Inner tubes, bamboo and string – river travel the Bolivian way!

4 Oct

Five days – drifting 250 kilometres down river – from Guanay to Rurrenabaque – on a home-made raft – with no engine…I must have got that all wrong. Was there a way such a trip could really be possible? The voice on the other end of the phone took a deep breath and repeated what they’d already explained. The ‘No noise’ jungle rafting experience through Bolivia’s chunk of Amazonas was created for people looking for unparalleled adventure. Six people, a guide and a cook, along with rucksacks, food supplies and camping equipment, would pile on top of a raft no bigger than 5 metres long and 2.5 metres wide and float to their destination using only the natural flow and currents of the river. There would be jungle walks to spot exotic animals and indigenous tribes were never far from the river banks. Home each evening would be under canvas in a rustic camp and to wash ourselves there would always be a crystal clear river or a gushing waterfall nearby. Rendered speechless as my head span with all of this information – all I could muster were the immortal words – “Sign us up!”

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After the assault on our senses that was La Paz, and an adrenaline fuelled day spent biking down the Death Road, we spent a fabulous few days relaxing in the tropical paradise of Coroico. We pushed the boat out and for only 140 Bolivianos (20 USD) per night we had a decent room in a guest house in the centre of town with a gorgeous swimming pool and views to die for.

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We lazed in the sun, dipped in the water to cool off and took a few gentle walks to nearby waterfalls – it really was a sanctuary to re-charge our batteries.

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From Coroico we wanted to travel to Rurrenabaque deep in the Bolivian Amazon basin, but our dilemma was how to get there. We’d heard from other travellers that the only road to the jungle was an arduous 15-20 hour drive on treacherous, unpaved roads where landslides were common and where in places the road is so narrow passing a vehicle coming the other way means your bus has to drive dangerously close to a crumbling edge and 200 metre vertical drop. The only other option was to return to La Paz and take a flight but that was a little pricy. We’d heard rumours that it was possible to travel along the rivers Mapiri and Beni by boat to Rurrenabaque, but no-one in Coroico could confirm this for us, not even tourist information. Resigned to taking the ‘bus of death’ the following morning, we drowned our sorrows at a Gringo-fied watering hole the night before. Whether it was luck or perhaps fate played a hand, my naturally inquisitive nature (some would call it nosy!) caused me to take a closer look at the bar’s notice board which was chock full of flyers and information. Something caught my eye – “Deep Rainforest tour operator – jungle rafting from La Paz to Rurrenabaque – departs every Sunday” – and in one fell swoop our next adventure was forged. We had a restless nights sleep worrying whether a phone call to the tour operator the following morning (a Sunday) would be good enough to secure us a spot on the trip, and if indeed the trip would be running at all. In my best Spanglish I spoke with the La Paz office at 9.05am and within 10 minutes I’d arranged for us to be picked up at 12.00pm from the main square in Coroico.

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We were told that we’d be joining 4 others on the trip and we were naturally a little nervous about what they’d be like – five days trapped on a small raft with people we didn’t get on with would inevitably end in a drowning – throwing them overboard or sacrificing ourselves to the watery depths. We were instantly relieved when in Coroico square at 12.00pm we were met by the smiling faces of Jo from New York and Laurent from France, a couple who, like us, had quit their jobs and were travelling for up to two years to further their true passions in life – food and photography. We instantly hit it off and had lots in common. We laughed at Laurent’s fear that he may be stuck on the raft with a group of fellow Frenchmen and his relief that he would instead be stuck with two ‘Ros Boeufs!’ (translation: Ros Boeufs = the endearing term the French like to give us Brits!)

