It’s A Jungle Out There


Rurrenabaque is full of travel agencies offering tours to the Bolivian jungle in the relatively untouched and pristine Parque Nacional Madidi. Of course, just getting to Rurrenabaque had been a crazy and terrifying experience in itself, but we knew that when we arrived we wanted to visit the jungle with help from a community based eco-lodge. After some shopping around, we decided to visit San Miguel del Bala Ecolodge, on the banks of the River Beni, 40 minutes upstream from Rurrenabaque. So, the morning after our plane landed, we were taken to the riverside where we plonked ourselves and our belongings on a riverboat and enjoyed a leisurely motorised voyage to the first lodge. Our trip deeper into the park, two hours upstream, would be the day after.

The first excursion was a pre-lunch visit to a canyon, where Sando, our guide for the first day, worried me with references to bats and worried Helen with references to spiders. But we were in the jungle now, so armed with wellies and a sense that we might tackle our fears, we hopped back in the boat for a short ride to the canyon. Needless to say, we both had our moments…

The previous days storms had left the water through the small canyon pretty deep.

Helen wasn´t keen on these (as big as a saucer)

I wasn´t keen when the bats flew past our ears, squeaking.

These were the blighters!

After a delicious lunch of stewed catfish fresh from the river (the food throughout the trip was excellent, cooked fresh each time with local ingredients) it was time to go to the first of our two cabins on the tour. A five minute hike uphill took us to where we were to be the only inhabitants of a five cabin site. Built out of materials from the surrounding area, the cabin was basic but clean and comfy, with fine mesh for windows to keep out the bugs. It was here that our guide for the rest of the trip, the diminutive and cheerful Simon, came to collect us for a walk to the community of San Miguel.

It was about a fifteen minute walk to the village, but in that time Simon was determined to show us that he was a genuine man of the forest. Thus it was that during one of his slightly halting explanations about flora and fauna, he chopped open a small coconut-type seed, fished out a little white grub, and suggested we might like a tasty smack. Having minutes earlier accepted some of the seed’s flesh to taste, it was clear that he meant this delicacy to be a live one! We watched him demonstrate eating a grub and eventually plucked up the courage to do the same (although Helen quickly spat hers out). There wasn’t much wriggling on the creature’s part thankfully, but the popping sensation when chewing was pretty disgusting. Meanwhile, the vague taste of coconut was masked by the knowledge that you’d just eaten a pretty ugly live larvae. Laughing at our sensibilities – he no doubt likes to do this to all of his tourists – Simon then went about extracting and pocketing a good handful of grubs. They taste great on the barbecue apparently…


Bush Tucker Challenge (Paul wins)

They did taste slightly better done this way. Maybe a bit of chilli sauce would have helped?



The trip around the community of San Miguel was great. People were friendly and apparently very resourceful, children were funny and playful, and nobody asked anything of us. Had this been in many of the parts of Peru we visited, it’s likely that the people may have been armed with tourist goods for us to buy, competing with each other as they did so. Here though, the community are the tour company. They built the lodges, they work in them, the money and benefits are shared. So, after drinking freshly squeezed sugar cane juice from the village press, trying more grubs on a kebab, watching a lady expertly weave a bag from a couple of palm leaves and watching kids play whilst Simon chatted to his friends, it was time to return to the lodge where dinner and a night in the jungle awaited.


Day two meant a move to the second lodge, further upstream. On the way we were treated to views of a capybara (sort of giant guinea pig) and a caiman by the waterside. How Simon or the boatmen spotted these was beyond us.

Set in a clearing in much more dense and tropical forest, the second lodge felt far more isolated, made even more so by the fact that once again we were the only guests. Over the next two days, this was our base for guided walks in the untouched forest, fishing on the river (rather unsuccessfully) and eating the delicious food.

The second lodge at San Miguel del Bala

In the forest we walked in silence, stopping every thirty paces or so for Simon to listen and try to spot animals and birds. After an early run in with an enormous group of wild pigs, we were happy to mainly see wildlife above us in the trees. Macaws, parakeets, hummingbirds and woodpeckers were amongst the abundant bird life, but the sight of families of Howler Monkeys was the highlight. Hearing their Jurassic Park roar in the morning was also spectacular.


Howler monkeys in the trees of the Madidi

Ocelot tracks in the mud.

A teenage boy from the community at San Miguel, fishing with nets in the Rio Beni.

Many of the plants and fungi in the jungle had medicinal qualities. Apparently, this one is good for healing haemorrhages!

At night, the bugs were king. Lights really needed to be out as soon as possible after dark as gigantic moths as big as plates and screaming cicadas hammered at the mesh windows, desperate to knock themselves out on the dull electric light. Ants threatened to wage war on your skin (the locals were even pretty scared of some of them) and enormous but apparently harmless spiders scuttled across the roof beams. Despite the merciful lack of mosquitos, the nets over the beds were quite a comfort as the forests insects blared out their nightly cacophony.

The guides were scared of some of the caterpillars...


Hello! I´m a cicada!

On the final day, after Simon had done a bit of handicraft and made us some jungle jewellery, we jumped back into the raft and headed back to Rurrenabaque, stopping on the way to cram the boat full of people catching a lift from San Miguel. With old ladies and children squatting in the stern, a large rainstorm gave us a drenching to see us off. Looking up at the grey skies we were happy that we had one more night for it to disperse before we again attempted to tackle the flight home – probably the scariest part of an other-worldly jungle experience.

Simon (left) making jewellery from seeds.

9 Comments to “It’s A Jungle Out There”

  • Sounds amazing — and great pictures! I’m really curious about the lodge / community — how did you settle on that one? How many people did it support? How many tourists at a time / per year?

    • Hey Matt! Around 200 people in the community. Around 700 tourists p/year. We were looking for an Eco-friendly company, where they don’t interfere too much with the wildlife and environment. I think there are 4 approved companies and this one fitted in with the sort of distance we wanted to cover (ie didn’t want to spend 6 hours on a boat to get there!). Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I meant to say, we demolished our Californian wine the night before we left London. Shared it with Paul’s sister and her husband. It went down a storm! Thanks! X

  • Brilliant photographs…..the canyon looks great!

  • Amazing photos. Surreal reading this outside old Toledo. Wonderful experience we imagine, one of the memorable ones. Bruce Parry eat your heart out. Oh and your hair looks quite hippy now Paul!

  • What an adventure! For the first time I felt glad I wasnt there when I saw the video of those pigs! You are both very brave especially when eating the grubs.

  • Sounds and looks amazing! Fab pictures. That macro setting must be getting some use there.

    Speaking of pictures can I request a picture of a capybara?? Mark Shelton in Year 6 invented a Capybara Club but there were ‘no girls allowed’ so I never knew what one actually was.

    Thanks in advance….xx

  • what book are you reading?

    • I think I’ve read five now. Unfortunately nearly finished the latest and have a long train journey tomorrow. Might have to look out of the window instead!

  • hm…. dont know about those creepy crawlies! similar to the Ozzie aboriginals they too eat widgetty grubs… yum… slurp… not!