My main goal in eastern Bolivia was to visit Noel Kempff Mercado, a remote national park in the jungle near the border with Brazil. After a week set back due to the bus being delayed because of heavy rain, I finally had a ticket for the weekly bus to Remanso. What little information I found on the internet lead me to believe that my best bet would be to take the Remanso bus for roughly 24 hours, until the junction for Florida, then somehow cross the 40 km to Florida. I arrived for the bus early as instructed and after several hours of watching an extraordinary amount of things being loaded onto the bus, we were off, slowly making our way along bad roads, which just got worse. Several times in the middle of the night the entire bus had to walk ahead, while allowing the bus to pass the roughest sections of the road. Once we reached the junction the next day my hopes of paying a local with a motorbike to take me to Florida were dashed. The town at the junction was made up of little more than 2 huts, and there wasn’t another vehicle in sight. I was encouraged to rejoin the locals on the bus until we reached Remanso, where I would still be close to a different entrance to the park. I decided that this was probably a better option than being attacked by a jaguar while trying to hike 40km through the jungle, and got back onto the bus.
Our bus being loaded with the village’s weekly supplies.
What I didn’t realise was Remanso was another 16 hours away, and there weren’t any more food stops. Fortunately the lady next to me shared some of her dinner/lunch, and also pointed me in the right direction for the national park when we got to Remanso. I took a boat down the river to a small town called Piso Ferme, where I found a park office. One of the rangers showed me the first good map I had seen of the park and even mentioned that I might be able to catch a ride to Florida later that day. I cooked some food and took a bath in the river, before the ranger found me and explained that later that day a group of them would be driving to Florida (about 8 hours in the other direction) and I could go with them. Around 3am, after clearing several fallen trees, we had made it to the ranger’s hut in Florida, where I collapsed into bed after over 58 hours of almost continuous travelling.
The bus stopped at the junction for Florida, surrounded by butterflies.
The next morning I joined the rangers on a trip into the village where I was introduced to many of the locals over several breakfast and lunch stops. The town’s organiser promised to find me a guide with a motorbike to take me into the park in the morning. For the rest of the day I hung out with the rangers, lounging in hammocks and practising my spanish. In the afternoon my new guide, Mario, dropped by to introduce himself, as well as check I had everything I needed, including a bag that would fit on his motorbike!
My first view into the park from the ranger’s hut.
The next morning he picked me up, and after a few minutes re-arranging our things we were off, heading towards the national park. Our first obstacle was the river, and as no jeeps had entered the park for over a year, the only method of crossing was a small row boat with a few planks to balance the motorbike on. Our second obstacle was the bank on the other side of the river, which was so steep that it took several attempts to push the bike up. We made our way towards the first campgrounds, Los Fierros, about 35kms along what was once a road. We regularly had to get off the bike to cross bridges made up of just a handful of planks, or clear trees that had fallen into the road. It turns out I’m not very good with a machete, but luckily Mario, having grown up in the jungle, was a pro! Each time we stopped the mosquitos would swarm in to attack me, despite using copious amounts of DEET, yet somehow Mario seemed to avoid getting bitten at all!
The bats who had made their home in the abandoned lodge.
After 7 hours we reached the lodge, and I was fascinated to see how nature was taking back the abandoned buildings. Ants swarmed on the floors, while wasps flitted around and a whole colony of bats were hiding up in the rafters. I picked a bed inside, as I didn’t trust my tent if it rained, and Mario showed me the closest water source, passing the old airport and a puma footprint on the way. While hanging up some clothes I got bitten by a vicious wasp which had found it’s way into my trousers. After that my trousers stayed firmly tucked into my socks for the rest of the trip. We decided to take turns preparing dinner, so Mario cooked us beef and rice, before heading out for a night walk, where we spotted black foxes.
A very colourful grasshopper.
In the morning the riding was a lot easier and we zoomed across the plains, towards the Meseta, a 600m high plateau which was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Once we got closer to the Meseta we slowly made our way through the dense jungle, until it was no longer possible to take the motorbike any further. We continued on foot, along an extremely rough path, which kept Mario busy with his machete. Several times we stopped to listen to the monkeys, occasionally glimpsing them through the trees. After what felt like hours the landscape changed, with the trees thinning and large rocks randomly appearing, we had reached the base of the Meseta. From here on, the path began to get steeper as we slowly made our way up the cliffs of the Meseta. I soon realised the distances Mario was quoting were all measured in a straight line, and none of them had taken into account the many switchbacks on the cliff, but I supposed no one had measured the actual lengths of the paths in the national park. The mosquitos had been replaced by annoyed flies which were attracted by my sweat. I used a bandana and buff combination to cover as much of my skin as possible, but somehow this just encouraged the flies to land in my eye lashes; they were ruining what was otherwise an amazing view over the jungle canopy and the red cliffs.
