I entered the Serere reserve in the Bolivian jungle during the dry season with Madidi Travel, a sustainable tourism company who have offices based in La Paz and Rurrenabaque. The Serere Reserve is made up of four thousand hectares of protected jungle. The company only takes small groups into the reserve to teach about the rainforest, and puts the money towards environment conservation instead of letting it fall into the hands of poachers, loggers, fishermen and miners.
To get to the reserve I travelled from Rurrenabaque by boat down the Beni River. This is a great way to travel through the jungle, however two hours into our journey I realised that I should have gone to the bathroom before our journey began! You learn that if in need of an emergency comfort break, the use of hand signals and shouting “BAÑO?” at the driver for a couple of minutes will definitely help! After the 4 hour boat ride I scrambled up the river bank with my backpack, took a brief glance at the Madidi travel sign (and map) and started into the jungle. It was hot! But even the intense heat and humidity couldn’t distract from how amazing the Bolivian Jungle is.
My first experience of solo jungle trekking made me realise that I wasn’t actually ever trekking alone – there is so much life there! I could hear all of the bugs, birds and monkeys around me, yet they remained invisible to the untrained eye. The trees were so dense that only strips of sunlight could shine through and in one ray of sunshine right next to me I saw a butterfly, the size of my face dancing in circles…then I remembered that the butterflies here were poisonous. Forty minutes in and after several ducks and dives through the jungle terrain, I reached the Madidi travel eco lodge.
Now when you’re at home packing to trek through a jungle, how much bug spray are you really supposed to pack? When I entered the Bolivian jungle I soon learnt that everything, and I mean everything wants to eat you. The mosquitos here are ruthless. They will bite you through 3 layers of clothing, one even got through my hiking trainers and I swear that they actually liked the taste of my repellent spray! So, lesson learned. You can never have enough bug spray, you will get bitten, and check your mosquito net every time you get into bed. Jungle = apocalypse by mosquito!
I was lucky enough to visit the reserve when they were hosting a group of 5 black spider monkeys. Poaching here is a big problem, and because of this these 5 were orphaned at a very young age. The monkeys are free to go off into the jungle but they mostly choose to stick around (probably for the bananas!) They may have a cheeky disposition, but as soon as I met them I fell in love! Holding a monkey has got to be one of the best things I have ever done. I do not know why anyone would want to hurt one of these fascinating animals. Their facial expressions and the way they play and interact is fascinating to observe.. After 2 whole days of monkey cuddles, I was informed by our guide that they carry parasites…. *puts monkey down*
Our guide Rigo was an incredible man. So happy and so friendly. Walking through the jungle on our first night, Rigo suddenly stopped in the darkness. Then he pointed and said “Pigs. Ten of them. 200 meters. That way” and carried on walking. I couldn’t hear or see anything.
Another night whilst we were out on the canoe he managed to spot a turtle on a log from five hundred meters away. Then, holding his nose he began to make the sound of the baby Caiman to attract the adults. Shining his torch around, along the surface of the water he tells me he can see 7 Caiman. I can only see 2.
He is from an Indigenous family so he has endless knowledge about the forest. Thanks to him I eventually managed to train my eye and got to see 4 species of monkey, a sloth, a harpy eagle, caiman, spiders, snakes, insects, a lot of birds and piranhas!
Despite there being no electricity the cook made us delicious meals 3 times a day. For breakfast we had homemade ‘yuka’ bread with ‘dulce de leche’ and papaya marmalade that were both made from scratch. Lunch and dinner were both 3 course meals consisting of a delicious meat or fish with a combination of potatoes, rice or veg. You have to eat a lot in this environment to keep your strength up
Sleeping in the jungle is magical. The night sky in the Serere reserve is filled with stars; you can see thousands of milky ways and there are sections of sky that are almost white with twinkling lights. Waking up in the jungle is magical too. The very air you breathe seems to be alive with noise, yet it’s so relaxing. The sound of rain is actually a shower of leaves made by hundreds of yellow squirrel monkeys leaping through the trees, and the squawks of a couple of flying macaws echo all around.
On my last evening at the reserve I was stood at the edge of the lake photographing a baby Caiman in the water. I decided to get into the canoe to take a better photo. I wiggled my finger in the water to draw the Caiman closer. Slowly he glided towards me until he was less than 2 meters away. (By this point I’d removed my finger.) I was concentrating so hard on getting the perfect photo that it wasn’t until I heard a parrot in the tree shouting “HOLA! BANANAS!” that I lifted my head and saw that 2 sneaky monkeys had joined me in the boat, a nosy Tapir was watching from the bank and a flock of chickens had started pecking about.
Being out there, away from wi-fi and the comforts of my own home, and even away from electricity awakes the soul. It was actually really nice to not be in contact with the outside world. It was really nice for everything to be so simple. And despite the jungle being such a challenging place for a westerner, I came to love my adapted lifestyle.
I got used to wearing dirty clothes.
I got used to having monkey poo on me.
I got used to being scared shitless of the Tapir following me to my cabin each night.
I got used to the terrifying roar of the howler monkeys.
I got used to checking for ticks with the flashlight.
I got used to walking into spider webs.
Despite the above, I still loved the experience. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life and I could have stayed longer, BUT when you smell worse than the monkeys do…you know it’s probably time to seek a bath somewhere!