"They are very timid," says my guide Alejandro from Chalalán Lodge.
"Many people in the jungle have them as pets." We've been on the river for more than two hours now, leaving from the market town of Rurrenabaque, a short plane ride north from La Paz, the capital, and have three more hours to go before reaching the lodge.
Chalalán is Bolivia's first ecotourism venture owned and operated by an indigenous group, the Quechua-Tacana ethnic community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas. The lodge has been built with indigenous materials. All wastewater is treated and solar energy is used to generate some of the power. The lodge provides employment for 20 members of the 600-member community. It also funds schooling for the children and for doctors' visit to the village. Three hours after the capybara meeting, we reach our destination.
As porters carry our backpacks, we follow them towards the lodge. It's not long before Alejandro motions us to leave the trail. He points up at an orange howler monkey, which emits a raucous, ghostly wail. Several other howlers prance across the thicket, making noises like Halloween in hell.
At the lodge, a woman brings a tray of tall glasses of a lime-colored liquid, a jungle fruit drink that tastes like a mix of grapefruit and lychee. Afterward, we are shown to our quarters --- one of three joining cabins on stilts. The inside is spare but comfortable with single beds and a huge mosquito net draped over them. We're told to leave our shoes outside and to always keep the net tucked into the bed. The cabins, which can sleep up to 24 guests, are made with termite-resistant wood and topped by water-resistant jatata fronds.
The notion of eco-tourism was hatched in the early nineties when villagers earned a living helping logging companies harvest mahogany from the surrounding forests. When the mahogany began running out, community leaders scrambled to another way to make money. "Wood is only for once," Alejandro said. At the time, the region was not protected (it became Madidi National Park in 1995 and no logging is allowed within its two million hectares).
The village approached a Washington-based development group, Conservation International (CI) and asked for help to secure funding for an ecolodge. Chalalan opened in 1998 with 200 guests. That number has now ballooned to 1,100. Most of the guests are from the United States, Canada, England and Australia. Actor Harrison Ford, Prince Joachim of Denmark and several foreign ambassadors have also visited the lodge.
"We want this project to show [the banks] they can fund other projects so our people can sustain themselves," says Alejandro on one of our hikes.
Each trail goes through a different habitat. They are named after animals: jaguar, toucan, paraba, tapacare and silbador. The park is home to more than 1,000 species of birds and an abundance of diverse plant life. Some guests opt for an afternoon of reading. It's a casual atmosphere and the food is plentiful and scrumptious. One night, we have a savoury meal of fried rice with bits of pork, peas and deep fried onions. Another night, it's roasted chicken with sweet-potato fries.
On our hikes, we learn about plants such as the kissing flower (with petals resembling lips) and the walking tree - with aerial roots that "walk" towards the sun. And it's not just plants we encounter. We also do a night walk and encounter bright, orange slugs and giant spiders spinning silk webs. CI helped operate Chalalán Lodge for the first two years, then it left it in the hands of villagers. While income from the lodge is used to fund education for the village children sent to bigger centers, there is little incentive for youth to return the village. The challenge now is to staff the operation and finance it, a challenge taken up mostly by Alejandro.
I suggest they set up a booth at the lodge's recreation room to tell visitors where their money goes and recommended giving out brochures with a tear-off section to send with donations once guests return to their countries.
"Stop. I want you to write this down," Alejandro said as he grabbed a notebook and pen. On our last night, Alejandro takes us for a canoe ride on the lake where more than 60 caiman, a narrow-snouted species of crocodile, lurk. Alejandro assured us they don't attack humans. We spot one --- its eyes, laser red in the dark. The caiman was about three metres long and lay motionless while we trained our flashlights on it. It abruptly turned around and glided over to our canoe. "Don't make a sound," cautioned Alejandro. I was rigid with fear. It glided next to the canoe and away. We paddled back to shore.
The next day, we say our good-byes in Rurrenabaque. As the plane lifted above the jungle, I felt a desire to return --- to see how the village and the lodge evolve. I now have a stake in it. I am like the walking tree, with a root reaching into the heart of Bolivia's Amazon.