Floating in a tropical river, Day 1 of 6: Adventure on the road

Day 1 

It's 2:30pm in the afternoon.  I'm standing by a police check point on a rural road, waiting for a blue bus.  The road is gravel without pavement, very dusty.  When vehicles pass by, the smell of emission from low quality fuel makes it even harder to breathe.

This morning I did an exciting and unforgettable mountain bike ride descending 2500 metres, or maybe more.  This is the first part of a 6-day bike ride and river rafting tour.  I booked it through an agency called Deep Rainforest more than a month before I started the traveling.  Now the bike ride part is completed, the next is the river rafting.

The communication with DR has been quite uneasy, or even stressful.  Their insistence of paying in advance through Western Union has caused lots of hassles even before I left for the trip.  The bike ride is outsourced to another tour operator which DR never lets me know.  After the bike ride, through a broken cell phone conversation, DR told me to wait here for a blue bus of a specific plate number.  I'm thinking that this trip could be a big group.  They need a bus!

The policeman tries to chat with me, but he doesn't know any English, while I basically don't know Spanish. (Shame on me, who took Spanish class a few years ago in Guatemala.)  Interestingly, a young lady selling bread to passengers is able to use English very well.  She joins the chat when there is no vehicle coming.

4:40pm, the blue bus comes.  Confirmed the plate number, I board the bus and expect to see a full bus of gringos.  To my surprise, all passengers are Bolivians.  This is not a tour bus.  Then where should I get off the bus?  Luckily my smart phone keeps the initial itinerary that DR emailed me.  It says I should go to a place called Caranavi.  I ask the driver whether it goes to this place, he nods with a "si" (yes).

Checking my GPS, the distance is only about 50km, but the bus goes really slow.  7pm, the bus arrives at Caranavi.  It's already very dark.  I get off the bus but find no one waiting for me.  I keep repeating DR to the driver but he has no clue.  Eventually I find DR's phone number and ask the driver to call.  When it gets connected, I am told to go back to the same bus to continue the ride, and go to "Wanai".  OMG, what is Wanai and why I go there?  It's not mentioned in the itinerary at all!

Back to the bus, I check my GPS again.  OK, it's called Guanai.  But this name does not appear in the email either.  Anyway, I have no other choice.  So this is another 3 hours.  At about 10pm, the bus arrives at Guanai.  Just outside the bus, a smiling mid-age man obviously is expecting me.

His name is Ruben.  He speaks very little English, but seems he is able to understand some of my English words.  He leads me to a hostel.  I tell him that I need dinner.  Yes, I am really hungry at this point.  It's about 10 hours from my last meal, the lunch.  We go to a street eatery and get a simple meal for myself.

While I'm eating, we chat a little bit.  The conversation involves lots of body language, which helps to pass the information through more or less.  At this point I come to know that Ruben is the guide for the whole trip, I'm the only guest for this rafting tour--Some (probably two) others became sick and were not able to make it.

Only me?  I try to confirm several times through different ways with Ruben, he gives me very positive answer.  That means I will have to stay with only this person, with minimum understanding of each other's language, for the next 5 days?  OMG!


The hostel I stay.  It looks quite good though.

The town centre square of Guanai:

A shelter at the street median, probably for rain:

Fruit vendor on the street:

Another view of a Guanai street:

Guanai is by the river of Rio Coco:

A local house:

The school is the biggest building in Guanai, with a nice soccer field:

null -sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2023-1-23
I don't know if I would travel this way myself

It seems very interesting and kind of sketchy. I don’t think it’s the kind of travel for normal ordinary people, it takes a lot of gut… But good for you for being so brave.

I think it’s better to know more about Spanish if you really want to travel in South America though… and good writing by the way :)

-sunnyjclim(Sunny) 2015-9-9
It takes some time and experience to feel comfortable to travel in a backpacking way. Along my trips I've met numerous young backpackers. Many of them just finished high school.
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2015-11-5
Floating in a tropical river, Day 2 of 6: River trip starts

8am in the morning Ruben brings me to his home for breakfast.  Just outside the courtyard is the river bank, the river we are going to float down.

After breakfast, Ruben takes a machete and goes upstream.  Later he floats down the river with a bunch of bamboo sticks.  I go to the town centre for Internet access.  When I come back, the raft is already made.  It's very primitive: 6 big tubes with a bamboo framework.

The whole morning Ruben keeps going here and there to buy something required for the trip: fishing hooks and line; eggs, vegetables, etc.  Although the itinerary said we should leave around 9am, the actual time is 3 hours late, after we finish lunch in town.