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A mini-van took us to a crossroads on the main road where we waited for a larger bus travelling from La Paz to Guanay. It was a busy route for buses and we spent a frantic 30 minutes checking bus colours, number plates, destinations and driver’s names (details of which we had for our bus) in an effort not to miss our connection. When our list of criteria finally matched, we knew we’d found our ride. Two more people who were on board the bus from La Paz made up the rest of our group and both were really nice – another Daniel from the UK, who’d been teaching English for 4 years in South Korea and who planned to travel in South America before starting a new placement in Colombia, and Miguel from Israel who was travelling for 10 months after completing his military service. The small section of the road to Rurrenabaque we did take before turning off to Guanay lived up to its fearsome reputation. Numerous landslides scarred the surrounding landscape and the swelteringly hot bus shook us one way and then the next. Our nerves were shot to pieces as the bus performed nail-biting reversing manoeuvres on narrow roads to let other vehicles pass. On several occasions we were so close to the edge we could no longer see the road beneath us, only sheer drops, and one time the bus lurched dramatically when rocks crumbled under the front left tyre and most people on board let out a yelp of pure fear.

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Five hours later and shortly after nightfall, we arrived at the jungle outpost of Guanay and off loaded. We’d been told our guide would be waiting for us but there was no sign of him so we all sat in the middle of town on our backpacks and hoped that we’d eventually be found. We were without a doubt the only Gringos in a 100 kilometre radius and we attracted some interested looks from curious locals – like aliens had just landed in their small town. We’d learnt by now that everything in Bolivia runs in its own time and to get frustrated about it is pointless, so we waited patiently for around an hour until our guide, Ruben, arrived. He was a short, stocky man in his mid-forties with a mop of dark hair and an infectious smile. We knew instantly that Ruben was a decent chap and we liked him immensely. He took us to our accommodation for the evening which was comically named ‘Residential Ritzy’!

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With mould growing from the walls, prison-like beds and freezing cold showers, it was anything but ritzy, but it was adequate for one night. Once we’d settled in, we all went out for a beer and a chicken and chips dinner. We all enjoyed getting to know one another and hearing from Ruben what the next few days held in store for us!

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The following morning we all followed Ruben with our luggage through the town plaza, past the local football pitch…

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and down to the river where we were introduced to Ruben’s favourite cafe for breakfast.

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Proceedings were halted slightly when the heavens opened. We thought we were in trouble when locals started taking photographs and saying that this was the heaviest rain they’d had for many months. So we settled in for another coffee and it wasn’t too long before it dried out again.

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Down on the sandy river bank Ruben had started to construct our raft and called us down to help out. The materials Ruben was using (large inner tubes, long strips of bamboo and string) looked even more flimsy than we imagined and we wondered how it would ever keep us and all of our bags afloat.

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We looked at the sturdy wooden boat with a motorised engine moored next to our partially built raft and we wondered if we’d made a terrible mistake!

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Ruben worked like a trojan and we all played a small part – mainly holding and passing things – and in under 2 hours the raft was complete and ready for launch. Our bags, which would become our seats on the raft, were put into individual grain sacks, and valuables and electronics were placed into a waterproof barrel.

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We were joined at the raft by a stern-faced lady called Leonore who would be our cook on the trip and who we later discovered was Ruben’s latest girlfriend. It really was a struggle to force a smile from Leonore but we would have forgiven her anything as she was a fabulous cook, even with the limited supplies we carried on the raft.

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We all felt a little nervous as we clambered on top of our floating home for the next 5 days. To our amazement we didn’t sink and we stayed completely dry. Before we knew it Ruben was pushing off with his paddle and we found ourselves in the middle of the river. The large amount of rain which had fallen that morning, meant the river had swollen and the raft moved quickly without the need to paddle. In places the increased flow made the water quite choppy – nothing like white water rafting but enough that it was necessary to hold onto our things and the raft.

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The sensation of drifting down the river with no engine and only the sound of water lapping around the raft and the birds in the trees was sensational. Before long, we were all completely relaxed in our surroundings and we adopted reclined positions. To celebrate a successful launch, Jo and Laurent broke out the wine early in the afternoon and we all toasted to a great trip. It was a sign of things to come as our favourite saying became “Beer o’clock” and with 48 cans to drink between us, this would often be proposed morning, noon and night!

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We arrived at our first camp earlier than planned due to the fast flowing river and we unloaded all of our things.

