Bugs and Boars in the Bolivian Jungle
Article and photos by Ted
“Wait. Hold on. STOP!”
It was the first time I’d heard Juan,
our Bolivian guide, raise his voice. I froze.
Juan leapt forward, thrusting his hand
into the forest. He pulled out a black snake, holding it
by the head so the mouth was open, fangs dripping. The snake
slapped and twisted against his arm, reaching just past
“This,” he said with a huge smile, “is
the second most dangerous snake in the world.”
After we had admired it long enough,
he pointed at a passage through the trees and said, “Walk
We took ten steps, and he tossed the
snake into the forest and sprinted up to us. He scratched
his chin, looked around, and chose a direction: “Let’s go
this way now.”
Three days of hiking in the jungle with
Juan was like walking in circles in the dark with a blindfold
on. Sometimes we followed trails — faint, overgrown trails
that never went in a straight line and crisscrossed each
other, like animal trails. Often it seemed like we were
simply trudging through the trees with no direction and
no plan. There were no landmarks, only the river and the
The camp was four dilapidated plywood
huts on stilts with thatched roofs in a clearing in the
jungle about the size of a basketball court, half a day
upstream on the Beni River from Rurrenabaque in central
Known as Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon
jungle, Rurrenabaque is a small, quiet town, not much more
than 10 blocks of red-dirt streets and concrete buildings
on the banks of the wide, red-dirt Beni River, a distant
tributary of the Amazon.
A small hill on the edge of town overlooks
this flatness — an endless swampy expanse of green that
falls into the horizon like the ocean, only interrupted
by the twisting brown river, barely visible through the
Though tiny, Rurrenabaque is an important
meeting place for traders from remote, upstream jungle towns,
along with tourists like me. Visiting the Amazon jungle
in Bolivia is significantly cheaper than in neighboring
Brazil or Peru.
A typical jungle trip in 2007 was about
$20 USD for three days, which included two 6-hour boat rides,
three meals a day, and a dirty, blood stained (from insect
bites) cot under a mosquito net, with only a torn, flimsy
screen between you and the creeping jungle.
I visited in low season, so every travel
agency offered big discounts and, as I found out later,
at night everyone played pool in the same bar.
After visiting several tour companies,
I chose Anaconda Tours for two reasons: It was the cheapest,
and I liked Juan.
He was a tall, muscular, handsome, dark
guy who always had a huge cheek full of coca leaves. In
fact, he was the one who taught me to add a pinch of baking
soda to the leaves, to release the “potency.”
Coca leaves can be processed into cocaine,
but anyone who has visited the Andes Mountains knows that
the leaves are legal and commonly consumed. Most restaurants
in the region offer coca leaves as an alternative to coffee
at breakfast, for example.
Coca leaves are known to help with altitude
sickness, but being that the jungle is far, far lower than
the high mountainous plains of central and western Bolivia,
which includes the capital La Paz, Juan and I chewed them
for the relaxing buzz and the tingling feeling in the mouth.
Plus, at less than a dollar for a big bag, they are cheap
— though that didn’t stop Juan from constantly pinching
Juan was in his mid twenties, but he
didn’t know his birthday. He was from a tiny native community
four days upriver.
“It’s a different world,” he told me.
“There’s no electricity, no phones, no TV — nothing like
He pointed at my shoes. “There’s no
shoes.” He pointed at my shirt. “No clothes like that. I
knew everybody and everybody knew me. There’s no privacy.”
“How often do you go there?” I asked,
wondering how much he would charge to take me.
“Well, I came to Rurrenabaque when I
was 18 or 19. I haven’t been back.”
“I could go if I could afford the boat
trip, but then I’d probably lose my job.” He worked every
day — he only got time off if there were no clients, but
even then he had to spend all day in the office waiting
“So you haven’t talked to your family?”
“Not for four years, since I came here.
But occasionally someone comes downriver and gives me news.
Everyone’s fine — nothing’s changed.”
“Once or twice.”
“No,” he laughed. “Once or twice since
Juan slashed at some vines with his
machete. “It was hard coming here, that’s for sure. I caught
a ride on a boat
— occasionally a fisherman gets the bright idea to
fill their boat with fruit, or baskets, or medicine, or
something like that, and bring it down to Rurrenabaque to
sell. They never go back. So I went with one of them. I
showed up in Rurrenabaque with nothing — no place to stay,
no money, no Spanish. I learned English before I learned
“Where did you stay? I mean, where did
“In the jungle. There was more of it
“What did you eat?”
“Whatever — fish, fruit from the jungle.
It didn’t take me long to get this job.”
“Don’t you miss it? I mean the village
— the nature, your family, your whole life before?”
He was quiet for a while. “You know,
it feels like a dream to me now.”
A cheerful Israeli named Sarah was the
only other person on our jungle trip. She slept with Juan
in the guide hut.
She was up ahead, crouching and peering
at something on the jungle floor. “I guess you’d have to
give that up,” I said.
He laughed loud enough to startle Sarah,
and said, “You got it, man!”
But Juan was much more than a fun-loving
opportunist or the token native used to sell tours. During
our hikes, Juan constantly taught us about the forest. “Stop
here,” he’d say, and he’d slash the bark of a tree with
his machete. Milky white liquid poured out, like blood from
a wound. One time, even, the liquid was red. “This is a
powerful medicine,” he said.
