Anaconda hunting and piranha fishing in the Amazon pampas

by Forager on September 26, 2010

I’ve always had a fascination with wildlife documentaries. Long before I discovered Sir David Attenborough and his mesmerising BBC documentaries chronicling creatures one can only imagine, as a child I was addicted to the weekly program, “The World Around Us” and more than a little in awe of Malcolm Douglas and the deft ease with which he would tackle down enormous salt water crocodiles, capture goannas and cook bush tucker, all whilst in a barely-there loin cloth. To me, he epitomised the very idea of a self sufficient hunter and I was enthralled by the different animals, insects and reptiles he would encounter. When I heard he’d passed away in the last week I was saddened as I’d once planned a trip with L-bean to tour the Northern Territory with Malcolm Douglas. The plans eventually fell through and now we won’t have that chance again. In a tribute to the hunter that first inspired my wildlife fascination, I felt it was appropriate that I write this timely post on my trip to the Amazon pampas.

When planning our trip to South America the Co-pilot and I had the opportunity to either tour parts of the Amazon jungle or pampas (plains). We consulted a friendly travel agent, Wonderland Bolivia, whilst we were in La Paz and they convinced us that unless we had remarkable vision, had a knack for spotting creatures hiding in dense foliage and were particularly fond of giant spiders and insects, we should probably forgo the Amazon jungle tour and instead opt for a tour of the Bolivian Amazon pampas. The threat of giant bird eating spiders was more than enough to convince me that the pampas tour was the option for us!

We left La Paz in the early hours of the morning and as mentioned in my last South America post, the airport is at such high altitude already that there isn’t much need for the plane to climb any higher. We take off, within minutes we’re at cruising altitude with magnificent views over the Cordillera Real mountains, and the craggy Illimani mountain looming over La Paz, and in the blink of an eye we’re already descending towards Rurrenabaque.

Flight over the Andes

Flying over the Andes with the snow capped Illimani mountain in the background

Getting off the plane was a rude shock for my fleece, thermal and boot clad self. Once I’d acclimatised to the warmer temperature (aided with a hasty change into t-shirts and thongs) I found myself exulting in the change – it was only 7am, but humid, tropical, lush green and a very welcome change to the barren, windblown, high altitude landscapes I’d travelled through in the previous weeks.

Rurrenabaque

Landing in lush Rurrenabaque

Next was a gruelling, 4 hour, bone crunching 4WD drive from Rurrenabaque through dusty, unpaved roads. The air conditioning on our aging 4WD was broken, and cramped in thigh to thigh with 3 other travellers in the sweltering heat of the car, the only air flow was from choking clouds of red dust from the open windows. Unlike earlier in our trip when we were lucky enough to meet the affable English boys on our Uyuni tour, it appeared our luck had run out and we were paired with 3 of the most uninteresting characters one could ever hope to meet. One said nothing, even when we engaged him in conversation; one complained of absolutely everything in monotone and pined for the riches of her home country; and the last boasted about himself mercilessly.

Bone crunching 4WD

A gruelling 4 hour drive on dusty roads

We were immensely relieved to finally reach the Yacuma River, fresh air, the company of others and the beginning of our 3.5 hour river tour. Before us were un-sheltered wooden long boats powered by noisy motors to take us to our accommodation deep in the pampas. It was then that we discovered that the Co-pilot had somehow managed to lose his hat and sunglasses between leaving La Paz and here so we had my one hat and one pair of sunglasses to share between us. Talk about sun smart!

We’re given a briefing from our tour guide, who communicates effectively using a good knowledge of basic English and charades, then one boat after another roars down the Yacuma River in search of animals to spot. We’re positive that the din of the engines, would effectively scatter even the shadows of animals and that we’re in for an extended Where’s Wally-style animal spotting session.

Thankfully, we were so wrong. A mere minute in, we spotted some turtles clambering on one another in a desperate bid to get the most sun.

Turtles sunning

Turtles sunning on a log

And from there, the Amazon menagerie came alive with animals appearing at every turn and every corner in wild abundance. Unbeknownst to us, we’d unwittingly managed to schedule our tour during the best period to see the Amazon pampas. The Yacuma River is normally much more swollen and water plentiful throughout the pampas thus scattering the animals but October and November marks the end of the dry season and the scarcity of water drives all the animals to the river from far and wide.