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Camp for the first night was a pretty patch of grass surrounded by coconut tress and banana plantations overlooking the river.

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Before setting up our camp for the first night, Ruben picked some fresh fruit for us all. Miguel, our Israeli contingent, and man of action, decided to try out his tree climbing skills and awkwardly and painfully shimmied his way up the tall coconut tree with rough bark.

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He managed to collect three coconuts and we were all very impressed…that was until Ruben pulled out a long wooden stick with a knife strapped to the end and cut down eight more coconuts with minimal effort! “He’s done that before” we all chuckled. Poor Miguel, not to be outdone, showed off his impressive coconut juggling skills as we all moved away just in case our toes were in danger.

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The fresh coconut milk was really delicious. Ruben used a machete effortlessly to slice the top off a coconut for everyone and when Miguel suggested he would like to have a go, we all shouted “Noooo!”

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Our fellow Brit Daniel had brought with him a bottle of Singhani, a grape based Bolivian spirit and a drink not for the faint hearted.

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However, we cunningly discovered that by pouring a small amount in the top of our coconuts, we had the most delicious Caribbean-like cocktail – who would have thought we’d find such luxury in the jungle!

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We camped each night on our five-day trip and we found a variety of places to lay our heads, all with one thing in common – they were rustically beautiful.

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We camped on sandy beaches right on the river shore, we camped beside cascading waterfalls and we camped on the edge of the jungle.

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Each evening around dusk the surrounding rainforest would erupt with an orchestra of sound – some noises we recognised and others we didn’t dare guess what animal it was coming from.

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The sunsets were breathtaking – the light made the whole landscape come alive as the clouds danced in the sky painted bright orange and pink.

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The evenings were dark with little light pollution, and the stars were some of the brightest we’d ever seen. Even though the evenings were balmy, we built campfires each night with the plentiful wood found everywhere and all sat around chatting and laughing. Toilet facilities were non-existent so it was necessary for everyone to walk in different directions to find ‘natural’ toilets behind large rocks or in the forest. Our favourite and most important piece of information from New Yorker Jo was “Don’t forget to spray your ass!!” and good advice it was too as the mosquitos were rampant. Unfortunately, I didn’t always remember that mantra and one evening Dan counted 97 bites from the backs of my knees to the top of my bum – ouch!

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We washed ourselves in crystal clear pools and bathed in cascading falls that took our breath away. Jo and I felt like movie stars one late afternoon as we soaked in a bubbling stream – all we needed was a glass of champagne in one hand!

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The days which followed were simply incredible. The weather was hot…too hot sometimes…and we sat with our feet dangling in the water to cool off.

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We had a spare tube with us on the raft and with a small section of rope – one end tied to the tube, the other to the raft – Miguel had his own floatation device. He enthusiastically asked who would like to take his seat next but we were all a little concerned that some angry anaconda might view our rear poking through the hole as a target, so politely declined.

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Ruben was a little less subtle at cooling off as his shirt would be thrown to one side and he would perform some kind of acrobatic move throwing himself into the river. On occasion he would stay submerged for some time and we’d grow concerned that we had lost our captain, but moments later he would re-emerge with a cheeky grin on his face.

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Early on in the trip we were amazed to find groups of men panning for gold along the river banks, and in places large areas of forest had been cleared and machinery brought in to speed up the extraction process.

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Further down the river the jungle became lusher and more unspoilt and we were able to spot more birds, caiman, turtles and even a deer. The deeper jungle was also home to nomadic indigenous communities who lived off the land. Small makeshift shelters had been constructed on the river banks often to house large families, and colourful washing hung drying in the sun.

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Kids played on the shore and swam in the river. They were all amazed to see white people floating down the river but their surprise quickly turned to smiles and waves.

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In some places bridges had been constructed across the river to link communities and it reminded us of an Indiana Jones movie.

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For the people here, life on the river is second nature. We saw three strong and handsome young lads sat balanced on floating logs and using smaller carved poles to manoeuver themselves through the water.

