Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon, Rurrenabaque – or ‘Rurre’ as the locals call it- should be a definite place to visit on your South American travels.
While many people think of Brazil for trips to the Amazon, you won’t regret your choice if you try Bolivia’s alternative instead- and it will be a lot better for your backpacker budget as well!
Rurrenabaque is a vibrant town situated in the North of Bolivia on the banks of the Beni River, where you can spend a day or two relaxing by the pool before you take a trip to Amazon basin or rainforest… Or both!
Read more about backpacking in Bolivia!
Although not as widely known as Brazil’s Pantanal, the Pampas wetlands in Bolivia provide an incredible location to see the wildlife of the Amazon.
Rurrenabaque is becoming more well-known on the ‘gringo trail’ of South America, but the fact that it is not yet overrun with tourists makes for an even more authentic Bolivian experience.
Be warned that mosquitoes are rife in this region, particularly during the wet season- October to April – and although there haven’t been any cases of malaria reported in over a decade, the mosquitoes also carry diseases such as dengue fever so be sure to take plenty of repellent with 50% or more DEET content.
Some travellers even say that the mosquitoes will gnaw through clothing to get to your skin! Malaria risk is only high nearer to the Brazil and Paraguay borders, where most tourists do not travel to from here, but make sure you take long-sleeved clothing to ward off the pesky creatures.
Where to Stay in Rurrenabaque
- Hotel Oriental: If you fancy taking a break from hostels but don’t want to spend too much give this hotel a go. It has a large garden with hammocks to relax in and is very centrally located. A double room will cost 150 bolivianos, including breakfast and free wifi. It has been known to get busy at peak times so try making a reservation if you are really keen.
- Hostel El Lobo: This hostel has rooms that are more hotel standard than hostel, with huge balcony-style windows overlooking the pool and the Beni River. It has free wifi and a bar by the pool that serves cocktails. What more could you want from a hostel? Plus it is only a 5-10 minute walk to the centre of Rurrenabaque. A bed in a eight-person dorm will cost you around 40 bolivianos.
- El Curichal: Besides El Lobo, this is the other main backpacker digs in town. Featuring a great outdoor space for meeting other travellers, complete with a pool, this hostel is perfect for those looking for a chilled place to stay. A dorm bed begins at 40 bolivianos.
- Perezoso Hostel: This clean and spacious hostel is a budget backpackers dream! With a fully equipped kitchen and cheap dorms, it is the perfect place to crash in Rurre without spending a fortune. As a no-frills choice, there is no WiFi or pool but guests have access to the facilities at El Curichal which more than suffices. A bed in a four-person dorm are priced at 35 bolivianos per night.
Things to do in Rurre
Take a tour of the Pampas
A three-hour drive on a dusty, bumpy and cow-scattered road will take you to the banks of the Yacuma River, where you will be transported by boat to your lodge in the middle of the Amazon basin.
On the riverbanks, you are likely to see caimans, monkeys and capybaras, as well as some of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit this region.
The tours can be 2 day/1 night or 3 day/2 night and activities usually include piranha fishing (and hopefully eating your catch for dinner), spotting and swimming in the river with pink Dolphins, and searching the area in hope of seeing an anaconda.
Shop around for your tour and choose the company wisely, as many have bad reputations for not being eco-friendly and harassing the wildlife of this unique ecosystem.
Dolphin Travel, Mashaquipe and Bala Tours are all companies with a good reputation for being eco-friendly. You should not book with anyone who feeds the wildlife as this makes them more vulnerable to poachers who sell them on the black market or even eat them.
Tours can be booked in La Paz but you may find you get a better deal arranging your tour in Rurrenabaque. The going price for the 3 day/2 night option with a responsible provider is around 1300 bolivianos (although there is some wiggle room for haggling).
Visit the Madidi National Park on a ‘Jungle’ Tour
On these tours, you will be surrounded by the Amazon rainforest where you will see some fascinating insects and make some colourful eight-legged friends. As well as wildlife spotting, you will learn all about how the Bolivian people use the plants and resources of the rainforest, predominately for medicinal purposes.
Mosquitoes are everywhere so be sure to bring appropriate clothing. Take the same precautions when choosing a tour company and remember you usually get what you pay for in terms of the usefulness of the guide, as well as standards of food and accommodation.
