Before we embarked on our journey to “head into the jungle,” I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Sure, I knew we’d be trekking through areas of dense forest where the air was plenty humid and riddled with strange noises I’d never heard before and huge flying insects I never knew existed. But I didn’t really have more of a concrete idea than that. As Mark eluded to in his post, what awaited us in Madidi National Park was really beyond my wildest dreams and something unlike anything else I’ve experienced before. There really are places on this planet that are vastly different and so far out of reach to most of us, but so full of life and energy. Like Chilean Patagonia, this one took our breath away.
Our too-short stay in Madidi definitely exceeded our expectations, thanks mostly to our guide, Leo, and Berraco’s way-above-par service. Unlike most of the other tour companies that boasted insulated cabins, communal lodges and walled-in dining areas that kept guests separated and protected from their environment, Berraco’s set-up was much more minimal but highly-functional, allowing for all the sounds, sights, and smells of the jungle to envelop us at all times during our stay. We slept in a tent on a covered wooden platform overlooking a hill. The hand-constructed thatch-roofed dining area was open on all sides and had a no-shoe policy during meals. The communal bathrooms (two showers, two flush-toilets) were incredibly clean and located down a rambling rock path in-between the tent areas and the kitchen. Sounds rustic, yes, but it was home for a few days and anything more would’ve been a little too removed from nature, in my book.
Beyond giving the low-down on the set-up, I really can’t gush enough about Leo and the three-day journey he took us on. Each day after each respective meal, he’d take us on long walks deep into the forest, captivating us with us old Quechua legends surrounding the birds and animals of the forest and pointing out fresh animal tracks on the ground. The first day, we watched a Howler Monkey swing from branch to branch, occasionally stopping to stare at us and make some sort of sound I can’t even begin to put into words. At one point, I think he threw a palm fruit at us. We also saw a pair of beautiful red macaws. They were larger than any bird I’ve seen before. I wish I had photos to post of these majestic animals, but as Mark said, we would’ve needed a telephoto lens as they were high up in the canopy.
What I do have photos of are the spiders. Although the photos don’t do their size justice, trust me when I say that lord have mercy are those spiders ginormous. Hairy, long-legged beasts with fangs, pinchers, spikes, and g-d knows what else. The first night, Leo took us for a two-hour walk with only his flashlight and our headlamps to guide us. We’d walk in silence until he’d stop and turn off his flashlight, prompting us to do the same. When I tell you that it was the darkest darkness I’ve ever been in, I’m not at all exaggerating. I’m also not exaggerating when I admit that I was pretty scared before I acclimated to the combination of dark-plus-strange-noises-plus-high-potential-for-insects-flying-into-face. (The flying cockroaches in New York have nothing on these suckers!) It’s really something incredible to surrender yourself not only to the wilderness at night, but also your fears of what might await you one step in front of you in any direction.
Perhaps, the morning of our departure was the most informative and eye-opening. We were awoken by a pounding rain unlike any storm I’ve heard before. Not menacing, but constant and relentless—a real treat from within the confines of our dry tent. When we finally ventured out in our High-Performance Rain Gear and snake boots and gobbled down a pancake and empanada breakfast, Leo took us out again for an extended and much more vigorous walk, this time in the forest across the river. Here, he continued to communicate with the critters in the trees through bird-calls and various other animal cries (a full repertoire, really), while also teaching us about the various trees and plants we’d pass along the way. As you’ll see in the slideshow below, much of the flora looks relatively commonplace to the untrained eye. But in fact, some of these plants are only located in this part of the world, in this very jungle, and can be used for all sorts of natural remedies for everything from muscle pain and arthritis to menstrual cramps to bladder infections.
The bark of this tree has been used by Leo’s people for centuries. One of its many uses is to help curtail “stomach issues.” I point this out because I was lucky enough to test out the theory during our three-day jaunt. Grin. The night before we began our journey, I had eaten some very tasty but apparently not-so-cooked fish. It didn’t sit well and presented me with a conundrum, I promise you, you do NOT want to be faced with while traipsing around the jungle in what seems like 350% humidity. Instead of taking antibiotics, I instead drank a cup of tea made from the bark of this tree before every meal. By the third morning of our trip, my “issue” was solved and my tummy felt as good as new.
The tree Mark is standing in front of is apparently the jungle’s answer to natural Viagra. It smells a bit like licorice or menthol, and makes for an excellent tea when the bark is scraped off and allowed to steep in boiling water for five or so minutes. Other healing qualities include a salve for swollen joints and/or muscles when boiled, mashed, and applied to the affected area.
