Whether tourists wish to discover the ancient survival skills of the jungle, visit the astonishing wildlife of the pampas, explore daily life on a Bolivian ranch, challenge themselves on a jungle tour adventure, or simply relax by a swimming pool after a day of craft shopping in the tropical sunshine, we offer all the resources needed to plan a perfect trip to Rurrenabaque.
Rurrenabaque, or 'Rurre' as the locals call it, is the starting point for the jungle and pampas tours in this once-remote corner of Bolivia. The wealth of wildlife, flora and indigenous culture has made Rurrenabaque an eco-travel hub in recent years.
Situated on the east bank of the Rio Beni, with San Buenaventura on the opposite shore, Rurrenabaque is an important trading center and transportation link for the Beni department. The town itself has less than 8000 permanent residents, most of whom are Tacana natives and still speak the native language.
Rurrenabaque has some nice viewpoints showcasing the surrounding rivers and greenery, such as La Cruz Lookout and the Butterfly Pool Lookout. The town, flanked by the broad Rio Beni on one side and the beautiful jungle-covered Cordillera de Bala on the other, has a lovely setting and pleasant atmosphere.
Rurrenabaque is a small town and it is possible to walk almost everywhere. Unlike most Bolivian towns, the businesses, restaurants and offices in Rurre are not centred around the plaza (2 de Febrero), but instead are clustered together a few blocks north along Calles Santa Cruz and Avaroa. If the tropical climate gets too much, moto taxis are abundant.
A steep trail climbs from the end of Calle Luis Fernando Pellicioli, behind the church, 45 minutes up to a cross and lookout with good views over the town and river. It is especially nice around sunset but be sure to return before dark as parts of the trail are difficult.
On the opposite bank of the Rio Beni is San Buenaventura. A motorized canoe makes the short but pretty trip across throughout the day. By the plaza of San Buenaventura is the Centro Cultural Tacana, with a small museum and native crafts for sale.
Eco-travelers looking for a fun way to spend some time in Rurrenabaque before continuing on to the Madidi park or the Pampas, can opt for the canopy zipline for a thrilling high-speed way to see the area. If you have a little time to spare and inquire at the harbor, you can even take a boat 1km upstream to visit El Chorro waterfall and pool, where you'll see a serpentine engraving which functioned as an ancient warning to travelers; when the water level reached the serpent, the Beni river was considered not navigable.
In addition to boats, canoes and barges, one of the most common means of transport is the motorcycle. However, you can still see horses and carts being used as well.
April, May and June are the three months of the year during which most tourists visit and the town fills up, so plannig ahead is advised.
Rurrenabaque is located some 430 km by road north of La Paz, at a point where the Beni River, the tropical slopes of the Andes Mountains, and the rainforest of the Amazon plains unite.
Rurrenabaque is known as the gateway for all Bolivian Amazon adventures and has emerged in recent years as the most popular ecotourism destination in the Bolivian Amazon, and indeed one of the most popular tourist destinations in the whole country, with some thirty thousand visitors annually. This jungle town is an ideal starting point to experience the rich biodiversity, gorgeous landscapes, native cultures and friendly locals that make this region so special.
The river, which serves as a border between Beni and the Department of La Paz, separates Rurrenabaque from the town of San Buenaventura across from it. The townspeople are known as "porteños".
Picturesquely located on a broad sweep of the Rio Beni Rurrenabaque is close to some of the best-preserved and most accessible wilderness areas in the region, including the spectacular rainforests of Parque Nacional Madidi and the Reserva de Biosfera y Territorio Indigena Pilon Lajas, as well as the wildlife-rich pampas along the Rio Yacuma.
Rurrenabaque is about 20 hours from La Paz by bus and 3 hours from Coroico, although road conditions during the rainy season can make trip times vary widely.
Rurrenabaque is located in northeast Bolivia, along the east bank of the Beni River in the Amazon Basin and surrounded by green hills. One travels southwest from Rurrenabaque on foot and by boat along the Beni or Tuichi Rivers to reach the rainforest, and northeast along the Yacuma to reach the pampas marshlands.
The Uchupiamonas, Tacanas, Cavinas, Mojos, Pacaguaras and Esse Ejjas were the first natives to inhabit the region. These hunter-gatherers were dependent on the abundant natural resources of the Bolivian Amazon, and lived in peaceful cohabitation with the forest. The Tacana indigenous communities have lived in the area since pre-Columbian times. They were one of the few lowland tribes that resisted Christianity after the Spanish conquest. It was the Tacana who named the river Beni, which means wind, as well as Rurrenabaque, which is derived from the name of a nearby arroyo, Suse-Inambaque, Duck Ravine.
