Volunteering in the Amazon – Bolivian Style!
Volunteering in the Amazon – I never thought my first experience with the beautiful Amazon rainforest would be in Bolivia. Everybody, including me, thinks immediately Brazil, it is a good shout, Brazil is massive, but Bolivia holds a special part of the ancient jungle.
This is the Southern most part of the Amazon and also within the borders of Peru and known to be the most diverse areas of wilderness in the world. The reason, the eco-system is vast, incorporating Andean mountains, cloud forest, jungle, floodplain jungle and then swamp, it truly is amazing and oozing life in every place you can imagine.
The river system is the Rio Beni, being born of the Andean mountains, it runs for a massive 1100km (684 miles) until it reaches the mighty Amazon River itself.
Getting there from La Paz
From the crazy Andean heights of La Paz, up to 4000m above sea level, I descended into the jungle. My mode of transport, 17 hours on a clapped out bus via what I think maybe the second most dangerous road in the world! Why do it? Well $110 for a 30 minute flight, or $10 to experience shitting my pants. I had to take the shitting my pants route!
Obviously I survived, it was really dodgy, gravel road mostly and many places with a sleepy driver you were gone over the side. The only time I really got concerned though was when we had to reverse next to a sheer drop of a 100m or more, and a vertical drop too, into a white water river. It would have been a no survivor experience I think! The driver kept his cool on that occasion, manoeuvring within half a meter of the edge, phew!
It is worth the experience though, the views are stunning, especially dropping down from the dizzy heights and mountainous landscapes above La Paz to the green carpet of the Yungas, steep valleys cloaked in trees, it is a must see.
Rurrenabaque – Fun in the Jungle!
Volunteering in the Amazon took me to the tourist town of Rurrenabaque. It is lots of fun here, surrounded by jungle slopes, buzzing atmosphere, and a super mix of local life and tourist fun. Everybody is super friendly and a place where I met lots of people and made some great friends.
This was my base was for over 2 months, living in the office of Madidi Travel, the organisation that I managed to score this awesome venture with. I had my basic bed and mattress with mosquito net and loved getting up and helping all of the tourists that came for information and book the awesome trip that Madidi Travel offers into the wild jungle.
Madidi Travel and Serere Eco-Reserve
So Madidi Travel have their own private part of the Amazon rainforest, 4000 hectares to be exact, and named Serere. It is located beside the Beni River and is so special because it also contains four beautiful lakes, thus making the jungle diversity even more than usual. The protected area it lies within is called the Madidi Mosaic, a huge protected area of 15 million hectares (read more here). Serere Eco-Reserve is a conservation project, demonstrating that a small tourism presence can sustain and protect a large area of rainforest, its animal inhabitants and also provide employment for the local communities. My reason for getting on board, a sustainable eco-tourism idea, in the Amazon!
I split my time between the awesome Serere Reserve and Rurrenabaque, having a great time in both. The jungle is a great experience, a 3 hour boat ride along 55km of jungle lined river, passing indigenous communities and always on the look out for crocodiles and turtles. Arriving on the river bank you immediately enter the thick forest and walk the 30 minutes, passing the lovely tourist cabins and onto “Casa Grande”, the Big House, This is where everybody relaxes, right in front of one of the lakes, this one called Lake Fernando, a cracker for stunning sunsets and a big-ass 3m black caiman crocodile! The reserve has lots of walks and lots of canoeing to do, looking out for its wildlife, plants and tasty wild forest fruits, my favourite cacao, chocolate!
The founder is Rosa Maria Ruiz, a real fighter for conservation and freedom, and someone who I had great chats with. One of her stories was leading National Geographic through the Madidi National Park including the renowned photographer Joel Sartore. You can read his funny and crazy diary here, it is well worth the read. This publication of National Geographic highlighted how unique the Madidi National Park is and helped to shelve a proposed hydro-electric dam planned by the government which would have flooded a vast area of important and pristine rainforest.
My Amazon Bedroom
I was led to believe that I would be sharing the basic facilities with the other staff and field team. How wrong I was, I had the whole third floor of Casa Grande! It was a room with a difference though, it was also home to the jungle wildlife! The first two floors of the house are mosquito netted, with wire to keep the rest of the animals out too, including monkeys! The third floor isn’t! So I had my straw mattress, sleeping bag and mosquito net. I was all sorted, then night fell and the jungle, including my “bedroom” came to life!
Firstly, two re-introduced spider monkeys frequently make this floor their safe haven for the night, these guys made their bed at the opposite side of the room to me, then I seen so many bugs up there, and a lot of cockroaches and spiders, spine shuddering! The best was, and good for cockroach population control, a proper Tarantula! He had made his home in the corner of the rafters, please don’t come for a wonder I hoped. I thought what an experience though, living proper in the wilds, and only a few times in the nights that followed did I feel a scurry over my face and body!