There are quite a few sacks on the raft.  My backpack is in a waterproof sack, tied with a rubber stripe.  It also serves as my seat.  My laptop and electronics are in my own waterproof bag, inside a watertight barrel.

When I look at the sands on the beach, there are tiny shining pieces.  They are gold.  I take a picture but seems we cannot really tell from the picture.

Along the river there are many gold mines, big or small.  It's a combination of big machines and labour:  big diggers dig masses of rock, sand and mud from the river bed; trucks take the masses to the top of a steel slide.  While the masses slide down, workers use high pressure water to wash the masses.  The rocks and stones go down the main slide, mixture of water, mud and sand go down through a side slide, and the pieces of gold is collected somewhere. (I don't know exactly how though.)

This kind of mining operation makes the river water very murky.  This murky water flows down along the river, merges into a bigger river, eventually merges into the main Amazon River and goes into the Atlantic Ocean.

Obviously we cannot drink the river water.  Luckily, there are some creeks on the side. We fill such clear water into bottles.  I add water treatment solution into the bottle for drinking.  The other bottles are for cooking.

The river is generally calm.  Still there are quite a few rapids, probably at level one or two.

Currently it's the dry season.  It may be a lot of rain during wet season.  We see a land slide.  When there is too much water, the vegetation is not able to hold the water and the soil, if it's steep.

About the sunset time, we arrive at a village.  This would be the last village we see on the river.  Ruben buys some tomatoes, a pack of cigarrettes, and a bag of coca leaves.  Local people chew coca leaves a lot, as it has some medicinal effects to ease altitude sickness.  But I don't understand why they also do so in low altitude jungle area.  Modern chemistry process extracts and refines something bad from coca leaves.  That's cocaine.

It gets darker and darker.  We find a beach and camp.  Unfortunately not too far away on the other side of the river, there is another gold mining place.  We hear the noise all night because they work day and night, none stop.

null -sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2023-1-23
Floating in a tropical river, Day 3 of 6: Fishing in the river

Although last night there was a full moon and lots of stars, this morning there are clouds and fog.  The sun comes out, it burns away the fog slowly.

Around 8am, we start the floating.  Compared to yesterday, there is more natural view on the riverside.

We see motor boats coming and going.  Local people travel in the morning.

There are fewer large gold mines today.  What we see are just a few smaller all-in-one mining stations.  Made in China, such station sits in the river, does all jobs from digging to washing.  A pile of stones is created in the middle of the river.

The workers are living in very simple tents, as seen in this picture.

When we get to a calm section of the river, I jump into the water for a swim.  This is our only way of bathing, although the water is still murky.

The fishing line Ruben bought yesterday is actually very thick.  As he explains, this is to make sure that the fish don't bite too hard and break the line.  This gives me an impression that there are huge fish with sharp teeth in this river.  However, his fishing hook is too small.  He struggles a lot trying to push the thick line through the eye of hook.  After trying for about one hour, he gives up and uses regular line for the hook.  Hopefully we don't catch too big fish. :)

Ruben keeps paddling and navigating, so it is me to do the actual fishing work.  The bait is some chicken fat, left over from last night's dinner.  I'm not quite sure how the fish could see this delicious bait in murky water.  Interestingly enough, just within one minute I throw the hook down, I get a bite!  It's a cat fish, about 0.7 pound.  Ruben keeps the fish in a mesh sack and leaves it in the water.  This way the fish stays alive.

It takes longer for the next fish to bite, and much longer for the third.  Probably there is a broadcasting system in this river:  Don't bite any chicken fat! :)  Eventually we get 4 fish for the day.

In the afternoon we arrive at a plantation.  It's for plantain trees, but the first fruit tree we see is a papaya tree.  On the ground there is a ripe one, obviously fallen down from the tree.  It is broken on one end due to the impact.  Ruben cuts the unbroken half and we share it.  That's the sweetest papaya I've ever had!  I never had a papaya naturally ripened on the tree!

With his machete, Ruben cuts a long bamboo stick.  With that he jabs down 3 papayas from the tree.  While I carry them to the raft, he cuts a huge bunch of plantains.

Back to the river, we float down some short distance and get to the beach again.  This time Ruben collects some limes.  They are for cooking the fish.

After sunset, we arrive at another beach.  Unlike last night, this one is very peaceful.  What we can hear is only the singing of birds.  

The moon rises above the river, with it's reflection on the water.  

There are quite some drift wood on the beach.  While Ruben is preparing for dinner, I collect some wood and make a camp fire.  The night gets a bit chilly.  It's perfect to have dinner by the fire.  Dinner is the fish, very tasty.

null -sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2023-1-23
Floating in a tropical river, Day 4: Catching fish

Same as yesterday morning, there is a layer of fog this morning, waiting for the sun to burn it away.

