Las Pampas, Bolivia: 3 days on South America’s most dangerous tour

I think it’s when we started hand feeding piranhas to wild black caimans that the reality of the situation really set in. Although this was part of a 4-day “guided tour”, I sat there and watched an overzealous Israeli man nearly get his right hand bitten off.

Slightly nervous, I jokingly asked a local guide from an adjacent tour if anyone has ever actually lost their hand. Without breaking his gaze from an even larger predator lurking in the muddy waters behind us, he claimed that last year there had only been 5. Not sure what to make of his blunt response, I couldn’t help but remind myself that this is Bolivia, and here, there are no such things as rules. Two days later, this same guide would temporarily remove some alligator eggs from the toothy mother just to get a rise out of her.

The 40-minute flight from the capital city of La Paz to the jungle outpost of Rurrenabaque should have been an indicator of what we were getting ourselves into. Even now I’m still not sure which element of the flight was more disconcerting: landing on a dirt runway that’s covered in livestock, cramming 8 people into an aircraft where you sit directly behind the pilot, or passing through the clouds in the Cordillera Real section of the Andes-the first time in my life I’ve actually been looking up at mountain peaks from the window of an airplane.

Oh, and I’m sharing the aircraft with my wife. Who’s afraid of flying. And if that’s not enough, this is our honeymoon.

%Gallery-133097%Set on the muddy banks of the Beni River, the town of Rurrenabaque is the jumping off point for Madidi National Park and the expansive Bolivian savannah known locally as Las Pampas. Although Madidi is reputedly home to the largest amount of biodiversity found anywhere on the planet, the rumble on the South American backpacker circuit is that you actually get to see more wildlife while out in the grasslands.

Motoring up a tributary of the Beni after a four hour jeep ride (which broke down), I was completely convinced we had made the right decision. Families of furry capybaras splashed in the shallow waters as clans of river alligators stood statue-still on the soggy riverbanks–their dangerously strong jaws affixed open for cooling as opposed to killing. It would still be a three hour motor upriver to the “eco-lodge”, and after the harrowing ordeal to make it this far I was more than content to sit back in the canoe and take in nature’s show happening all around me.
That was, until we had to get out and push.

“Dry season, no water” chimed our local guide, Jaime, from his perch at the motor. “You push. We move”.

Pushing a canoe off of a sandbar in piranha infested waters is a thrill you don’t plan on
repeating more than once. After the 18th sandbar, however, with the multiple pairs of googly eyes in the water starting to approach uncomfortably close, it was safe to say that the novelty had faded.

I initially thought Jaime was crazy for suggesting such an option. As it turns out, 14 hours later I would watch him pull a seven foot anaconda out of a tree.

The eco-lodge itself was a standard jungle compound of elevated wooden walkways and smoldering piles of leaves to help fend off the malarial mosquitos. In the cramped kitchen, a diminutive, black haired woman by the name of Isabella methodically prepared us our first night’s meal. For us it was our first meal at the lodge, though for Isabella, it was just another meal at her home.

After all, it was Isabella who warned us about the dive bombing nocturnal bats; she knew which trees to walk under and which ones were best to avoid.

Gracias por la cena Isabella” offered the group as a whole. She smiled a weak response, knowing that she would have to tend to her 2, 3, or 4 children before rising early to prepare yet another breakfast of white bread and bad coffee.

While I wish I could claim that I slept like a child beneath my tapered white mosquito net, the dense tropical humidity replaced the blanket I had once planned to sleep under. Plus, it’s hard to drift off to sleep when there’s a howler monkey dancing on your tin roof, though such is life in the Bolivian pampas.

Luckily for us, a day involving fishing for piranhas and swimming with pink river dolphins is a good way to swap adrenaline for sleep. When fishing for piranhas, the main goal is to not be eaten by a piranha; when swimming with pink river dolphins, the main goal is to not be eaten by an alligator.

Using Macgyver’d fishing rods comprised of sticks, string, and rusty shards of metal, Jaime deftly navigated the dugout canoe to a bend in the river that offered just the slightest bit of shade. Removing a block of what appeared to be raw meat, his nimble hands proceeded to cut candy-sized chunks with his remaining 9 ½ fingers.

“¿Que occurió a tu dedo?” I inquired of his missing pinkie tip.


Tossing a chunk of bloody beef in to test the waters, it only took about two seconds for it to completely disappear.