Fun with animals in Bolivia
05/06/2007 - 05/14/2007
Below, I´ve posted some new pictures from the past few weeks of our travels, but first, let me set the scene from our recent foray into Bolivia´s portion of the Amazon jungle:
"Sandro, I can´t climb trees!"
That was Julia, the extremely pleasant but more than slightly nervous British tourist who had accompanied her husband and son as well as Geoff and I on a hike through Madidi National Park.
Sandro was our amazing guide, whose indigenous community has lived in the park for 500 years and now owns and wholly operates Chalalan Ecolodge, a jungle lodge located five hours up two tributaries of the Amazon River.
And the concern over climbing trees was voiced because we were being approached by a herd of 150 white-lipped peccaries, sharp-toothed wild pigs prone to unsettling grunting and clacking noises - and of a more immediate concern, the same type of wild pigs that once ate an unlucky hunter from Sandro´s village.
"Don´t worry," Sandro said, and grinned.
One of the great successes of the lodge - apart from not having to deal with five recently eaten gringos - is that conservation of the jungle has fundamentally altered the dynamic between humans and animals.
Peccaries, for example, were highly aggressive when hunted. Like stinky Hoovers, they´ll eat anything they encounter, especially a hunter threatening one of their own.
Left alone in Madidi, however, they have lost their aggression toward people and are now rather skittish when they smell the unfamiliar human scent. Mortal danger has now been replaced with the thrilling, though undeniably heart-pounding spectacle of having an enormous herd of wild animals milling within yards of you, and then counting them when they dart across the trail in front of you like dirty sheep on speed.
More broadly, the creation of the park in 1995 and of Chalalan in 2000 has provided a model for low-impact and community-run ecotourism and lifted Sandro´s village out of dire poverty. The lodge now employs about 80 of the village´s 450 residents. They have a health clinic and are practicing sustainable agriculture. And last year, the village celebrated its first high school graduating class (of five students).
Of course, most people come to the jungle to see birds and animals, and the lodge didn´t disappoint. Apart from our close encounter with the peccaries, Sandro helped us see more than 70 species of birds, including several species of brilliantly colored macaws. On the banks of the River Tuichi, we saw capybaras (a rodent the size of a small pony). And on a night canoe trip across Laguna Chalalan, we saw the glowing red eyes of dozens of caimans (like adolescent crocodiles). Best of all, we got up close and personal with four Amazon tree boas hanging from branches around the lake and waiting to ambush bats and birds. The largest of the snakes was more than nine feet long.
We´re now back in La Paz, Bolivia, after our jungle adventure, readjusting to the altitude. At 3,660 meters above sea level, it´s the highest capital city in the world and enough to give you a pounding headache. From our high-rise hotel, the city appears like a huge stadium, with the city center in a high basin and the poorer suburbs crawling up the even higher hillsides all around it. At night, the lights on the hills all around the city are absolutely enchanting. And by day, there are plenty of exotic sights, like the stalls in the witches´ market that sell love potions, dried herbs, candy, talismans, figurines of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and dried llama fetuses.
We held back on buying any fetuses, but were told that burying one in the foundation of a new building or home will offer protection. So now you know.
Tomorrow, we´re off to northern Bolivia and Lago Titicaca (highest lake in the world). But first, here are some scenes from the past two weeks.
Here´s an interesting street mural in Santiago, Chile that depicts the initiation rites of the now extinct indigenous tribe of Chile´s Tierra del Fuego island (on the right). Adolescent boys would dress as incarnations of various gods as part of their journey to manhood. Sadly, only a few old photos and artistic depictions remain to document them.