Between Rurrenabaque and Trinidad stretch the vast, watery plains known as the Llanos de Moxos (or Mojos). Spanning the area between the ríos Mamoré and Beni, the region is largely covered by seasonally flooded savannah or natural grassland interspersed with swamp and patches of forest. During the November to April rainy season, the whole area is flooded for months at a time and the road between Rurrenabaque and Trinidad becomes impassable, while during the dry season between May and September the grasslands become very dry, resembling the savannahs of Africa much more than the lush greenery usually associated with the Amazon basin. This is cowboy country, and the economy of the plains is dominated by enormous ranches, stocked with the semi-wild descendants of the cattle first introduced by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century. The Llanos are also home to semi-nomadic indigenous groups such as the T’simane (or Chimane), for whom hunting is still an important source of food, though shotguns have largely replaced bows and arrows as the weapon of choice.
Away from the former mission towns of San Ignacio de Moxos and San Borja, the Llanos remain a sparsely populated wilderness where most of the wild animal species of the Amazon still thrive, and because of the open vegetation they can be easier to spot than in the forest. Even from the road, the birdlife you’ll see here is spectacular and abundant, with water species like storks and herons being particularly evident. Jaguars abound, and you may also spot species not found in the forest, like the maned wolf, a long-legged, solitary hunter that moves through the high grasses with a loping stride, or the rhea, a large flightless bird similar to the ostrich. A few hours west of San Ignacio de Moxos, a large area of this distinctive environment is protected by the Reserva de la Biosfera del Beni, Bolivia’s longest-established protected area.
Covering some 1350 square kilometres of savannah and rainforest to the east of San Borja, the Reserva de la Biosfera del Beni (Beni Biosphere Reserve) was one of the first protected areas to be established in Bolivia. Standing at the intersection of two important biogeographical zones, the reserve is exceptionally biodiverse, hosting some five hundred species of birds and one hundred species of mammals – these include almost half the protected species in Bolivia, among them many that are in danger of extinction. Illegal hunting, unfortunately, still poses a major threat. While the reserve, did, at one time, offer very well-organized visitor facilities and ecotours, funds have now dried up, with barely enough money to support a skeleton staff of two rangers. You can still visit, though there’s no accommodation and you’ll have to bring in all your own food and water, as well as a tent or hammock. The funding crisis may change in future; check with SERNAP in La Paz for the current situation if you don’t have time to visit the office in San Borja.
About 100km west of Trinidad lies the singular town of SAN IGNACIO DE MOXOS, the so-called “Spiritual Capital of the Jesuit Missions”, originally founded by the Jesuits in 1689. It’s a poor yet incredibly welcoming place with a unique and unforgettable atmosphere, where horse- or ox-drawn carts are as common as motor vehicles, and where the largely indigenous population retain more of the traditions of the Jesuit era than any other town in the Beni. While there’s not much to do outside fiesta times, it’s enough to simply marinate in San Ignacio’s lost-in-time aura; don’t be surprised if complete strangers stop you in the plaza simply to say “hello”, ask where you’re from and how long you’ll be staying.