The mud of the bog clung to my wellington boots, thick muck leaking in and squelching underfoot. The hard afternoon sun beat down on a small group of tourists as we traipsed after our guide, through the stinking wetland swamp.
We were hunting for an anaconda (an effort doomed to failure, though we found a dead electric eel)--an activity not uncommon for backpackers in the Bolivian Amazon. I was part of a group visiting the Pampas, an Amazonian river teaming with birds and snakes and grinning caiman.
Before our serpent hunt began, the guide warned us that the area was home to five types of poisonous snake, four of them deadly. Someone in our group asked if the guide was carrying any anti-venom.
"No," he replied, jovially.
I asked him what would happen if one of us got bitten.
"You die," was the simple, less than reassuring response.
Deep within Madidi National Park (a 18,958 square kilometre patch of protected jungle in the Bolivian Amazon) there is a shrine to a dead girl.
It isn't much to look at; a stone bearing a little clay cave, which shelters a crucifix, a crinkled photo of two girls, and a broken pair of sunglasses.
Ask a local guide about it, and they will shake their head and mutter: "Very sad story." The photograph is of two tourists from England, who were touring the Bolivian jungle--with a fairly safe, reputable agency. On their very first day, an unexpected gust of wind tore through the jungle and sent trees toppling.
Sadly, one of the two tourists was caught beneath a falling tree.
All it takes is a little bad luck, when you're in the wild.
Outside of its dodgier big-city neighborhoods, Bolivia generally feels very safe--perhaps safer than it should.
On the road to Uyuni, my group (like most) was encouraged to take photos of an active geyser, venturing to the edge if its sulphurous, smoking pits. A fellow tourist idly mentioned a similar geyser in Yellowstone National Park--but that one is surrounded by safety railings, making it impossible to venture near its boiling edges. After all, one wrong slip could mean a set of fatal burns.
A few hours from La Paz, tourists flock to the town of Coroico to bike down the famous Death Road--a spiralling mountain path that courts cliff edges. It's an incredibly touristy activity these days, which by all accounts feels rather controlled and safe... so much so it's easy to forget that between 100 and 300 people die there each year.
And along the Pampas river, Mr. No Anti-Venom sought to cheer my group following our failed anaconda hunt by offering us a chance to swim with dolphins. Pink river dolphins abound in the Pampas, playing as they swim. It was perfectly safe to venture into the murky water, the guide assured my group, when we saw pink humps cresting.
On the nearby river bank, a pair of caiman lounged, with their reptile smirks. Don't worry, our guide promised us. Caiman won't get in the water with the river dolphins; the dolphins are very aggressive toward caiman, keeping them scared back.
A few minutes later, one of the caiman slipped into the water. Don't worry, the guide assured us again. He isn't interested in you. You'll be fine, I promise.
And we were all fine, in fairness. We waded in the water (the others for longer than me; I ventured back to the boat to fetch a pair of glasses) and we didn't come to harm.
But animals aren't clockwork; they don't always work the same way. Much as with that unfortunate girl in the jungle, all it takes is one piece of bad luck for things to go very wrong. There are more than a few stories about tourists who got too close to an adventurous caiman, and had something bitten off.
It's fun to swim with caiman.
But watch out for those teeth.
> Rurrenabaque is crawling with agencies offering trips to the Pampas river and into the jungle reaches of Madidi National Park, some much cheaper than others. There are plenty of stories about bargain basement tours run by duplicitous con-men and alcoholic guides, while the more expensive trips feel comparatively overpriced.
I took a cheap tour to the Pampas, and a more expensive tour to the jungle, both lasting three days. The difference wasn't huge. In the jungle, my treehouse lodgings were something close to lavish, but only for my first night--then it was camping in the undergrowth. The pricier guide felt more skilled (if also more taciturn), but there was a greater sense of fun with the cheaper guide, who would quite merrily drive his boat while tipsy.
Ultimately, the content of cheaper and expensive tours is quite similar, so it's a question of how much you value comfort. Though watch out for some of the ultra-cheap jungle tours, as the smaller agencies will sometimes try to save money by dumping tourists on the fringes of the jungle, instead of in the National Park itself.
>The more expensive agency I chose was Max Adventures, while the cheaper was called Amazonicus. Escorpion is another cheap agency which seemed to have a reasonable reputation (although in practice, most of the cheap agencies work together, and lump all their tourists into the same tour group).