One of the last places we visited in Bolivia was the Amazonian forest. From La Paz we headed north to Rurrenabaque, a small town on the Beni river. Here we started our jungle tour.
Entering the jungle
Rurranabaque is surrounded by the jungle, which is visible from any corner of the city. Indeed, 50 years ago Rurrenabaque was only one of the many small communities in the middle of the forest.
Despite its privileged location to access the Bolivian jungle and Pampas, Rurrenabaque has opened its doors to tourism only in the last few years.
Reaching the indigenous community
In the early morning, Bucho, and expert boatman from the indigenous community, rode us along the Beni river from Rurrenabaque to the community by a motor canoe.
At the community we were welcomed by the brothers Woldermar and Ramon. They are both members of a community of 100 people that lives close to the San Miguel river, one of Rio Beni’s small tributaries.
The community Ramon and Woldemar belong to consists of a bunch of wooden houses built in the middle of the jungle and connected by tiny paths. Everyone has his own house and a small land to grow food.
A shaman guide in the jungle
We left our backpacks in a small wooden cabin and had lunch with Ramon and other community’s members, then we started our adventure in the jungle.
Holding a machete, Ramon guided us in the discovery of the most incredible trees and plants. He told us about the medicinal properties of each species, explaining us how to use them to cure different diseases.
Ramon is a 50-year-old Takana-Quechua who has 8 children. All of them were born in his house in the jungle using ancient indigenous techniques.
Everything that Ramon knows about the ancient and traditional healing methods, he learned it from his grandparents, with whom he grew up. His ancestors lived in the heart of the Amazonian jungle following ancestral traditions and customs.
Ramon was our guide for 3 days. He taught us (or at least he tried to) how to recognize and use the medicinal plants of the Amazonian jungle and how to distinguish the sounds of the different animals living in the Bolivian forest. He also introduced us to the magic relationship between his people and this magic corner of Bolivia.
Getting to know a shaman
On the second day it took us 4 hours to reach the campsite. A plastic cloth held up by small trunks, two wooden benches and a fire became our house for one night.
With Ramon, we walked the paths he made himself, fixing the ones that his ancestors opened 100 years before to fish and hunt.
Spending time with him we had the chance to learn something about the inner world of one of the last shamans in the Bolivian jungle. During the long walks, we talked a lot despite the terrible humid and hot weather, and Ramon shared with us his point of view on the world, on the concept of progress and on the relationship between different religions.
Modernity and traditional medicine
Ramon is the last member of his community who knows the ancient and traditional indigenous healing remedies. He is an incredible source of information and knowledge, even doctors in Rurrenabaque and La Paz have turned to him.
He is teaching his children all he knows, hoping that they will keep handing down this knowledge. The ability to cure serious diseases through natural remedies is a knowledge that is becoming more and more important.
Indigenous community and tourism
Uncertain about the relationship between tourism and the safeguard of such an ancient and fragile culture, we asked Ramon why he decided to become a guide in the jungle and what are the benefits for his community.
For such an isolated community, tourism is a very important source of economic support. Indeed, the cost of the tour includes 50 Bs which are transferred to the community fund. The fund is used to provide medical assistance to the elderly (those who don’t want to rely on the traditional medicine), school supplies for the children, transfers to the city if needed.
Better the community or the city?
Ramon doesn’t have any doubts. He would never leave “his” forest for a city! The jungle is his home, he knows it very well and, being also a musician, he couldn’t stand the noise of the city.
Indigenous traditions and Christianity. Contradiction or syncretism?
We wanted to know more about a shaman’s point of view on the modern world, so we asked our guide his thoughts on the relationship between his ancestors’ religion and the religion brought by the Spanish conquistadors.
Ramon is a catholic but also a shaman and he doesn’t see (because there isn’t) any contradiction in this.
Any healing or offering ritual to the Pachamama needs to be accompanied by prayers. Ramon first addresses the Christian God, asking permission to intervene on the realm of the Pachamama, then he directly prays the Mother Earth.
A perfect example of religious syncretism!
The days spent with Ramon have been among the most beautiful and important of our entire trip across Bolivia.
Reaching the community along the San Miguel river allowed us to meet an authentic representative of a culture that is still pure, that respects human beings as well as the Mother Earth.
Jungle tour: how to choose?
There are two ways to visit the Amazonian forest from Rurrenabaque:
- “Classic” jungle tour, to explore the forest in 3 days and 2 nights. During the right season there is the chance to see animals and observe the uncontaminated nature
- Jungle and indigenous community tour, 3 days and 2 nights
Which one did we choose? Obviously the second one, that’s how we met Ramon!
Please note that there is no way you can tour the Selva by yourself, not even if you are John Rambo or Bear Grylls. You will need to rely on a specialized tour agency.
The cost of 3 days/2 nights tour of the jungle and indigenous community costs about 1700 Bs for 2 people, including the entrance into the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve.