Close to the Río Mamoré, some 500km northwest of Santa Cruz, the city of TRINIDAD is the capital of the Beni and the commercial and administrative centre of a vast wilderness hinterland of swamp, forest and savannah where rivers remain the main means of transport and cattle-ranching is the biggest industry. Like most towns in the region, Trinidad was originally a Jesuit mission, but few signs of that past remain, and it’s now a modern commercial city that’s dominated by a vigorous cowboy culture and economy. Though you can organize excursions into the surrounding rainforest, Trinidad is a world removed from Rurrenabaque, with a distinct difference in atmosphere and much more conspicuous wealth. In addition, the streets are lined with open sewers which, while they may be necessary for drainage, emit a horrible stench (particularly at night), provide an ideal breeding ground for the mosquitoes that plague the town, and represent a dangerous obstacle for unwary pedestrians. The place is, however, the jumping-off point for an adventurous trip by cargo boat down the Río Mamoré to Guayaramerín on the Brazilian border.
Trinidad was founded in 1686 by Father Cipriano Barace, a pioneering Jesuit missionary who introduced the first cattle herds to the region. The town prospered under the Jesuits, but fell into rapid decline after their expulsion in 1767, with many of its indigenous inhabitants – drawn from several different tribes from the surrounding area but known collectively as the Mojeños – being dragged off to work as virtual slaves on plantations near Santa Cruz. The Mojeños were still strong enough to play an important role in the Independence War, when an indigenous government led by Pedro Ignacio Muiba was briefly established in Trinidad in 1810, before being ruthlessly crushed by a royalist army, which also stripped the town of its last valuable Jesuit ornaments.
With the advent of the rubber boom the town’s population fell dramatically as thousands were forcibly recruited to work as rubber collectors in the forests to the north, while many others fled rather than face the same fate. In 1887, at the height of the rubber boom, the Mojeños launched their last uprising, a non-violent religious movement led by a messianic chief called Andrés Guayocho, who was said to be a great sorcerer and excellent ventriloquist. But the rebellion was swiftly and brutally put down by the Bolivian authorities, many of the survivors fled, and the town was left in the hands of non-indigenous merchants and landowners.
The region’s cattle economy really developed in the second half of the twentieth century, when enterprising ranchers began cross-breeding the semi-wild cattle descended from the herds brought in by the Jesuits with sleek Xebu cattle brought in from Brazil. Until the road down from Santa Cruz was built in the 1970s, Trinidad was effectively cut off from the rest of Bolivia, and it remains an isolated and somewhat inward-looking place, voluble in its right-wing opposition to the La Paz administration (the walls are plastered with anti-Evo Morales graffiti) and fiercely defensive of its camba (lowland) identity. The ranchers – known as ganaderos – see themselves as rugged, self-reliant pioneers who have tamed a wild region and created prosperity with almost no help from central government.
From Puertos Barador or Almacén, some 15km southwest of Trinidad (a motorbike taxi will take you for around Bs20), you can get a ride on the regular cargo boats that ply the waters of the Río Mamoré, either downstream to Guayaramerín on the Brazilian border or upstream as far as Puerto Villarroel in the Chapare. In places more than 3km wide, the mighty Mamoré – its name means “Great Mother” in Moxeño – was once one of the great waterways of the Bolivian Amazon and still sees a good deal of traffic. Canoes, barges and double-decker river boats ply its silt-laden waters, carrying supplies to the isolated communities along the river bank, collecting cargoes of timber or bananas, and carrying cattle downstream to markets in Brazil.
Travelling this way is one of the classic Amazon experiences, and an excellent way to get a feel for the immense scale of the forest and the lifestyle of its inhabitants. The river boats glide through the forest at a languid pace, with plenty of opportunities for spotting wildlife along the way, particularly cayman, pink river dolphins and innumerable birds. Every so often the dense vegetation of the river bank breaks to reveal a riverside settlement, usually no more than a cluster of thatched houses on stilts. For the villagers, isolated in the midst of this immense wilderness, the arrival of a boat can be the main event of the day, and if yours stops to load or unload cargo it’s likely to be besieged by locals selling bananas or fish, or simply seeking the latest news and gossip from upriver.