Many people had never heard of Madidi National Park or the town of Rurrenbaque until they turned up at #3 on the New York Times list of 52 Places to Go in 2020. Use our hot new Amazon adventure travel guide, including when to visit the Amazon, how to pick a tour operator, how to get to Madidi National Park, what to expect in the jungle, and much more, so you can plan your own Madidi National Park trip.
The Amazon Basin sprawls across eight South American countries including Brazil, Ecuador (don’t miss our series of posts covering Amazon Travel in Ecuador) Guyana, Colombia, Suriname, Peru, Venezuela, and Bolivia. In Bolivia, Madidi National Park, which was created in 1995, protects 7,319 square miles (18,958 square km) of land including Andean mountains, rivers, dry forest, and jungle rainforest. This makes Madidi National Park one of the largest and most biodiverse protected areas on earth.
Our Madidi National Park Amazon adventure
Quirky Rurrenbaque (which everyone calls Rurre), is a small, pleasant, end-of-the-line town on the Beni River which serves as the gateway to Madidi National Park. Rurre is the kind of town where you might see a girl walking down the sidewalk with a tamarin monkey on her shoulder. We did.
From Rurre, we took a 3-hour ride on the Beni River in a motorboat with a plastic roof, padded seats, and a plastic cover for luggage which came in handy during the one-hour downpour we went through on our way to Madidi Jungle Ecolodge inside Madidi National Park.
Not far from Rurre, our boat stopped at the riverside park ranger station where we had to show our entry tickets (200 BOB per person or about US$28), then we motored on to the lodge seeing roadside hawks, a wood stork, a black hawk, and white-winged swallows along the way.
We arrived in time for a late lunch of excellent chicken curry and barley salad, then we checked out the riverside lodge. Madidi Jungle Ecolodge has six rooms that share a bathroom and four multi-bed cabins with private bathrooms. There is no Wi-Fi or cell service at the lodge and a generator provides electricity in the dining room only between 6 pm and 10 pm. There’s a power strip in the dining room for charging batteries, but bring flashlights with you to provide light along pathways and in your room. Juice, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and water are included in the rates, but bring any other beverages you might want with you from Rurre.
Cabin #1 was our room. It was super clean, had a modern bathroom with a cold water shower (you’re not going to want hot water in this heat anyway), good towels, a double bed and two single beds with good nets over them, and great screens on the windows.
We also appreciated the fact that the palm leaf roof structure had a true ceiling inside. This means the palm leaf exterior roof can ventilate and keep things cooler while the true ceiling keeps the crud and critters in the palm roof out of the room. Our porch also had two hammocks strung up on it, but there was no time for hammocks. Our guide had a hike in store for us.
Alejandro Limaco was born near the lodge and has been guiding in the Amazon since the early ‘90s. He’s been with Madidi Jungle Ecolodge since it opened in 2011. He got educated, saw that tourism was generating jobs, and learned to speak English. For us, he was the perfect combination of jungle skill and authentic local knowledge plus the ability to share it with us.
On that first walk with Alejandro, we saw tapir tracks, red-and-green macaws, a black-faced antbird, a dove nest with eggs in it, a jacamar, blue-throated piping guans, and a toucanet. The jungle itself was very green and dense and recent rain made everything seem clean and fresh. After a post-hike/pre-dinner cold shower (we were taking two showers a day in the jungle heat) it was time for dinner featuring catfish cooked in heliconia leaves, white rice, vegetables, and wonderfully light and tender yucca.
The next day, after a full breakfast of eggs, bread, instant coffee, fruit, and orange juice, we embarked on a 4-hour hike with Alejandro which took us to an 80-100 foot (25-30 meter) tall Almendria tree. The tree, which is hundreds of years old, was impressive enough, but it was also home to a macaw nest and that’s what Alejandro wanted us to see.
Alejandro soon found the nest and we saw one of the adult macaws inside. We also saw nesting aracaris and some woodpeckers in the same massive tree. We looked up into the tree’s branches and along her trunk until our necks hurt.
Then Alejandro joined up a series of trails (all given names in the Takana language) to make a circuit back to the lodge. Along the way, we saw black-mantled tamarins, a manakin, capuchin monkeys, brocket deer prints, more macaws, more aracaris, and we heard howler monkeys (but we never saw them).
