Responsible tourism? You’ve got to be kidding

28 09 2010



Rurrenabaque’s tour agencies are emblazoned with “responsible tourism”, yet as I discovered there is little responsibility to be seen on many of the pampas trips, the area’s main money-making magnet, with illegal animal capturing and handling.

A monkey, now used to tourists’ food, waits for passing boats

Marcial stealthily moved between the pampas grass, his trained eyes searching for any movement. He tapped his stick in the engulfing mud, his legs barely moving in the devouring swamp.

“Look! Look!” he shouted as he beckoned us towards him with his free arm. We squelched our way over, brown sludge clawing at our Wellington boots. “Here! Here!” he pointed. Marcial, I was discovering, had a tendency to repeat his words.

I peered into the bog as though it was a crystal ball about to reveal my fate. What lay before me sent shivers along my spine. Marcial prodded something with his staff: “A caiman!” he beamed. My eyes widened in disgust while my mouth soured at the crocodile-like beast only a metre away.

I was furious – I’d specifically chosen this tour agency on the merits of a “hands-off” policy with the wildlife along the Yacuma River.

“Has anyone been bitten by a caiman on your tours?” I enquired, bitterness dripping from every word.
“Yes. A female tourist. She stand on a caiman, it take her knee.”
Fantastic. Here we were with our irresponsible guide, 10 metres into the swamp with no way of a swift escape. I’ve grown rather fond of my wonky knees over the past 30 years, and I didn’t want to lose one.

“Don’t touch the caiman again!” I shouted. Marcial glared at me. One thing I have learnt as a female travelling in South America is to avoid denting a man’s machismo. My knees, I thought, I want to keep my knees.

We shuffled out of the swamp past another razor-toothed reptile, both myself and the caiman trying to keep a mutually low profile. Once my feet were back where I could see them, I skulked along, annoyed at my decision to choose Dolphin Tours.

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I’d been enticed to the Bolivian Amazon Basin by the plethora of animals and five hundred different bird species. The pampas grass alongside the river provides the perfect habitat for snoozing caimans, capybaras – the world’s largest rodent – giant jabiru storks, sun worshipping turtles and anacondas. The area is also home to jaguars and pumas, although sightings are extremely rare. I had visions of quiet tourists simply snapping their cameras as we paddled along the river, each sharing a sense of respect for the creatures we were seeking. How wrong I was.

Our motorised boat slowly crept upstream with ‘oohs’ and ‘arrrs’ rippling through the air as we saw motionless caimans on the bank. The peace was shattered by other boats speeding past ours, filled with rowdy and disrespectful backpackers. They, I imagined, were the people I’d been warned against while I was in Rurrenabaque.

I’d met up with a guide in the town who’s now completely unaffiliated with the pampas tours. He told me horror stories of these so-called responsible tourism firms, which in order to satisfy tourists’ hunger for ‘unreal’ experiences, provide illegal activities.

“I worked as a translator on one trip. I did it only once – it was awful,” he told me. “The guide took a caiman from the river, wrestled with it and then tried rope around its legs. The sad thing was, the tour group was happy, they’d got their close-up photos.”

The guide however was not. The caiman thrashed its armoured tail in retaliation which sliced his captor’s leg to pieces. The translator was adamant that he took no part in the capture: “It’s very wrong. After I untied the caiman and it escaped, I asked the guide why he caught it. You know what he said? ‘It’s part of the programme the tour agency offers. I have to do it.'”

And so it continues. Flecha Tours, the culpable company, still offers trips with illegal capturing of the animals catering to those who have no morals.

I hadn’t gone with Flecha Tours, I’d seen the shocking photos that they proudly showed as they explained the trip’s itinerary. But now I found myself on a walk through the waist-high pampas grass, the guide searching for anacondas. I had no idea this was included when I booked through Dolphin Tours. “You’ll go on a five-hour walk after breakfast and return for lunch,” the saleswoman had informed me. Where was the mention of hunting for anacondas?

Marcial was clutching his staff which I now understood was to pick up an unsuspecting giant snake. My mood soured as I grumbled to the others on the trip but they didn’t share my views. This time round the snakes were left unscathed as Marcial didn’t stumble across any.

In fact, since this activity has been introduced on nearly all pampas trips, anacondas’ numbers have decreased according to the translator: “A few years ago people might have seen three giant snakes on a walk, now they can come away without seeing any.”

Two main reasons are to blame for this: firstly, unscrupulous companies catch the anacondas and stuff them into large plastic bags for future showcases in the pampas. This unlawful practice causes the anacondas to die within a few months. Secondly, slash and burn techniques to rejuvenate the nearby farming land causes loss of habitat to the wildlife. The pampas area isn’t in a national park and only 50 metres either side of the Yacuma River is protected land.

The local government department in Rurrenabaque has circulated posters warning visitors of the illegal handling of animals. However, until tourists boycott firms that offer these practices animals will continue to suffer.


  • Flecha Tours
  • Dolphin Tours
  • Indigena Tours


  • Enin Tours – pampas tour with an enthusiastic guide and owner who fervently disagrees with anti-nature policies. Solar power is used instead of generators. B600 for 3 days, 2 nights

The following are jungle tours in or close to Madidi National Park. There is less wildlife to be seen but the lodges are run by communities along the river with a sustainable tourism ethic.

  • Chalalan Eco Lodge
  • Mapajo Ecolodge
  • San Miguel


  • Home to nearly 60 million hectares of Amazon rainforest in its lowland areas
  • Is the twelfth most biodiverse country on Earth with 2,194 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, and more than 17,000 species of plants
  • More than 11 percent of Bolivia is officially protected through national parks


  • Not an officially protected area, but nearby Madidi National Park is, where ecolodge jungle treks with Chalalan, Mapajo and Madidi Travel can be taken
  • 18 hours north of the country’s capital, La Paz, on a very bumpy bus
  • A diverse spectrum of wildlife can be seen but choose your tour agency carefully: ask to see photos of previous trips and check for handling of animals in them, if they hunt for anacondas, swim with dolphins (and the piranhas) or use a generator to provide electricity. If the answer is yes to any, go to different company





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