There are two practical ways to get from La Paz to Rurrenabaque in the jungle. You can fly which takes about 40 minutes or, if you’re crazy, you can take a bus which takes about 20 hours depending on the weather. If you’re really crazy, there’s a third option by road and river which takes 4 days. I decided on the really crazy route. But on the second day, when clouds of mosquitoes descended on the campsite, I began to have second thoughts.
The adventure began at the bus station in La Paz. I had organised the expedition through Deep Rainforest and Augusto, the agency representative, was busy buying tickets for me and my travelling companions for a bus which would take us from the altiplano to Guanay, a river port thousands of metres down in the Yungas, the lowlands. Slightly alarmingly, the bus was painted with army motifs, including a bare-chested soldier clutching a machine gun. But we weren’t going to war, we were about to travel along stomach-churning roads, with spectacular views, but terrifying drops into chasms below.Augusto told us we probably wouldn’t be having any hot food and insisted on buying what he called a survival kit, which basically consisted of bags of nuts, crisps and junk food. In fact we didn’t leave for over an hour. Vendors of much more delicious food, such as empanadas, were doing a brisk trade. Less so the man with a clutch of brightly-coloured brooms which are not really must- have items when you’re about to embark on a long distance bus journey.
Coroico is a town which stands halfway along the route. The old road, quaintly known as the Death Road, is now closed and used only by agencies who guide intrepid (foolhardy?) cyclists down to Coroico. I was happy we would be taking the new road. Only I soon discovered this is probably now the second most dangerous road in the world. We began by ascending above the clouds with panpipe music blaring appropriately out of the crackly speakers, past misty high altitude lakes and llamas, then we began our descent. As the clouds disappeared above us, the vegetation became more luxuriant and the temperature started to rise. Small farms clung to the precipitous hillsides.
Beyond Coroico the condition of the road worsened as we plunged down a huge valley right to the floor, crossed a rickety bridge and began the ascent up the other side. I looked out of the window and was horrified as I saw the crazy driver was on the wrong side of the road. But then I realised that the lane direction was reversed to help safety. Since the drop was on the left, vehicles drove on the left so that the driver was seated as close to the edge as possible. When the gap between the bus and cliff is literally centimetres, this is obviously vital!
Night had fallen when we arrived safely in Guanay. Our local, guide, Achilles, took us to a run down and grimy hostel catering for the local miners. We were all too tired to do much more than go to sleep and prepare ourselves for the river adventure that lay ahead the next day.
After breakfast by the river, during which a local mining engineer chatted to us enthusiastically about the gold prospects along the banks, we finally set off with Achilles, a boat driver, and another helper whom Achilles called simply Loco (Crazy Guy). There was a lot of digging along the river and many men prospecting. It had the weird feel of the American West during the Gold Rush. We stopped for lunch in the mining town of Mayaya, then pushed on to pitch our tents above the river just outside the Parque Nacional Madidi. It was then that, as soon as the boat stopped moving, the swarms of mosquitoes appeared, as if out of nowhere, buzzing around our ears and heads. We sprayed the repellent around as if it were insecticide.
The next day we stopped off at some glorious clear waterfalls for a refreshing shower and lunched on fresh surubi fish which the boat crew had caught the previous evening. We continued on our way past dense jungle and no other tourists. This was remote, virgin rainforest that you cannot see on trips out of Rurrenabaque. It’s too difficult to spot animals, but the scenery is impressive and it was superbly relaxing just sitting on the boat, watching the jungle glide by and enjoying the peace and quiet.
On the second night we camped at an idyllic spot opposite a huge cliff where macaws nested. Idyllic, that is, until the mosquitoes swarmed in again as dusk set in. We retreated to our tents and refused to emerge until daylight. The next day we visited a local community an hour’s walk away into the jungle. We met a couple and their 9 children. Conditions were extremely basic, but there was a school.
We had lunch on the boat just before reaching the small town of Rurrenabque. It was an epic trip and we arrived happy that we’d done it, but happy we had now arrived and just a little self-satisfied that we had not taken the easy flying option. It’s a great way to get here, but one thing is for sure, I’ll be flying back to La Paz.