There is no gold mining in this part of the river.  Also there are a lot less motor boats.  The river appears very peaceful.

We start fishing in the morning.  Ruben uses the super thick line with a huge hook of about one and a half inches wide.  His bait is a piece of fish meat from yesterday.  I've been wondering how big a fish he is going to get, with such a huge hook.

Interestingly enough, he gets one regular size cat fish.  I get one as well.  That's all what we get for the whole morning.

We stop at another plantation.  This time Ruben picks cacao fruit for me.  It's the one that chocolate is made from, probably using the seeds.  But the fruit itself does not have much to eat.  It's only a slippery thin layer covering the seeds, with some slightly sweet flavour.

At noon time we arrive at a place where a branch river is joining.  This branch is of clearer water.  While Ruben is preparing lunch, I dip myself into the water, wearing only my hat to block the sun.  So far this is the best dip!

The lunch is fried fish and fried plantain, quite tasty.

As we continue to float down, I see something jumping near the shore, where a creek joins the river.  Fish!  Ruben obviously knows it quite well.  As soon as we reach the beach, he jumps down with his machete, quickly runs to the creek, and starts to chop in the creek.  He gets fish!  Then he starts trying to catch fish with just bare hands, and he gets one!

Later in the afternoon we enter the Madidi Nation Park.  To be exact, we are just outside the boundary.  Separated by this river, on the left it's the park, while on the right it's reserved land for indigenous people.

Later in the afternoon we enter a canyon section.  High mountains are on both sides, the river becomes deeper and appears not flowing.  We had to paddle a lot.  Another annoying thing is there are many mosquitos, a lot more than the previous days.  They are tiny but aggressive.  Although I wear long sleeves and long pants, they bite on every possible exposed spot: my face, my hands, and my neck.

We paddle even after it turns dark.  Finally we land on a small beach, which sticks into the river like a small peninsular. 

This location is far away from any villages, no light can be seen.  While we are having dinner, the stars are so bright.  We can see the milky way!  I'm thinking about taking pictures, but when I finish the dinner, the full moon rises and the milky way disappears.

It becomes very windy late at night.  The river was so calm in the afternoon, but now it has big waves.  We have to fix the tents with extra ropes in order to keep them in place.

null -sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2023-1-23
Ruben rocks!
-littlesweetbean(Café) 2015-10-4
For catching fish with bare hands? :)
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2015-10-4
For being a good guide and a handyman. :)
-littlesweetbean(Café) 2015-10-4
Floating in a tropical river, Day 5 of 6: Wild macaws

Before we leave in the morning, Ruben tells me to have my camera ready.  There will be macaws.  Not too far later, we come to a place where there is a high cliff by the water.  At the top there is a big flock of macaws on the trees.  They have beautiful colours, blue on the back and orange in the belly.  The way they fly is beautiful and elegant.

Ruben notices that a tube is leaking.  We land on the beach to repair it.  There is an indigenous person living nearby.  After fixing the tube, Ruben goes to chat with him.  They make a deal to barter:  The indigenous person gives Ruben a big portion of fish, half way sun-dried.  In exchange, Ruben gives him 4 bun breads, some coca leaves, some cigarettes, and a half cup of whisky.  Ruben tells me that indigenous people love whisky very much.

We then take a hike into the jungle.  It's not so impressive though, except that we see the head of a dead warthog.  It was hunted by indigenous people.  The body was taken away, only the head and gut was left in the jungle.

The hike is about one and a half hours.  Ruben wants to cook lunch on the raft while we continue to float, in order to save time.  So we switch positions.  I go to the front to navigate and paddle, he goes to the back to cook.  It goes well until we get a flat tube.  At that time both of us are eating, our raft runs into a hidden stick in the water.  The previously leaking tube is punched.  Ruben has to rearrange the tubes to keep the balance of the whole raft.

Later in the afternoon, we meet a motor boat heading upstream.  Ruben barters again.  This time he gets back almost the same things he previously gave to the indigenous person: 4 buns, coca leaves and cigarettes.  What he gives away is the bunch of plantains he cut 2 days ago.

At night, I finally have a chance to take pictures of the night sky.  With 30 seconds of exposure time, we are able to see the milky way in a picture.  Do you notice that each star appears to be a very short line?  That's because the earth has rotated a little bit during the 30 seconds!

null -sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2023-1-23
Floating in a tropical river, Day 6 of 6: It rains finally.

(The beach we camped last night)

Same as previous days, in the morning it's cloudy and foggy.  But they stay this time.  The sun does not seem to come out.  

