After a couple of days researching and several emails back and forth we decided to go to the Chalalan ecolodge in the Madidi national park. The Madidi national park is about 450km north of La Paz, but the road from the capital down into the Bolivian Amazon is notoriously treacherous, worse than the death roads, so we decided to fly. The flight took us over the Andes, with scenic views of Lake Titicaca and down into the jungle. As we flew in we could see huge meandering rivers and trees as far as the eye could see. We landed at a tiny airport in the town of Rurrenabaque. There were pigs and horses roaming all over the runway and the terminal building was literally a shack. We were met at the airport by our guide, Sandro, who took us to the office in town where we were told about the plan for the following day. We then checked into our hostel and headed out to a jungle themed bar for a couple of happy-hour cocktails.
The following morning we woke early. We met Sandro at 7.30am and walked down to the river, where we boarded a very thin motorised canoe for the journey to the lodge. Chalalan was about 6 hours up river from Rurrenabaque. On the way we saw capybaras, red & green macaws, herons, black vultures and red howler monkeys from the boat. When we reached the area near the lodge, we were met on the river bank by some of the workers at the lodge, who then wheel-barrowed our bags the 2km walk to the lodge through the jungle while we walked. On the way we saw Red Amazon squirrels, Brown Capuchin monkeys and Bolivian squirrel monkeys.
The lodge itself is run entirely by a local jungle community. The lodge was set up about 15 years ago as a joint venture between the indigenous people in the area and Conservation International, an American conservation foundation. At the time, hunting and logging was having a very detrimental effect on the rainforest and wildlife. Both parties saw the idea of an ecolodge as an opportunity to protect the forest, at the same time as providing an income for the indigenous community. Conservation International provided the initial funding and the community provided all the labour. The foundation also taught the community how to run the ecolodge, and in 2001 the foundation handed complete control of the lodge over to the community. It also turned out that our guide, Sandro, was something of a local celebrity - he originally worked as a guide at the lodge but had since gone on to be the lead guide at Bird Bolivia, and had also been the guide for National Geographic magazine, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides when they visited Madidi. Luckily for us, he had a free month, and had decided to return to Chalalan the exact day we arrived, so we had an amazing and incredibly knowledgable guide in all things jungle for our stay.
After a quick lunch at the lodge we set out on an afternoon walk. The walk took us down by the edge of the lake at first before moving deeper into the forest. About two minutes into the walk we stopped at an inlet from the lake where we saw a black caiman. The only bit of it that was visible was its head but we still thought it was very cool. We also saw a handful of long-nose bats hanging from a branch that was dangling over the water. As we moved further into the forest Sandro heard monkeys (we couldn't hear anything) and asked if we'd like to see them. Of course we said yes, so he darted off the trail into the trees. We followed behind as quickly as we could, but the whole thing seemed a bit ridiculous. After about 50m of fighting our way through the bushes however, we found the monkeys. We couldn't believe it! We spent a while watching the monkeys playing in the trees above us. They seemed incredibly comfortable with us being there and carried on with what they were doing - the brown capuchin monkeys were eating fruit and dropping nuts out of the trees (it seemed like they were trying to drop them on our heads) and the Bolivian squirrel monkeys were snapping off branches, looking for bugs living inside the branches to eat. It was a great start!
