Rurrenabaque – The gateway to the Bolivian pampas tour as well as jungle tours if you wanna dive deep into the amazon. The way to this little town can be quite interesting.
How to get to Rurrenabaque
If you aren’t on a budget you can easily fly from La Paz in one of those tiny 20-something passenger planes and you will arrive in Rurrenabaque in just under 50 min. There are two airlines which have daily flights (better to check again, sometimes Bolivia just doesn’t work as we would expect it). The company from the local military is the cheaper version but you might want to check if the terms and conditions suit you.
You can also jump on one of the many buses and arrive just in 15 – 20 hours.
Yep. I mean that’s quite precise to be fair, cause it all depends on the following factors: weather, will the bus make it, will the bus leave on time, how often does the bus stop to pick people up / leave people out on the way, traffic in La Paz when you leave and how much traffic comes from the opposite way on the way to Rurrenabaque. Wait, did I forget to mention that?
The crazy bus ride into the jungle
A vast part of the road is unsealed and actually the second part of the oh-so-famous ‘Death Road’. You can read several fun articles about “Horror Trips to Rurrenabaque” as the road is just wide enough to fit one bus from the wall to the edge of the road and still the road is a 2-way road. Sometimes you will wake up and find your bus going backward in order to make space for another bus coming from the opposite site. Let me tell you it’s only half as fun if you are a bit biased in terms of bus and car accidents. In fact, I tried to sleep all the way through or keep myself busy to not constantly seeing that hundreds-of-meter cliff right next to me just way too close.
But I am not here to tell you how crazy this bus ride was. In fact there are plenty routes in Bolivia and the rest of South America that are great to travel by bus. The Bolivian pampas tour is definitely a bucket list item. Not to mention all the animals you can see there! Alright now let’s start from the beginning.
How to find a good operator for your Bolivian pampas tour
First of all, you won’t be surprised to hear that the town is full of tour operators. They can mostly all be found around Calle Santa Cruz and Calle Avaroa.
Before I go into detail please know that there 2 things you definitely want to look out for as a responsible traveler:
1) There are only about half of the tour operators who have the official governmental license to enter the national park of Madidi for jungle tours and the Yacuma reserve for the Bolivian pampas tour. Ask the tour operator and get them to show you their original license (usually, with a good tour operator they have them hung out in their office). Some will show you an “official form” from the national park to fill in. This is just a form that all tour operators can buy off the national park whether they got a license or not. So for our responsibility to save the amazon from more damage please make sure you’ll find an operator with an official license.
2) The government has set a minimum price for a 3-day jungle or Bolivian pampas tour (even if you go fewer days, you need to pay the minimum price). As by December 2016 it was set to 1200 Bs for 3 days plus the entrance fees to the national parks and reserves.
Tour operators who offer special prices or “student discount” below this prices are more certainly not licensed operators and totally not recommended.
Now you can go and check the operators, knowing what you have to definitely look out for.
The standards within the Bolivian pampas tour
Most of the operators will offer the 3 days Bolivian pampas tour for the minimum price. There are some standard things that all of them include. For example: water, all meals (from lunch at day 1 until lunch on day 3) , transport with jeep and boat, daily tours, swimming with the pink dolphins (omg yay, I know you are waiting for that part, just a moment), sleeping in dorms (with some you can upgrade to private rooms), cold showers and electricity for some hours at night. This is the standard you should look for and also that your group isn’t bigger than 6 (so you fit in a jeep and won’t have to go with oh so many people).
Some companies offer better quality food, better lodges and some more extras which you also pay a higher price for.
So before you go and check be sure to know what you want to spend and what’s important to you to have on this tour.
Which tour operator did I choose?
When I arrived I met some travelers who just came back from the tour and were super happy about their tour operator “Fletcha Tours”. I went to several other operators first. Some I found without the license and left instantly, others I sat down and let me explain their offer. At the end, I went to “Fletcha Tours” and met some other travelers who just came back and all were overly happy. The tour itself sounded great, too and on top, I didn’t have to bring a towel (I travel without one so good for me 😉 ).
So I bought the tour and found myself the next day at their office. They had told me there were 2 others who booked in La Paz so we were waiting for them to arrive. However suddenly a jeep from “Dolphin Tours” arrived and they told me to get my stuff and jump in – no explanation. Well, I guess I wouldn’t have my tour with Fletcha then. This was; to be honest, not a nice start and I didn’t know what to expect.
