For the collective imagination, access to the Amazon jungle is a difficult journey. It is perceived as dense as mysterious. Alien and distant. But this belief contrasts with reality. The river basin of the largest river in the world, and the tropical forest that feeds on it, are only 40 minutes by plane from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia .

The small town of Rurrenabaque , on the banks of the Beni River, is the gateway to the Madidi National Park and the fascinating Pampas del Yacuma , two very close protected areas with incredible biodiversity, where nature is almost virgin and exuberant.The adventure begins in Rurrenabaque 

Trip to Madidi

The trip to the interior of Madidi begins early, in a 40 HP motor boat. In the first section, upstream through the brown waters of the Beni (tributary of the Amazon), subjugates the landscape, in which the foothills and the jungle alternate and merge. Carried by the current, sometimes forming small islets, many trees uprooted from the shores float in the floodwaters.

Rurrenabaque and Chalalan

About 100 kilometers from the start, the boat turns west to take the Tuichi River. The foothills, more and more distant, get smaller. The water course also changes: narrower, with a green hue and a lively ravine. There are sections with rapids, full of whirlwinds that in the rainy season, between November and March, become very rapid. But now the level is low and reveals the stone heart of his bed. Standing at the bow, one of the three crew members, with a long stick of hard and strong wood –usually pichanillo or cipico, species typical of the region– probes the depth in search of the best path. But sometimes the boat, in which up to eight passengers can travel, runs aground and they have to go down to tow it. They have experience and they do it quickly.

The depth is probed with rods, generally pichanillo or cipico, species typical of the region

After about four and a half hours of travel, the final destination, in the heart of the intricate Madidi jungle, is the Chalalán ecological lodge . Located on the shores of a beautiful lagoon, from which it takes its name, the site is a venture of the Tacana-Quechua indigenous community of San José de Uchupiamonas, in which its cooperative and self-managed nature stands out. 

Colony markings

The name San José reflects the religious presence in the colonization of these places. Founded by Franciscan priests in 1616, it is the oldest town in the region. But, with the initial interest in annexing territories exhausted and the way of life of its inhabitants having been altered forever, the fate of one and the other was left to their fate. Over the years, this enclave went from being strategic to controlling the routes of salt from Uyuni and skins from the Amazon. “We felt forgotten like other communities in the area. Due to lack of resources for education and health, many families emigrated. We saw up close the risk of disappearing, as happened with Mamacona”, underlines the guide and reference of the community, Ovidio Valdez.

The cabins and other facilities in Chalalán were built almost entirely with materials from the jungle itself: the walls are made of chonta palm; the roofs, made of jatata leaves, also from the palm family; most of the floors are made of mara or mahogany, and the clusters of fruits of the azaí palm tree were used in the elaboration of the individual tablecloths. To carry out the work, the felled trees were very few, since wood seized by illegal logging was also used – which the Bolivian State decided to use for these purposes instead of burning it, as was done before – and several fallen specimens by the strong winds that usually punish this region. The forest, thick and humid, rises, as always, proud and vital, a few meters away.Different trails run through the Madidi National Park 

Nature is wise and the jungle is a provider, say the Josesans . Federico, a 27-year-old Italian tourist, was able to see for himself. He didn’t like the Choquizuela (cow’s knee) soup that he ate in Rurre –an affectionate acronym for Rurrenabaque– the night before he arrived in Chalalán. He feels great discomfort and asks for some medicine. They bring him a palo diablo tea. The improvement is almost immediate, and the next day he is as good as new. The same thing happens to this chronicler with heartburn: lemon verbena tea and holy remedy.

The visitor must be prepared for trekking in the jungle (colloquially accepted term, although from a technical point of view the area is a “humid rain forest at the foot of the Tropical Andes”), always with a guide, and let yourself be surprised . due to the extraordinary diversity of the environment . There are many animals, although it is difficult to observe them due to their natural suspicion regarding human presence and the thickness and immensity of the vegetation. But you can hear the sound of the spider monkeys, which can be seen fleetingly, moving on the tops of the trees, 10 or 15 meters above the heads of the walkers.

Chichilo monkeys among the trees and vines (Pablo Bielli).

Chichilo monkeys among the trees and vines 

Several specimens of a smaller monkey, which the locals call Chichilo, also appear suddenly, making mischief. Fans of stealing and eating the eggs of the serere –a bird that always nests in the vicinity of watercourses, very seductive for photographers due to its strange appearance–, they stop in the branches to savor them with relish.

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