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For some distance they followed the raft turning their wooden kayaks this way and that before finally getting bored and turning back. It was like watching an extreme sport and we kept expecting their sponsors, Red Bull, and a TV crew, to appear from the jungle.

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The river ebbed and flowed. In places it was wide and slow and it was necessary to use paddles to maintain momentum. At other times the river narrowed and the raft rushed forward at some speed. We were in very safe hands with Ruben and even when he was relaxing with his hat pulled down over his eyes, we knew he had it all under control. We all agreed that Ruben was one of the nicest natured people we’d met and he was an excellent guide with first-rate survival skills. Out of admiration and for a bit of fun, we christened Ruben ‘El Capitan’, a title he seemed very pleased with.

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Various obstacles such as piles of rocks and trees that had been carried down river occasionally jutted out of the murky water and at a moments notice Ruben would be standing up on the raft and giving orders to paddle in one direction or the other until the danger had passed.

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We become very at home with life on the raft – we talked, we laughed, we sang along to our eclectic music collections, we snoozed, we read and we sat in silence simply enjoying the peace and admiring the scenery. We discovered that Laurent is a photographer with a talent which we think will take him far. Travelling with a bag of photographic equipment which could sink a small ship (but fortunately not ours), he had a fantastic eye for capturing beautiful landscapes in creative and thought-provoking ways. We recommend that you check out his website by clicking this link – Laurent Lhomond Photography

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We made several stops each day to visit small villages, to walk to scenic waterfalls and to search for animals deep in the jungle.

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On our third day we stopped at a plantation brimming with fruit.

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Banana and plantain trees were laden with ripe yellow and green offerings and mango trees bulged.

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We were shocked to find pineapples growing in low-lying spiky bushes that resembled aloe vera plants.

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It looked like someone had just placed them there – trying to fool the gullible tourists – but we saw Ruben use his machete to pick one and we indulged in the sweet and juicy fruit the following morning for breakfast.

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We struck a deal with the farmer and for only a few coins we left with a raft full of delicious goodies for the next few days. Just before re-boarding the raft Ruben discovered a large sack full of cacao (chocolate nut to you and I) and his eyes lit up. This was Ruben’s favourite jungle dessert and he was keen for us all to sample some, so, bargaining that the owner wouldn’t miss just one when his bag was so full, Ruben helped himself and we made a sharp exit. The fruit from the cacao was slightly slimy but very sweet. We learned that the hard nut in the middle is where the bitter raw chocolate is extracted from. Ruben grabbed handfuls and slurped as he sucked them but our British pallets weren’t quite so keen, despite our numerous attempts.

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As we drifted down the river, scarlet Macaws screeched and squawked overhead discarding half eaten fruit as they took flight. We laughed when we heard the repeated wolf whistle from the Piha bird, ‘the builders’ of the jungle. We copied their call and waited for their response which was always louder and more impressive. Ruben had spent most of his life on the river and could mimic the sound of nearly every jungle animal perfectly – from parrots to big cats, and frogs to monkeys.

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On one of our many jungle walks, Ruben brought the group to a halt and we stood in silence just listening. All of a sudden Ruben motioned for us to crouch down and we could hear branches breaking in the tree tops and the repeated grunts of a group of primates.

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Our hearts were racing as we held our cameras poised. Ruben, still standing and looking skyward, shaped his mouth into an ‘O’ and slapped his cheek forcefully, which to our amazement, made an identical call to the monkeys. Initially they were fooled and moved towards us but eventually they lost interest and despite our efforts to follow on foot, they out swung us, but the chase was exciting.

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We ate extremely well on the trip and with lots of sitting around soaking up the views, we even managed to gain a few pounds. Leonore was a dab hand in the kitchen and we were thrilled that fresh vegetables, herbs and spices were included in our various meals. One morning she even made a batter, fried up donuts and doused them in sugar – what a woman!

