The San Miguel del Bala Ecolodge

It took me a while to convince Axel that volunteering to work at an ecolodge in the forest would be a good idea. As far as Axel was concerned we would have plenty enough work when we got home. But my stubbornness decided the matter and not long in Rurre we visited the office for San Miguel del Bala - a community-run ecolodge bordering the national park of Madidi and about 40 minutes upriver on the Rio Beni. They accept volunteers to work at the lodge or in the community and we, or should I say I, was hoping to spend some time there doing whatever I could to help out and at the same time experience life in the jungle. A day later, leaving Axel in bed with the Bolivian Belly, I met up with a Norwegian and Italian couple on the banks of the Rio Beni in the pleasant early morning temperatures. My first volunteering work would be translating for them on a three day jungle trip. A huge test of my spanish capabilities.

The Rio Beni was a muddy brown and just a few minutes out of Rurre the forest closed in on it's banks again. We passed a few low long wooden boats filled with people and bananas from the numerous small villages upstream. Madidi itself is a huge protected park but it's border was the river and the opposite bank is the 'Pilon Lajas biosphere reserve and communal lands' where many Chimane, Mosetene and Tacana communities live. We were welcomed to the eco-lodge with smiles and a juice in the rest area - a round thatched roof, open-sided but for the mosquito meshing with a view down onto the Rio Beni below.
Over the next few days Demetrio our guide gave us a taste of the wealth of the forests uses, medicines, creatures and beauties. We lit up tarantula nests and their hairy scary legs with our torches, tracked the raucous hoots of the howler monkeys to try and get a glimpse of them in the moonlit treetops, boulder hopped the beautiful misty and moss carpeted Suse canyon, visited the community that we would soon get to know well and took walks where Demetrio showed us plants that could cure ailments. Wherever we were Demetrio always managed to point out a new surprise from natures vast resources - a caterpillar of many colours and poisonous spines, huge ants whose bite hurts for 24 hours, strange insects, ant highways, colourful birds, mud baths of wild pigs, edible and poisonous berries and fruits.

The last day of the tour was a day deep in Madidi national park. To get there itself took several hours in the boat, first up the Rio Beni then up a side river called Rio Tuichi (where an Israeli once was lost, refound and then wrote his book 'Back from Tuichi') where it gets pretty shallow and rough at times as it was nearing the end of the dry season. Every now and again the navigator had to get out and pull the boat over the spots where one couldn't motor through. We stopped to do a walk - after first getting Pachamamas blessing - we saw a few colourful birds but most exciting was trying to get a glimpse of a huge group of wild boar Demetrio had zoned in on after hearing their odd snuffle grunts. There were hundreds of them but in the forest even at close range you could just make out fleeting shadows as they fled. A short ride downstream a swim and lunch then we walked to the macaws nesting site. These huge red and blue and yellow parrots mate for life and flew in pairs (how sweet) screeching - Axel said they were arguing. The norwegian couple were lucky enough to find a feather. One side blue the other side red. On our way out we saw a termite bear in a tree, more birds and a troop of capuchin monkeys along the river. Quite a good day considering how hard it is to get a glimpse of animals in the forest. They also say that the animals are receding farther and farther into the depths of the park to keep out of humans way (and their bullets - bushmeat poaching is not uncommon). Back at the lodge we saw the group off and were left to the eerily quiet lodge. The next day Axel and I were moving to the community - to a family.