Traveling on the Rio Mamore.

Traveling on the Rio Mamore.

This is a little story from way back in 1994, when I was traveling through the Bolivian part of Amazonas on a cargo ship.

Who does not have a dream to explore the Amazon jungle? This can be a very pricey affair though. Back in 1994, I was young, adventuros and broke. I had just read a book about a young guy who traveled through the Bolivian jungle in a dugout canoe, that he bought for very little money. So if he could explore the jungle with little money, so could I.

Looking at my South American Handbook (This was a popular guidebook back in the day when people traveled with printed guides), I saw a mention of a small village called Puerto Villaroel. It was not a recommendation. Just a mention that the small village was there and that cargo boats would often dock there. Rio Mamore is one of the largest rivers in the Bolivian part of the Amazon. And it runs right past Puerto Villaroel.

Now I knew that cargo boats in the Amazon region generally takes passengers onboard, as long as you are ok with sleeping on the deck, or in your own hammock. So I bought a bus ticket from the large city of Santa Cruz in southern Bolivia, to the little outpost of Puerto Villaroel.

When I arrived to Puerto Villaroel I actually wanted to stay for the night in town. The local club in town had just started to play music. And  the youngsters of the village were gathering. Back in 1994, I was just 24 years old. and the parties were a big part of my travels. But as I walked towards the music I saw a large cargo boat in the harbour, that looked like it was getting ready to leave. So I ran down to the docks and asked the captain where he was going. He told me that he was off to Trinidad. Trinidad is the largest town in the Bolivian Amazonas. it was exactly the town I wanted to travel to. So the young girls of Puerto Villaroel had to party the night away without kissing with a gringo from Denmark that night. I quickly negotiated a deal with the captain that I could travel for 3 days on the boat for 20$. And that was including full board.

Rio Mamore.

Small settlement along the Rio Mamore.

A boat full of beer that you are not allowed to drink.

As I boarded the boat I was very happy to see that we were transporting beer up the Rio Mamore. But just as I pictured myself with a cold beer as I was going up the Amazon, the captain told me that alcohol consumption was not allowed on the boat. We had so much beer on the boat that the journey would be very unsafe, if people were allowed to dig in to the roughly 20 000 bottles of beer that we were carrying, he told me.

Rio Mamore

Exchanging beers for bananas on the Rio Mamore.

But the trip was fine. Even without beer. Going on a cargo boat is not like traveling on a cruise ship. You do not stop at the pretty viewpoints. You stop whenever there is a settlement where people want to trade. In the Amazon there is a lot of trade Most villages we stopped at had no money to buy beer. But the had local produce from the garden or the jungle. Mostly bananas. So as we went up the river, we unloaded beer at various small settlements. While filling out cargo boat with bananas and other exotic fruits.

Sailors.

Some of the friendly crew from my boat.

Meeting a Russian guy along the Rio Mamore.

We would sometimes have a couple of hours to get off the boat, as we were on and offloading cargo to the ship. In one little village I had time to drink a beer at a little bar. To my surprise, the bartender told me that there was another foreigner having a beer at the bar. This was a very jovial Russian guy called Igor, who had a mouth full of gold teeth and enough money to pay my bill. Igor told me that he was just on a little holiday in Bolivia. When a middle aged European guy in a suit decides to suddenly holiday in a little jungle outpost in Bolivia, with no public transport access, then it probably has something to do with Bolivia being the largest producer in the world of raw cocaine.

Igor noticed that I gave him a bit of a puzzled look. So he bought me a bottle of beer and a large glass of vodka and told me to relax and have a good time. And so we did :-).

The journey up the Rio Mamore took 3 days. We were suppose to arrive at around noon in Trinidad. But our boat got stuck on a mud bank for half a day. It took a lot of engine power and some help from another passing boat before we could continue out journey up the Rio Mamore. My problem with being stuck on that mud bank was that we arrived to my destination at 10pm at night. That was not a problem, had we actually had Trinidad as ou final destination. But the boat let me off at a deserted river bank 20 kilometers from the town of Trinidad. It was raining the way it can only rain in the tropics that night. And the road had no asphalt. I was not going to take a 20 kilometer walk in knee deep mud through the jungle at night. So I decided to sit it out on the river bank and spend the night there, hoping that no crocodiles would come looking for tender gringo meat. After sitting on the river bank for two hours some local guys in a pick up truck came and stopped to drink beer by the river. They did not just offer me beer, but also a ride in to town. So I ended up having a happy ending to my journey.

Trinidad was a wild western town with motorbikes.

Trinidad in Bolivia should not be confused with Trinidad & Tobago. The Trinidad they have in Bolivia is a mid sized jungle town that mostly exist as a trading post on the Rio Mamore. But it’s big enough to have a nice square where people gather in the evenings, as well as a few hotels, where I stayed in one of them. The town square was the big meeting point in Trinidad. The young crowd did not walk around the square though. they drove around it on their motorbikes, flirting with each other from the bikes. The standard beginning of a conversation was always “What is your name. Where are you from? Do you have a motorbike?” I had no motorbike. But i had long blond hair and blue eyes and was as exotic to them as a Rastafarian is in Siberia. So I was accepted anyway.

Trinidad Beni Bolivia

Trinidad is the dusty jungle capital of Bolivia.

I also met some soldiers from the US army one evening in a bar. They were in Bolivia to fight drug trafficking. So I should probably have told them about Igor that I met at the jungle bar :-).

The US soldiers seemed very unpopular with the locals. Probably because they were doing a job that was hurtful to the local economy

There was also an American tourist guy in town. He was a middle aged guy who was a bit of an introvert. So people did not pay much attention to him. But in 1994, you did not have many young tourists in Trinidad, who had super long blond hair and blue eyes. And looked a little like a surfer dude, gone roadie in a heavy metal band. Kurt Cobain from Nirvana had just shot himself a few days earlier. And the local TV station in Trinidad thought that I should know something about that, since I had long blond hair too. My 15 minutes of fame on the local TV station turned me in to a celeb with the young crowd in Trinidad.  And I have it another week in town, where I just hung out with the young crowd.

Trinidad Bolivia

The center of Trinidad, Bolivia in 1994.

My Bolivian jungle journey was a funny mix of visiting small indigenous settlements on a cargo boat filled with beer, while meeting Russian mafia and pretending to be a rock star to the local females.

The kinda journey that is so much more fun to take while you are young. Not that I would not do it again, now that I am older.

But going up the Rio Mamore at the age of 24 was just perfect.

South America

Hanging out with the local youth, when I was a young guy myself.

4 Comments

  1. Love your long blond locks! Did you speak Spanish then?

  2. Love your long blond locks! Did you speak Spanish then?

    • I speak Portuguese. And that is so close to Spanish that it is easily understood in Bolivia. Especially in the jungle part of Bolivia, where they have very close ties to nearby Brazil.

  3. You had a very different experience heading up the Amazon that we did in 2020. But you got a much more authentic look at the people and environment. A great way to do it when you are younger. We have often looked at doing trips around islands by mail boat and expect that too may be a more local way to travel.

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