Pampas Tours- Sun, sloth and suffering (or how I got bit by a dolphin)

Like most people I came to Rurrenabaque for a Pampas Tour (The other common option is a jungle tour which goes into the rainforest proper, but these are a tad more expensive and it’s harder to see wildlife so more people, like myself go Pampas). 

Bolivian Pampas

There are a host of agencies all offering pretty much the same thing: three days, basic lodge accommodation, food, a guide, wildlife spotting jaunts, piranha fishing and dolphin swimming. Encouragingly, there is a minimum price to ensure certain standards are met and there are efforts to enforce it, though some still get away with cheaper and worse. There has been a problem on these tours with guides harassing, catching, holding animals at the behest of ignorant tourists. Fortunately I didn’t encounter any animal interactions that seemed harmful on my trip.

So my experience? Something like this.

This is from ‘Rejected’ by Don Hertzfeld, a little surrealist cartoon classic.

Please kids, if you simply must get diarrhoea, save it for anywhere but the Amazon. It only came upon me the morning of the tour but for some idiot reason I chose to go despite. Yet while there was an ample dose of suffering, most of the time I had some bully good fun. 

I was joined by three others: Ellena and Nina, two German girls, and Stuart the Dutchman. Ellena had an endearing enthusiasm for playing pool despite a, shall we say, lack of inherent proficiency and would say “Hola amigo!” in an awe filled yet coddling tone to any creature we passed. Nina liked to laugh at everything and had a skill for finding Hammocks and ceaselessly sprawling and rolling about in them like a cosy bear cub. Stuart was actually called Suart (probably spelt wrong), which I only realised after 4 days with him and was the kind of Renaissance man who can talk European politics and global history as well as dolphin sexuality and bowel movements. His tanning regime is impeccable. Finally our guide, Juan Carlos, his English was pretty good and his knowledge supreme. He would be fairly quiet most of the time, scanning the trees for movement, but would break the general stoicism with occasional booms of laughter, usually at our expense, or by jamming the canoe swiftly through tiny gaps, forcing us to keep focused lest we get a branch to the face. We liked him very much.

Three hours by jeep and we’re at the launch point for the canoes we’ll spend most of our time on. There are about forty of us gringos to maybe ten boats (but definitely 9) and we watch a frolicking mob of Pink Dolphins as they load. I attach my buff to the back of my cap to keep pace with all the wide brimmed, neck flapped hats about. We all look pretty damn sexy. When we are in the boat a local kid of about ten jumps out of the water from his swim, unties our mooring and tries to push us out to water. He struggles for about twenty seconds as we watch, awkwardly, unsure what to do. A man eventually saunters over and gives us the necessary push and we all look at each other agreeing we’ve never felt more like a shitty tourist.

Most of our time is spent on the river, we see many birds: vultures, caracao, macaws, parakeets, hoaxin (punk looking weirdos), storks, herons and much more than I can recall. 

Macaws of some kind

Caracao of some kind

Also Caymans here and there, innumerable turtles that the girls always coo at, a python on the drive, another snake gliding over the water and a tree frog in our bathroom. 

Then monkeys. The dawn chorus is the howlers with their smokers cough howl, and we are accosted by a group of ruddy adorable squirrel monkeys who bounce about the boat and come within arms reach to investigate us.

Sneaky, sleepy Howler

Black Howler Monkey

Squirrel Monkeys

Also we saw a sloth, it took about ten minutes between Juan Carlos seeing it and us figuring out where he was pointing but it was great to watch when we did spot it. 

Camouflage game is pretty on point.

With the breeze on the boat, sitting back and trailing a hand in the river, the days are bliss…the nights are a horror. The moment the sun slips off mosquitoes descend by the million. My DEET largely keeps them off but there are just a too many captain! Somehow the humidity seems to intensify after dark and sleep is elusive. The diarrhoea doesn’t help. The first night involves pained trips to the bathroom, which thank the high heavens has a flushing toilet. There is no seat or light though and the mossies take this opportunity to set upon every possible intimate area. But the camp was nice, food was good, it has a bar and a house Cayman which is cool. 

We take a couple walks, the first during the horrid night and we see a possum and a mouse. The second on a little island where we get a good look at some Capybara.

Big Capybara

The babies hide while the adults swim

This guy snuck on the boat and had the ride of his life!

Juan Carlos called him Manti

Nina with Manti

Next we try our hand at Piranha fishing and our boat manages to catch 10! I mean they were all Juan Carlos but we willed him on to greatness. It isn’t easy for a fishing noob, they bite plenty but tend to nom the bait away before we can yank em in. I am the one other person who lands a catch, a mighty 3 inch something or other that I hook through the temple. The sorry specimen bleeds everywhere so we kill it for bait, much to the vegetarian girls dismay. One of the piranhas is big enough to keep and gives us a forkful each of pleasant, non-descript white fish.

Juan Carlos with piranha

On the final morning we find some Pink River Dolphins to swim with. We jump in and​ attempt to follow them but they repeatedly disappear and pop up in the distance, we swim over to where they were and they appear where we started. This goes on for about 45 minutes and our enthusiasm and energy is flagging. 

Now this isn’t Orlando or some pristine beach. The water is a browny, black and visibility is inches. When my arms are down I can’t see my elbows. As a result everything underwater is entirely invisible and mysterious. Juan Carlos assures us it’s safe, the innumerable piranhas and Caymans aren’t interested in people but, disconcertingly, he later adds that we shouldn’t follow the dolphins into the reeds: “Cayman”. There are reeds everywhere and every time your leg touches one there’s a moment of panic where you think it’s a croc who would draw the line at being stepped on and snap. So it’s fear of the dark but excitement of the dolphins.

Eventually as we’re giving up hope a new group arrive, three babies and a few adults and these are much less shy. They swim around us, disappearing into the murk and then popping up with a puff of breath that makes me jump everytime. They are often just beyond arms reach and it’s an awesome feeling, much more than I expected (I’ve never had ‘swimming with dolphins’ on my bucket list). All a little scary though. One takes to splashing me and Suart for a while, it’s hard to fight back, stealthy fiends. 

I start to notice my feet periodically rubbing on something big, soft and slimy and realise the dolphins are swimming beneath me. The softness turns into something harder, at first I thought a branch but as I keep paddling and kicking it the branch slowly clamps it’s teeth around my big toe. So what to do now? Juan Carlos hadn’t​ mentioned this possibility​. It’s probably fine…but maybe the dolphins’ annoyed with me for kicking it in the face. Maybe he thinks chomping is a game. Maybe he’s got a hunger that only human toes can satisfy. Maybe he’s actually a soft, tiny mouth Cayman. I ponder this for a couple of seconds as the creature and I are locked together, mouth to foot. 

And then I do the natural reaction; yanking my foot away, scrapping against his teeth and screaming a little scream. I’m a bit more scared now, he might want more, or piranhas might sense the blood and swarm me so I hurriedly paddle back to the safety of Juan Carlos and the canoe. He laughs and tells me that they latch on gently as play and it’s a sign that you can give them a stroke. A little late for that Juan. It’s also a sign of good luck apparently soooo…good. Bitten by a dolphin, off the bucket list. 

Pretty gnarly injury

Of all the things in the bloody Amazon: a dolphin.

I don’t have dolphin photos because I was, well, swimming with them. I might be able to get some from the girls down the line, they got one the moment I was bitten.

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