Sarah Gilbert writes for The Guardian:
From Andes to Amazon: trekking through the Bolivian jungle
The real-life hero of adventure film Jungle helped set up an ecolodge in Bolivia’s Madidi national park – a wild destination for trekkers, and a ray of light for a hunter-gatherer community under threat.
Branches came crashing down and leaves tumbled around me. Over my head, a howler monkey was putting on a display, standing upright, chest puffed out, pelting me with whatever was at hand. Eventually, realising that this grinning biped wasn’t going anywhere, he gave up, sat astride his lofty branch and went back to eating fruit.
That was just one of many captivating encounters in Madidi national park, a vast swath of pristine wilderness in the Bolivian Amazon. To get there, I’d flown north from La Paz to the sweltering jungle town of Rurrenabaque. Then it was a six-hour journey in a wooden motorboat, chugging gently along the Beni and Tuichi rivers, through sky-high gorges and gallery forest, spotting kingfishers, herons and caiman as I went.
In 1981, Israeli-Australian backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg had a very different experience. At the age of 22, he went off the trail and deep into uncharted Madidi in search of lost tribes and hidden treasure. His dream turned into a nightmare when he was separated from his three companions – two of whom disappeared without trace.
For three weeks, he survived on his wits, willpower and, he believes, sheer providence. Sleep-deprived and starving, he took on the elements, fire ants, venomous snakes and a marauding jaguar, before being rescued against all the odds by his friend Kevin Gale and the hunter-gatherer community of San José de Uchupiamonas, who are Madidi’s ancestral landowners. The movie Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Ghinsberg, is based on his book Jungle: a Harrowing True Story of Adventure, Danger and Survival.
But the story didn’t end there. Ten years later, Ghinsberg returned to Uchupiamonas to find the community dying out, their children all leaving for the city. Their dream was to build an ecolodge, where members of the community could share their culture with visitors from around the globe. Ghinsberg helped them secure funds from the Inter-American Development Bank and lived with the community for three years, developing Chalalan Ecolodge, which continues to support the Uchupiamona, as well as being a beacon of community-run tourism. [Bolivian Thoughts opinion: My recollection of the Uchupiamonas and Chalalan project is different. I slept and enjoyed there, I spoke with the leaders of Uchupiamonas and my understanding is the Conservation International – CI, with funding from USAID/Bolivia helped the community with the eco-lodge. Thinking about a multilateral offering funds to an individual and a community without the knowledge and acquiescence of the Central Government, at least by SERNAP, is unthinkable. CI helped the community to be sustainable, helped them break into units, one group in charge of the “hotel” services, other for the transport, other for food, etc. In any case, this was a star project that provided with clear example that a community could “survive” and be efficient with this type of tourism services. Yossi helped the region be known, I also read his book “Lost in the Tuichi”, and that made possible that hundreds of Israelis came to the site and “live” Yossi’s adventure. First time I set up foot in Rurrenabaque, I was puzzled by looking at its restaurants menu, displayed out by the door, in posters: first in Hebrew, English and then Spanish. Current egocentric president of Bolivia is not only threatening this wonderful ecoregion, he also managed to scare away those hundreds of tourist by imposing Israelis on a tax if they wanted to come to Bolivia, Rurre as it is familiarly known and its surroundings have suffered in their businesses, no longer booming, almost desert … when everyone knows that the best possible and sustainable way to preserve biodiversity and indigenous communities is through clean, environmentally friendly ecotourism.]
From the river, it was a 2km hike along the Jaguar Trail to the lodge, heralded by raucous parrots and toucans. But once there I suffered no Ghinsberg-style privations: I feasted on just-caught catfish and papaya from the garden, then slept like a baby, cocooned in my thatched cabaña, with its mahogany floor and flush toilet.
At 6am the next day I was immersed in the incessant hum of the forest, picking my way along one of Chalalan’s many trails and wobbling over log bridges in the wake of my machete-wielding guide, Ovidio.
Shafts of sunlight pierced the canopy as we admired forest riches – the hairy legs of a tarantula peeking from its hole, a flamboyant poison dart frog, no bigger than a thumbnail. I thought of Ghinsberg and his makeshift bed crafted from a tattered poncho and palm fronds as I squeezed between the gargantuan buttress roots of a kapok tree, enveloped in the musky scent of a jaguar.
Bridging the tropical Andes and the Amazon, Madidi, a national park since 1995 [with direct and more importan international funding support coming from USAID through its Environmental Office], brims with life, with 15 major vegetation types and an altitudinal span of almost 6,000 metres. Indeed, Identidad Madidi, a study of the park’s flora and fauna, led by Dr Rob Wallace of the US’s Wildlife Conservation Society, aims to show that Madidi is the most biologically diverse protected area in the world.
