What better way to explore Bolivia’s remote Madidi National Park in the Amazon jungle, than trekking with indigenous locals?
Spanning an impressive almost 19,000 square kilometres (7,336 square miles), sweeping down from the soaring Andes, to the sweltering Amazon basin, Madidi is bursting with hundreds of species of amazing wildlife.
Not enticing? Then perhaps knowing that this is home to many rare species including shy and nocturnal ones, is enough a magnetic to draw you to this isolated region.
Until recently, areas of Madidi easily accessible, were logged and its wildlife hunted. You need to travel by horseback or foot for around a week, to access truly pristine areas at the source of the Río Madidi, and only reached from La Paz’s northern highlands.
For two or three-day treks to accessible parts of the jungle, then Rurrenabaque is the starting point.
Many travellers fly or endure a 20-hour bus journey, directly from La Paz to Rurrenabaque.
Following a harrowing bus trip from Trinidad to Rurrenabaque specifically to organise the trek to Madidi National Park, finally arrived in one piece to this chilled town.
Tip: Jungle tours are cheaper to book in Rurrenabaque, than from La Paz or Brazil.
Booking a tour
Several tour companies in Rurrenabaque offer differing experiences and the town is host to many cheap operators.
Wanting to book a tour that is genuinely sustainable for the park whilst also providing locals with income, booked directly with the Chalalán Ecolodge.
Just a little taste in this short video by Sam Evans Media of this stunning park and the treat you’re in for…
Although more expensive, this ecolodge is located deeper and in the heart of Madidi National Park, but also run by the indigenous San José de Uchupiamonas community.
Included in the three-day/two-night tour is a private room, three meals daily, return boat transport from Rurrenabaque, a bilingual indigenous guide, and a promise of only another couple on our tour.
Day 1 – Navigating Amazon rivers and trekking
Not knowing what to expect, the early morning starts with a meet at the Beni River for the six-hour boat trip upstream. As promised, only another couple arrive.
A timber longboat swings by and we pile in with supplies.
Donning our lifejackets and making ourselves comfortable for the long trip ahead, our boatmen gently pushes away from the bank, and starts his motor.
Leaving Rurrenabaque’s shore in the distance, the jungle’s symphony replaces intrusive noises from vehicles, whilst civilisation fades away.
Gliding deeper into the Beni river, we are drawn into the impenetrable jungle gracing both banks, as peace surrounds us…
The feeling of hundreds of eyes watching you, is very real. And suddenly out of nowhere, swings an inquisitive Capuchin monkey. Then another, and before long, what seems like hundreds of gorgeous little furry monkeys come down the trees, and check us out.
Slowly we approach, motor off, pushed towards the bank with only a long pole.
Watching closely, you soon realise that the jungle is bursting with wildlife.
Birds squawk and fight for territory, alligators bask on the banks, then more and more monkeys swing madly from the trees.
As we have to keep moving with the tide, sadly, we leave this remarkable segment from a David Attenborough documentary, with a taste of what is to unfold.
Occasionally passing locals going about their daily lives along the riverbank or long dugout canoes perched on shore, it strikes me just how isolated we are in this profound jungle.
Crossing on to the Tuichi river requires our boatman to jump in the rivers and steer the boat around as the converging rivers are strong, but quite shallow at this point. We’re not allowed to help.
The incredible beauty of the park whilst taking in the Bala Canyon is spectacular.
Occasionally, another tourist boat cruises down river, probably exhausted, but in awe of their last few days.
Native to South America, a family of odd-looking Capybaras – largest rodent in the world – frolic in the muddy shores, watched quietly by caimans.
Ovid our indigenous guide, points out and explains all these fascinating creatures to our ever-widening eyes.
Moving further upstream, we finally arrive at the banks of Chalalán in the heart of Madidi. Only an easy 25-minute walk on a jaguar path and we’re at the ecolodge.
A warm welcome before moving into our Tacana (indigenous), traditional-style bungalow.
With walls built of Chonta (peach palm wood) and topped with a Jatata (palm) roof, the bungalow blends effortlessly with the jungle. The inside bathroom is screened but not glassed and the outside toilet is a short walk away.