Amazon pampas boat ride

Cruising down the Yacuma River spotting animals

The capybara, the world’s largest rodent and one of stars of the Amazon pampas I’d hoped to see grazed casually on foliage on the river bank, pausing into silence as we approached, then, determining that we posed no threat, continued their relentless grazing. They were absolutely adorable and I wished I could give one of the little ones a cuddle. Our guide mentioned that the indigenous people in the Amazon do and are allowed to hunt the capybara and apparently they taste like pork. I guess they do resemble something like a wombat-feral hog cross.

Capybara family

A grazing capybara family steadfastly ignoring our passing boat

More Capybara

And more capybara

There were of course plenty of cayman and alligators to be seen too. Over the course of the 3.5 hours we saw them in a variety of sizes from baby hatchlings to 2m long monsters that huffed and growled in open aggression when our boat strayed too close to them. The growling came from a vibration from deep within the torso of the creatures and would cause a series of violent ripples, bubbles and reverberations in the water. Despite the aggression evidence right before our eyes, our guide was adamant that they weren’t dangerous, they are “just curious” he maintained. Yes. Curious about how I might taste? Oh, and I’m not exaggerating when I say we saw close to a thousand alligators and cayman. The river was teeming with them!

Alligators galore

"Curious" alligators and cayman galore

We passed troops of friendly spider monkeys chattering and screeching beseeching our attention and leaping from tree limb to limb in an attempt to snatch the fruit from our guide’s outstretched hand.

Spider monkeys

Cheeky spider monkeys snatching our fruit

And we saw more birds than I could possibly count. Herons, cranes, fish hawks were some of the names our guide attributed to some of them. I was particularly intrigued by a pheasant-like, heavy bird that crashed ungracefully from tree to tree (top left corner in the photo below). I later learned in Sir David Attenborough’s Life on Earth documentary series that this bird is the intriguing Hoatzin, the only known bird species alive today with claws on it’s wings – a link to the reptilian evolutionary lineage of birds, and remarkably similar to the structure seen in the Archaeopteryx skeleton, the first known “winged lizard bird“. Hoatzin chicks are born with the claws but lose them as they mature.

Birds of every variety

Birds of every variety kept a watchful eye on us

I didn’t think it was possible at the beginning of the trip, but the wonder and exuberant childlike joy we exhibited at the beginning of the river tour, pointing out everything we spotted, waned considerably by the end. Yet another alligator here and another capybara there. So it is possible to get animal overload even for the most keen wildlife enthusiasts.

We arrived at our accommodation and with all the other groups, were whisked off to a bar nearby for volleyball, some semi-warm beers and to watch the sun dip below the skyline, painting the sky a glowing burnt orange.

Sunset bar

Volleyball, warm beers and glowing sunsets on the pampas

Sunset

Gorgeous sunsets with animals waking in the background

The accommodation and meals in the lodges running pampas tours seem to be much the same as the same staff move up and down the river to help out in kitchens as needed. Dinners were a very simple affair usually consisting of some combination of meat, pasta, salad and chips – but were still better than the meals we had on our Uyuni salt flats tour. I had more than my share of cold, soggy frankfurts for this lifetime!

Dinner Bibosi lodge

The simple dinners at Bibosi Lodge

The sleeping quarters were similarly basic, as one would expect in an eco-lodge in the Amazon pampas. We only just managed to get the double room we paid for (not without a stern discussion with the staff to either get what we paid for or get the difference back), all the other rooms were dorm-style bunk beds separated by thatch barriers that didn’t reach the ceiling. The beds were swathed in mosquito netting and at about 9 or 10pm, the generators would cut out and the lodge would be plunged into hot, sticky darkness. Through years of travel I’ve learnt never to leave home without the sturdy silk fan I bought in Japan. Though it didn’t seem of much use in the high altitude barren salt flats, it was proving its worth here in the humid, breezeless Amazon pampas. And judging from the envious stares, other travellers thought so too.

Wild nights on the Pampas

Wild nights on the Pampas - mosquitoes, frogs, bats and howler monkeys

The darkness would be the cue for the wilderness to creep from the plains into our room quite literally. Frogs hopped all over my clothers. Bats roosting inside the lodge would circle all the bedrooms freely as the thatch separators only served to segment each of the rooms and unluckily for the Co-pilot they would periodically sprinkle him with their urine during the night. And when the first light of dawn broke through the night sky, the howler monkeys would start up, howling their dominance across the pampas.