I had been in the office of “Dolphin Tours” the day before and decided not to book with them for some small reason (It’s really just the small things that differ in that tour groups) but now found myself anyways with them. I decided to make the best out of it but told my guide that I actually booked with Fletcha so I’d know nothing about their tour processes. He laughed and said he didn’t know a “Fletcha girl” would join us. Well, then we were two already.
The Bolivian pampas tour – Day 1
So we left with the jeep around 9.15am and drove out to Santa Rosa. On our way we stopped as another group in front spotted a sloth and obviously, we wanted to see that. Loving sloths, this made me instantly feel better about this whole company swap and I didn’t really care anymore. The whole drive took about 3 hours and we stopped once for a quick ‘baño stop’. In Santa Rosa, we got our first included meal which was served in a local restaurant that was used by some other agencies, too. We had a yummy soup first and the main dish was a mix of rice, veggies and some meat (beef, if I remember correctly). They also offered water or coca cola.
We then continued our trip into the Parque national de Las Pampas de Yacuma where we would wait until our boat was loaded. The boat was similar to a long tail boat just not as wide and not as deep. So I found myself sitting on the water level in a tiny chair shipping per the river to our lodge. Our guide took it easy and so it took us quite a while to arrive at the lodge but we already were able to see plenty of animals: caimans, capybara, different interesting kind of birds, monkeys and even our first pink dolphins ♡
We arrived at the lodge around 3ish and had an afternoon snack and some time to settle in.
50 shades of sun
Later that afternoon we went on our first boat tour and ended up at our sunset spot.
It’s an open air kinda bar, with hammocks and a volleyball field and drinks to buy. The sunset was amazing to see from there. The sun changed its color every few seconds and I swore it had so many yellow and oranges shades you could barely count them.
After having some chats we went back in the dark. Having flashlights with us our guide told us to lighten up the river along the shore and watch the red eyes to lit up – they eyes or the caimans. And there were plenty! It was awesome. I couldn’t get enough to see them, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch a good phfoto of them in the dark.
Back at the lodge, it was dinner and electricity time. We charged our batteries from cameras and phones and ate and ventured off soon after.
The Bolivian pampas tour – Day 2
We woke up early and left around 5.15am with our little boat to a quiet spot not far from our lodge. We crawled up the shore of the river and stood on a little field, the rainforest far away in the background and waited for the sun to come out.
Holy moly what a sunrise! These colors, the fog over the grass and the sounds of howler monkeys in the background was just amazing. Definitely well worth getting up early.
Back at the lodge we had breakfast and got ready for our pampas walking tour with gum boots and loads of mosquito repellent. With our little boat, our guide brought us about 30 minutes down the river. We stopped at a place that none of us thought we would get off at. Just a few meters next to caimans (my group members kinda freaked out about that, hehe) we got on shore and crawled up the little hill.
We walked through man-high grass and arrived at an open field. Our guide Oscar explained that we had to cross the whole field in order to reach the Laguna. There we would search for an anaconda (yep, special request). “Easy” did we all think. Just a bit later we found ourselves stuck knee-deep in mud and water in the middle of the pampas field. It was actually funny to see us all trying to free ourselves from the mud and just getting stuck deeper. It took quite a while to cross the field and when we finally reached the other side Oscar said “Now we split all over the area and search the field close to the Laguna. Look for something that moves slowly and is brown and black. That’s probably our anaconda”.
The anaconda is close!
I was super excited and couldn’t wait to find one, while one of our group stayed back. She had a little encounter with a cobra that sneaked away while the girl was walking by. She was so shocked and afraid that she wouldn’t want to come and search for an anaconda now. The rest of our group cross-searched the field slowly until Oscar called us all over and said he found something.
We arrived and found a beautiful 3.5m anaconda. We stood really close and she was hiding in the high grass. To see her better, the guide took the grass away and let her crawl over a stick so he could lift her up a bit. To be fair that wasn’t my favorite part, though. I always think we should keep wild animals as they are and experience as much of them as they want to show us. But here we are the guide already in his element to show us this beautiful animal. We were able to get quite close, taking pictures of her and actually see her face. Amazing. I was so close that the anaconda later decided to crawl all around my legs and rest her head on my boot a little. What can you do? I was happy to have her.