Our well-earned lunch was waiting for us back at the lodge: meat and vegetable shish kabobs with black-eyed pea salad and avocado salad. After a brief rest to wait out the hottest part of the day, we headed out for a 2.5-hour late afternoon hike around a loop trail that took us past more massive trees.
Along the way, we saw a small troupe of red howler monkeys, red-and-green macaws in another nest (there’s a reason this macaw is on the logo of the lodge), woodpeckers, and leaf cutters carrying discarded bits of leaves out of their nest and putting them in a nearby stream (we’d never seen this housekeeping behavior before).
We also saw caciques, oropendolas, black-fronted nun birds, and we kept hearing a white-throated toucan but we never saw it. There are pumas and jaguars in this jungle too, but Alejandro told us that in nearly a decade of guiding on this land he’s seen jaguars just 15 times (usually at the river) and pumas just three times.
But you hardly need to hit the trail to see wildlife at Madidi Jungle Ecolodge. Right off the porch of our cabin, we saw a tiny hummingbird, an Amazonian motmot, and a ringed woodpecker.
The next day we took a 20-minute boat ride to a trail through secondary forest and around a lagoon that was ringed with low trees and bushes full of hoatzin birds. From there we did something that’s not common in the usually-very-flat jungle: we walked uphill to reach a slightly higher plateau with primary forest and some mammal clay licks where we saw lots of intriguing prints (including jaguars), but no actual animals.
Then it started to rain hard and our boat hadn’t arrived yet so we walked around in the rain. As the rain stopped, we saw a small group of howler monkeys with one black spider monkey tagging along. Down by the river, we saw blue-and-yellow macaws and squirrel monkeys. Again, we heard a white-throated toucan but we still couldn’t see it.
During a short afternoon hike near the lodge, we visited a series of miradors on the bank above the Beni River where we saw a black hawk with a small snake and heard more white-throated toucans that remained frustratingly out of sight.
Insider tip: Get up a little early each morning, make a cup of coffee or tea in the dining room, then walk to one of the two nearby benches on the bank above the river to see and hear the parrots and guans and other birds start their day with squawks and squeaks and showy swoops from bank to bank.
On our final day, we left the lodge right after breakfast and traveled by boat to visit a large bank where red-and-green macaws nest. From the boat dock, it was a 10-minute walk along a wooden boardwalk to reach an observation tower facing the nesting bank. We saw many pairs of macaws, but it wasn’t the season for babies.
Once back in the boat, we continued on the Beni River to the Takana village of San Jose de Uchupiamonas near Rurre. Members of this village community own Madidi Jungle Ecolodge and many employees of the lodge come from this village. We ate our pre-packed lunches at the home of the parents of one local lodge employee, then he guided us around the village where about 50 families live. The village had just finished building a new school and electricity was about to arrive.
We then returned to Rurre by boat, having seen a lot of what Madidi National Park has to offer, but certainly not all of it. Those white-throated toucans, for example, would have to be spotted next time.
How to choose a Madidi National Park Lodge
There are a lot of lodges offering multi-day trips in Madidi National Park. To find a Madidi National Park Amazon lodge that’s right for you, start asking questions like these before you book.
1. How many guides does the lodge employ? At Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, all groups of guests get their own guide which means you’re never on the trail with anyone else since the guides coordinate with each other to eliminate overlap. Small groups and fewer people on each trail each day also makes it easier to see animals.
2. Are the guides and other staff members hired from local communities? Our guide, Alejandro, was born in a nearby Quechua village that has a population of about 750 people. His employment as a guide has helped him, his family, and his community and inspired other community members to become guides or find work in tourism in other ways, creating opportunities they didn’t have before. In addition, the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge is operated and managed 100% by indigenous families from the village of San José de Uchupiamonas and all staff and owners are 100%, indigenous people.
3. What sustainability and ecological measures does the lodge take? Madidi National Park protects a fragile ecosystem. At Madidi Jungle Ecolodge they compost all organic waste and take inorganic garbage back to Rurre for disposal and recycling. Gray and black water from the bathrooms and the kitchen is treated by filtration and then reused.
4. What kind of food is served at each meal? This is an especially important question if you have any dietary restrictions. We were at Madidi Jungle Ecolodge with two vegetarians and they both felt that their vegetarian meals were delicious, ample, and varied.
