to two more of the largest birds in the Amazon just hanging out by the road. When we make it back to our hotel, a warm shower awaits, as well as beds with blankets! It is usually very hot here, but not for us. It’s probably only in the fifties, but absolutely everything is outside, with large windows, or without any true protection from the weather.
An early departure awaits us on Saturday. We couldn’t go home Friday night as planned because the roads were impassable due to rain. About an hour into the trip on Saturday, we find a place where the road is still impassable. One by one the cars pass, or try to pass. Some get stuck and must somehow find their way out. Then the next car tries its luck. We have a heavy, large bus, which, after waiting two hours, is able to make it through without getting stuck. We only fishtailed a little. The drive home was amazingly beautiful. Farms, flatlands, flocks followed by hills, valleys, and dense fog. Bolivia’s landscape is much like the scenery in L o r d o f t h e R I n g s. Breathtakingly beautiful, but not without its risks and challenges.