The morning was also worth it, waking up and looking over the rainforest and Lake Fernando to the monstrous calls of the many Howler monkey groups spread across the reserve. 5 star if you ask me!
Animal Rescue and Baby Monkeys
I never thought volunteering in the Amazon would entail looking after animals in trouble. Madidi Travel are well-known for caring about the wildlife, not just interested in making money, therefore they get calls to help injured or orphaned animals. During my time we had a number of small parrots, an owl and three monkeys that were brought in need of some help. The birds are easy to take care of, a doctors check up and then care until they are fit and off they go into the wilds of Serere Reserve, listening to the calls of their own species and joining the flocks. The monkeys are a little difficult.
The first monkey that was brought in was a Spider Monkey, a pet since it was a baby and now being abused by the new man of the house, opening admitting it too. Horrible people eh! So this 3-year-old was just in need of love, and what better way than to start the integration with two other re-introduced spider monkeys that are living between the wild colony at Gringo Lake and Casa Grande at Fernando Lake at Serere Reserve. She fitted straight in, even without any other monkey contact for the majority of her life, it was great to see. they took her in and when I left she was learning and flourishing in her wild environment.
The second monkey was again a spider monkey, this time only 3 months old and looking like she was ready to die, weak, depressed and totally un-responsive. Her story is like many others, the mother was hunted and the hunters simply keep the baby as a pet. Monkey meat is a delicacy in the jungle regions, especially spider monkey being the biggest primate in South America. In this case the love was not there that a baby needs, and it needs as much, maybe even more love than a human baby. This little baby became my baby, and not being an animal sanctuary with lots of volunteers, it was simply a hands on let’s get this baby healthy and happy in which ever way we can, and there was only me left to do it!
It was tough, for starters she only wanted a women, every time a female would go by she would scream out, arms a stretch, pleading to take her. She knew the difference between males and females, even humans. It took around a week to get her comfy with me and after that we were best friends. Lots of yummy mangos, bananas and the daily healthy fruit milkshake got her as strong as an ox and the first time she played was such a great feeling. She was on the road to being a happy monkey, on the road to being re-introduced to her own kind. I spent an awesome 6 weeks looking after her, admittedly splitting time helping tourists and other things was really tough, and not much of a social life when you got a baby too, but what an experience. Saying goodbye was so quick, hoping not to stress her. Thankfully she is now in the capable hands of Rosa Maria, and only a few months away from being strong and wise enough to fend for herself and be fully free to swing through the jungle as is her given right.
The third monkey, a beautiful little baby Owl Monkey, also known as a night monkey or nocturnal monkey. Again a sad story of hunting, she seemed to be the lucky one in surviving but the scars will never go away, Her top lip and one of her nostrils were taken straight off by a shot-gun pellet. So literally a millimetre from certain death, but now a free and safe future ahead of her. Again it was a doctor’s appointment followed by twice a day medication and some comfort. Within 10 days she was happy as, coming to life at night and keeping me awake into the early hours, loving my mosquito net, playing as human kids do on a bouncy castle! She is also on the road to being free, being taken care of in the reserve and hopefully will join a group of her own in the reserve too.
There is also a number of other re-introduced animals at the reserve including two young Tapirs that frequent the area around “Casa Grande” and Lake Fernando. One evening as the sun was setting a Tapir decided to go for a cool off in the lake, one problem though, the 3m black caiman! It was by pure luck I was there, calling three French boys for their evening meal. First I walked out in one of the canoes to scare the Tapir back onto land but it didn’t work, she just walked further out, covering her whole body. The Caiman seen his chance and started moving through the water at a terrifying speed, closing in on the catch of its life I think. I was frantically searching for a big stone or rock to throw, there wasn’t one, then poking out of the ground, a muddy shape. Yes a rock! I tore it from the muddy earth and threw it as far as I could in the direction of the Tapir. What a shot, thankfully missing the Tapir’s head and landing with a big splash right next to her. Getting a real fright, and with the caiman only 10 meters from dinner, the Tapir launch herself out of the water and went tearing off into the foliage of the jungle. That was a close one, Tapir is a rear species and there is lots of other food for the caiman to tuck into, sorry Mr Caiman!
Volunteering in the Amazon – What an Experience!
Another life changing experience to add to my list, and I could easily keep on writing too, so many things that happened!
I met some beautiful people, my fellow volunteers, the other staff, but also the local people, helping me learn Spanish especially! I’m still rubbish though, ha ha!
Thank you to Madidi Travel and of course its founder, Rosa Maria. Carry on the good work guys and I hope to be back in the beautiful Bolivian Amazon one day. Ciao!