As my group members already were quite nervous about caimans in the river, they were even more nerve-wrecked with an anaconda that close. Oscar advised them to stay calm and move very slow. But as soon they took a picture they jumped back. After about two more minutes on my feet, the anaconda decided that was too much trouble for her and left. What an experience!
But the day was about to get even better
On our way back we encountered a group of pink dolphins. Omg, pink freshwater river dolphins!! How could the Bolivian pampas tour get any better? Oscar stopped the boat and we saw about 5 of them playing in the water just in front of us. “If someone wants to swim with them you can go now,” Oscar said. You bet it took me a minute and I jumped inside the river. My teammates opted out, cause in the same river you’d also find Piranhas and caimans all over the place. But who cares if you can swim with pink dolphins? Well, my team did. So I swam and couldn’t believe how amazing this was.
One of the dolphins came right up to me and touched my legs and belly for about a minute. It felt like a dolphin hug. I was so amazed I almost forgot to swim (no saltwater guys, you actually gotta work for it). The caimans were watching me just semi-interested from the shore. It was probably too much trouble for them in the water. But maybe there were some in the water with me, too. You really weren’t able to see a thing. The watercolor was more than brown and I literally didn’t even look around me.
I only heard my group members calling that they would see a Caiman here and there. If it was really about to get dangerous Oscar would have told me to come out. So I stayed and played with pink dolphins in a river full of Piranhas and caimans. Can life get any better?
After my play time, we went back for lunch and had some time to relax. To be honest after 4.5hrs of walking through the pampas in the hot sun and all the experiences along the way we all could need a break.
For the afternoon we went to the sunset bar again. Most tour groups would come and meet at this place. So we all sat down and chatted and had a beer after this stunning day.
The Bolivian pampas tour – Day 3
We started the last day a little later (like at 7ish) and with a nice breakfast. The monkeys were quite interested in our doughnut rings. It happened that, even after we tried to secure everything, a monkey swung in the room and stole a whole lot of them. We ate the rest of them quickly, as we know fried food is not good for monkeys.
We would all hop in our boat and venture out for Piranha fishing. Little did we know that you can eat Piranha. Everyone had a piece of wood with a fishing line and a hook attached and would try to fish Piranha. We used pieces of dead meat (beef) to catch them. These Piranhas do not eat living flesh, only if it was wounded and bleeding. Oscar got heaps of fish and showed us some tricks. Almost every one of us got at least one Piranha and saved our lunch. I didn’t catch one, I was just not patient enough, haha. So I was just feeding them after all, but it was fun.
Back at the lodge, the cook prepared the Piranhas for lunch. I gotta say they were very tasty. In the jungle, locals eat Piranhas almost daily and our guide ensured us it was OK to eat them.
We packed our stuff and helped to load our little boat. We finished off our Bolivian pampas tour with the last boat ride back to the park entrance. This time we went a little faster as we saw this strip at the beginning. Back at the entrance, we hopped in the jeep and off we went, back to Rurrenabaque where everything began.
The overall experience
I think if you are really into nature and wildlife you can’t miss out on a Bolivian pampas tour. Just because you actually get an amazing experience.
If you go with a licensed company you can almost don’t do anything wrong. Unless the guide’s reviews are bad or the accommodation is not clean you will have a good time. I definitely recommend taking a day in Rurrenabaque before heading off, to go around and to talk to different companies. In the end, I had a good time with “Dolphin Tours” and have nothing bad to say about them. I am not whatsoever affiliated with them, it’s really just my own experience so feel free to choose whatever tour operator you feel good with.
I loved that the day was planned with loads of boat rides and that we were able to see so many animals. For example, we also saw a baby toucan. We were lucky to see so many pink dolphins throughout our tour, which was my highlight. Don’t be afraid to have special requests. Ask many questions about the animals and whatever else interests you, that’s what the guides are for.
As for our guide, he spoke Spanish and also quite decent English. As I was OK with both. I didn’t mind him explaining some things more in detail in Spanish. Unfortunately, the English version was a little shorter for our Australian couple. All in all, he would aways explain in English again when asked for.
In the end, I wouldn’t want to miss out on this experience. I am so happy I took the time and money to go all the way up there for the tour. Definitely one of my highlights of my trip through South America for sure!
Have you been on a pampas tour? What else did you experience? Share it with me in the comments!
Do you have any questions about the tour, let me know in the comments, too! I am happy to answer them as many answers I can.