Rurrenabaque & Chalalan Ecolodge

Madidi National Park and Chalalan Ecolodge

Deep in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon Rainforest, five hours by canoe from Rurrenabaque, up the Beni River, and then the Tuichi River, is Chalalan Ecolodge.  Nestled within the Madidi National Park, on the Chalalan Lagoon banks, the people of San Jose Village built and operates a fully sustainable lodge, powered by the sun.  The Chalalan Ecolodge is a comfortable place to visit, with first-class food, interesting guided hikes, and activities in the middle of the jungle.  It is considered one of the most successful experiments in indigenous ecotourism in the world.  Chalalan Ecolodge is a place where, in the face of the shifting economic forces working against their way of life, the San Jose community has found a way to flourish and maintain their culture.

‘Back to the Tuichi’ by Yossi Ghinsberg

In his book Back to the Tuichi,’ Yossi Ghinsberg tells his harrowing adventure of getting lost and rescued in an uncharted part of the Bolivian Amazon Jungle in 1981.  I remember the strong impressions the book left on me years ago when I first read it: fascination and fear.  On the one hand, a call and attraction to seek opportunities, to explore the unexplored within me and out in the world.  On the other hand, a deep sense of terror of being lost in the jungle is an analogy to the one within myself and outside.  Eleven years after his ordeal, Yossi returned to the Tuichi River and got involved in making the vision for Chalalan Ecolodge a reality. 

Jimmy, our young and amiable tour guide, knew this area well – although he had no shoes until he was 10, he grew up along these paths and knew every tree, sound, monkey, and snake.  As we followed him through the jungle, I thought how frightened Yossi must have felt, and what a tremendous will to live he had mastered, being stranded for 20 days under this thick canopy with lack of clear direction and no food. 

Yossi became a well-known motivational speaker.  This is a quote from one of his talks: “May you find the courage to walk your own path.  May you dare to venture into the uncharted domains of your own heart.  Here is my advice to you, the adventurers – fear will show you the way; walk steadily toward it, for otherwise, you will always be running.  Have trust and faith to guide you like a torch piercing the darkness.  Do not believe and do not deny but find out for yourself – for there is no truth but the one you have earned in your own experience.”

‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad

As our canoe moved slowly but steadily up the Beni and Tuichi rivers, Kurtz’s story from Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad came to my mind.  It is the story of Merlot’s journey up the Congo River in search of Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader, and his predecessor.  They worked for the same Belgian trading company.  Kurtz, a cultured man with a charismatic demigod personality, had become disillusioned with western civilization and turned into a cannibal tribe leader.  The movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ by Francis Ford Coppola, my all-time favorite, was influenced by the book. 

It is common to interpret Kurtz’s story from the prism of post-colonialism; it conveys the depth of wrongs that the West did in the name of progress and under the guise of civilizing the natives.  I am taken by the interpretation of both the book and the movie as an analogy of a journey into one’s own self; to the depth of “The horror! The horror!” (Kurtz’s last words to Marlowe before his death); words that express the essence of Kurtz’s existence, and the deep darkness of human existence.  It’s also reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno in the sense that Merlot, like Virgil, penetrates deep into the jungle as a step into the gloomy dominion of the inferno.

If I had to choose between an excursion in the Amazon Jungle or the Southwest Circuit, I’d choose the latter any time.  I know darkness a bit too well, and I am afraid of its destructive power.  I will rather be in the open space, where the presence of powers greater than myself are close at hand.

Rurrenabaque Airport

Situated amid lush rainforest jungle, the airport feels like a small taxi station in the middle of nowhere –  the terminal is a 10 minute drive through the jungle from the landing strip.  The flight from La Paz passes through a range of mountains that were so close I thought: what a better sign for our adventure ahead.

Rurrenabaque is a small town on the Beni River banks, a gateway to the Bolivian Amazon trip.  After the high elevations of our journey so far, we had to adjust to the heat, humidity, and lower altitude.  Our stay at Hotel Takana before and after the jungle excursion was perfect!