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One of our most memorable meals was one of the simplest and caught straight from the river just a few hours earlier – a 15 pound catfish. Without us knowing, Ruben had baited a hook on a long hand reel and cast off from the shore early one morning where we had camped the previous night. As I was packing away my things, Ruben called me over to where he stood and placed the reel in my hands. Immediately I felt a heavy weight pulling at the other end and proceeded to have a five-minute tug of war with this giant fish.

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Later that day we couldn’t believe our eyes when Ruben took out the stove, the gas and a pan full of oil ON THE RAFT and proceeded to cook the catfish there and then despite the health and safety implications that he may set the wooden raft on fire. The fried fish was really meaty like sea bass or lobster and full of flavour. When Ruben asked who wanted seconds, we all put our hands up.

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Our last two full days were spent drifting through the protected Madidi National Park. The park is recognised as being one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world and covers a huge area from 6,000 metre Andean glaciers to lush and, in places, impenetrable rainforest where we found ourselves. The beginning of the park was marked by a section of the river Ruben called ‘The Canyon’ where the wide, calm flow of the water would be squeezed into a narrow channel with sheer cliff faces either side. Long before our approach started Ruben handed out the paddles and briefed us on the turbulent waters which lay ahead. As we turned a meandering bend we caught our first sight of the canyon’s high walls up ahead and the churning white-froth of water at its mouth that we’d have to pass through. Ruben was one of the most laid back guys we’d ever met but on our approach his eyes were fixed and his face serious. “Paddle left, paddle right, paddle harder” were his only commands.

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We hit the white water straight on. The raft rocked from side to side and a small tsunami swept from front to back causing everyone to stop paddling for a few seconds to secure their stuff. We were very conscious of the river narrowing and the rocks protruding from the base of the canyon walls and determined paddling quickly resumed.

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Ruben was on his feet on the raft – his legs were wide and knees bent for stability and the muscles in his arms and back rippled with effort. After a turbulent entrance, the water in the canyon started to slow and became calmer. Ruben took up a relaxed stance once again and grinned at us all to show that he was pleased.

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Despite being slightly wet, we were all in one piece and we let out a team ‘Whoop’ which echoed around the high stone walls. The canyon was incredibly beautiful. Moss, vines and ferns hung down from the walls and a waterfall trickled through a smooth crease in the rocks.

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Ruben pointed out holes in the walls which were home to dozens of giant Macaws. With binoculars we could see the brightly coloured birds up close nestled in holes as they preened their feathers and tended to nests.

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Past the canyon the rainforest was pristine and seemed lusher than before. Rather than a flat expanse of trees we were surrounded by rolling hills and mountains covered in thick undergrowth.

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The distinctive bullet-hole mountain which marks a boundary to Madidi National Park dominated the skyline and added to the magical feeling of the area. Even the wildlife was richer inside the park and the ‘No noise’ experience that we’d been promised on this trip became impossible with the circus of animals making themselves heard…not that we were complaining.

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On our last day, as we got closer to Rurrenabaque, we started to see signs of civilisation – long boats with noisy engines ferried locals between small villages. The tables were turned as these passengers took out cameras and mobile phones to take pictures of us – the crazy white folk. We struck our best poses!

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We also saw boats taking tourists from Rurrenabaque to jungle lodges in Madidi Park for their own small slice of rainforest experience.

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The small town of Rurrenabaque is home to only 15,000 people but after 5 days in the wilderness it looked like a thriving metropolis. It is Bolivia’s most beautiful lowland settlement and we were instantly struck with the brightly coloured hammocks strung in neatly trimmed, green lawns, the big exotic flowers creeping up the walls of wooden houses and the tidy waterfront filled with rustic, open fronted restaurants. It felt very strange pulling up to a landing point alongside larger passenger and cargo boats. Groups of locals gathered on the river bank to observe our landing and disembarkation – no doubt secretly hoping one of the Gringos would fall in.

Once safely back on dry land with our baggage in tow, we arranged to meet up with everyone later that evening for dinner and drinks. We had such a great time, we did it all again the following night. We indulged in family sized pizzas with the works, plates full of chips and creamy chocolate desserts with ice cream. We partied hard, warming up with cervezas and moving onto cocktails. Ruben, who had been sober throughout the trip, did indeed like a tipple and we topped up his glass as often as we could.

