Travel means adapt to the environment, we move away from the certainty and boredom given by the common patterns to approach the adventure of life lived daily, where every day represents a new experience.
Have you ever thought about building a homemade raft, made of wood, ropes and tyres, to cross one of the most hostile places on earth? This is the challenge I decided to undertake, together with my girlfriend, in June 2015 in Bolivia.
From Guanay to Rurrenabaque
The Amazon, one of the most hostile regions on earth. Fauna and flora reign uncontested while the human being is only a guest, often not even too welcome. The climatic conditions make the adaptation even more complex because the heat is asphyxiating and the rains torrential. Living in these region is almost impossible, only in few areas you can find some settlements of local indigenous people. Why do I want to visit this place? First of all, to understand to what extent it is truly unlivable, and then to test myself trying to survive for six days in these conditions, far from civilization, with the sole help of an autochthonous person.
Organizing an unusual journey into the heart of the Amazon is not an easy task. But the initiative led me to meet the only agency that organized an expedition to the heart of the Amazon, the Deep Rainforest. Six people plus a guide (a real local expert) ready to cross the Amazon in about 6 days on a raft, from Guanay to Rurremabaque, covering a total of 240 km between rapids and currents, 106 km on the Rio Kaka and the remaining 134 km on the most famous Rio Beni.
Fascinated by the idea, I decided, together with my partner, to accept the challenge.
But even before we start, another test awaits us, reaching Guanay on a bus from La Paz. The road is uneven and not at all reassuring, but it is the only solution. The bus climbs relentlessly through the mountain roads giving us the impression of being on a roller coaster. Not at all soothed we try in vain to sleep but after long hours of waiting we finally get to our destination.
In the heart of the village of Guanay lies the modest house of Rubén, our guide, inhabited more by animals than by people, where we are greeted very welcome. The main objective of the morning is to build the raft (we have to build it!), which we will use in the next few days. From the very beginning we see Rubén as a real expert and we follow his advice carefully until our “yacht” is ready. A jumble of wood, ropes and tires form the base, and our backpacks wrapped in large plastic bags make up the seats. The Rio kaka awaits us. The team is ready, the morale is very high and the adventure begins.
Since the “raft” is in the water, we hang from the lips of our guide. For most of the way he’s in charge of rowing to go in the right direction, but when he needs help we have to be ready if we don’t want to drift and slam on the rocks destroying our “solid” boat. We understand from the beginning that these seven days will be a return to prehistory, we will be transported and cradled by the rhythm of the waves, we will listen to the noise of the forest, we will all fish and laugh together in joy, and we will leave aside the stress generated and imposed by the force of modern society.
We have now left, Guanay is behind us and we begin the navigation on the Rio Kaka driven by the current. We admire the landscape as we proceed, twirling at certain times over ourselves. Relaxation is assured, speed is very moderate and we have plenty of time to talk, read and listen to the sounds of the surrounding nature. The only bad news is the gold hunters who, for the first two days, will ruin the landscape because they are omnipresent on the banks of the river. After that, every sign of civilization will disappear, and we look forward to this moment.
Until then we test the team to get ready as soon as the captain will need us and so we did: at the first rapids all of us start to row except the two girls in the middle. The raft spins on itself as we proceed through the rapids, jolted from side to side we often receive buckets of water as if to remind us not to lower our concentration. Thanks to the guide’s advice, however, we have placed our clothes inside the backpacks by wrapping them in hermetic plastic bag.
The weather is good and the sun shines just right to dry and warm us up when we need it. The time flies by and we are at peace with ourselves and our surroundings.
One of the biggest challenges is to resist the invisible swarms of the “maribeu”, small flies of sand or water that suck your blood like leeches. We were warned that from the second day, when the forest would thicken, we would have to wear long clothes to cover every part of the body. But I made the big mistake, at first lunch break, to bathe me and stay in costume too long. If I didn’t feel anything at the time, in the evening the itching began to appear, as did the bubbles that filled my back and feet. But a magnificent bonfire by the river under a starry sky had an analgesic effect on me, allowing me to see how beautiful nature can be!
The next morning I already notice that something is wrong, my feet begin to take a strange shape, they are swollen, as well as my hands. The feeling is not yet too accentuated so I keep it for myself.
The more time passes, the more the swelling increases and at lunchtime my feet look deformed. My Australian friends look at me and, as they laugh, they say: “cankle”. This nice definition is the union of two words, “calf” and “ankle” that perfectly describes the lack of shape of the lower part of my legs. Rubén comforts me by telling me that it is a small allergy that often affects European travellers, and there are those who have worse. From now on my outfit will be long linen trousers and socks over the trousers to cover all accesses to the legs, and while sailing I will keep my feet in the water. But my feet are so swollen that already on the second night I start to have problems putting on my shoes. 😛
Every day, the goal is to travel a certain distance to reach your destination according to the planned route. But Rubén always wakes us up when breakfast is ready and we are always late, between eating, dismantling the tents and packing our backpacks. The more we ask him to wake us up before everything is ready, the more he laughs and doesn’t. But that’s part of his character and we like it that way.
