Rurrenabaque: The Jungly Jungle

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Rurrenabaque was founded on February 2nd, 1844 by a businessman called Manuel Méndez Ábrego. A law was passed on 15 November of the same year calling the territory “Ciudad Ballivián”; however, the town is currently known as Rurrenabaque which in the Tacana language means “duck lagoon”. Although we have a general forum for the department of Beni (the "Forum" link above and at the end of this page) Rurre is such a popular tourist spot we've given it its own forum. Access the Rurrenabaque Forum here.

The Uchupiamonas, Tacanas, Cavinas, Mojos, Pacaguaras and Esse Ejjas were the first natives to inhabit the region. In 1564 the first Spaniards arrived to explore, conquer, and extract mineral wealth from the region. Soon after this the Catholic Church sent priests to evangelize the natives. In less than one hundred years the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church had established at least fourteen mission towns including Apolobamba, Apolo, San José de Uchupiamonas, Santa Cruz del Valle Ameno, San Antonio de Ixiamas, San Buenaventura de Chiriguas and San Ignacio de Moxos, etc.

The town of Rurrenabaque itself was originally settled when quinine (a popular remedy for fevers at the time) was a major export to Europe. Many colonists arrived from the Andean region of the country to extract this product. Later, during the great rubber boom in Bolivia more settlers arrived. Then Brazil nuts and lumber became major industries in the area. The creation of Madidi National Park really set the tourist tone for this town and the influx of tourists has increased.

French scientist and naturalist Alcides D’Orbigny also helped make this area known. Around 1830 (14 years before Rurrenabaque was given its name) he arrived to collect samples of flora and fauna species as well as minerals. His records and reports on the rich biodiversity, native customs and beautiful landscapes of this region captured the interest of many.

This small town of about 15,000 is located in the Department of Beni on the shores of the Beni River. The river, which serves as a border between Beni and the Department of La Paz, separates Rurrenabaque from the town of San Buenaventura across from it. The townspeople are known as “porteños”.

The oldest families to have lived in this town still conserve the traditions of their ancestors. This can be seen in the town’s festivities. Family get-togethers are common on weekends. Many recipes for the foods and drinks of the region have been passed down through several generations. One of the most traditional drinks, for example, is copoazú juice. Many of the main meals include fish from the river – like the pacú. One festival and birthday tradition involves climbing up a greased pole to reach a surprise hidden at the top. Rurre’s anniversary takes place in February of each year, around the same time as Carnaval in many parts of Bolivia and throughout South America.

About a mile from town, at the Ballivián Naval Base, people gather at times for a “bull run”. Traditionally “jockeys” rile up a bull, then once they’ve angered it they race away trying to avoid being gored by its sharp horns. Unlike bullfighting, in these runs the bulls are not hurt or killed.

One of Rurre’s other main festivities is the “Regata de Barcazas”. These are small barges which have been used traditionally in the region for over a century to transport products by river. During this festival young men row these “barcazas” with 10-meter long poles each transporting one of the young local women who compete for the honor of representing their town as the most beautiful woman in town.

In addition to boats, canoes and barges, one of the most common means of transport in Rurre (as the town is affectionately called by tourists) is the motorcycle. However, you can still see horses and carts being used as well.

In addition to traditional festival days, Rurre is visited by tourists throughout the year. Its beautiful natural areas and trips along the river (lasting from just a few hours to several days) attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. Rurrenabaque survives on tourism. According to the Mayor’s Office statistics, about 90% of its inhabitants earn income from tourism.

Many are attracted by the tale of how a local man called Tico Tudela rescued an Israeli visitor called Yossi Ghinsberg in 1981. Yossi went on to promote Rurre heavily in Israel. Nearly 25% of tourists who visit Rurre are from Israel. Because of this you’ll see many signs on hotels and tourist attractions in Hebrew. British visitors are second in number followed by Australians, Americans, French, Bolivians, German, Dutch, Canadian and Swiss citizens.

Rurre has beautiful jungle forests and flat grassy “pampas”. It is near Madidi National Park (to which most tourists head) and the Pilón Lajas Natural Reserve. Both are protected areas by law. Tourists can also take river trips. One such trip leaves from Guanay in the Department of La Paz and ends in Rurre. Many tourists are also attracted to the area to do some hunting – only to find out hunting is forbidden here (and still, many hunt anyways).

Normally life in Rurrenabaque is quiet and serene. However, the influx of tourists (who yearly number more than the total number of inhabitants) has turned this town into a hot-spot on the Department of Beni’s tourism agenda and Rurre is now being promoted as “the pearl of Beni”.

