Set on the banks of the Río Beni some 430km by road north of La Paz, the small town of RURRENABAQUE has emerged in recent years as the most popular ecotourism destination in the Bolivian Amazon, and indeed one of the most popular tourist destinations in the whole country, with some thirty thousand visitors annually. If you’ve just arrived from the hassle and pollution of La Paz its appeal won’t be long in beguiling you, as you’re whisked from the timber-roofed airport on a motorbike with the wind in your hair, to be dropped off among some of the friendliest, most laidback people in the Beni. Picturesquely located on a broad sweep of the Río Beni, between the last forest-covered foothills of the Andes and the great lowland plains, Rurrenabaque – or “Rurre”, as it’s known to its residents – is close to some of the best-preserved and most accessible wilderness areas in the region, including the spectacular rainforests of Parque Nacional Madidi and the Reserva de Biosfera y Territorio Indígena Pilon Lajas, as well as the wildlife-rich pampas along the Río Yacuma. All of these are easily visited with one of Rurrenabaque’s staggering number of tour agencies. Though there’s not a lot to see or do in the town itself – it’s the kind of place you plan on visiting for a few days and end up spending a week, month or even longer.
Rurrenabaque first came to prominence during the rubber boom in the late nineteenth century, serving as the gateway to the Amazon region from the highlands. Until fairly recently, the extraction and processing of timber from the surrounding rainforest was Rurrenabaque’s main industry, but this has been curtailed somewhat by the exhaustion of valuable timber species and the establishment of Parque Nacional Madidi and other protected areas. The booming ecotourism industry has emerged as one of the few economic alternatives to this highly destructive and largely illegal activity.