Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Pampas (Plains) of the Bolivian Amazon – Cara

Our trip to the Amazon began with a loud and bumpy military flight to the town of Rurrenabaque, a change in altitude of -3,840m. Although it is unusual to have difficulty breathing when descending in altitude, it took a few hours for us to catch our breath from the change in humidity that hit us upon landing. We signed up for a tour to begin the following day with an Aussie couple we met on the flight and then checked into the cheapest hostel. Our Pampas tour began at 8:30 as the 8 of us (another Aussie couple and a French couple) piled into a van with Mama Julia, our cook, Domingo, our guide, and a driver. We rode for about 3 hours, stopping twice to help other tour groups broken down on the side of the road and once for lunch.
When we arrived at the Tuichi River we were greeted with some playful river dolphins which provided some entertainment while we loaded the motored canoe. The boat cruised upstream for 3 hours where we spotted toucans, macaws, parrots, alligators, monkeys, and capybaras (the largest rodent in the world which resembles a 100lb hamster!).

We arrived at camp around 5pm and had dinner before heading out on a night cruise with our flashlights to spot the red eyes of the alligators. It was pretty eerie to see the red eyes lurking just above the water’s surface. On the way back to camp we spooked a school of fish causing 4 of them to jump into our boat (luckily they weren’t piranhas) which caused some excitement. After a sprinkle of a shower we retired to our dorm beds clad with mosquito nets. The next morning we were woken by the throaty call of a family of howler monkeys that camped in the canopy above. After a first rate breakfast we geared up in our hiking garb and rubber boots for a hike into the grasslands and marshes in search of snakes.
We had only been walking for about 20 minutes with Domingo nearly stepped on an American cobra hanging out on the wet earth. Using his walking stick, he stirred up the snake into a coil then used the bifurcated end to pin down the neck in order to grab its head.

Unfortunately for the cobra, Domingo’s hand position at the base of its jaw caused a reflexive regurgitation of the frog it had just eaten and it slipped out of its mouth in one slimy piece. We continued through the grasslands into a forest where we came across our 2nd snake, an anaconda, in the base of a tree. Domingo pulled him out for us to see and as he told us about how anacondas wrap themselves around their prey to asphyxiate them, the snake wrapped itself around Domingo’s hand and wrist and excreted a powerfully pundgent poo (thank John for that one) as a defense mechanism.
When Domingo let him down he slithered between his legs and gracefully glided up the nearest tree. Continuing on we came across another anaconda in a hole which would have been a little too difficult to get out so we left him undisturbed. As we came out of the wooded area we saw a green mamba coming out of a hole in the ground. Despite its small size, the green mamba is the deadliest snake in this region. At the risk of sounding like the late Steve Erwin, “she’s-a-beauty”. As we watched it, it unbelievably escaped our gazes for a few seconds after which we found it climbing along a branch of a small nearby tree.

We couldn’t believe how fast and sly it was (which is a little scary). John got a little too close for my comfort to take some photos as Domingo told us that one bite could kill a human. As we walked away, I asked Domingo if he had any antivenin and he said no because they can’t maintain the antivenin here. If one of us were to get bitten he would put on a tourniquet, lance the area with a knife to bleed out the venom, cover the area with some sort of jungle leaf, then get us back to town (6hrs away) for the antivenin. Luckily we didn’t have to test out this process. We continued into a really swampy area where the water was deep and the earth beneath was so soft that we all sunk below the level of our rubber boots and took turns getting stuck and soaked. As we rounded the lake, we saw in the distance a stork eating an anaconda. As we headed back to camp we crossed the anaconda in the tree from earlier and came across a huge American cobra lying across our path. As we neared, we spooked it into a hole but we could see him move beneath the earth through a series of tunnels. We returned to camp stinky but happy about what we had seen. Following Domingo’s lead, we jumped into the river to bathe (staying close to shore for fear of the alligators). After lunch we took the canoe to a deep place in the river where the dolphins like to play so that we could swim with them. Domingo ensured us that the dolphins would protect us from the alligators as they do their young by circling around us.

We must have trusted him because despite an alligator lurking less than 50m away, we all got in. I didn’t stay out long because the current was strong and I’m not a strong swimmer but John stayed out for a long time and the dolphins got very close to him. In fact, he accidentally kicked one a few times just treading water. It started to thunder and lightning so we made our way back to camp in time to change and take the canoe to the sunset bar. After dinner we watched a group of howler monkeys ‘monkey around’ in the trees then headed to bed. What a day! The following morning we forewent our 5am sunrise excursion due to rain (we were all a little relieved about it actually). When we got up for breakfast, I realized that the backs of my thighs, under my shorts, were completely covered in bites which were welted and itchy. How did they get there? Ironically, the areas I did have exposed were free of bites (thanks to DEET). Annette fixed me up with some calamine lotion and antihistamines which helped tremendously.We watched the dolphins play as we waited for the rain to stop and I took a nap until we were called for lunch. As we were eating, Domingo surprised us with dolphin necklaces which he secretly carved and made in the morning while we were distracted by the rain. The rain didn’t stop in time for us to go fishing for piranhas but we were all so satisfied with what we did do that no one put up a fuss. Finally the rain stopped and we took the opportunity to make the trip back to town on which we saw ‘heaps’ (as the Aussies say) of wildlife. The road back to Rurrenabaque was muddy and bumpy. To finish off our wildlife experience, we saw a three-toed sloth in a tree on the way back. What an amazing trip!

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