Breakfast during the tour was a more welcome meal and we were offered a variety of treats from muesli and yoghurt, toast, fruit and even pancakes slathered in dulce de leche.

Breakfast on the pampas

Breakfast on the pampas even included pancakes smothered in dulce de leche

The feature activity for our second day was anaconda hunting. I didn’t expect to have to plunge into waist high long grass in search of the fabled monster sized constrictor and the Co-pilot and I exchanged nervous looks as it went against all our natural instincts for self preservation. Sensing our nervousness, our guides disappeared into the bushes and came back with 3 different leaves which they handed out for good luck. Personally, I would’ve preferred a tranquiliser gun to the 3 flimsy little leaves in my palm.

Anaconda hunting

Going anaconda hunting in long waist high grass seemed like a sensible idea at the time

Good luck leaves

The three flimsy leaves that were supposed to ensure a safe anaconda hunt

We needn’t of worried though. We spent hours in the hot midday sun wading through the long grass and we were more in danger of stepping into a fresh steaming pile of horse or cow dung than an anaconda waiting to strike.

Animals sheltering from heat

Animals sheltering from the intense midday heat

Finally, after hours, we found one sole anaconda hiding in the hollow of a tree. OH&S seems to be low on people’s priorities here as one after another we stuck our heads into the tree hollow to peer at the startled anaconda. The Co-pilot went as far as to stick his arm into the hollow and point the camera in the vague direction of the anaconda in the vain hope of a good shot.

Anaconda

An anaconda hiding in a hollowed tree

Since we seemed to be on the accelerated program to win “The Darwin Awards“, to cool off we were all taken to a bend in the river to swim amongst the alligators, cayman and piranha.

Swimming in the Yacuma

Brave tourists ignoring the alligators, cayman and piranha dangers

Our tour guides had spotted pink river dolphins and reasoned that these predators were so aggressive they chased away all the piranhas, cayman and alligators, assuring us it was safe to swim. “Safe! No one has been bitten“. Yet.

Being Australian and well indoctrinated in the dangers of swimming in waterholes where man-eating salt water crocodiles might lurk, I was not in any way prepared to disregard the dozens of alligators and cayman I’d just seen on the way to the river bend and take the word of my guide over my screaming instincts. The guides slid in first to the murky brown river, tapping the side of the boat in an attempt to call the dolphins over to protect us. Other tourists jumped in, some apprehensively, some with gusto. A young man jumped in and in an attempt to tempt his girlfriend in, pretended to drown, flailing his limbs about and splashing the water theatrically. Genius! Splashing like an injured animal – a sure fire way to attract opportunistic predators. Call me a pessimistic fatalist but seeing a lone pink dolphin some 50m away every now and then is not my idea of a fail-safe plan.

Aggravating alligators

Contending for The Darwin Awards by aggravating alligators

On cue, we spotted an alligator on the opposite river bank. Some of the tourists clamber back into the boats whilst one of the guides approaches it cautiously then in Steve Irwin style, aggravates it with a small branch. There was much nervous gasping and squealing as we all watched transfixed with baited breath. Finally the alligator tired of the games and slid into the river towards the other swimmers.

Aggravated alligator

Mission achieved: one very aggravated alligator

More squealing ensued as everyone looked around for the mystical protective pink dolphin but whilst our attentions were held by the riverbank alligator show, our pink dolphin had swum off and was nowhere to be seen. Theoretically then, the other tourists had spent the last few minutes just wading about in alligator and piranha infested waters. The same thought seemed to occur to everyone at the same time and there was a scramble to get back into the boats. That should have been enough alligator action to tempt fate for one day, but that night we went for a night boat ride. After dinner when nightfall had set in, we slathered on heavy duty mosquito repellent, grabbed our head torches and we set off down the river. Once we were well away from the lights of the lodge, we cut the engines and drifted slowly in the eerie silence. Being so far from city light pollution, the stars shone in their billions, seemingly filling every spare inch of the night sky. The silhouettes of bats criss-crossed the sky swooping silently with only the occasional powerful flap of their wings and squeak to herald their presence. Shining our torches onto the river banks we catch sight of the first alligator – eerily, its eyes glow red in the torch light as it stares silently back at us, its toothy jaws agape. We realised that the alligators and cayman are more nocturnal as we pass hundreds upon hundreds of pairs of glowing red eyes watching us solemnly, scuttling away, hissing at us or sliding into the water deliberately when our torch lights hit them. Its also then with horrified awe that I appreciate just how many alligators inhabit these waters. I wonder how many of the tourists on the night boat ride would now choose to jump into the river for a swim?

