The Slow Boat To Rurrenabaque
River travel was once the only lifeline connecting remote Amazonian communities to the rest of Bolivia. However, with the advent of a new network of roads over the last decade, many rivers have been all but abandoned (or taken over by gold-mining operations). While it's harder than ever to find regular boats navigating these magnificent waterways, the journey between Guanay and Rurrenabaque is one shining exception.
Though rarely used by local commuters these days, this route is frequented by several La Paz–based tour operators who market it as a more picturesque alternative to the 15-hour bus ride or 45-minute plane trip to Rurrenabaque. And picturesque it most certainly is.
Most companies offer journeys of between two and five days, departing Guanay along the Río Kaka en route to Paso Retamas and its natural swimming pools. At Mayaya, the last town before the long slog to Rurrenabaque, you stop for any last-minute supplies and then turn north past a row of gold mines to the junction with Río Alto Beni. The two rivers merge to become the Río Beni just before the magnificent Cañón del Beu.
From here you'll have the remote wilds of Parque Nacional Madidi to your left and La Reserva de Biósfera Pilón Lajas to your right. After passing through the towering cliffs of Cañón del Chepete, the river widens and the landscape flattens out for a while. This is a particularly good spot for bird-watching and jungle walks. The waterway becomes slightly more populated with indigenous communities as you continue downriver, and you'll begin to see small fishing boats, and children splashing in the sandy banks.
Soon after the turn-off for Río Tuichi, home to most of Madidi's community-based tourism projects, the Río Beni squeezes through Cañón del Bala and deposits sun-baked travelers into the tourist hamlet of Rurrenabaque.
Most tours involve wild camping on riverside beaches, fishing for basic camp meals and treks into some of the more remote stretches of Parque Nacional Madidi in search of wildlife. Bring sunscreen, insect repellent, a flashlight and a good sense of adventure, as you won't see toilets, showers or cell (mobile) signal for the entire journey. What you will see in spades are hungry, opportunistic mosquitoes. Be sure to check the latest news before setting out. The Bolivian government has big plans for a mega-dam project along the Río Beni (at Cañón del Chepete and Cañón del Bala) that could make this route impassable in the coming years.