That evening after our three course dinner, Sandro asked if we wanted to go on a night walk through the forest. We agreed, although I was quite nervous. Before we set off however Sandro walked us round the different buildings at the lodge. We couldn't understand why at first, but then he pointed out an Amazonian tree boa constrictor, living in roof of one of the buildings and a handful of tarantulas living in the rooves of the other buildings. Lets just say I wasn't looking forward to going to sleep in those same buildings as much as I had been earlier in the day! Nevertheless we set off into the forest in search of all manner of noctural wildlife. It felt very strange and quite claustrophobic being in the jungle at night but as we walked further I gradually got used to it and started to enjoy it. We spotted another tarantula half inside its hole. As we approached it scurried inside, but lying just outside the hole, we were able to see the remnants of its dinner - some crickets, a beetle and some flies. As we walked through the jungle, lit only by our headtorches we also saw a hunter spider sitting proudly in the middle of its web which spanned the path. I thought it was absolutely massive, but Anna wasn't that bothered...apparently spiders are far bigger back in Australia. A couple of minutes later, I got a shock when I bumped into a lizard. We asked Sandro what it was and unbelievably he didn't know what it was, so we took lots of photos of it to examine later. The next morning, Sandro had a look through his animal encyclopedia and thought it was similar to one of the lizards in there but, I didnt think it looked that similar and the other guides all seemed to have different opinions, so who knows, I might have found a new species of lizard... I quite like the idea that I found a new lizard. It also presents the possibility that I could name it. This is particularly interesting because I could name it anything I wanted. Indeed a Las Vegas casino recently bought the rights to name a newly discovered species of monkey, and that species is now called the GoldenPalace.com monkey or Callicebus aureipalati! After a bit more walking through the bushes, Sandro led us back onto the trail and a few minutes later we were back at the lodge. I gave our bungalow a thorough inspection for spiders, snakes and the like but found nothing, so after a cold shower we went to sleep under our mosquito nets, in our little hut, in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. It felt quite surreal but very special nonetheless.
The following morning after an early breakfast we set out on a long walk to the salt lick. Animals come from all around to visit the salty clay pit (monkeys eat the mud because it neutralises the poison in some of the plants they eat, pigs bathe in it, even jaguars visit the salt lick). Unfortunately no sooner had we set off, than it started to rain. This wasn't good news because the animals do not tend to move around in the rain, instead preferring to take shelter in the trees. The sound of the rain on the leaves also makes it much more difficult to hear the animals. As a result we did not see many animals during the first part of the walk. We did however see an olive whipsnake in a puddle on the forest floor, a group of red-spotted poison-dart frogs and a couple of screaming pia birds. As the morning wore on, the rain began to stop and we were able to spot more birds in the trees. We saw several pairs of red and green macaws, sitting right at the top of canopy and were lucky enough to see an enormous white breasted toucan. Just before lunch Sandro heard some black spider monkeys, the biggest, fastest and rarest of all the monkeys in jungle. After a mad dash through the undergrowth, we saw a family of five spider monkeys moving through the trees. They were realy big, much bigger than I'd expected and moved very quickly through the trees. Sandro seemed very happy, apparently the black spider monkeys are still very afraid of humans (before the national park was formed, humans used to hunt all the monkeys), so we were very lucky to see them. After a few high-fives we carried on along the trail. About five minutes later Sandro thought he heard spider monkeys again. Once again we set off through the undergrowth, stopping at the base of a large tree. Sandro called out to the monkeys, and heard a response back. There was a baby black spider monkey sitting in the tree right above us. Sandro thought it was strange that a baby monkey was sitting in the tree on its own, its parents must have abandoned it and would probably be coming back soon. We waited patiently and then a couple of minutes later, just as Sandro had suggested, two adult spider monkeys came back for the baby. It was amazing, one of the monkeys swung through the trees right in front of us. Sandro looked thrilled, it was pretty cool! We had catfish for our packed lunch in the forest, before continuing to the salt lick. Unfortunately when we got to the salt lick there were no animals there. From the tracks in the mud we could see a group of peccaries had been there about an hour earlier, but sadly no more animals arrived while we were waiting. We walked the last part of the trail and were met at the end by our boat, that took us back down the river to the lodge. On the way back the captain stopped at a beach to pick up two fish he had caught while he was waiting for us. He found one of the fish half eaten. There were Jaguar prints all around it. Presumably it had been scared off by the sound of the boat's engine. We couldn't believe how close we'd come to seeing a jaguar! Nethertheless it was kind of cool to know we shared our dinner with one!
The following morning was very wet so our plans for the day were pushed back a bit. When the rain started to ease, we set off across the lake in a canoe. When we reached the other side we began our walk to the river. The plan was to go fishing. I had never been fishing before so I was incredibly excited! On the way across the lake we had spotted a couple of yellow spotted river turtles, but our day walk was about to get much more interesting. As we walked through the forest Sandro heard a group of white-lipped peccaries (jungle pigs). As we approached we could smell them. When they get scared or feel threatened they give off a disgusting odour in a similar way to skunks. I think we must have spooked them because we pretty much walked right into their group. With a few loud squeeks they burst through the bushes and away from us. We found this quite exciting but our excitement soon turned to anxiousness when Sandro told us the pigs had split and were now circling us. Now this might not sound like a big deal - being circled by a group of pigs, but white-lipped peccaries are known to be very aggressive when threatened and have killed people before. Sandro himself had been chased all through the forest to the river by a group before, so we were pretty nervous. Sandro's only advice was to climb a tree if we needed to. Looking round at the trees, I wasn't very optimistic! After a brief moment to listen to the pigs, we had to run back along the path to escape.
