Pretty much all travellers to South America have a trip to the Amazon Rainforest on their list of must-do things. It’s understandable too, according to the WWF, the Amazon is the most biologically diverse place in the world.
Although it is possible to visit the rainforest from different countries all over South America, Bolivia is a fantastic choice because of its reasonably priced trips.
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Types of Amazon Rainforest tour
Pampas tours explore the waterways of the rainforest via boat and offer the opportunity to see a whole myriad of wildlife. Although visitors can visit Madidi National Park on a jungle tour from Bolivia’s Amazonian hub Rurrenabaque, this is not as popular as the pampas tours that are offered. There are a couple of reasons for this, the first being that jungle tours tend to be more expensive and the second being that owing to dense foliage, visitors are worried they will not see as much wildlife as they would on the pampas.
A pampas tour can be an unforgettable experience if it is done right. Sadly, it isn’t as easy as booking on a trip and turning up though. As with any kind of activity involving animals, it is important to do your research beforehand to avoid supporting cruel practices.
For travellers feeling overwhelmed who don’t know where to start planning their Amazon Rainforest tour, never fear! This guide is going to get you clued up on everything you need to know in order to visit the Bolivian Amazon on a pampas tour. If you’re struggling with the fear factor of visiting the Amazon, then read this survival guide first to settle your mind (or prepare you for the worst).
Welcome to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia
In Bolivia, pretty much all of the pampas tours run out of the small town of Rurrenabaque, located in the northern part of the country. In all honesty, there is little to do in this sleepy jungle town so unless you are intending to visit either the jungle or the pampas, it is probably not worth the journey.
How do I get to Rurrenabaque?
There are two options for travellers looking to reach Rurrenabaque.
The first is to travel by bus but beware, this is not for the faint of heart! Whilst it is insanely cheap at just 90 bolivianos a journey ($13US), the route can take between 12 and 36 hours! It is a dangerous trip and accidents happen regularly. Although I don’t want to scare anyone reading this, it is important that you know people can and do die making this journey.
The second and safest option is to fly. Direct flights can be arranged from La Paz and only take around 40 minutes. Although not as cheap as the bus, they are reasonably priced, costing around $90US each way.
Top tip: For some strange reason, it can actually be cheaper to book flights through a travel agent in La Paz rather than reserving them independently online.
How do I book a pampas tour?
It is possible to arrange your pampas tour in La Paz. Most agencies will offer a package deal which will include the tour itself as well as flights and airport pick-up by your tour company. This is the best option for travellers on a tight time schedule.
However, if you have the time to look, you are likely to find a cheaper tour in the town of Rurrenabaque. Competition is fierce and you will see some operators offering 3-day pampas tours at rock bottom prices. Approach these agencies with caution.
Although it is often ignored, pampas tour providers do have a government set minimum to charge for trips. This was introduced with the intention of preventing unethical companies from damaging the local ecosystem through cutting corners.
You should be prepared to pay around $180US for a 3-day tour from a reputable provider. These prices do not include the additional 150 bolivianos ($20US) entrance fee into the park.
Ethical companies that come highly recommended include Dolphin Travel, Mashaquipe and Bala Tours.
Choosing a pampas tour in Rurrenabaque
There are tons of companies offerings trips into the pampas and it can be difficult to know how to pick a good tour provider. These are my top tips for choosing a great and ethical pampas tour:
- Do not go with any agency that feeds or touches the animals
Unfortunately, this is all too common on pampas tours. In order to please tourists, some guides will draw monkeys and other wildlife onto the boats with food. Do not underestimate how harmful this can be for wild animals. It takes away their independence and encourages them to become reliant on humans. This will reduce their hunting skills and their ability to survive in the wild.
- Be wary about very cheap prices
Cheap prices will mean cut corners. You may find that the guides are not getting paid a fair wage or that the food is substandard on these kinds of tours. During my time in Rurrenabaque, I heard of people getting food poisoning on cheap tours because the agencies couldn’t be bothered to buy in filtered water. A saving of $60US isn’t really worth a week in the hospital, is it?
- Look up reviews on Tripadvisor and ask in Facebook Community groups
When it comes to choosing a pampas tour, one of the best tools that you have in your armoury is to ask your fellow travellers about their experience. When gathering opinions, be sure to ask about the quality of the accommodation, food and whether the animal experience was ethical.
