Destruction of the rainforest and a lesson in rubber-tapping in a remote region of the Brazilian Amazon

In the jungle

It was 4.30am and still pitch black as Francisco, my guide and seringueiro (rubber-tapper) by trade, was trying to persuade me it would be a good idea to wear a poronga on my head, a kerosene headlamp with a naked flame. In fact, these are no longer used and have been replaced by the more sensible, not to say safer, battery-operated ones, but the idea was to learn about how life was for the seringueiros and this was all part of the experience. Nevertheless, being over six feet tall, I could just picture myself hitting an overhead branch and starting a major forest fire, so I posed for a few pictures and then went out into the jungle armed only with my torch.
Learning about rubber-tapping, wearing a poronga

I was spending a few days at the Pousada Ecológica Seringal Cachoeira which stands in a preserved part of the jungle near Xapuri in the state of Acre in the far northwest of Brazil. So far west, in fact, that it’s in a different time zone from the rest of the country. This is where Chico Mendes first worked on the rubber plantations before his assassination in his house in Xapuri in 1988. Chico organised the rubber-tappers into a union and also fought in direct confrontation with the landowners, loggers and ranchers who began moving in and turning the forest into pastures and farms for cattle. 

Francisco, my guide

My guide for the three days, Francisco, was related to Chico and he had great stories to tell. His first wife came from a family who lived in the jungle and her father taught him much about the plants, trees and animals of the forest. Plus, he has worked there for 48 years and his knowledge of the surrounding nature was staggering. He delighted in tearing leaves of trees and trying to get me to identify them through smell. I correctly got cinammon, but the next was more fascinating – it smelt like an ointment you’d put on a strained ligament and, in fact, that’s exactly what it’s used for.

Samauma tree

On our treks into the jungle he showed me not only how to extract the latex from rubber trees (best done before dawn), but also Brazil nut trees, the samauma (the biggest tree in the forest) and the açaí palm from which comes the purple berry which is eaten all over Brazil usually as a kind of frozen yoghurt in a bowl with granola and fresh fruit. It’s one of my favourite things in Brazil and is a must when you’re travelling here.

Brazil nut shells

Another tree which Francisco showed me was what he called quina-quina, good for malaria, he told me. I realised it was where we get quinine from, used to treat malaria for centuries. Wildlife was pretty scarce. Francisco told me that in all his time in the jungle he’s only ever seen a jaguar three times and admitted to being quite frightened. He did a very good impression of one snorting and roaring though.  

Street, Xapuri

I travelled there from Brasileia on the border with Cobija in Bolivia and the scenes from the bus are ones of depressing devastation. All the way to Rio Branco and further to Porto Velho in Rondônia, a journey of hundreds of miles, the road is lined with cattle ranches and farms. Occasionally, there is smoke to be seen as fires burn, clearing the way for pastures. On the television screen in the bus station the commercials were dominated by companies selling tractors or pest control; cattle flies can really damage your profits if not treated, we were warned. Nobody seemed too concerned about the damage to the environment. 

View from the road – cattle and fences

In these two remote states of Brazil everything seems to be about commerce, raising cattle or popping across the border into Bolivia for cheaper goods. Tourism and indeed ecotourism are not promoted here, with the honourable exception of the Seringal Cachoeira. But when I was there, I was the only guest. 

In the forest

It was a privilege, though, to spend time with Francisco and marvel at how in touch with nature he was. He told me he once spent a year in the jungle and declared that all you need to survive is a lighter and a knife. Not totally true, I replied, pointing to my head, you need knowledge too. He smiled wistfully in recognition, as if aware that that knowledge, like the jungle itself, is slowly disappearing.


Into the jungle, an overland journey from La Paz to Rurrenabaque

On the Rio Beni

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.

All aboard the Commander bus
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.
The descent to Coroico
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. 

The road to Guanay
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.
Gold prospectors along the Rio Kaka

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! 

En route
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.  

Lunch stop in Mayaya
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. 

The cliff where macaws nest
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.