We carried along another trail until we came to the river. Amazingly we spotted a family of giant river otters playing in the water near the far bank. These animals are incredibly rare, Sandro hadn't seen one for three years, while foreigners will pay thousands of dollars for the chance to see one. To me they just looked a bit like seals but Sandro was exstatic and asked us to take some photos so he could show his friends. Once the otters had swam off downstream, we set about finding a suitable spot to fish. The river water was particularly high and fast moving that day so, we spent about half an hour hacking our way through shrubs and bushes to find a better stop downstream. We eventually found a nice sheltered spot downstream but we weren't very lucky. I successfully caught a number of branches, on of which snapped my line, Anna got bitten alive my mosquitos and it started to rain, so we packed up our stuff and headed back. Sandro had promised me that I could go fishing again later that afternoon, so I was ok. On the walk back we saw lots of birds: a forest falcon, an amazonian kingfisher, a few waksins (Sandro referred to them as smelly, heavy, noisy birds, because they produe a disgusting odour as a form of protection, they're so fat that they can barely fly, and they make a tremendous racket!), another toucan and an anhinga. Our trail was also blocked by a poisonous fer-de-lance snake, so we spent a bit of time watching him, before, very carefully stepping around him.
Later the same afternoon, we went fishing again. This time we just took a canoe out onto the lake, and tried our luck. The lake is home to a number of piranas and large catfish, so there was a possibility that we might catch something. After about 15 minutes of sitting in the canoe, I felt a strong tug on my line. I wasn't really sure what to do, Sandro had said something about pulling it hard towards you, but I just gradually wound in my rope. As it got nearer the boat, I could see that unlike in the morning, I had a fish on my hook, so I excitedly pulled it in. As I pulled it out of the water, Sandro told me it was a yellow-bellied pirana. It was quite big! I couldn't believe it, the first fish I had ever caught was a pirana. Sandro also caught a pirana but unfortunately Anna didn't catch anything before it started to rain again and we had to head back to the lodge. That night we had piranha for dinner!
Our final full day at the lodge followed a similar format to previous days. We went on a long walk in the morning, in the hope of finding a GoldenPalace.com monkey but we didnt have much luck. We saw lots of bird: a red throated caracara, a collard trogon, a brown capped flycatcher, a red necked woodpecker, a round-tailed manakee and a new tropic cormoran. During our walk we also heard the call of an animal that Sandro had never heard before. He told us to wait on the path while he dived off into the bushes to try and find it. No sooner had he left us on the trail, than we heard pigs coming towards us. We were not sure what to do, so we tried to climb a tree. Luckily the pigs never got to us and Sandro found it very funny, when he got back to find us clambering up a tree!
That afternoon, we went across the lake to a lookout platform built into the trees, at the top of the canopy. The view was amazing, you could see the lodge, the lake, all the forest around it and as far as the mountains that form the boundary of national park in the distance. We sat there and took photos, with Sandro pointing out all sorts of different birds. Interestingly, Sandro spotted some migrant birds that had travelled all the way down from Canada, just like us! We then went back down and paddled the canoe all around the outside of the lake and watched the monkeys playing in the trees overhanging the lake. That night we were meant to take a canoe out onto the lake to look for caimens but once again the weather transpired against us. Sandro had already gone off to bed, when I went for a walk down to the pontoon. I saw two big eyes staring back at me from the undergrowth. I moved from side to side to check it wasn't just a reflection of the light, but the red dots didn't move. I ran back and told the others and one of the other guides came down to have a look. We all jumped into a boat to have a look along the water's edge. We saw the caimen and one other, before we paddled back the pontoon.