5. What about the extras, like does the lodge provide rubber boots for hikes (most jungle hiking is flat, but wet so rubber boots are better than hiking boots)? Madidi Jungle Ecolodge has rubber boots in various sizes for all guests to use.
Get a bird’s-eye-view of Madidi Jungle Ecolodge and the jungle that surrounds it in our drone travel video, below.
Amazon travel tip: When to visit Madidi National Park
The Amazon really only has two seasons: wet and dry. There’s no “right” season to visit the Amazon, but here are some pros and cons to consider when trying to figure out when to visit Madidi National Park.
Dry season (roughly April through October): There are fewer leaves in the trees and on the vines, so it’s easier to spot animals and because water and fruit are scarce, animals tend to congregate around the few existing water and food sources. On the other hand, trails are much sunnier because there’s less canopy cover.
Wet season (roughly November through March): There’s more fruit and more animals around eating that fruit. However, the river gets higher and more dangerous in the wet season and there are lots of leaves which can make animal spotting harder. Also, animals have plenty of food and water so they don’t need to congregate around just a few water holes or fruiting trees, and there’s a very high chance of rain and high humidity every day plus some mud on the trails.
We were in Madidi National Park in the rainy season and the river had fairly high water, most trails were very well-shaded by leafy canopy cover (Karen rarely wore sunscreen or a hat), but it was very humid, there were some muddy patches, and it really rained on us a number of times. However, temperatures and humidity both dropped down to comfortable sleeping conditions at night.
Whatever time of year you visit the Amazon, be prepared for biting bugs. The mosquitos were not terrible when we were in Madidi National Park, but we got covered in chigger bites. Even if you’re wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts and other skin-protecting clothes (like we were), put a repellent high in DEET on your entire body before you get dressed. Chiggers get through your clothes, find a tasty spot on unprotected skin, nibble away for a while, then drop off leaving behind itchy, painful bites that take weeks to fully heal. Sandflies can also be bad along the riverside.
Amazon travel tips: How to get to Madidi National Park
There is a road that connects La Paz to Rurrenbaque, but it was undergoing construction when we were there and that was causing inconvenient delays adding to the already 18-hour road journey, so we took the 30-minute flight from La Paz to Rurre on Amazonas Airline.
When we landed at the Rurre airport, our baggage was brought in a cart from the plane and dumped on the floor of the “terminal” while passengers were transferred by bus from the plane. There was a metal detector and you do have to check-in before departing flights, but it’s all pretty casual. Vans take arriving passengers from the airport into town. The driver of our van stopped on the outskirts of Rurre to point out the capybaras and caiman lazing around in a wet area surrounded by shacks.
In Rurre, we stayed at Hotel Takana which is on the green and pleasant main plaza (US$26 got us a clean basic room with a private bathroom and breakfast included). The hotel has helpful staff members, Wi-Fi, a pool, and a disturbing number of captive birds in the garden including two blue-and-yellow macaws, a small macaw, and various parrots. Note that the birds make a racket at daybreak.
In Rurre, we had huge plates of fish and rice (40 BOB or about US$6) for lunch at an open-air riverfront place called La Cabaña which was packed on a Sunday which is market day in Rurre. That night we visited Moskkito Jungle Bar which claims to be the first bar in town. We passed on the weird sweet cocktails on the menu (there were a LOT of drinks made with Kalua and Baileys) and opted for ice-cold beer instead. The bar was also playing a good ’80s throwback soundtrack and there’s a fish tank full of piranhas.
Despite some information to the contrary, ATMs in Rurre were working well when we were there.
Threats to Madidi National Park
When we were in Madidi National Park, locals told us about two mega hydroelectric dam projects (called Chepete and El Bala) that the government wanted to build in the area to generate electricity. But the dams would alter the river and flood local communities. Then-President Evo Morales countered that the dams would produce electricity to benefit many while adversely affecting just a few.
The dams projects are still on the books, but they’ve been delayed by the transitional government that’s in power in Bolivia at the time of writing. The 17 indigenous communities in the Commonwealth of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi & Quiquibey Rivers have ratified their total rejection of the construction of the dams.
Madidi Jungle Ecolodge provided accommodation, food, and jungle tours so that we could experience Madidi National Park and tell you about it
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia