Experiencing the Amazon at a Bolivian eco-lodge was a humble reminder of the beauty and fragility of nature.
After navigating frenetic La Paz and surviving the harrowing journey on the Death Road, we couldn’t wait to get off the grid. We arranged our Amazon tour through Madidi Travel, a local company that supports conservation through sustainable tourism. Founder Rosa Maria Ruiz, a local activist and ecologist, helped establish Madidi National Park (1995) which remains one of the largest protected areas in the world.
Madidi National Park is also home to Serere Reserve, a 4000-hectare private nature reserve located within the Madidi Mosaic. This area has the earth’s greatest biodiversity with more than 300 species of wild animals including an array of birds, monkeys, wild cats, caimans and sloths. Since opening in 2004, Serere has maintained a stable ecosystem of thriving flora and fauna – a testament to the dedicated efforts of Ruiz and her team.
After a restful night in Rurrenabaque (or “Rurre” as locals call it), our adventure into the Amazon began.
At the foothills of the Andes mountains, we boarded a long, rustic wooden boat. Thankfully, the boat was equipped with a cover to shade us from the sun’s unrelenting heat. Our guide, Domingo, a commanding man in his early 40s greeted us with a warm smile. The sparkle in his dark brown eyes made him seem much younger. We sat back and watched the landscape unfold during our three-hour trip along the Beni River. As we puttered along, Domingo distributed simple box lunches for us to enjoy.
Along the way, we encountered a couple in a boat with their two small children. They were the only other people we’d seen on the river – apparently representing the last of the region’s Bolivian nomads. Domingo slowed the boat and from a cage in the water, the couple pulled out a massive fish to present to him. He held it up proudly (it would later become our dinner.)
Eventually, we reached the Varzea floodplain at the entrance of the Amazon.
We disembarked and made the half hour trek through the jungle to reach the Casa Grande, the main communal house of Serere. The dwelling looked straight out of Robinson Crusoe. Under a lush canopy of trees, the massive, multi-level house blended in seamlessly with the surroundings. This is where we enjoyed delicious family-style meals and sunset happy hours overlooking Lake San Fernando.
Our private cabin, a 10-minute walk away, proved just as magical. A huge space featuring whimsical jungle art and screened-in walls that made it feel as if we were sleeping outdoors. While settling in, we heard a sudden, guttural noise that startled us – it sounded very close. Looking out from the safety of our homestead, we watched as a pack of grunting wild boars trotted by. Amazing that only a thin mesh screen separated us.
Our proximity to nature’s unpredictable behavior wasn’t limited just to animals. That evening, we woke to a massive storm outside. The sky unleashed thunder so loud, we could barely hear one another speak. Rain pounded down on the roof and the wind howled around us. There was only one way to describe how we felt: infinitely small.
The morning greeted us with sunny skies and the peaceful sound of insects buzzing and birds chirping.
It’s like the previous night hadn’t happened. The dark, foreboding jungle had returned to the peaceful refuge we first encountered. Fortunately, it remained that way during our entire stay. We noticed a little frog in our room – had he been there the whole night? Perhaps he’d been as terrified as us (probably not.)
With Domingo as our guide, our daily activities for our week in the Amazon coincided with the rhythm of the animals. In the mornings, we’d trek through the dense jungle in search of howler monkeys. We’d follow their distinct haunting scream echoing through the floodplain. Domingo would educate us on various flora and fauna and dare us with silly requests like licking termites off a tree. Who would do that? Well, Brian actually did.
In the afternoons, he’d take us fishing at different watering holes. Using a surprisingly effective wooden paddle and some string, we caught catfish and in one particular spot, a whole slew of piranhas. Over a campfire, we’d heat up meat and potatoes for our lunch, then eat fresh fruit from nearby trees that Domingo climbed up and picked himself.
Around sunset one evening, we went canoeing and kept an eye out for nocturnal creatures along the lake shore. While fun to see the crazy capybara, the world’s largest living rodent, we were less enthusiastic about the nearby caimen lying in wait. Domingo pointed out their yellow watchful eyes, floating just above the water’s surface. Like the earlier storm, we felt like we were at the mercy of nature.
And yet, despite the efforts of Madidi, much of the wildlife is still at risk.
According to the Madidi Travel, almost 70 species are in critical condition and in danger of extinction due to illegal hunting, deforestation, environmental pollution and lack of conservation laws. Bolivia is one of 15 countries with the greatest biological wealth in the world with a third of the country residing in the Amazon basin. As intimidating as the jungle can be, it was sobering to realize its vulnerability.
On our last morning, we sat outside while Domingo taught us how to make jewelry from large tree seeds. We smoothed their rough surfaces down with sandpaper, creating naturally artistic, abstract shapes. We strung them on black thread with beads and voilà, instant jungle chic.
After an impromptu celebration of one of the staff’s birthdays (complete with cake), it was time to say goodbye to our Amazon retreat. Rosa Marie, with a spider monkey clinging to her, personally thanked us for spending time at Serere. While nothing could match the wonder of this special place firsthand, knowing that our money went directly to its conservation was probably the next best thing.
And with that, we made the trek back to Beni River and soon, re-entered civilization.