As the field phase draws to a close, Wallace told me that it’s exceeded all expectations: “At the beginning, we thought that registering 100 additional vertebrates would be a success. Now, after studying 13 of the 15 sites, we’re close to 300 additional vertebrates, more than 600 additional butterflies and well over 300 additional plants and, overall, we must be very close to 100 candidate new species for science.”
“Two of the most surprising discoveries to date are a plant used as incense for more than a century that ended up a new species to science, clusia pachamamee, and finding the Madidi titi monkey over a decade ago.”
Back at the lodge, lunch was interrupted by a 100-strong procession of monkeys. Lean and agile brown capuchins were closely followed by scampering squirrel monkeys – they feel safer in the company of their larger cousins. In between, a lone black spider monkey put on an impressive show of aerial gymnastics.
In the heat of the afternoon, I took a tentative dip in the tea-coloured lake, while the resident caimans napped (it’s safe to swim in daylight, I was told), plunging through the sun-warmed surface to cooler depths. Then I flopped into a hammock and was lulled to sleep by a chorus of caws, chirrups and trills.
Ghinsberg stresses that Jungle is not only a story of survival but also one of self-discovery. Now he has been initiated into the Uchupiamona as a village brother, or wawqi in Quechua.
“My lifelong dream has been fulfilled and I have found my treasure – learning from the forest and its people, and serving them. And there’s urgent work to do. Madidi is under threat from the same government that created the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.”
He’s referring to President Evo Morales’s goal to turn Bolivia into the energy powerhouse of South America, including two proposed hydroelectric megadams on the Beni river, to generate electricity primarily for export. The controversial project would submerge parts of Madidi and Pilón Lajas biosphere reserve, affecting 17 communities, including Uchupiamona, displacing 4,000 people and destroying their way of life.
“The flooding will kill plants, wildlife will lose its habitat and communities will disappear. What can we do?” Ovidio said, as he paddled me across the lake in a dugout, the reflected trees like Rorschach inkblots in the mirror-still water. As we headed back to Rurrenabaque, a notoriously elusive tapir – with a face like an anteater, similar in shape to a pig and but the size of a donkey – swam alongside us for an instant, before fleeing into the forest. A shaggy capybara, the world’s largest rodent, was drinking at the river’s edge, and two harpy eagles surveyed their terrain from a leafless tree.
I remembered Ghinsberg’s words: “Madidi is not just a problem for the Uchupiamona: it’s a call to the world to wake up and protect what is not ours to destroy.”
• The trip was provided by Tribes Travel, which has a three-day full-board stay at Chalalan Ecolodge from £995pp, including return flights from La Paz-Rurrenabaque, airport tax, park fees, boat transfers and all activities
Bolivian Thoughts opinion: Even though it took me almost three days to get there, it was worth it! At the time of my trip, we were planning to get to Chalalan driving from La Paz city, through the Yungas, and eventually to Rurrenabaque. Road blockades forced us to do many turns, our car broke down, we had to travel on top of a truck, in the middle of the night, with sun glasses on and mouths shut, to avoid swallowing bugs … getting to Chalalan by boat was a long, slow hard journey as it was colder than hell and heavy rain throughout the whole two-hour ride … nevertheless, once there, all those discomforts disappeared. Walking around 4, 5 in the morning thought the forest and listening to its wildlife was something I have never experienced in my life!
Thus, it infuriates me that the egocentric “caudillo” intends to destroy the lives of the indigenous communities and its biodiversity. To make things worse, those dams, far away from markets, will loose tremendous amounts of that energy on their wat to their supposed markets in Brazil … a crazy, stupid idea of an individual who lied to the world. He is no Mother Nature’s defender? he is no friend to the indigenous communities.
Across the Beni river, in front of Rurrenabaque, there is the La Paz sugar mill art San Buenaventura, without even having or being the best site for sugar cane production. This inept excuse of a president has stayed in the mid of the 2oth century with the state-owned mega enterprises that have not worked anywhere else in the world.
He assumed the presidency after a series of road blockades and riots, only to push for the growth of the coca farmers, whose production goes more that 90% to cocaine production. He came to power under the best possible economic times in our history … and is by far the worst government in Bolivian history. This ruling ochlocracy has erased the institutionality and is filled with corruption. Over $160 billion dollars were wasted in these eleven years of his “government”
I urge the world to express strong complaints to this egomaniac so he does not destroy this great, lovely ecoregion of theMadidi!!!