It is said that wildlife is harder to spot in the jungle due to the foliage density but this makes choosing a knowledgeable guide all the more important. The Bolivian government have plans to build a hydro dam in Madidi which will destroy this special environment. Make a stand with your tourist dollars by showing them that Madidi is an area that can generate big revenue. In turn, you will help to protect the surviving rainforest.
Practice your Spanish at Rurrenabaque’s Market
Try haggling in Spanish for a sun hat or a long-sleeved shirt for your Jungle or Pampas trek, probably much to the amusement of the locals.
Take a Hair-Raising Ride on a Moto Taxi
For the people of Rurrenabaque, it is more cost-efficient to drive motorbikes than cars, and you’ll be hard pressed to see a car on the streets of the town. Let a moto taxi drive you around the area for an exhilarating ride but don’t forget to agree on a price before you hop on!
Fly Through the Rainforest Canopy
At Wizard’s Mountain Jungle Lodge you can soar over the rainforest along ten zip lines forty metres above the ground.
Go Hiking Through the Jungle
There are plenty of hiking trails over Rurre but these vary in accessibility at different times of the year. As this town often experiences flooding, certain paths can close as a result. Chat to your hostel owner to find out which are open.
Mirador de la Cruz is the most popular option if you can source the trail. The Hanging Bridges trail is more off the beaten track and sees much fewer tourists. If you attempt any of these paths remember to wear decent walking shoes, snakes lurk around unseen in these parts!
Have a Night on the Town, Jungle-Style
The bars here have a good atmosphere, with a mix of locals and backpackers making for an interesting night out. Head to Luna Lounge for an extensive drinks list, free WIFI and a good music selection.
Take a Day Trip to El Chorro Waterfall
Only reachable by boat, El Chorro is only 1 km upstream and is a perfect way to cool down from the Amazonian heat. On the stone opposite the waterfall is carved a serpent, which allegedly was a way to warn travellers that the Beni was unnavigable if the water was as high as the marking.
Best places to eat in Rurre
Luna Lounge: This bar cross restaurant is a great choice for backpackers looking to get their fill of western favourites and cheap cocktails. Definitely sample the pizza during your stay!
Luz del Mar: The menu del dia here is great value at just 15 bolivianos per person. This is a good choice for travellers who have been suffering with the dreaded ‘Bolivia Belly’!
Corner shops: Get your fill of tasty empanadas for a steal of a price! Nearly all corner shops in Rurre sell tasty street food, just look out for the glass boxes.
How to get there?
- Fly: Amazonas and TAM both fly directly from La Paz to Rurrenabaque and flights can be found for relatively cheap, at around US$90 each way. The flight only takes around forty minutes, but there are often delays and cancellations due to bad weather, particularly during the rainy season. Flights are sometimes diverted to another airport forty minutes from the town. Amazonas run a shuttle bus from the airport to the centre that costs only 10 bolivianos.
- Bus: Although the infamous ‘Death Road’ has now been closed to traffic, buses to Rurrenabaque have been said to occasionally take this road anyway. The replacement road still has an incredibly bad safety record, and accidents are commonplace. The bus from La Paz to Rurrenabaque may be cheap at only about 90 bolivianos, but it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Be aware that in rainy season the road can become impassable due to landslides and people can die without ever making it to their destination.
Where to go next?
- La Paz: A short flight away is the city of La Paz, the world’s highest capital; where you can explore the witch market, have a big night out in the Bolivian capital, or arrange an adrenaline-pumping cycle tour of the world’s most dangerous road.
- Lake Titicaca: Although there are no direct buses from Rurrenabaque you can fly to La Paz and then be in Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in four hours.
- Salar de Uyuni: Fly via La Paz to Uyuni, where you can arrange a tour of the famous Salt Flats, ending in either Tupiza, back in Uyuni, or in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Flights from Rurrenabaque to Uyuni (via La Paz) can be found for around US$100 and it’s a cheap way of saving time if you’re in a rush.
About the writer: Abigail Walker is a 22-year old English Literature graduate from Newcastle. Since September she has travelled to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, and is now working in rural Queensland in Australia. She is currently planning a three-month trip to Southeast Asia starting in June.
Guide updated by Sheree Hooker.