Headed to Rurrenabaque? Good choice.
But how do you choose a tour agency when there are three dozen companies that all seem to offer the same thing? For the eco-conscious, eco-curious, and eco-loving tourist or backpacker, I recommend doing what we did and choosing Chalalán.
Chalalán is more expensive than most of the competition. It’s not exactly, ahem… thrifty. But we’d been reading up on what typical tours are doing to the environment: Large groups that scare most of the animals away, guides who get too close or even handle the wildlife, touristic restaurants that throw all of their trash into the rivers…
Anyhow, we had to draw a line somewhere. The way we saw it, if we were going to splurge on a tour at all, it had better be a good one. We do not joke around with the rainforest. Where you spend your cash really makes a difference, and we wanted to spend ours well.
And Chalalán met or exceeded all of our expectations. Here’s why:
1. Live, eat, sleep: all in the heart of the rainforest
Chalalán is located deep within Parque Nacional Madidi, six hours upriver from Rurrenabaque. This park preserves 18,957 square kilometers of land from roads, logging, hunting, or other development. Needless to say, you’re in the jungle here.
The only community allowed to operate in the park is the village of San José de Uchupiamonos, which was there before the park existed. Many people in the community work on a rotational basis at Chalalán, and your money helps them support their village in a sustainable way.
Here we are heading up the Tuichi River towards Chalalán.
2. Rustic, comfortable lodging and ample, healthy food.
Chalalán is located alongside beautiful Lake Chalalán, and there are a variety of cabañas that are all really cute and very clean. Sometimes, creepy crawlies will find their way into your room, but as long as you keep your mosquito net tucked in, you’ll sleep safe and sound.
The sounds of the night-creatures are amazing, and don’t be surprised if you wake up bright and early to the noises of howler monkeys.
Lake Chalalán from the mirador.
We were really concerned about the food. We like to eat healthfully and we doubted whether we’d be happy with no choice but to eat what’s provided. How did it go? I’m happy to report ample breakfasts, lunches, and dinners plus lots of beans and vegetables, and the meat provided was high quality, too. Fresh juice is served with meals, and coffee and tea are available all day.
At some point during your stay, the lovely folks working at the lodge will probably cook you a traditional meal called dunucuavi – locally caught fish wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a wood-burning oven. This is some of the yummiest fish I’ve ever had. Top it all off with a buffet, introductions to all guides and staff, a coca leaf ceremony with traditional music and storytelling, and you’ve got an unforgettable experience. We were there five nights and were lucky enough to do this twice!
Oh, and bring your bathing suit! It can get really hot and sticky in the middle of the day, and it feels great to cool off in Lago Chalalán. Your swim will be all the more exciting due to the presence of caimans, but they won’t bother you. I just kept telling myself, “the caimans are my friends.”
Adam taking a cool dip. Not one toothy creature in sight.
Tip: We stayed in three different types of rooms, sort of by accident. We stayed in a double twin, with private bath and a matrimonial with private bath, as well as the dorms for a night. Honestly, the dorms weren’t really up to snuff: it was like they weren’t really ready yet. If you’re already shelling out a couple hundred dollars for this experience, I highly recommend the extra little bit for the private rooms.
3. Experienced, passionate guides.
Our guide, Juan Carlos, was straight-up, flat-out, hands-down fantastic. Despite being super young (twenty-three) his knowledge of the fora and fauna blew me away. He could spot the tiniest birds in the thickest canopy, and he could identify a multitude of winged creatures from their calls alone.
Each day, after our walk, we’d all sit down together and open up a huge encyclopedia of Amazonian birds and go over the ones we spotted. I noted over 47 species of birds during our five-day trip! They were all so lovely and different.
A Macaw I managed to photograph
My little Pentax Camera is decidedly not very good at bird photography. Therefore, I put it away most of the time and just enjoyed the birds through Juan Carlos’s binoculars. Sometimes a bird could be heard, but not seen. The rainforest can be as loud as a fiesta or as quiet as a mausoleum depending on the time of day, the weather, or who happens to be in the vicinity.
So. I want to share some of my favorite bird calls with you. Shall we?
- A bird I’ll never forget is the Screaming Piha. Here’s a good video of its call.
- With a wonderfully fun name to say, the Amazonian Oropendula has a surprisingly gurgly, undulating call that occurs during an unusual forward body flop. Check it out.
- And just one more, the red-throated caracara. Cool bird, lovely call.
Just like Ferngully!
Our guide showed us many wondrous things:
I had no idea pineapples grew like this!
A huge, cotton-candy caterpillar, twice the size of your average Twinkie and, according to our guide, extremely poisonous
An interesting vine nicknamed “monkey’s staircase”
Thank goodness for binoculars!
Tree huggers, I might recommend withholding your affection from this one.
I love fungus the among us!
Hard to tell with my camera, but this ant was the size of a large cockroach. According to Juan Carlos, it delivers an incredibly painful bite.
A rare find, but the sharp eyes of our guide managed to pinpoint this tree frog
A big tree and a termite nest
Morpho butterflies galore. Stunning.
On our way to and from Chalalán, we saw a lot of capybara lounging in the mud by the riverside. They’re the world’s largest rodents, I think.
The evening is a great time to go out with your guide on the lake. In addition to birds and caimans, it’s possible to see monkeys. We saw dozens and dozens of them. We saw yellow monkeys, capuchines, and howlers. And later, though we didn’t see them, we heard GoldenPalace.com monkeys. Yep. Serious.
There were just too many amazing things to name all of them:
- Huge, hollowed out trees you can bang like a drum; they were used by the people here for centuries to send messages to one another across the rainforest
- “Walking trees” which, by laying down new roots and letting others die, can move, over a series of years, several meters in any direction in search of sunlight
- Packs of smelly, multitudinous, and very timid wild pigs; our expert guide was able to find them a few times while we were in the park.
And if that’s not enough for you, why not go fishing for pirañas! The good folks at Chalalán will be happy to cook them up for you later.
Overall, I felt like Chalalán was worth every penny we spent. What’s more, I walked away feeling good that we contributed to a community that’s developing sustainable tourism, both preserving and enhancing the way of life for locals, and whose people view themselves of stewards of the land.
As you can see, we found an excellent tour of the Bolivian rainforest. Might a tour of the Bolivian salt flats be just as enjoyable? Stay tuned…