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.