- Ask questions
If you have any concerns, make sure to ask someone at the company before you book. Layout your expectations and make it clear that you will not be purchasing tour if there is anything you are unhappy about. If responsible travel is a high priority to you, make this very clear from the outset.
What to expect from your pampas tour
Most pampas tours offer either a 2-day or 3-day trip. Considering the price difference between the two, it is worth opting for a 3-day tour.
The vast majority of the trip will take place on a motorised canoe. Here you will tour the pampas with a guide to look for capybaras, caiman, pink dolphins and more. Most 3-day tours will include:
- Shared accommodation in a jungle lodge
Accommodation is usually basic and will include a mosquito net. However, the nets are not always in the best of conditions and you are advised to use repellent at night all the same.
- Meals at the lodge
Vegetarian options are usually available for no extra charge but be sure to check with your tour company prior to departure.
- Transport to and from Rurrenabaque
This will usually be in a 4×4. Unfortunately, much like the rest of Bolivia, the roads are in need of maintenance here!
- Drinking water
Make sure that this is filtered as it is very easy to get ill otherwise.
- Tour Guide
Although you would expect these to be English speaking by default, this is not the case with all companies. Make sure to clarify this before you book.
- A night boat trip to look for caimans
Don’t forget to bring your head torch!
Fun Fact: You can actually tell species of caiman apart from the difference in their eye colour!
- A short hike to search for anaconda
Be aware that spotting an anaconda is unlikely as many of the trip providers go to the same spot and as a result, far fewer anacondas frequent these areas now.
- The opportunity to go piranha fishing
This was one of the trip highlights for me. If you have a successful fishing trip, your chefs may even cook up your catch for the evening meal!
- Swimming with the pink river dolphins
Although these animals aren’t the easiest to see in the murky brown water, they are truly beautiful. Before swimming, make sure you are not wearing any insect repellent or suncream as this is not good for the health of the dolphins. Any responsible provider will insist on this prior to you departing for the swimming experience.
What should I bring on my pampas tour?
Packing for a pampas tour can be challenging owing to the humidity of the climate. Visitors should bear in mind that mosquitos are rife in the region and bite prevention should be a priority. For my 3-day pampas trip, this is what made it into my bag:
- Sweat-wicking leggings (full length)
- Light cotton trousers
- 2 quick-dry t-shirts
- Long-sleeved t-shirt
- Walking boots
- DEET insect repellent
- Solid shampoo
- Solid conditioner
- Head torch
- Microfibre towel
- Cash for extras (Beware that there are very few places to withdraw money in Rurrenabaque)
- Rain jacket
- Anti diarrhoea tablets
The main thing to remember is that you will want to stay covered to avoid mosquito bites. However, because of the temperature, you will need your clothes to be as cool as possible. The pampas offers very little in the way of shade from the sun so you will absolutely need to bring sun protection.
Recommended places to stay in Rurrenabaque
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Best budget option: Hotel Oriental
This backpacker favourite is located in the centre of Rurrenabaque, close to all of the tour agencies and restaurants. The whole place is very clean and there is a garden complete with hammocks for chilling out in.
A good breakfast is included in the price and they offer a range of cheap private rooms, starting at just $14USD for a single room.
Great mid-range choice: Pampa & Selva
Another centrally located hotel, Pampa & Selva makes for a convenient base from which to explore Rurrenabaque. The showers are hot (which isn’t always easy to come by here) and the beds are comfortable.
Guests rate the WiFi particularly well which is great for those who want to stay connected. The staff are hugely knowledgeable about the local area and can recommend a good agency for the pampas tour. Again, breakfast is included in the price. A single room with a private bathroom starts at $21USD.
Treat yourself: Hotel Maya de la Amazonia
Although the decor is somewhat lacking (imagine your gran owned a guesthouse), the rooms at Hotel Maya de la Amazonia are spacious and comfortable. All rooms come with a TV, desk and a private bathroom. To make things even better, they also boast a big swimming pool outside which is exactly what you need to cool off in sweaty Rurrenabaque!
Hotel Maya de la Amazonia offer free tea and coffee all day and a hearty breakfast is included in the room price. A single room starts at $42USD per night, including air conditioning.
Have you done an Amazon Rainforest tour before?