After a lovely welcome lunch, we’re free to laze in a hammock or go on a medicinal trek.
Choosing the trek, we venture into the thick jungle canopy in search of healing plants, which indigenous people still use today – ever alert for jaguars and other animals.
Alive with many sounds and smells – senses are heightened, but not as much or intuitive as our amazing guide.
Wild boars’ scruff around close by and it begins to rain. Naively I comment, ‘but this is the dry season’. Without missing a beat, Ovid responds with a beaming smile: ‘this is a R A I N forest’ – his slogan until our return.
Lazing in hammocks whilst listening to the surrounding wildlife noises eats away the remaining afternoon, before a wonderful dinner sets the scene for the evening’s jungle trek.
More heightened than during the day, many sets of shining eyes cast down upon us, as we wander through slowly on a different leaf-trodden path.
I’m expecting Elfin-like figures with flamed torches to materialise and dance around this enchanted forest – alas, none do – my imagination is also heightened.
Jaguars are not so shy at night and have been spotted recently. Great, our outside toilet is away from the bungalow. Some years’ ago, a tourist was so terrified of using the outside toilet at night so instead, peed in the bed!
At night, shadows dance around the bungalow and jungle as we only use candles and torches, in this fully sustainable ecolodge.
Day 2 – Jungle trek
A hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, freshly-baked pastries, and fresh fruit before venturing on another trek.
It’s not long until monkeys swing feverishly from the high lush canopy and drizzle falls. A slight mist envelops the jungle, providing an ethereal blanket.
Monkey’s mimic mammal and bird calls, whilst we stroll through this delicately balanced wonderland, sticking to the narrowest of trails. Careful not to tread on teeny Leafcutter ants soldiering on, we tread very quietly.
Climbing up through a labyrinth of thick jungle and towering ancient Kapok trees to the lookout, the expanse of the park as far as the eye can see, provides stunning vistas of nature. Humbling.
Incredulous that anyone would want to destroy such beauty through logging, cements in our minds on returning to the lodge.
As evening falls, we are spoilt with a wonderful last supper of delicious traditional Dunucuabi – catfish wrapped in leaves – before a quick night trip in a canoe, around the lake.
The jungle is alive.
Ominous, glowing red eyes from caimans glare back at us, as we quietly glide past. Nocturnal birds and insects are lively – as is the furry tarantula hiding in his tree.
To be so close up to all these nightly creatures is a privilege.
For our last evening, we are treated to a Quechua – Tacana night. Indigenous music with dancing from the San José de Uchupiamonas community, echo through the lodge and drift into the jungle’s darkness.
Meeting many other travellers tonight and sharing experiences, I’m amazed that we haven’t bumped into these people on any of our treks.
Day 3 – Return to Rurrenabaque
After a delicious breakfast, a final short walk to spot illusive wildlife, and farewell to wonderful staff, we leave early for the boat trip downstream.
A wonderful education during the past few days and it really feels as I’m living inside a nature documentary. To say that I’m sad about leaving is an understatement.
Returning to nature and appreciating the Amazon, its inhabitants and incredible exotic species, is a fantastic experience that I will always treasure.
Although only 3 hours, the return boat trip is as memorable as the upstream journey.
Downstream hours fly by, as I say goodbye to hospitable Capuchin monkeys, Capybaras, birds, and the jungle.
Madidi National Park under threat
Although protected since 1995, logging and oil exploitation, and illegal poaching still occur. Talk of the Bolivian government damming the Beni River, is also very real.
Not only will the damming cause loss of barely explored Amazon jungle, but also vast areas of Madidi’s lowlands will be submerged, displacing indigenous groups – see this superb jungle while it exists…
Collecting our packs from storage back at the Hotel Oriental, we return to our pre-booked room – need to wash mud-encrusted jungle clothes.
The hotel is used to travellers staying a couple of days before doing a trek to Madidi, the Pampas, or both, and kindly store luggage free of charge.
A few days exploring Rurrenabaque then it’s on to the Pampas trek in the wetland savannah, in search of the illusive pink river dolphins and the infamous Anaconda snake…