We’re being watched. The tell-tale scuffle stemming from the towering canopy high above stops my guide, Norman, dead in his tracks. Behind him I freeze, hardly daring to breathe, peering upwards into the warp and weft of matted foliage that trickles fresh raindrops across my forehead. Suddenly, we’re running, chasing the rustling branches through umbrageous foliage until, finally, I see them.
First a flash of dark-tipped tail, then a mustard-hued tufty face peers down quizzically from between the branches. A troop of brown capuchin monkeys spring nimbly through the air like a well-honed circus act. All around, a cacophony of birds and crickets applaud in a chorus of chirrups and chirps.
I’m at the start of a three-day excursion into the Amazon rainforest. Eschewing the usual Amazon tours of neighbouring Brazil or Peru, I’ve instead been enticed to Bolivia by its promise of remote jungle beauty still well under the tourist radar. This offbeat spot lies in Madidi National Park, a 7,320 square mile stretch of protected wilderness in the upper Amazon Basin. Its savage geology dips and soars between glacier-tipped peaks and lowland tropical rainforest to swathes of humid savannah, a lattice of waterways and a spattering of sparse, indigenous communities. Amid such diverse terrain soar more bird species than in the whole of North America and a veritable who’s who of endangered species, ranging from big cats to small but deadly creepy-crawlies.
My journey started the previous day in La Paz aboard a skittish little plane bound for Rurrenabaque, a dusty diminutive town and the main access point to Madidi. I joined fellow travellers at the riverside for the three-and-a-half-hour voyage upstream by longboat. As our boatman sucked on coca leaves, navigating the fast-flowing gorge, we watched choppy chasms morph into wide waterways banked by dark, impenetrable rainforest. In the shallows, stately herons fished, while a black caiman basked log-like on a sunny sandy inlet. A sudden flash of squawking scarlet alerted me to a pair of macaws nuzzling on a spindly branch.
My home for the next few days is the rustic palm-thatched wooden cabins of Madidi Jungle Ecolodge. Four Tacana-Quechua families from the San José de Uchupiamonas community founded the lodge five years ago, intent on sharing their native land and ancestral lore with minimal ecological impact.
Alex, one of the founders, explains how they crafted the cabins in traditional timber, stone and leaves. My room is connected to the bathroom and the dining area by stepping-stone tree stumps. Here, communication with the outside world takes place via a fuzzy radio link and a generator provides light for limited evening hours.
I explore the dense forest along a labyrinth of shady, leaf-trodden trails. Each is marked with a Tacana name: Biwa, Tareche, Wabu. “It’s our disappearing native language we’re trying to protect,” Norman explains.
The trails lead into a world of thrilling extremes. Colossal, centuries-old kapok trees dwarf tribes of tiny leafcutter ants, tirelessly transporting foliage. “From our ancestors, we learnt that when the ants work hard, bad weather is coming,” he says.
Norman is a master in the language of the forest. He can echo the call of the toucan and points out the invisible web of a golden silk spider camouflaged in the flora. I learn which plants, barks and mushrooms his indigenous people use for building, food and medicine. We track jaguar prints and pick wild fruit while red howler monkeys roar.
At the lodge, free time is spent lazing in hammocks, but wildlife is never far away. At lunch, we’re disturbed by a herd of white-lipped peccary — wild pigs — searching for kitchen scraps. Each bathroom visit prompts a frisson of fear — of the tarantula at home in the roof. In the flower garden, butterflies dance, hummingbirds hover and a thousand tiny insects buzz and bite.
Our most exhilarating wildlife watch, however, comes at nightfall. We creep into the forest, using our torches to seek out spiders’ eyes gleaming in the gloom. Along a riverside path, where shrill tree frogs deafen and fruit bats skim our heads, we examine shaggy-haired caterpillars and bizarre glowing mushrooms beneath a canopy of dazzling stars and a cool, silent moon.
As dawn yawns in, I dress by candlelight to a surge of bird song. Sustained by a copious breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh mango and just-baked pastries, I follow Norman past a wildlife salt lick to a secluded lakeside opening where we fish for yellow-bellied piranhas that snap our bait far quicker than we can reel them in. The afternoon slips by at a lazier pace as I survey the riverbanks by boat. I spot a family of capybara in the undergrowth. These bizarre giant rodents, indigenous to South America, stare back at us with their long serious faces and cautious black eyes. Upstream, we stop and don swimwear before sinking into rubber rings and drifting back to the lodge by the whim of the currents, watching the setting sun burn tangerine across the wide, open sky.
Our final night is marked with a feast of dunucuabi — a traditional Amazon dish of fresh monkfish infused with wild garlic and baked in the leaves of the red-clawed heliconia plant. After dinner, conversation turns to the battle to preserve the rainforest. Despite Madidi gaining protected status in 1995, and beyond the threats of illegal poaching, logging and oil exploitation, it’s the government’s plans to build a hydroelectric dam that now loom over the indigenous people.
The damming of the Beni River will submerge large areas of Madidi’s lowlands, causing permanent loss of Amazon rainforest hardly yet explored. The native people are pinning their hopes of stopping this development on burgeoning ecotourism. “So we can preserve it for our grandchildren, and yours, too,” says Norman.
The next morning we make a last visit to a high mirador for sweeping vistas across the parkland. Flushed in morning sun, it’s a final vision of a world soon to be far away but not to be forgotten.
How to do it
Madidi Jungle Ecolodge offers two nights from £162 per person, including private room, English-speaking guides, boat transport to and from Rurrenabaque and three meals daily. Flights not included.
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)