Survival in the Amazon: That One Time My Camping Trip Went Really Wrong

Survival in the Amazon: That One Time My Camping Trip Went Really Wrong

Bolivia is one of the most adventure-filled countries in South America. From the Salar de Uyuni to the silver mines of Potosi, Lake Titicaca, the Death Road, and even the Andes, Bolivia knows how to deliver a good dose of adventure in a beautiful and culturally rich landscape. And let’s not forget the Amazon forest!

A few years ago, after traveling part of the country, my friends and I wanted to visit the Amazon and camp there for a few days. In Bolivia, this is easy and pretty cheap. In fact, it’s less expensive than in Peru and Brazil, the other two popular countries to visit the Amazon.

Amazon river from above

From La Paz, we took a short flight to the small to of Rurrenabaque, located on the northern side of Bolivia. This town serves as the gateway to visit the Madidi National Park (located within the Bolivian Amazon river basin), as well as the surrounding pampas. 

From the moment our small plane touched down at the airport, we knew our time here would be quite an adventure. Rurrenabaque’s airport is literally a house, and the runway is the bumpiest I’ve experienced to date.

Amazoria airline

Once in Rurrenabaque, we walked around town, shopping for a tour company to take us camping in the jungle and the pampas. We quickly found one we were happy with. It was cheap and was led by an indigenous guide who knew well the Amazon. 

Perfect! 

He offered us three camping options: full survival, semi-survival, and standard camping. The adventurous in me wanted to do a whole survival trip. This meant no tent and no food. You only carry the absolute necessary for emergencies, and you have to hunt/catch your food and build your shelter with leaves and branches. 

It sounded exciting to me, but some of my friends were not as excited about it. Since we were a group of eight, we played it democratically and chose to go with a semi-survival camping trip.

On the semi-survival, you carry some of your food and a light mosquito net and tarp that will serve as your shelter. 

In hindsight, I’m glad we went with this option. 

We quickly learned that the Bolivian Amazonian Jungle, while not the most remote place of the entire Amazon, is still an unforgiving place to visit. 

Norbert getting ready for the Amazon
Checking my national park permit before starting the trip. All ready!

Pink Dolphins and Getting Sick in The Amazonian Pampas

The two days spent in the pampas were the most “comfortable” part of the trip. These were not the semi-survival days. We had a small cabin and decent food.

We left Rurrenabaque by boat, cruising the Beni River for endless hours and stopping along the way to visit a few villages.

Beni river

Beni river boat

There we learned how they make sugar cane juice with a primitive wooden machine that needs to be operated by a few people, how locals produce chocolate straight out of the plant, and how they live with just their surrounding resources.

Sugar cane machine
Making sugar cane juice.

We then spent a lot of time on the boat, tracking anacondas, caimans, capybaras, monkeys, birds, dolphins, and more. Since it was not the season, we didn’t see any big anacondas (just a small one).

After a few hours on the boat, I started feeling sick. Really sick. Like, I need to be in bed sick. But I was on a small boat in the middle of nowhere, so I just managed my sickness and nausea as best as I could.

Amazon Pampas boat
Nine happy faces and a sick one.

We reached our campsite mid-afternoon, and all I wanted to do was to plop in bed like a corpse. I was so glad these were not our semi-survival days. 

We planned on swimming in the river later in the afternoon, so I only took a short nap to recharge my batteries.

Amazon pampas lodge
Our little cabin in the Pampas.

As you may have heard, the rivers in the Amazon are filled with deadly animals. This is true. What is also true is that this ecosystem has its own territorial system. For example, we were told that we were fine swimming in the water if we saw pink river dolphins swimming around. 

It’s hard to see them as the river water is murky, but sometimes they are there. So, if there are river dolphins, there are no piranhas. The dolphins scare them. On the other hand, the dolphins are afraid of caimans. This means that if you’re swimming and suddenly see no dolphins, it’s time for you to get out of the water. 

And guess what… this happened. 

We found a lovely tree with a swing from where we jumped into the water several times and swam around, keeping an eye on our pink friends in the distance. After maybe 20 minutes, as the sun was setting, they left. 

Amazon pampas swimming
This was fun!

This was our queue to get out. We don’t want piranhas biting us, much less a caiman. 

Just minutes after we came out of the water, a caiman showed up and set himself comfortable on our campsite. 

Our Caiman Friend
Our scaly friend…

At first, we were all scared he would do something to us, but he just minded his business, so we did the same and let him be while we all sheltered ourselves in our cabin. Eventually, he left.

The next morning I was still feeling a bit sick, but I was ready to get back on the boat to enjoy the pampas and swim with the dolphins (again). 

