Viewing the wildlife along the rivers of the Pampas del Yacuma

Sunset in the Pampas

I’m not a big fan of wellington boots, but there I was, wading ankle-deep through the swamp waters of the Pampas del Yacuma. Not only that, but we were searching for anacondas. This is their natural habitat. Luckily, our guide failed to find any. It’s the end of the rainy season, which means the water levels are still high, giving the snakes plenty of space to hide.
Me in my wellies
When I arrived in Rurrenabaque after my overland jungle trip from La Paz, it was gloriously hot. This river town on the Rio Beni is small and laid-back and has low rise buildings. Surprisingly, there is an outpost of the Bolivian navy here with a command centre right next to my hotel. In fact, it’s surprising that Bolivia even has a navy, given that it has no coastal access. But the river here does go all the way to the border with Brazil, so if Brazil decides to invade, I guess they’re prepared. 

The best way through the swamp is by boat

Jungle mountains loom to the south of the town. To the north lies a different ecosystem, that of the Pampas, where the dense jungle gives way to open grasslands and swamps. Cattle farming is the main activity here, but tourism is also important. And unlike the jungle, you are almost guaranteed sightings of wildlife. This time I signed up for the easier option of staying in a lodge for two nights with Mashaquipe, a community-based organisation. It’s not the cheapest operator around, but it was definitely good value for money.

Howler monkeys

On the three-hour drive to the lodge based on the Rio Yacuma we saw a sloth, some caiman, a rhea (similar to an ostrich) and many birds. After lunch on the first day we had the opportunity to swim with the river dolphins, but for some reason they seemed shy and uninterested. Occasionally, they bobbed up in the distance, but didn’t want to play.

A sloth

The next few days passed peacefully by on boat trips along the river, observing howler monkeys, capybara (a kind of huge rodent), caiman at night and many different species of birds. The sunsets were also out of this world.

Squirrel monkey

The rain set in as we were leaving the lodge and the dirt road back to Rurrenabaque was churned up with mud. I never expected to be cold in the jungle. It’s supposed to be hot, humid and sweaty, right? But I’ve been wearing my fleece and boots and the owner of the Hotel Oriental here on Rurrenabaque’s main square handed out blankets. Apparently a cold front occasionally comes in bringing low temperatures and rain. And that’s happened just as I’d planned a few relaxing days swinging in a hammock, recovering from my expeditions to the jungle and pampas.

Dusk in the Pampas

The sun came out briefly, so I hopped on a moto taxi up to Oscar’s Bar which has a swimming pool and panoramic views of Rurrenabaque. But then the clouds appeared again and the temperature dropped. Although it’s a great place to relax with traveller-friendly cafes, I get the impression that a certain level of lawlessness lurks beneath. For example, I noticed that many vehicles don’t have licence plates. Apparently, these are all stolen and the local police seem to turn a blind eye – for a fee I’m sure. But when I’m back in bustling La Paz tomorrow, I know I’m going to miss the relaxed pace of the jungle.

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Fernando de Noronha – the most beautiful beaches in Brazil

Praia do Sancho
Praia do Sancho

“Welcome to the most beautiful beach in the world!” proclaims the sign at the entrance to Praia do Sancho on the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha. When you travel a lot, you get used to these kinds of hyberbole, but it’s certainly one of the nicest beaches I have ever been to. Access is not easy, however, as it’s backed by high cliffs. You have to climb two vertical ladders down through a narrow chasm and then the rest of the way is along stone steps cut into the rock. But once you’re there it’s all worthwhile. Fine white sand, waters of every shade of blue imagineable, and all kinds of marine life await you if you have a snorkel.

Baia dos Porcos
Baia dos Porcos

Fernando de Noronha is renowned throughout Brazil as a tropical, paradisiacal, but high-end and costly destination. Outside Brazil, though, it’s not that well known except as the place where Air France flight 447 tragically crashed in 2009. Fernando de Noronha is actually an archipelago of 21 islands 354 kms off the coast of northern Brazil. Recife and Natal are the gateway cities and flights are not cheap, nor is accommodation or food and drink. But with the current devaluation of the Brazilian real, foreigners will find things pretty reasonable right now.

Praia do Leão
Praia do Leão

The best beaches are in the national park, for which you need to pay an entrance fee, but they are superb. Praia do Sancho and Baia dos Porcos are visually dramatic and have excellent snorkelling. Praia do Leão is wonderful and is a short walk from Baia do Sueste where you can snorkel with turtles. I also saw a shark there, but don’t worry, they’re a harmless species.

Baia do Sueste
Baia do Sueste

Even the beaches outside the designated park are stupendous. On Praia da Conceição I saw seabirds diving into the water to fish and thought there must be something worth seeing there. So I put on my snorkel and waded in. Just metres from the shore I was astonished to find myself surrounded by millions of sardines. Even more spectacular was swimming very close to a stingray. On the beach at the port I also snorkelled with three turtles.

Mirante dos Golfinhos
Mirante dos Golfinhos

There are some great trails. The most popular and easiest is to the Mirante dos Golfinhos, the Dolphin Lookout Point. Huge numbers of spinner dolphins are to be found all around the island, but this is one of the best places to spot them and the view is amazing.

Spinner dolphins
Spinner dolphins

If you’re prepared to stay in homestays like I did and walk and take the bus rather than hire taxis and beach buggies, then you can cut costs dramatically. There is a steep daily tourist tax to pay which goes towards the preservation of the island. But this, and the fact that tourist numbers are limited, means that it never feels crowded and it’s really easy to find a space to yourself – even on the most beautiful beach in the world!

Praia da Conceição
Praia da Conceição