Our last day in the Amazon pampas was the one I was most excited about – we were going piranha fishing! Armed with just hand reels and some leftover meat from the kitchen, we stopped our boat at a bend in the river bed with lots of branches for fish to seek refuge.

Early morning piranha fishing

The early bird catches the worm, thus, early morning piranha fishing

Our guide shows us how and where to cast and within minutes, he’s successful, proudly displaying his catch for the cameras. He tells us it’s a common piranha, and although it looks fairly small, it’s actually a decent size for this species. The red-bellied piranha are the fabled aggressive piranhas and they tend to grow to larger sizes. He throws the piranha back and encourages us to try our luck. If we’re lucky to catch one of a decent size – we get to eat it!

Piranha success!

Piranha success! Our guide catches the first piranha

Our competitive frustrated angler streaks stoked, for the next hour we cast our lines into the water again and again, feeling the nibbles and either catching small bait fish or just feeding them pulling up empty hooks. The others in our group had long given up and were snoozing in the boat whilst the Co-pilot and I persisted. We were down to our last morsel of bait each and we had to make it count. On my last catch I finally caught a small common piranha. He’s only small fry – barely large enough to be bait fish let alone the frying pan so he’s destined to be thrown back but I’m elated to have caught one anyway. But no-one had caught anything sizable, and no-one had caught a red-bellied piranha.

My brave Co-pilot went for broke and leapt off the boat onto the slippery river bank, sidled onto a rotten log that was too far from the boat to cast to, diligently ignored the large slumbering alligator sheltering just beneath the log and whilst balancing precariously, lowered his last piece of bait into the water. Success! He caught a red-bellied piranha! He was so excited he practically danced back onto the boat!

Red bellied piranha

The Co-pilot catches a big red bellied piranha

Our guide was impressed with our competitive persistence and carefully handled the piranha for our trophy photos.

Red bellied piranha jaws

The jaws of the red bellied piranha that have inspired many a b-grade horror movie

To demonstrate the power of those jaws, our guide tentatively feeds a small bait fish into the piranha’s mouth. The piranha chomps ferociously and perforates the bait fish with ease.

Ferocious red bellied piranha

The ferocious red bellied piranha shows us where it gets its reputation

Thankfully the Co-pilot’s red bellied piranha was a decent size too so piranha was secured on our menu for breakfast! Back at the lodge the piranha was gutted, simply seasoned, dusted in flour, fried in a hot pan then served with a wedge of lime.

Frying piranha

Frying our red bellied piranha for breakfast

Fried piranha

Fried piranha, seasoned with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lime

As far as white flesh fish go, the piranha tasted unremarkable. It had the sweetness of freshly caught fish but no distinguishing flavours and far too many bones to make a filling meal. But it was a piranha and we ate every last morsel of flesh with intense satisfaction.

And on that high, tasty note our Amazon pampas experience came to an end and we were ferried back along the scorching Yacuma River, rushing by grazing capybaras and gaping alligators; roaring howler monkeys and birds of prey keeping sentry over the pampas from their lofty tree top perches.

Riverside at Rurrenabaque

Riverside at Rurrenabaque

Another gruelling 4 hour 4WD ride later, we were back at Rurrenabaque roaming the lazy market stall streets waiting for our plane back to La Paz and on to the next stage of our trip. Copacobana and Cusco awaits.

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Details and Addresses:

We booked our 3 day, 2 night Amazon pampas tour with Indigena Tours (www.indigenatour.com) through Wonderland Bolivia Travel Agency in La Paz. It cost 1200 Bs or about $180 AUD pp for all meals and accommodation with an additional 150 Bs ($22 AUD) for entry into Santa Rosa Municipal Park. Flights from La Paz to Rurrenabaque cost about 470 Bs or about $70AUD one way.