When we start the floating, it starts to rain.  Yeah!  It has been so much UV these days, good to have some rain, finally!

We come to another canyon.  The low cloud stays half way on the mountains.  This brings some romantic feeling.

Then we see some more boats coming and going.  Then we see some boats mooring by the beach.  Yes, we are back to civilization again. 

At 11am, we arrive at our destination, a town called Rurrenabaque.  On the other side of river is a construction site.  In the future there will be a bridge connecting both shores.  For now, vehicles have to cross the river by ferries.

We take the sacks to the roadside.  Ruben breaks the raft down.  The bamboo sticks go away down the river, the tubes are kept.  Ruben will take them with him and go back to Guanai by bus.  He's going to reuse them for the next trip.

The 5-day floating comes to an end.  The arrival time is 7 hours before the schedule.  There is a reason.  During the past 5 days, Ruben has skipped quite a few walking activities in the itinerary, including a night walk in the jungle.  To be honest, those walks are the selling point that attracted me to sign up for this trip.  Although this trip has been a great one, I'm still disappointed somehow for not having those walks.

For 5 days, the beautiful jungle sceneries have been staying with me, to the point that I get used to them, to the point that they reach the deepest part of my brain, and my heart.  I'll be able to remember these sceneries, probably longer than the mosquito bites on my hands and bum.

null -sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2023-1-23
Just found that my American friend Kim, who I met in my Ecuador trip, also took the same adventure!

Here's what Kim wrote:

It was the best thing I did in Bolivia! Too bad more people don’t know about it... or maybe it’s a good thing!

I was at the same check point waiting for the bus to come...only I didn’t have a plate number. The police were freaked out that I was sitting there for hours. I didn’t speak Spanish either. The bus ended up coming 7 hours late due to a flat tire that happened before I got on. Luckily I have 3 other gringos that were on the bus who knew to look for me and I woke them up when I got on the bus to see if they were expecting another gringo. We arrived at our destination at 2:30 am and Ruban wasn’t there. Luckily, I was the only one with a phone and was able to call him otherwise we wouldn’t have known what to do. In the end Ruban was awesome and the trip was well worth it! 

-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-4
Just found that my American friend Kim, who I met in my Ecuador trip, also took the same adventure!
Some of the best memories in life are from traveling.
-myoldguns(老枪) 2018-11-4
Exactly! Read a thousand books, travel a thousand miles...
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-4
Should be 10 thousands.
-thegirlbefore(Jane) 2018-11-4
You read more and go further. :D
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-4
Thanks for sharing. I think it's an interesting but scary experience! It's an adventure but not tourism. Did you feel comfortable and peaceful to float on the river for 6 days (not a short time) ,
especially when you were having language issues and equipped simply? -sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-11
Hello new friends, it's my first time to visit the Rolia english version. Please feel free to let me know the errors and mistakes in my english writing. Thanks!
-sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-11
Welcome! Your writing is amazing. No need to worry about mistakes, if there is any. It's like the way we use Chinese: there might be errors but we are not concerned.
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-12
-sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-13
I was expecting to have a group of guests. So when I confirmed that I was the only one, I was quite disappointed. But I felt peaceful. It was not a comfortable trip though. Very primitive. :)
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-12
Perhaps your name, Prince Sailor, makes you brave to face that type of adventures, doesn't it? 😁😁
-sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-13
It's just not as comfy as staying in a 5-star resort. But throughout the trip I was like a prince: no need to work, someone cooked for me... isn't it amazing? :D
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-13
Yes, that real 1:1 small group services of both guide and hospitality.
-sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-13
Perhaps you have had lots of experience and skills of living near and on the sea?
-sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-13
Not really. :p I don't know how to sail, how to fish using a net, etc...
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-13
Could I know how much (roughly) did you pay for the guide or the travel agency? Please don't be offended. I have no intention to dig your privacy numbers,
but just want to learn the local economic conditions and estimate the possible public safety issues for travellers. Thanks for your understanding. -sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-13
I paid the agency. Around USD $320. It's an expensive one according to Bolivia standard. Regarding safety, Latin American countries are not so good on this issue, especially in big cities. Avoid going out after sunset.
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-13
6 days' adventure for $320. The cost is low. It's a good deal as long as no robbery or other safety issues.
-sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-14
The service is minimum though... :D Among the several Latin American countries I've been too, Bolivia is safer, especially in the countryside.
-sailor(Ocean & Mountain) 2018-11-14
Thanks for sharing your adventure experience!
-sunshinecanada(Sunshine Canada) 2018-11-18