Yes, this was the jungle. The real jungle
— the deep, dark, living jungle. Life is everywhere, sprouting
out of the ground or off a tree — flying, clinging, creeping
and crawling. And Juan knew all about it.
He took a handful of leaves and crushed
them into pulp, added water, and dyed our forearms. He took
some twigs and lit them on fire, explaining that the smoke
has healing qualities.
From low branches on huge trees he pulled
down fruit I’ve never seen before or since — small white
things, the size of a plum, with many pits instead of one;
long pea pod type things, but sweet and strange; and small
berries that only a lunatic would eat without being assured
by a smiling native that they were ok.
These were our days: long aimless hikes
in the jungle with bleeding trees, strange fruit, and more
animals than in a zoo — though we heard them much more than
we saw them.
But we did see a few. Once, while Sarah
and I sat by the river, fishing for piranha, a tapir, the
pig-like beast with an elephant nose, strolled out of the
forest, swam across the river, and stepped into the trees
on our side without once glancing in our direction.
Another time, also by the river, a pair
of parrots flew overhead. They were as big as eagles, but
with huge green and red tails. How nice to see them so far
from a cage!
Monkeys screamed at us as we hiked,
though a flash of black fir was usually all we could see
of them from their homes high up in the canopy.
Also mostly invisible were the massive
groups of wild boars (officially called peccaries) that
stalk the forest. Juan warned us about them, how they are
dangerous with huge tusks and powerful jaws, and that they
run in packs of well over a hundred.
Juan heard the boars before us. He told
us to stay still and quiet. The floor of the jungle began
to shake, like an earthquake. Suddenly the sound rushed
at us from all around, so loud we couldn't hear each other,
a mix of stomping hooves and angry snorts, with a smell
worse than any industrial pig farm I’ve passed on an American
Yes, the jungle is LOUD. In comparison,
the mountain forests of the Rockies in North America are
dead quiet. A bird chirps, some leaves rustle, and the occasional
squirrel squawks at you. But, especially if you climb high
enough, you might actually experience real silence. A mountain
stream — canyons and waterfalls — sounds like a garbage
truck thrown off the Empire State Building.
But there’s no silence in the jungle.
Birds sing and monkeys howl. Huge herds of wild boar stampede
through. Deer roar like jaguars - and yes, there are jaguars
out there, though according to Juan you would never mistake
their roars for deer.
And more than anything, there’s the
constant whine, click, and hum of insects. The insects are
as much a part of the forest as water, soil or dead leaves
— they are everywhere.
Mosquitoes and thousands of flies, from
no-see-ums to colorful ones bigger than horseflies, constantly
swarm around your greasy hair. But the worst bites are from
ants. Long trains of ants march from trees to their mounds,
carrying chewed up leaves like the sails of a galleon. Like
the flies they come in many sizes.
One ant, about the size of a queen ant
from North America, is called the 5-minute ant. I got bit
a few times. The spot is acutely painful for 5 minutes.
Another is the 24-hour ant. You get
But after dark, the bugs cease to be
a nuisance and, with the right inspiration, can become a
source of fascination.
On my last night in the jungle camp,
another group arrived. Sarah and Juan had already disappeared,
so I sat with the four British tourists and their guide
in the cook building, sharing their whisky and my coca leaves.
Outside the jungle hummed, buzzed, shrieked
and roared. The smell of heavy soil rose into the air, mixing
with the caked-on grease of old pots and pans in the kitchen.
I squinted though the darkness at the
flimsy screen walls. They seemed to be moving. So I turned
on my flashlight.
The walls, the ceiling, the floor, and
the picnic table where we sat crawled with cockroaches.
“Turn off the light!” shrieked one of the girls.
“No,” I said. “Look closer.”
Yes, they were cockroaches, but iridescent,
colorful ones. And among them were golf-ball sized beetles
with huge horns, adorned with a rainbow colors that changed
color as you changed the direction of the light.
“Wow,” she said, turning on her flashlight
We went outside to walk through the
jungle. I turned the beam of the flashlight into the trees,
and hundreds of tiny pairs of eyes reflected back.
I turned the beam onto the trail, and
I could barely see the soil, so covered it was with bugs.
It was same with any tree trunk or low hanging branch. The
jungle moved. It pulsed and breathed with the crawling of
We didn’t go far until bigger noises
frightened us back to our sweat-soaked cots and mosquito
nets full of holes.
The next morning the boat came early
for Sarah, Juan and me. My backpack and all my clothes were
moist with dew and old sweat, and my whole body was covered
with bug bites and tiny ticks. Sitting in the boat as it
rushed through the calm brown water of the wide river, we
were like monkeys, picking the ticks out of our hair, our
backs, and any other places we couldn’t reach.
After the trip, I ended up spending
another week in Rurrenabaque — most days wandering the town
and chatting with locals, and most nights playing pool with
Juan and his friends at the bar.
In all I spent a month and a half in
Bolivia, mostly in Rurrenabaque and the capital La Paz.
Now, years later, when people ask me about my time there
— did you go to the salt desert? Did you do this? Did you
do that? I say no.
Rather than rush around the whole country,
trying to see it all, I slowed down, took my time, made
some friends, and was eaten alive by ants and ticks on the
wild banks of the Beni River.