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.
Northeast of Rurrenabaque, the dense forests of the Andean foothills quickly give way to the Pampas del Yacuma: the vast, swampy grasslands that dominate much of the Beni. Though they have been grazed by cattle for hundreds of years, the pampas still support a great deal of wildlife, particularly along the forested banks of the great rivers that meander across them. The pampas themselves are not that impressive: a great expanse of swamp and tangled cattle pasture with the occasional lake. Tours with the agencies listed here (many of whom now have shared or private lodges in the pampas) are nevertheless worth it just for the amount of wildlife you’ll see along the Río Yacuma.
In the rainy season (roughly Nov–April), the Río Yacuma river bursts its banks and floods great expanses of the surrounding grasslands, causing wildlife to become more dispersed and breeding ferocious mosquitoes. In the dry season, however, it’s reduced to a narrow river that attracts an amazing abundance of fauna. Sinister black-and-white caymans – some over 2m long – lounge on the muddy banks, slipping quietly into the water as you pass; turtles queue up to sun themselves on logs protruding from the water; groups of capybara, the world’s largest rodent, watch with apparent indifference as canoes pass right in front of their noses. Most spectacular of all, though, are the pink freshwater dolphins, known as bufeos, that fish and play in the wide bends of the river. In addition, all manner of birds live on the banks, including herons, three different species of kingfisher, elegant roseate spoonbills, massive storks and the clumsy hoatzin.
On Rurrenabaque’ s doorstep, and covering nearly nineteen thousand square kilometres, PARQUE NACIONAL MADIDI is home to some of the most diverse plant and animal life in South America. In altitude it ranges from less than 300m to over 5500m above sea level, encompassing a variety of Andean and Amazonian ecosystems that range from dense tropical rainforests and seasonally flooded savannahs to pristine cloudforest and glacial mountain peaks. The park is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife: more than seven hundred species of animal have been recorded, along with some 860 species of bird, although the total may be more like one thousand – more than in the whole of North America. There are also more than five thousand species of flowering plant. Madidi was recognized as a national park in 1995 and, together with the neighbouring Pilon Lajas reserve and Parque Nacional Tambopata-Candamo across the border in Peru, forms a corridor of biodiversity that is generally considered to be one of the 25 most critical conservation areas in the world.
The real wonder of the park is its spectacular scenery and the bewildering complexity of the rainforest ecosystem, and you should treat viewing wildlife as a bonus rather than the main purpose of a visit to the park. Having said that, on a standard three- or four-day trip you should see a fair amount of wildlife, including several species of monkey, capybaras, caymans and a veritable cornucopia of birds, including brightly coloured toucans, macaws and parrots. If you’re lucky you may also see larger animals like the mighty jaguar or the lumbering tapir. Be warned, though, that many species are rare, nocturnal and shy, and the areas of the park most easily accessible by river were logged and hunted until relatively recently.
If you want to get into the park’s really pristine areas you’ll need to go on a trip of about a week, travelling on foot or horseback into the more remote regions of the forest around the headwaters of the Río Madidi. The upper regions of the park can only be reached from the highlands north of La Paz, and even from there they are pretty much inaccessible unless you organize a serious expedition.
Although the forests of the Beni can appear endless when you fly over them by plane or pass through by boat, in fact, they’re disappearing at an alarming rate. In such a vast area no one can tell exactly how fast the forests are disappearing, even with satellite monitoring, but latest estimates suggest that Bolivia is losing about three thousand square kilometres of forest a year, one of the highest rates worldwide; much of it is in the Beni, with catastrophic consequences for the region’s unique ecosystems.
The causes of this deforestation are various. The most obvious culprits are timber companies, ranging from small gangs with chainsaws to major commercial operations. Rather than clear-cutting the forest, they concentrate on valuable hardwood species such as mahogany and Spanish cedar. But for every tree they extract several others are damaged, and the trails they cut into even the most remote areas open the way for colonists who are responsible for even greater destruction.
Successive Bolivian governments have seen the comparatively empty lands of the Amazon as a solution to poverty and land shortage in the highlands, encouraging the migration of poor farmers from the Andes, who have moved down into the lowlands, clearing the forest to plant food and cash crops. Every year towards the end of the dry season the skies above Bolivia are obscured by thick smoke from thousands of fires set to clear the forest for agriculture and cattle pasture, a process known as chaqueo. Yet when the forest cover is slashed and burned on a wide scale, nutrients are quickly leached away by rain, and within a few years soil fertility declines so much that the land becomes useless for agriculture.
Having finally recognized the potential biological value of the country’s rainforests, the government has now established extensive national parks and other protected areas in the Amazon, as well as recognizing large areas as indigenous territory (arguably the most effective way of protecting the rainforest) and introducing new laws to limit logging and forest clearance. Bolivia, moreover, is now the unlikely world leader in forest certification, with more than two million hectares of forest certified. Yet the immense scale and remoteness of the region makes enforcing legislation almost impossible, and many of the protected areas exist only on paper.
Rurrenabaque’s tourist boom was in part inspired by the adventures of Yossi Ginsberg, an Israeli traveller who in 1981 tried to reach Rurrenabaque independently from the highlands with his two companions, trekking down through what’s now Parque Nacional Madidi. Lost in the forest and running out of food, the group split up. Ginsberg continued and eventually reached the Río Tuichi, where he was rescued and taken to Rurrenabaque. His two companions were never seen again. Ginsberg’s account of the ill-fated expedition, Back from Tuichi, became a bestseller in Israel, inspiring many Israeli backpackers to visit the region, while his rescuer founded Rurrenabaque’s first rainforest tour company (see Private tour operators). A film is in the works.