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Bolivia: Down the Rio Yacuma

The caiman sized me up, all venomous reproach and pointy teeth. It sliced through the water until it was in snapping distance of our little boat. “Do they ever attack people?” I asked. “Oh yes,” said Sam, my local guide, who I liked but didn’t entirely trust.

Bolivia: Down the Rio Yacuma
Image: By Elias Bizannes under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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“All the time.” I was almost certain he was joking, but kept my arms inside the boat.

Too close for comfort is the norm on a trip through the Bolivian Pampas. This tropical mosaic of swamps and grasslands in the Amazon Basin may not be as majestic as the Brazilian rainforest, but it’s less expensive, less crowded, and home to just as vast a cornucopia of monsters — and because there aren’t as many trees, you don’t need stealth or patience to see them. They’re all around you; snapping distance away.

I had my camera in hand, doing some snapping of my own as we drifted down the Rio Yacuma, Sam sporadically pointing out monkeys and rare birds, and telling me that the Pampas are home to the world’s largest snake (the anaconda) and the world’s largest rodent (the capybara). They are also home to the world’s most inherently amusing animal (the sloth) but right now, for some reason, we were looking for anacondas. I’d informed Sam that where I come from the world’s largest snake isn’t the sort of thing one looks for, but something was clearly lost in the translation. We disembarked, abandoned the shade of the trees and ventured out into open grassland.

With the percussive trill of our boat’s motor silenced, I could hear the birds and insects gossiping overhead and the muddy water sloshing around us. It was difficult to focus on anything but the heat though, as we squelched through swamps and waist-high grasses in the thick, insistent sunshine, and after three gruelling hours I gave up on the anaconda hunt and went for a swim to cool off.

Gangs of pink dolphins cavorted in the deeper waters — slivers of fins and flippers occasionally breaking the water’s surface — but they kept their distance. Not everything in the water was so shy. Every few seconds I felt the pinch of tiny teeth: not painful as such, but certainly startling. “Something’s biting me,” I said. “That’s fine,” Sam assured me lazily, from the safety of the boat. “The piranhas don’t usually come in this part of the water.” “Usually?” I asked, clambering back aboard. He shrugged. “Probably sardines or something.”

Whatever it was, when Sam later suggested that we fish for piranhas, I was keen to re-establish my mastery over the Pampas. I was out-tugged and out-smarted by my quarry though, and mostly caught twigs. Ironic that the fauna should keep their distance when I actually wanted them snapping at me. When I finally did catch one and haul it to shore, it was no bigger than a pet goldfish. I felt bad and threw it back in, begrudgingly accepting that perhaps the law of the jungle isn’t for me.

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