Swimming with these dolphins is both thrilling and scary at the same time. The sense of mystery and uncertainty is what makes it so frightening. The water is so murky that you can’t even see your hands when you dip them. 

Amazon pink dolphin
Our pink friends. These are “real” friends…

Dolphins are extremely friendly, and they like to play with you. How do they play? By swimming past you and gently bumping onto your body, or nibbling on your extremities. 

It’s a soft nibble and doesn’t hurt in the slightest, but when you don’t have an idea if what’s nibbling your toes is a dolphin, a piranha, a caiman, or an anaconda, the least you can do with each nibble is give a quick jump-scare scream. 

We swam for around 15 minutes with maybe five or six dolphins until it was our time to leave. Believe it or not, this thrilling moment was my favorite time in the Amazon. 

Amazon pampas boats

No Food and A Search Party in the Amazonian Jungle

This is where the semi-survival camping starts. This is no longer the “comfy” pampas; this is the jungle. 

After the boat dropped us at the trailhead, we all put on our knee-high welly boots, grabbed our backpacks, and began our several hours’ hike to go deeper into the jungle. 

Amazon hiking

Our indigenous guide knew the way, so we followed him as he pointed out interesting, fun facts of the jungle, its animals, natural medicines they create from plants, and other survival techniques. This is a semi survival trip, no?

From the very first hour hiking in the dense jungle, we all noticed how miserable we would be in the next two days. We were all being bitten to death by mosquitoes, and not even the “jungle mosquito repellent” could stand against them. 

Mosquito repellent from bark tree
Making a mosquito repellent and itch relief with tree bark.

Just before sunset, we reached our camping spot. We quickly noticed that another group had already set camp there, but no one was there. Maybe they went out to track pumas. (They are best seen at night if you’re lucky)

Since we were semi-survival, we had to look for tree branches to serve as our mosquito net and tarp structure. We also prepared our fire pit and manufactured our cooking utensils and plates from smaller branches and leaves.

Amazon river view
The view from our camping spot.
Norbert's tent in the Amazon
Debating if my tent is alright.

Our guide told us a fundamental rule, whatever food you brought, you must keep it tightly packed in several plastic bags to prevent the smell from coming out. 

There are these huge ants in the amazon that, while not lethal to us, are some hungry bitches. They are capable of smelling a sealed Snickers bar inside your backpack, and they will tear through it to steal the chocolate bar. 

Yes, I’m not kidding!

Cooking in the Amazon Jungle
Our “kitchen”
Having dinner in the Amazon Jungle
Dinner! We are using carved chopstick and leaves as plates.

We prepared our pasta dinner, had a nice fireside chat, and relaxed for a bit. Almost two hours had passed since we arrived, and the other group had not arrived yet.

Our guide said it was strange. They should have been back already to eat. 

Since we were planning on walking around to track pumas after dinner, he suggested we keep an open ear in case we heard other people walking around. It’s the middle of the night in the Amazon, so it’s all pitch black. The only things you see are whatever your torchlight is pointing at.

During our walk, we were lucky to hear a puma but barely saw its shadow as it ran away. But, no signs of other humans. 

Our guide reached towards a huge hollow tree and banged on it repeatedly with a rock. The sound that emanated from the tree resembled that of a giant drum. 

He was communicating. 

Faint in the distance, we heard a response. But it was too far. 

“They are lost,” replied our guide.

Can you imagine that? Getting lost in the Amazon?!

We walked a bit more to see if we somehow crossed paths with any of them, but no success. 

We were utterly exhausted, so we returned to our campsite and slept the night, expecting to wake up early for another search party. 

Sweaty in the Amazon Jungle
We looked so gross and sweaty after that walk.

As the sun rose and we all slowly woke up, we realized the mistake we had made the night before. 

All of our food was gone. We were so tired and distracted the night before that we failed to properly seal the remainder of our food for the next two days. 

Those pesky ants got into our bags, tore through each packaging, and stole our food. We saw the trails of pasta bits, corn, rice, and other crumbs leading to their ant farms. 

So, now you have two groups in the Amazon: one is missing, and the other one has no food. 

This is the moment where our adventurous spirit mostly crumbled. We felt quite defeated and weren’t sure what to do.

Without realizing it, our semi survival quickly became a survival trip. We rescued whatever food was left and edible and packed it nicely. It was enough to feed two or three out of the eight of us. 

Half of the group wanted to leave; the other half wanted to stay. I was undecided. 

We did our search and rescue walk, hoping to come across the other group, but nothing again. As we walked, we also searched for fruits to eat, but there weren’t enough around. 