In 1564 the first Spaniards arrived to explore, conquer, and extract mineral wealth from the region. Soon after this the Catholic Church sent priests to evangelize the natives. In less than one hundred years the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church had established at least fourteen mission towns including Apolobamba, Apolo, San Jose de Uchupiamonas, Santa Cruz del Valle Ameno, San Antonio de Ixiamas, San Buenaventura de Chiriguas and San Ignacio de Moxos.
Rurrenabaque was founded on February 2nd, 1844 by a businessman called Manuel Mendez abrego. A law was passed on 15 November of the same year calling the territory "Ciudad Ballivian".
Rurrenabaque first came to prominence during the rubber boom in the late nineteenth century, serving as the gateway to the Amazon region from the highlands. Andean settlers flocked to Rurre as it became the center for the extraction and export of quinine - used to treat malaria, and then the focus of the rubber boom, which lasted until 1920. Native Tacanas and Mosetenes were employed as laborers, and began to integrate into colonial society. Until fairly recently, the extraction and processing of timber from the surrounding rainforest was Rurrenabaque's main industry, but this has been curtailed somewhat by the exhaustion of valuable timber species and the establishment of Parque Nacional Madidi and other protected areas. The booming ecotourism industry has emerged as one of the few economic alternatives to this highly destructive and largely illegal activity.
The town of Rurrenabaque itself was originally settled when quinine (a popular remedy for fevers at the time) was a major export to Europe. Many colonists arrived from the Andean region of the country to extract this product. Later, during the great rubber boom in Bolivia more settlers arrived. Then Brazil nuts and lumber became major industries in the area. The creation of Madidi National Park really set the tourist tone for this town and the influx of tourists has increased.
French scientist and naturalist Alcides D'Orbigny also helped make this area known. Around 1830 (14 years before Rurrenabaque was given its name) he arrived to collect samples of flora and fauna species as well as minerals. His records and reports on the rich biodiversity, native customs and beautiful landscapes of this region captured the interest of many.
By the mid-20th Century, the establishment of state schools further eroded the native language and culture of the Rurrenabaque region, and even the T'simanes, who had resisted colonization for centuries, became more involved this modern society, as new roads were cut through to Rurrenabaque from La Paz in the 1980s. By the 1990s, however, the rights of the indigenous people began to be recognized, as well as the importance of conservation, and the Indigenous Territory of Pilon Lajas and Madidi National Park were established to protect Rurrenabaque's wonderful cultures and biodiversity. Today, ecotourism contributes to this effort, as visitors to Rurre discover and appreciate its unique cultural traditions, and provide an economic alternative to the exploitation of the Amazon's precious natural resources.
When to visit
The climate in the Amazon basin is quite hot and humid throughout the year. The best time to go is during the dry season, as the January to March rainy season can lead to muddy, flooded walking trails and more mosquitos and sandflies. Although the vegetation along the pampas is not as exuberant or lush as in the jungle, and the sun is more oppressive, you can generally see more animals during pampas tours. This is because animals gather along the riverside to drink. During the rainy season, however, this happens less as water pools in various areas.
The driest and busiest season is July to October. At the height of the rainy season, December to March, you will find more mud and mosquitoes, but fewer tourists. Transportation by both road and air are also less reliable in the wet season.
As a variety of local indigenous communities, such as San Miguel del Bala and Chalalan, live within the parks, visitors can stay in community-run eco-lodges. One of the benefits of staying within a local community is that aside from normal activities, from exploring jungle paths to piranha fishing, visitors can also learn about life in the Amazon, learning the traditional medicinal uses of local plants and ancient hunting and trapping methods that are still in use.
Tours from Rurrenabaque
Pampas tours are usually three days, two nights, and involve a bumpy, dusty, four-hour jeep ride at either end. They also involve boat travel in long canoes, though this is a lot smoother and more enjoyable. The pampas are wetland savannah to the northeast of Rurre and, depending on the season, there may be little or no dry land at all. Accommodation usually consists of wooden huts on stilts and most moving around is done in boats. It is an eerily beautiful and peaceful place, with watery wildlife sounds all around, and fireflies at night. You can expect to see caiman, lots of monkeys, all sorts of birds and probably pink river dolphins. Anaconda are harder to see, and though you may be promised piranha-fishing, this will probably be a stop-off at a pond on the way home. Generally wildlife is easier to see in the pampas than in the denser vegetation of the jungle. However, there are also more mosquitoes and sandflies.
Jungle trips offer the advantage of being able to leave Rurrenabaque in a boat and travel along the beautiful Rio Beni. Accommodation is either in special purpose-built, and relatively luxurious camps on the higher-end tours, or tents on the more economical ones. They provide an opportunity to get to know the rainforest and its people but animals and birds may take more time and patience to spot than on the pampas.