Wonderland Bolivia

189, Calle Sagárnaga esq. Murillo

Tel: 2900375

www.wonderlandbolivia.com

.

Traveller in the know:

My essentials for this trip were diverse but we found that heavy duty DEET mosquito repellent was crucial as the locally available repellent just didn’t work and we saw some tourists that looked like they’d been devoured. Other than all the usual sun smart things like sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, the humid heat really call for white linen clothing and a sturdy hand held fan!


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 chocolatesuze September 27, 2010 at 2:49 am

woah crap look at the teeth on that sucker! your adventure sounds awesome esp love the pic of the animals huddled under the tree hehe

2 Reemski September 27, 2010 at 11:49 am

Loved the Capybara’s!! How cute, and the spider Monkey’s…making me feel like I’m well overdue for a holiday.

3 Conor @ HoldtheBeef September 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Another awesome holiday post!! I think you definitely made the right decision with the pampas tour – bird eating spiders just should not even exist.

I wish you’d gotten some footage of the monotonic and bragger people 😉

4 john@heneedsfood September 27, 2010 at 3:52 pm

I used to love watching World Around Us! What an adventure you had! Pranha for breakfast would have been a real treat. Great pics!
john@heneedsfood recently posted..Is all coffee in Paris crapMy Profile

5 Anita September 27, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Piranha for breakfast? Cool. What an amazing adventure.
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6 Corinne @ Gourmantic September 27, 2010 at 10:16 pm

I’m going to scroll back up and look at the pretty turtles because the rest would give me nightmares!

I guess in the end you showed the piranha who was boss! :)
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7 thatssoron September 28, 2010 at 1:00 am

that was mad! piranha for breakfast! superb!

8 Sara (Belly Rumbles) September 28, 2010 at 10:09 am

I love the picture of walking in to the high grass, almost something out of an anaconda movie………

There is no way I would have gotten in to that water either! How wonderful that Co-pilot caught a red bellied piranha and that you guys got to eat it too! Thanks for a wonderful post.
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9 Katherine October 1, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I admire you for being so brave. The teeth on the piranha would have given me nightmares ehehehe. I’m so non outdoorsy. Nice pictures. I love the one of the piranha with another fish in its mouth.
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10 mademoiselle délicieuse October 5, 2010 at 11:46 am

I never knew that piranha were of an edible quality! The photo showing off its teeth is definitely something to behold.

(By the way, I’ve had plans to read this post for a week but knowing it’d be info-packed had to find time to sit down with a cup of tea!)
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11 Forager November 4, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Hey Chocolatesuze – very formidable teeth – in fact one of the other guides was badly cut trying to unhook a piranha on their boat – those teeth really are razors!

Hey Reemski – I know adorable huh? I so wanted to smuggle one back as a pet! I know they’ve been kept as pets in America..

Hey Conor – Agree, bird eating spiders are wrong. That bad movie Arachnophobia comes to mind. Could’ve got footage of those awful people on our tour, but it woulda broken our camera I suspect.

Hey John – Yep – a change from the vegemite on toast that’s for sure!

Hey Anita – When on travel, we do what the locals do. And who are we to question their culture when there are so many alligators and piranhas to help dispose of pesky tourists..

Hey Corinne – Haha – especially the bats that pee-d on us during the night! I’m sure I still have nightmares about that!

Hey Thatssoron – I was pretty happy about catching and eating that sucker!

Hey Sara – It dawned on us only once we were in the thick of it that we were sort of “asking for it” in that long grass. Thankfully, we didn’t die in the Amazon despite trying our best to.

Hey Katherine – I’m not very outdoorsy either really. But the hunter and forager in me gets me out there. Maybe you just hunt and forage cupcakes?

Hey mademoiselle delicieuse – I sort of wanted to test the teeth with my finger, but thankfully, my brain kicked back in and told me otherwise. Those teeth were sharp! And thanks for taking the time to savour the epic post!

12 Natalie October 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Hi there,
Have just read your post. Interesting indeed! My partner and I are about to stay at the bibosi ecolodge. This is where you were right?
What is the accommodation like? So you can do a private room?
And were you able to squeeze the flights in so you arrive on the day of the tour early morning and leave the last day of the tour? We are tight for time. Or do you not reccommend this because of the risk of slight delays etc?..
Thanks for your help and blog!
Natalie

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