Fishing Piranhas
Us looking as our guide catches some piranhas.

We then turned to the river; we would fish piranhas. Our guide grabbed a fishing line and hook he had, we put some bait from the remaining food, and did our best to catch some piranhas. Well, he did his best to catch them – we were pretty useless fishermen. 

He did manage to catch a few, and I can tell you piranhas are not delicious! (But hey, I don’t like fish or seafood)

Piranha
Yummy piranha?

This was the point where I decided, “you know what? I’m done. I want to get out of here.” 

Six of us left that day. We hiked back for hours, hungry, tired, sweaty, and completely bitten head to toes. We felt somewhat defeated by the Amazon. The two guys who stayed decided to give it just one more night.

A tent in the Amazon
Trying out one of the full survival shelters before getting the hell out of the jungle!

But we were not ashamed. We knew we had reached the point where everything had turned too uncomfortable, and we stopped enjoying it. We understood our limits and knew where to draw the line. 

I usually push myself beyond my limits, but this time, I had to respect it. Nature can be a tough bitch. *wink, wink*

The Other Group 

The day we arrived back to Rurrenabaque, we crossed paths with one of the travelers who were on the other group. As we learned through him, they were found alright after three days lost in the jungle. 

They had an even more hardcore version of our full survival eating fruits and catching piranhas for food.

Amazon river in the jungle

When they left to track the pumas, they lost their bearings and couldn’t find their way back to camp. Their guide was pretty young, so I guess he didn’t know the area that well.

They heard our guide’s “tree call” and replied with their own banging, but didn’t recognize where they were coming from.

They slept the night outside and decided to walk along the river the next day. They walked for hours, but when they got too tired, they decided to build a small raft out of tree branches to drift down the river. (Unfortunately, I don’t know all the details as to how they achieved this.)

They drifted until they found an empty house, where they patiently waited for a day until its owner returned and took them back to safety.

There’s no way for me to corroborate the accuracy of his tale, but I can at least confirm they got lost for a while. 

Would I Camp Again in the Amazon?

For the most part, this was a miserable trip, but it’s also one of the most memorable experiences that I love sharing with friends. Not sure why it took me so long to write about it here. 

Walking in the Amazon Jungle

Would I recommend doing this? Yes! 

Is it for everyone? Hell no! You must be ready to “survive” in the Amazon!

I’d do this whole experience again, but this time I’d be better prepared, both physically and mentally, to deal with the Amazon.

Amazonian giant ants, we will meet again…

Essential Info and Logistical Tips and Tricks to Book your Trip

Go with a Tour

As you saw, this trip to the Amazon is not an easy one. Never do it by yourself. Always go with a guide who knows the jungle. I found my tour guide while hopping around Rurrenabaque, but you can book yours online too. Viator has several tour options.

Pack Appropriately

Don’t miss having mosquito repellent, sunscreen, long pants, long-sleeve T-shirts, sneakers and flip flops. Even though it is hot and humid, it is recommended to wear long sleeves and long pants. Mosquitoes there are insane!

Take all your necessary medicines with you as well as a headlamp, and other basic camping equipment. The tour company will provide with mats, mosquito nets and tents, based on your tour style.

Book Your Flight

You can find cheap flights from La Paz to Rurrenabaque by using Skyscanner or Kayak. These are two of the sites I use the most due to their exhaustive search on several websites and airlines around the world. They usually bring the cheapest fares. These sites are also great to find cheap flights from your home country to La Paz.

Book Your Accommodation

If you’re looking to save money by staying at a hostel, HostelWorld has the largest inventory of hostels, with plenty of them in Rurrenabaque. On the other hand, Airbnb offers a wide variety of rooms and apartments at affordable prices. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb booking with this link.)

For hotels, guesthouses, and other types of accommodation, I also recommend Booking.com. They usually have the cheapest fares for guesthouses and hotels. I always book my hotels with Booking.com.

Don’t Forget Your Travel Insurance

This is an intense trip and you must not do it without travel insurance. As you saw, accidents and mishaps can happen in the middle of nowhere, so it’s better to be prepared. Thankfully I didn’t have to use my travel insurance, but I had the peace of mine that I was covered.

Travel insurance with comprehensive coverage will protect you against unexpected events like theft, cancellations, injury, and illness. I use World Nomads and highly recommend it.

Other Travel and Money-Saving Tips?

Check out my resource page for some of the best products and companies to use for your trip. If you like saving money (like I do!), then this page will help.

Survival in the Amazon: That One Time My Camping Trip Went Really Wrong

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