On our last morning we packed up our stuff before heading out for a short walk. We had another pig incident, but we also got to see an enitre group of 200 or so pigs walk right across the path in front of us which was amazing! On the walk back to the lodge we also spotted a group of red howler monkeys in the trees, there were 3 or 4 adults and then a baby sitting on one of the adults back. They just sat there and watched us as we watched them. It was very cool! After an early lunch we walked back to the river to catch our boat back to Rurrenabaque. The journey back was much faster than the journey to the lodge because it was downstream. On the way back we spotted a huge spectacled caimen lying on the river bank, to wood storks, a group of yellow and blue macaws, some amazon kingfishers and three turkey vultures. We also picked up a polish photographer and his group that were finishing their expedition. He was the one who discovered the goldenpalace.com monkey! It was a perfect end to an amazing few days!
The next day we were meant to fly back to La Paz. We arrived at the flight office and everything seemed ok. The first flight of the day had taken off, albeit slightly delayed, and we were able to move onto an earlier flight so we were next to go. They took us out to the airport where we waited an hour or so before being told that we could not fly because of the weather. It turned out that the planes that flew to Rurrenabaque did not have sufficient GPS to land using it, and had to land by sight instead. This posed a problem because Rurrenabque lay in a valley in the rainforest and there seemed to be an everpresent layer of clouds only a couple of hundred metres off the ground. We were sent back to the office, where we were told to come back in an hour (as it turned out this was the airline's favourite tactic for dealing with customers when they had no idea what was going on, particularly when there was also a language barrier). After lunch we returned to the office and were bussed out to the airport again with a group of other passengers for the next flight. We waited there for about 3 hours with no updates or information before being told that we would not fly that day. We were assured though that we would be on the first flight whenever it took off! We were told to report to the office the following morning at 7.45am. That night we went out for a lovely meal at a steak restaurant.
The following morning it was absolutely pouring with rain. There was absolutely no chance we were flying when they had told us we would be, so we popped in at the office at about 7.30am on the way back from breakfast to ask what time we should come back. We were told to come back at 7.45am as before. We argued that this was silly, but they were insistent. "Come back at 7.45am!". So we came back 10 minutes later with all our bags, to be told to come back at 9am. Why they couldn't have told us that 10mins earlier I do not know. At 9am we were then bussed out to the airport for the third time. We waited there for 3 hours, when we asked the airport staff (not the airline) why we were there, they told that they did not know because there was no chance we could fly. Eventually with no answer to our questions the airline staff agreed to drive us back to town. We were then told the standard "Come back in an hour", so we went for lunch. When we got back to the office we found them loading up another flight into the bus to the airport. We asked what was going on and were told to get on the bus too. We all got to the airport and were told that the planes had taken off from La Paz and that we would be flying. We thought this was great news. Weirdly though, when the planes landed our names were not read out. It transpired that they had decided to change our plane and instead of flyng us to La Paz it would be flying another group of people to Trinidad and then would come back to fly us to La Paz. Meanwhile, the next 3 flights after ours to La Paz had all been put together onto a larger plane and were to be flown to La Paz then. We couldn't believe it, they'd promised us that we would be the first flight, and now everyone else apart from us, was flying. They refused to move us onto the first flight, (it is worth noting that they had moved all the Bolivians from our flight onto the other flight), and the plane took off without us. After much yelling and frustration on our side, they assured us that the other plane would return for us. We pointed out that the weather was getting worse by the minute, but they assured us, we would fly. We waited and waited in the rain, by which time we were absolutely livid! Then when we were ready to go back to town, we were told that our plane would fly and that it was on its way. They walked us down the runway and amazingly our plane landed. However as we excitingly stood there knowing we would leave, we were then told it had landed 2 minutes too late and that we could not fly tonight. Absolutely unbelieavable, so we went back to town, back to the hostel and were told to come back at 5.30am the next day. The following morning our plane took off an flew us the 30mins back to La Paz. 3 days waiting around for a 30 minute flight! Crazy!!!!
ox box lake on the flight over the jungle
Welcome to the jungle
Our boat to Chalalan
Red spotted poison dart frog
Sandro doing his thing
Fishing in the rain
First fish ever... Piranha
Piranha for dinner!
Bolivian squirrel monkey
Red Howler monkeys
Swimming in piranha waters
Sandro and Christian
Chalalan Lake and Madidi National Park
Not happy amaszonas
Finally getting on the plane