How I Left My Heart in the Bolivian Jungle

Motorcycles, piranhas, boats, spotted frogs, sloths, homemade food, caimans, cherimoyas, mosquitoes, and a lot more – it was a two day trip on sensory overload.

It all started when I arrived in Trinidad and was determined to find myself on the river somewhere in the Bolivian Amazon. The bus arrived at 5am from Santa Cruz and I headed straight to the Capitanas office to find a barge ship. The idea was to bum a ride for a few days down the river through the jungle and arrive in Cochabamba. The military personnel at the port weren’t aware of any boats that day and told me to come back at 10am when they would get a radio report of all the outgoing barges. I was back at 10 and the only outgoing trips were northbound, the opposite direction of Cochabamba.

In my tired and disappointed state, I fell asleep while perusing the Lonely Planet in a taxi ride back to the city centre. I woke up to some honking, looked at my book and the words “Chuchini Sanctuary” were staring at me. I inquired a travel agency and they said you don’t need to make any reservations with them – just show up! I got to the streets and found the first mode of transportation which might be my closest re-enactment of the movie Motorcycle Diaries (see below).

Holding on with two hands while carrying 30 pounds of weight on the back of a motorcycle was a thrill which may have sparked a desire to eventually buy one. The ride was about to get especially bumpy when I saw the thin muddy road up ahead. Nearby, a gentleman in front of his house told us to stop since the road was flooded because of the wet-season. The only way to Chuchini from that point was by boat. I got off the bike and went to the port near the road. I spoke to a boat-builder there and convinced him (for a small price) to give me a ride to Chuchini. After 90 minutes of meandering the river, I arrived.

Rosario, an older lady, was there and was more than happy to have me stay at their jungle reserve for as long as I wanted. I told her my adventure since the morning and she suggested I nap before her son arrives later in the afternoon. Falling asleep was easy and two hours later I woke up to what sounded like a snoring dinosaur.

It’s difficult to hear it above since it’s drowned out from everything else. I found out later from Rosario’s son, Ibis, that it was a pack of howler monkeys creating the plane-like noise. Ibis would be my guide for the Chuchini reserve and first showed me to a small building where they kept artifacts.

There was a small snake inside which he had to take out first.

This is the skull of a caiman which was over 4 meters in length.

Afterwards he showed us a few animals on the reserve while I was being brutally eaten alive by the local mosquitoes. Being the wet season, they were in full force and biting anywhere which was exposed (eg, my face). We finally found refuge in the main house. Rosario was making dinner for us. I had earlier mentioned to her that I’m vegetarian and she was excited to cook for me since she once had to go without meat for six months because of an ailment. She made an amazing tower of unknown veggie bliss. It was mainly corn, potato, beans, and all topped with a homemade sauce.

After dinner & tea, Ibis just said lets go for a boat ride. It was already dark outside and I had no idea what the plan was. I put my jacket on and hopped into the canoe with Ibis and Carmine. We were off into the dark yet noisy wilderness. Ibis started shining his flashlight around the edges of the river. In the distance we could see a large gold fleck reflecting back. Ibis just said, “Ojo de caiman.”  I guess we were out looking for caimans!

We went along the river for a while longer without seeing much else and it seemed like we were returning to the reserve. The sound of snort quickly went by our boat. It was a pink river dolphin swimming with us. Ibis guessed it was the dolphins’ fault for keeping the caimans at bay and hidden. As we approached the dock, Ibis yelled “Vamos al otro lado!” Carmine gasped and we began our side adventure. Ibis moved a few branches and vines over and we creeped down a side river. A shiny gold fleck appeared again and we headed straight towards it. As the engine turned off, Ibis didn’t slow down the boats momentum . He immediately got up and suddenly lunged his hand into the water. The boat continued forward and he emerged with a two month caiman in his hand. It was about half a meter (18 inches) in length. We continued on and nonchalantly caught another three month old caiman. The entire ordeal was a complete surprise.

We gradually returned to the dock and brought the two young caimans back with us. The three of us then played cards into the night.

The next morning I was in for another treat of a meal. Fresh Cherimoya fruit and baked yuca with cheese (Sonso). The last time I ate food and felt so at home was back in NY with my own mother’s cooking. Hardly being able to live in the moment, I was soon dreading leaving Chuchini.

After breakfast, we were back in the boat and headed towards a lagoon. We navigated our way through lush jungle by moving vines aside and making our own way through fields of floating lily pads.

We found this gargantuan of a tree while rowing our way around the jungle. Later on, there were some branches we couldn’t squeeze our way around since they were infested with poisonous Amazon worker ants. So, we just “macheted”our way through.

As we finally reached the lagoon, Ibis brought out two sticks, attached lines and bait to them and said “Para pesca!” and I started fishing. I wouldn’t normally go fishing because of my ethical beliefs and had I known beforehand that was the plan, I probably would’ve refused. But, I was very much in the moment and went with it. Ibis soon felt a tug and brought out a small fish.

He opened its mouth and my eyes bulged. It was a PIRANHA. A flood of thoughts ran through my head from “Well, good thing I haven’t fallen in yet!” to “Hell yea, let’s catch some piranhas!” I immediately cast my line out again and tried keeping still as the beastly mosquitoes now started biting through my shirt. I felt a fierce tug and pulled my line out. It was the first fish I ever caught – a flesh-chomping piranha. We brought back a total of four since the local Bolivians find these piranhas a delicacy.

My emotions while rowing back were in complete confusion. I was in regret for killing life and was falling in love with a place that was completely outside my comfort zone. My sense of enjoyment was growing the more I thought about it and justified the fishing as helping to provide some food.

Once we got to the main river, I realized I was surrounded by a lot of small life.

Leaving the Chuchini reserve was setting in and I wanted to stay longer. I couldn’t exactly place what it was that I liked so much. Maybe it’s just as my friend Amanda from PSF put it – “I felt such a surreal attachment to the tangled nature.”

Trying to further rationalize, I thought about all the running around and work I did to eventually arrive there and when I did, they welcomed me warmly. But on the other hand, there was enough to dislike as well. I should have been happy to leave the mosquitoes as they never gave up. I had bites all over my back from when they bit through my shirt. So what was it about the dual nature? Why wasn’t I OK with leaving as I did every other place during my journey? The best answer I could come up with is – it was just like home. Sure, there was some stress involved, but that didn’t stop me from being miraculously at peace.

Apologies for the shaking as I was rowing and holding the camera at once.

8 thoughts on “How I Left My Heart in the Bolivian Jungle

  1. “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult.”

    Treasure your experiences as they are priceless, consider yourself blessed.

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