This is, perhaps, the most magical tree of all. It’s called a Quina Quina tree and oozes a musky amber-like fragrance that can be applied directly to the skin as a natural perfume or homeopathic treatment. As a custom, people in Leo’s village rub the sap of this tree on their wrists and necks before dancing in certain ceremonies, as an aphrodisiac. If I ever encounter this scent again (apparently, this tree only grows here), I’ll never wear another perfume again . . . it’s really that lovely and earthy, for lack of a better description.
Above all else, what really rattled my heart was the size and stature of the trees in this rich and viral forest. Again, I’ll say that I’ve never seen anything like them before. Imagine majestic redwoods of the American West but in greens and grays and with all different kinds of roots from little red shoots (which, when broken open, can be used as a salve for fire ant bites) to huge above-ground behemoths stretching for many, many feet. There’s a dominant southern wind in these parts and one of the ways you can tell what direction you’re heading in while in the jungle is to look at the way the roots are pointing. The larger ones will always stretch and extend themselves northward, to anchor themselves against the wind. This tree might be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen:
On the boat ride back to Rurre, Mark and I spent most of our time in silence. I felt a palpable pull from where we’d just come from and was reluctant to leave. Sure, I was looking forward to being away, away, away from the flesh-eating tarantulas, but other than that . . . ? It was chilly on the boat, as the sky was still overcast, and we even dozed off a couple of times to pass the time. Suddenly, we heard a stir from the back of the boat. Looking to the left, we saw to capybaras plonking their way through the river to the shore. I’ve always wanted to see one “in real life” and needless to say, they are every bit as very-large-rodent and dopey looking (“D’oh d’oh d’oh”) as you’d expect. But then something completely unexpected happened. Right before our very eyes, we saw a jaguar. A jaguar! He was perched on a branch that was jutting out into the river, gazing out over the water. His electric blue-green eyes radiated above his brown and black spots and his hulking body emanated pride. Mark and I were too stunned to get ourselves together in time to take a photo before he sauntered back into the jungle, but needless to say, it’s an image I’ll never forget.
While headed back to La Paz on the tiniest plane EVER (yikes!), I definitely had a lot of mixed feelings to reflect on. Of course, the richness of the whole experience, spending three days with Leo—such a wise and learned man, testing the boundaries of my fears (spiders! darkness!), etc. But what Mark touched on in his post also touched me a great deal. The people in Leo’s community, like so many people all over the world, have so little (and need so much) compared to what we have (and need so little of) in America. The kids in San Jose, for example, have a makeshift school, but no books, hardly any school supplies, let alone internet access. Yet they have a great deal of knowledge, pride, and humility, in levels that at times seems unrivaled in other parts of the world.
In the months to come, I’m planning to round-up materials (Spanish-language or bilingual books, educational materials, etc.) to send to the kids in San Jose via the Berraco office. If any of you want to contribute or know of someone or a company who might, please let me know. Cheers!
Another great post! Can’t believe the size of the spider on the tent. Are there any remedies for getting bit by one?
Speaking of profound things, Sasha has started smiling. Life milestone: seeing your child smile at you… Indescribable!
Also, Sam is afraid of Sasha- he won’t come out of the basement.
Now, all of us are off for a walk in the park- going to read marks ost this evening!
Spiders…Yikes…….I used to think of them as fellow weavers, but after the brown recluse and after seeing the size in your photos…….Wow!!!! Fearful!!!!!
I suspect that most of your followers of these blogs are forever grateful for the vivid and insightful commentary that follows you both on this trek. I sure am. The photos are always just enough to give the flavor of what you are experiencing. Together, they remind us of the very special book we have just read or compelling film that we have recently seen. The singular difference between those moments of ours and your tellings are that we are there with you and sensing the drama, the beauty and the intrigue. I am sure that I am not alone when I suggest that you both, in perhaps very different ways, may have come upon life-changing experiences that may have influence on your future endeavors. I hope so.
The two Madidi posts are special! That such a place exists in this world, means that we have to revise our picture of this world! Hope you do find a way to work with such people as Andreas toward preservation of Madidi.
I agree with Uncle Bob- these blog entries make me feel that I get to experience your adventure with you. Thanks so much for sharing them- can’t wait to hear about Ecuador and Peru!
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