In venturing to South America, the Amazon Basin was a must-see destination for us. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil feature protected parts of the Amazon—and each claims to be the best in terms of wildlife protection and conservation. After a fair amount of research, we narrowed our sights on Manu National Park in Peru and Madidi National Park in Bolivia. In the end, money and time made our decision for us. Manu is exclusive and expensive to visit; plus, we received good intel that the farmers planned to blockade the roads leading from and to Cusco again. Not wanting to get stuck behind a blockade again, we headed straight to Bolivia, and thus our last chance to experience the Amazon basin.

There are only three transportation options leading to Madidi: (1) a 16-20 hour bus ride on a span of one-lane, dirt highway notoriously known as “Death Road”; (2) a 50-minute hair-raising flight on a turbulent twin prop plane; or (3) a 3-day jungle cruise. We opted for the latter.

Like some tour companies, ours only told us half-truths about our trip. This is fairly common and should for the most part be expected, but it does make for a “where in the world are we going” sort of feel among us and fellow travelers. Originally, we planned to go by bus on “Death Road” for only 2 hours and stop for breakfast and then another 2 hours in which we’d meet our guide and start our trip on the river. The trip began as planned by driving 2 hours on a beautiful stretch of the death road. We started high above the clouds and descended rapidly in those 2 hours to the jungle. However instead of breakfast, we picked up two other passengers and continued on for another 3 hours in a humid, steaming bus on a rocky, bumpy road around hairpin turns. Those three hours solidified my decision as well as everyone else’s that we were not taking the 16 hour bus ride on the way back as originally planned.

When we reached what we thought was our destination we all let out a sight of relief. Thank goodness, we thought; none of us could imagine being stuck for much longer in that bus with every inch of our bodies welded by sweat to the seats. Exiting the bus for lunch and a small break, we were informed it would only be another 10-20 minutes before reaching the river. When we were trapped in the sauna-like bus again, we were told in truth we would reach the river in 3 more hours not the stated 10-20 minutes promised just minutes prior. Grumbling and grumpy, sweat poured down our faces, and I began to reconsider whether the cruise was our best option after all.

When we finally pushed off from the riverbank, it was like a scene out of National Geographic. Surrounded by verdant rainforests, burnt-orange cliffs, and boisterous bird calls we swiftly motored down the river. We spent three days slowly cruising to our destination with nights spent on sandy beaches. Along the way, we visited the local communities, swam in streams connecting to the main river, and walked in the jungle. Beyond providing transportation between local villages, the river served as a moth superhighway. Thousands of vibrant-colored moths made their way along the river banks. Specks of azul blue, amarillo yellow, and chartreuse green fluttered along the highway.

Being on the river was amazingly beautiful, but being on land wasn’t without its hardships. Sand flies swarmed the banks waiting for fresh blood. Changing clothes to take a swim was like a flailing dance, hopping from foot to foot with arms waving through the air swatting them off of each other. We clearly didn’t master the avoidance dance as at last count 40 bites covered each of my legs;Chris faired only slightly better. During the jungle walk, what started out as seemingly calm question about a fellow travelers’ insect bite turned into mass hysteria as our group was attacked by wasps. The Czech couple that was attacked first caught our guides attention and quite calmly inquired about the insect they were holding and if it was dangerous as it had bitten one of them. While I attentively listened, one of the wasps stung me through my shirt. Unlike the Czechs, I was not as calm and let out a scream and several expletives (it hurt like hell). Within seconds of my sting, other screams sounded and hysteria ensued as the wasps began their attack. Although not everyone was stung in the melee, everyone had wasps on their clothes or in their hair. As luck would have it, it began to pour. Imagine us swiftly tramping back through the forest with arms waving to swat wasps off each other in a complete down pour, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of our jungle walk. Everyone returned to the boat soaked with some of us sporting swollen appendages from the stings.

After six hours of pouring rain and wind puncturing our wet layers, Rurrenbaque was a welcomed sight. If you’re interested—on our return from Madidi, we opted for the 50-minute flight. Although a few times fellow passengers and I eyed our air sickness bags, the flight wasn’t as turbulent as expected, and we unanimously recommend this as the best option in getting to Rurrenbaque and back.

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