Sailing with Rubén is truly relaxing, it is an exceptional guide. It knows the forest like its pockets and rarely feels in danger. It predicts weather conditions better than anyone else and if it announces a change in arrival, it never takes long to arrive.
From time to time it takes us to explore the jungle by picking up and eating coconuts, plane trees and cocoa on the spot.
Every now and then leaving the discomfort of the raft to have the ground still under your feet every now and then is regenerating but, the attack of the “maribeu” makes you immediately want to be gone and, as I see it, it is better to be in motion. Everything takes place in perfect tranquility. Only my feet continue to swell and make my movements rather cumbersome and elephantlike.
Hours go by, we do kilometers on kilometers and we really understand the meaning of the words calm and relax. We enjoy nature.
While we chat and listen to Rubén’s explanations, we devote ourselves to fishing, with cork, wire and fish hook. Our baits are some pieces of chicken and small fish that we catch. at the beginning the activity is a real failure Because of our inexperience and the rare times that we take a fish, in an attempt to remove it from the hook, often slips between our hands falling back into the water, while Rubén laughs.
We arrive at the fourth night and we approach the shore when it’s already dark. The beach is full of spiders and to change is hell. Helping each other, we succeed in the task and leave our clothes wet, as usual, to dry on the rocks in the hope of not finding the next day some nice friend. Like every evening we have to make fire but the island does not offer dry wood and after more than an hour we come out of the battle defeated. Eating dinner in the moonlight means losing the security that comes from the heat and light of the fire, as well as a natural repellent for insects. Fire is the basis of survival in such hostile environments, but for once we should do without it.
The fifth day is the worst, we are hit by an incredible thunderstorm.
We are in the middle of the river and the jungle and finding shelter, even if we approached a shore, would be impossible. We take real buckets of water and find ourselves completely soaked, from head to toe. The more we go on, the more wind and rain grips us, making us freeze from the cold. According to Rubén, the forecasts are not rosy and there is a high probability that it will continue to rain until the evening. Camping in these conditions demoralizes the group so Rubén offers us a possible solution, to continue without stopping trying to reach the military camp asking for a bed in their huts. The journey is long and we are not sure to reach it before it gets dark, but obviously there is no harm in trying.
In order to have a hope of arriving in time we must skip the walk into the jungle. A debate is opened, won by the three girls who show themselves to be rather determined to give up everything and try to reach the camp for shelter. Rain and wind continue to torture us and we are cold and shivering and we try to help Rubén by paddling as much as possible to keep us moving a little.
Unexpectedly, in the late afternoon, the weather begins to improve. Little by little the rays of the sun begin to warm us up, reactivating in us the enthusiasm that faded just before.
The last night will be memorable, we land on a sandbank perfect for camping and the storm leaves us room for an incredible sunset, and we enjoy it in front of a fish dinner, miraculously caught by Rubén after reaching the beach, warmed by fire.
The group is now tested and on the last morning we are ready to leave before Rubén has finished preparing our breakfast. We enjoy the last moments before we take the raft for the last time but it starts raining again. Just enough time to get on board. This time we were prepared and we managed to put on our rain jackets to protect ourselves. The last day runs without great happenings until the arrival in Rurrenabaque, where a long walk awaits us to carry all the equipment to our accommodation. The time to go to lunch and Rubén is gone, with the excuse of putting the raft in place, to meet his lover, and I can finally buy medicines to relieve the swelling of my feet, now two real sausages.
It was a fantastic experience, a real return to the past. Far from the comforts and technology we were plunged into a hostile and wild environment where survival depended only on us and our native friend.
A week that gave me and taught me so much, on a human level.
Interesting facts about the place
We’ve been told that a devastating project is underway. A huge dam will be built and will completely devastate this wild and natural beauty, creating flooding that will evict even the indigenous people. The reason? Need for energy. Power and money are once again trying to oppose and erase the few preserved areas of our planet. The dam has been approved 8 years ago, but work has never begun to date.
The journey we have made is not possible in the opposite direction. Only in rare cases, when local residents have to bring certain goods back to the city, they travel back over the river paying a tax to the communities. But tourists are not welcome.
For 3 months of the year this route is not viable because during the rainy season the river devastates the surrounding areas. For the natives it becomes a real struggle for survival.
Once in fifteen years the rains are so violent that the Amazon forest is devastated. The last time was in February 2014 and the remains of the damage caused by the flooding of the Rio Beni are still visible. Indigenous people flee to the mountains trying to survive with local help and many animals perish.
Often some houses are at least 4-5 hours walk from the first village.
Some men go to work traveling the river on tires, pushed by the current and rowing with their slippers.
Indigenous people live among them, tourists are not allowed. They live on incest, and the few families count between eight and twenty people.
Gold researchers work day and night when they find a good place, so they don’t get their points stolen. They look for Inca treasures that, according to some legends, are buried in this area. It is said that some groups have already found a part of it, but no one says so because the treasure belongs to the state.