Tourists can also take river trips. One such trip leaves from Guanay in the Department of La Paz and ends in Rurrenabaque. Many tourists are also attracted to the area to do some hunting - only to find out hunting is forbidden here.
In Rurrenabaque you can enjoy beautiful views, great opportunities for wildlife observation and bird watching, and get to know the friendly locals and their ancestral culture.
Rurrenabaque acts as the entry gate for both the jungle, especially for the most important protected area for visitors, Madidi National Park, and the Pampas, or the tropical marshlands. For many travelers a visit to Bolivia is incomplete without an excursion into one of these ecological zones.
One can see more crocodile species here than in any other place in the world, most notably the black caiman. There are also a variety of monkeys as well as anaconda, pink dolphins, capybaras, and tropical birds. With great luck, visitors might even enjoy the rare jaguar sighting.
The Madidi National Park and the Pilon Lajas Bioreserve are in exceptionally pristine condition and are home to an amazing number of bird, insect, flora and fauna species. In addition, visitors seeking an authentic rainforest experience are attracted to the Albergue Ecologico Mapajo, a tourist lodge planned and operated by several local native groups with cabins built in traditional native style. It is located about 3 hours by motorboat down the Quiquibey River from Rurre.
The pampas along the Yacuma river is a good place to see 'batos': the largest flying bird in South America as well as alligators, capybaras, and if you're lucky, pink river dolphins. This is an area of low pampas where you can also do some hiking inland. The Caracoles Eco-lodge is nearby.
The two huge and unique protected natural areas traditionally accessed from Rurrenabaque are Parque Nacional Madidi on the west shore of the Rio Beni and Reserva de la Biosfera Pilon Lajas on the east side. A smaller, but nonetheless large, reserve situated along the Rio Maniqui about 150 km southeast of Rurre is the Estacion Biologica del Beni.
Madidi and Pilon Lajas border each other. Along with various other large Bolivian and Peruvian national parks, they form the ambitious Corredor de Conservacion Vilcabamba-Amboro (Vilcabamba, Peru, to Parque Nacional Amboro, Bolivia, page), which aspires to be the largest and most varied conservation corridor in South America.
The diversity of life in the national parks, both on the pampas and in the jungle, is truly impressive. Patience is a real virtue when it comes to sighting wildlife. Even on the best tour, your experiences will be unpredictable; the only guarantee is that the surprises will be genuine, and all the more unforgettable.
In addition to caiman, fish, monkeys and turtles - all of which are easily spotted - the observant visitor can see a number of unique bird and insect life. There are vast numbers of armadillos, deer, sloths, squirrels, peccary, and tapirs that roam the area, as well as river otters, dolphins and anacondas.
Some jungle creatures are nocturnal and are not likely to be sighted on day trips, such as the increasingly rare jaguar and many varieties of deer. However, there are also numerous animals that keep normal office hours, such as the giant anteater, capybara, jochi, peccary and tapir. Overhead are macaws, parrots and toucans, while flying squirrels and monkeys flit from tree to tree. Among this dazzling array of fauna must be included the innumerable insects - over 200 species of butterfly alone - and rodents, as well as fish of every description, from the enormous Amazon sturgeon to the tiny needlefish.
Festivals and Events
Fiesta de Rurrenabaque - 2nd February. This celebration of the founding of Rurre begins with a Catholic mass and the parade of the Virgin of the Candelaria through the streets.
Traditional music with drums and flutes accompanies dancing and processions through the town. Other activities include horse races, cock fighting, canoe races, rice threshing competitions, beauty pageants and other traditional games.
Fiesta de Beni - 18th November. Similar to the Fiesta de Rurrenabaque, this is celebrated throughout the province.
Feria Artesanal - this Craft Fair takes place in on the first weekend in September. The plaza hosts dance, music and conservation awareness events, and there are many stalls selling traditional arts and crafts produced in the surrounding communities, along with local produce such as organic honey, and traditional foods including sweet bread and cakes.
Feria de los Domingos - Sunday is market day in Rurrenabaque. Take a walk down Calle Santa Cruz, along the river, to take part in the hustle and bustle.
Rurrenabaque enjoys a hot and very humid climate year-round, with an average temperature of 27 C.
"Summer" from November to March, is hotter and wetter - flooding is common, and there is more disruption to road travel and flights.
"Winter", from April to October, is slightly cooler with less chance of rain. As the rivers shrink, animals tend to cluster in smaller areas, making this a great time for spotting wildlife in the pampas. If visiting during this time, bring extra layers - cold fronts known as surazos travel up from Patagonia and the temperature can drop to around 12 C without warning.