It’s not by chance that Rurrenabaque has become a major tourist attraction in Bolivia. Madidi National Park and the Pilón Lajas Bioreserve are in exceptionally pristine condition and are home to an amazing number of bird, insect, flora and fauna species. In addition, visitors seeking an authentic rainforest experience are attracted to the Albergue Ecológico Mapajo, a tourist lodge planned and operated by several local native groups with cabins built in traditional native style. It is located about 3 hours by motorboat down the Quiquibey River from Rurre. See their website

Many who want to experience the magic and mystery of the Amazon rainforest, its wildlife and its people choose Rurrenabaque because they’ve heard the story of the famous British Army Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett who arrived in Rurrenabaque in 1909 to research the area. He was an eccentric fellow who became convinced that somewhere near here, in the rainforest, there was a beautiful city inhabited by an ancient white-skinned tribe. Over a period of 19 years he researched and wrote about this area and fell in love with it and its people. One day in 1925 he set out to search for this city and never returned. His disappearance remains a mystery to this day. Fawcett has become a local legend. Some say he found the city he so dreamed of and stayed there for the remainder of his life. Other say he was eaten by cannibals. No one really knows but many continue to read his works and tales and are thus motivated to visit this region.

Because of its popularity among tourists the Prefecture of Beni built a small airport in Rurrenabaque. Now you can take Amaszonas Airlines which uses small 19-seat airplanes to get here or Transporte Aéreo Militar. However, you can also arrive by bus from Santa Cruz (there are several bus companies at the Bimodal Terminal that go to Rurre – one of the best is Cosmos) – although it’s an 8 hour trip from Santa Cruz to Trinidad and another 11 hours from Trinidad to Rurre. The highway is paved all the way to Trinidad and if you take a buscama (bed-bus) which leaves at 8 pm from Santa Cruz, you wake up in Trinidad in no time. You can then spend a couple of days touring Trinidad which has some great places to visit, before going on to Rurrenabaque.

You can also arrive in Rurre by way of beautiful Coroico in the Yungas, although it is a very rigorous trip along an unpaved road. In Coroico you take a bus that arrives from La Paz to Coroico (the two bus companies are Trans-Totaí and Palmeras). You can stop in Caranavi and spend a day or two there before going on to Rurre if you want to break the trip up a bit. Caranavi is a wonderful town in the Yungas about 5 hours from Coroico. Another option is to take a trufi from Caranavi to Rurre for about $140 dollars (shared between 4-5 people). If you choose to travel straight from La Paz to Rurre, it’s a 20 hour trip.

And as mentioned before, you can also take the river, which is usually a 3-4 day trip but it gives you the chance to see all your surroundings. It’s rather slow and might get boring and taking a plane costs nearly the same so this trip is for the adventurous at heart.

Your decision may depend on the seasons. This area is subject to flooding during the rainy season (between October and April), as is much of the Department of Beni. The average annual temperature is 27ºC. Keep in mind that during the rainy season you will have a harder time seeing wildlife. During the dry season, when water is more scarce, animals look for water nearer to town.

Rurrenabaque is located at a point where the Beni River, the tropical slopes of the Andes Mountains, and the Amazon plains unite. Here you can enjoy beautiful views, great opportunities for wildlife observation and bird watching, and get to know the friendly locals and their ancestral culture. April, May and June are three months of the year during which tourists most frequently visit and the town fills up so plan ahead.

Here's a great YouTube video with some drone footage of the town, river and outlying areas:

The Pilón Lajas Bioreserve
This conservation area belongs to the Tsimane and Moseten ethnic groups and is located on the Quiquibey River. You can see how they make their handcrafts and sample their local cuisine.

Madidi National Park
This is one of Bolivia's largest national parks, covering over 4.5 million hectares. Depending on which point you enter the park, you'll either be in the rain forest, pampas, or dry forest and the area is criss-crossed with multiple rivers and many lakes. It is one of the most biodiverse areas of Bolivia.

The pampas along the Yacuma River
This is usually offered as a day trip from Rurre. The Yacuma river is a good place to see 'batos' the largest flying bird in South America as well as alligators, capybaras, and if you're lucky, pink river dolphins. This is an area of low pampas where you can also do some hiking inland. The Caracoles Eco-lodge is nearby.

The Safari tourist complex
Owned and operated by a Korean family, this complex is large and comfortable. It's considered by many to be the nicest place to stay in Rurrenabaque and has a great pool and friendly staff. It has its own restaurant and karaoke.

Chalalán Eco-Lodge
This eco-lodge is owned and operated by the indigenous community that inhabits the area and is located on the shores of Lake Chalalán. It's one of the most frequented eco-lodges in the Rurre area and most tour operators offer packages.

San Buenaventura
This is a small community across the river from Rurre where you can do some hiking, have lunch, spend some time at the river, and do some fishing.

Mapajo Eco-Lodge
Near the Pilón Lajas Bioreserve, this ecolodge was built and is owned and operated by ethnic groups that inhabit the Quiquibey River and all income benefits them. It has a tourist interpretation center with local handcrafts and information on the local tribes and wildlife.

Also visit Rurre’s numerous restaurants, bars, cafés, and karaokes and the over 20 hotels and hostels in the area.

Read more about Rurrenabaque tours and attractions and find hotels in Rurrenabaque here. Questions? Visit our Rurrenabaque Forum. Get Practical Tourist Info here.

Wildlife you might be lucky to see: pink river dolphins, capybaras, monkeys, toucans, macaws, jaguars, alligators, birds, butterflies, insects, and more.

WARNING: You may fall in love and decide to stay in Rurre. Many already have. Some of the town's 15,000 residents are visitors who came from countries such as France, Switzerland and Germany and just...stayed! Use the links below to plan your trip.

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