The view of the Meseta when we were about half way up.
The view over the jungle canopy from the meseta.
When we did reach the summit of the plateau I was over the moon to discover there was a gentle breeze, keeping away the mosquitos and flies, as well as cooling us down. It was a gentle hour long walk across stunning plains to reach the Meseta campsite. I took a refreshing bath in the river while parakeets flew overhead, affirming that this area was indeed a natural paradise. It was my turn to cook dinner, and Mario was impressed with my stove, even if it wasn’t as fun as cooking on an open fire. In the morning we hiked to La Piscina, a natural swimming pool formed by the river. On the way Mario told me about the history of the Meseta, pointing to the burnt out remnants of a drug smuggler’s Cesna aircraft, as well as a motorbike that had crashed. Somewhere in the forest there were still hundreds of metal drums, left over from cocaine processing. Mario obviously didn’t believe in the processing of cocaine, as he had spent the entire trip so far chewing coca leaves – cocaine in it’s raw form.
The beautifully flat and breezy ‘roof’ of the meseta.
A faint path to our campsite was just visible through the overgrown grass.
La Piscina was possibly one of the best places I swam on my entire trip, the water was perfectly clean and clear, as well as being the perfect temperature for swimming. The waterfalls made a fun platform to jump off, and the flow of the river allowed me to float along as I pleased. We headed back to pack up camp, before hiking to the edge of the Meseta. Mario and I sat right on the edge, enjoying the spectacular view of the jungle canopy, making lemonade with some lemons we had found in the jungle. That afternoon we made camp about half-way down the Meseta, a spot with so many flies that I had to hide in my tent until sunset. Luckily we were near a small break in the trees, where I could watch the sun set over the jungle canopy.
The remnants of a plane that was used to carry out the cocaine being manufactured in the area.
La piscina, my private swimming pool.
The next morning we hiked through the jungle back to the bike. The path was much easier to follow thanks to Mario’s efforts with his Machete. Once we were back at the Motorbike we zoomed across the plains and were back at the abandoned lodge in no time. Unfortunately the second half of the journey took us far longer, as the heavy rains must have caused many more new trees to fall in the path. Mosquitos continued to feast on my blood as I helped Mario out, hacking at branches with a machete, and lifting our motorbike over roots and fallen trees. Eventually we reached the river, our final obstacle, so I took my final photos of Mario and our bike, before we reached the village of Florida again. I spent the afternoon relaxing in a hammock, keeping it swaying to keep the mosquitos away.
The sunset from our last campsite in Noel Kempff Mercado.
Mario crossing one of the many ‘bridges’ in the park.
My return journey was simpler, if a little more expensive, and I would recommend the reverse to anyone aiming to reach Florida. I organised a ride on a motorbike to Campamento, a much larger village which was several hours away. We spent a lot of the trip dodging puddles, with me trying to hold my rucksack on, to stop it flying off the back of the bike. When we reach Campamento, I enquired about the next bus to San Ignacio, which was the next morning, so I got a room as the only guest at the only ‘hotel’ in town, and got stuck into another book. The next day I was on a bus to San Ignacio, where I arrived early afternoon. The only buses from San Ignacio were night buses, so I had the afternoon to explore the town, checking out the Jesuit church, and more importantly the cafe next door that had wifi. I took a night bus directly to Santa Cruz, and arrived back at my hostel, after a 10 day adventure, happy to be back somewhere with wifi and running water.
Crossing our final obstacle to exit the park.
I always recommend Noel Kempff Mercado to any independent travellers really looking to get off the beaten track, and experience the Bolivian jungle in a really exciting and natural way. In my entire trip, this was probably my biggest adventure, the longest I went without speaking english and certainly the furthest I felt from all the other backpackers/tourists. I know the locals I met are keen for things to change back to how they used to be, for roads to improve, allowing the return of small scale tourism, who brought money to the businesses and guides in their small jungle towns. For their sake I hope it does improve, but personally I’m glad I had the park to myself.
The Jesuit Mission church in San Ignacio.