The order to switch off our torches came as we stepped into the blackness of the Bolivian Amazon at night, and I wondered how we were possibly going to spot any wildlife.
Javier, our guide, had called excitedly me from my cosy cabin a few minutes before, explaining that now was the time to truly experience the jungle, and I had quickly pulled on my wellies and splashed myself in insect repellent as shields against the bugs and mud. But now I found myself in complete darkness, the rainforest canopy too thick for even the full moon to penetrate, and I felt completely exposed.
The Amazon at night is an ebony underworld, a place where strange creatures awake while the rest of the world slumbers. The faint jungle hum that persists throughout the day reaches a squealing crescendo at dusk, as cicadas, crickets, tree frogs and bats all battle for attention. It was becoming clear that I wouldn’t need my eyes to get the full, wild experience.
A heavy, humid blanket of tropical air wrapped itself around my shoulders, carrying with it organic aromas. The Amazon has been described as the “lungs of the earth”, and it truly exhales a breath which reeks of life: decomposing earth, damp leaves, shattered fruit, fragrant musk.
Shadows mottled by moonlight resembled leopards, a vine brushing past an arm imitated the twitching tail of a tree boa. The fluttering leaf which landed on Javier’s jacket turned out to be an enormous cockroach – but he batted it away without flinching. Javier was a native Tacana who grew up in the rainforest – and even in the darkness, he knew which of the wildlife was worth fussing over. Cockroaches posed no threat; but if we heard the thunder of stampeding peccaries – vicious jungle pigs – we were to climb the nearest tree as quickly as possible. Bristly tarantulas were virtually harmless too, but the sting of the inch-long bullet ant would resemble being shot, with the pain taking 24 hours to subside. But however hostile this environment seems to visitors, it has given life to the Tacana who have lived here for generations, and still depend on many of the Amazon’s natural resources in order to preserve their traditional way of life.
I adore being deep in the jungle – but that night I was relieved to emerge back into the clearing by the river where my cabin perched, inviting and relatively bug-free. It was both inspiring and terrifying to be led into one of nature’s final refuges, and to know that – although Javier’s wisdom would keep me safe – for once, humans were not in control of my surroundings. In the Amazon, we are only ever guests.
- This region of Bolivia forms part of Madidi National Park, one of the earth’s most biologically diverse regions where new species of plants and animals continue to be discovered.
- Since the park was created, only the region’s native inhabitants are permitted to make use of its resources, and through knowledge handed down over generations they can convert it into houses, medicines, food and fishing spears.
- I travelled into Madidi with Mashaquipe Cultural Eco Tours, a superb, budget tour operator based in the nearby town of Rurrenabaque. Mashaquipe was founded by several Tacana, T’siman and Moseten families, and many of their indigenous guides also speak English.