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Leonore, who only drank coke, looked gutted to be spending yet another night with the Gringos rather than getting Ruben all to herself but she dutifully followed us around. Our bar crawls took us all over town from Westernised bars, to local drinking dens, to a late night karaoke club.

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Scowls came our way in one local haunt when Laurent and Dan monopolised the Juke-box and replaced their favourite style of music (Cumbia) for hard rock. And in the karaoke bar, locals who still had full drinks, started to leave when we belted out Guns N’ Rose’s ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’.

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Before we knew it, our time was up in Rurrenabaque. We decided to splurge on a flight back to La Paz and found a reasonably priced one (60 USD) with Amazonas. The airport in Rurrenabaque, like most things here, was a little on the rustic side! It’s not often that it takes 30 seconds to check in and the walk to the plane from the terminal is even shorter.

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Pleasingly, airport refreshments consisted of a shack selling cans of cold beer outside the front door so we made good use of the excellent facilities!

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The most wonderful thing about taking a flight out of Rurrenabaque were the views – vast swathes of untouched, pristine rainforest lay below us and stretched as far as the eye could see, where snaking rivers were the only practical, and now for us the most enjoyable, way to travel.

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8 Responses to “Inner tubes, bamboo and string – river travel the Bolivian way!”

  1. prospectorjack October 6, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Looks like quite the adventure.

    • latinchattin October 8, 2013 at 3:44 am #

      Thanks Prospector Jack! Glad you enjoyed the post. We really had a wild and wonderful time on the river!

  2. Joanna Marracelli October 8, 2013 at 3:08 am #

    Love, Love, Love it guys!!!! What details! What memories! Thanks for allowing me to relive a great part of this trip. Laurent cracked up with terming the Brits ‘roast beef’. I asked him why and he said its because they eat shitty meat!!! Freaking French. But at the same token, he was genuinely touched that you like his photos and posted the link! Best to you guys & hope to see you sometime again soon!

    • latinchattin October 8, 2013 at 3:58 am #

      What a trip! One of the highlights of our Latin America adventure so far and it was made even better that we could share it with you guys. We wondered if Ros Beoufs was because of the royal Beefeaters in London? But we like Laurent’s explanation more! He-he! Safe travels xx

  3. Zoe October 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Found your blog again! This looks amazing – such a brilliant way to get to Rurrenabaque. We went the cheat’s way… on the plane! xxx

    • latinchattin October 10, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

      River travel certainly beats the Bolivian buses – even if the Amazonian mosquitos are the size of small birds! x

  4. Michelle August 28, 2016 at 2:05 am #

    I just wanted to thank you for such a thoughtful, well written account of your rafting adventure. This blog prompted my husband and I to book this exact trip in June of this year. After traveling 240kms on the raft we aptly named ‘el Magico’, I can categorically say it was one of the best experiences we had in South America. And it’s wonderful coming back to read this now that we’ve done it as I was reminded of the trip again. It’s such an accurate account, I feel like I could have written this! It’s funny because when we got back home, everyone wanted to know about ‘that raft!’ They’ve asked “how did you find the trip? Weren’t you scared? What were you thinking when you first saw it? Did you get wet? What about your bags? Why didn’t you just go on a boat with an engine?” … I feel like I should just send them to your blog for those answers, because our sentiments are identical 🙂 Thanks again! (ps. We, too, adored Rubén, naming him ‘Rubén del Rio’)

    • latinchattin September 3, 2016 at 12:06 am #

      Thank you for such a wonderful comment. Dan and I often look back on our accounts of adventures with big cheesy smiles as the memories come flooding back. We’re so pleased you and your husband were inspired to follow in our footsteps and you had such a wonderful time. There aren’t many people who can say they drifted 240km’s down an Amazonian river on a home made raft! And I’m pleased to hear Ruben is still going strong – what a fantastic man! :o)

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