One problem with Donato was that he promised more than he delivered. Another was that he took on too many customers. Some of the big tour agencies in La Paz fed him their overflow, and he had a way about him that inspired confidence.
His office in Rurrenabaque (or Rurre) reflected his approach. Direct, informative, friendly. A palm-leaf roof on wooden poles extended out over the sidewalk. Beneath the roof, three large sandwich boards plastered with photos of his tours – one to the jungle along the Tuichi River, one to the pampas along the Yacuma River, and another to an Indian village on the outskirts of town where tourists could have a "cultural experience" watching the locals weave, cook, and farm.
In the office, a six-foot-wide cross section of a tree, made into a table. Stretched over the table, bleached cowhide. Marked on the cowhide with a black felt pen, a map describing the most popular tour, the one along the Yacuma. In the center of the map, in red felt pen, Donato’s camp. From the camp, trekking trails heading out onto the pampas.
The street, all three blocks of it, and all three blocks of the next street, are lined with offices like Donato’s, interspersed with cafes, hotels, pizza parlours, bars, and grocery tiendas. Rurre, on the Beni River, one of the great tributaries of the Madeira in Brazil, itself a tributary of the Amazon, is the Bolivian tourism industry´s biggest success story.
It all started with a tall, strong Israeli tourist-adventurer named Yossi Ghinsberg. Ghinsberg liked to go further toward the edge than most. In the early nineties, he teamed up with an American, another Israeli, and a German prospector with some knowledge of the Bolivian Amazon. They decided to penetrate the jungles surrounding the Tuichi River, find the river, discover gold along the river or on the creeks flowing into it, and then raft the Tuichi into the Beni just above Rurre.
It was a nutso plan. The German didn’t know as much as he claimed. He and the other Israeli disappeared and have never been found. The American got out to Rurre, and came back in, with a local, to rescue Ghinsberg. Ghinsberg wrote a book, called Back from Tuichi. Tall, strong Israeli guys suddenly started turning up in Rurre by the dozen, looking for the local who’d assisted in the rescue. They wanted adventure, though certainly not death. The local saw his chance. He started to organize tours.
Random House published Yossi’s book in English. More tall, strong guys (and some girls) started turning up wanting adventure, this time by the hundreds. Some other village boatmen, fishermen, and hunters, like Donato, caught on. International Agencies got wind of what was in the area, the wildlife and vegetation, and funded a big park, Matidi, and some adjacent Reserves. The La Paz tour agencies responded. Trails were cut through the jungle, marked out across the pampas. Tourists, wanting to see the setting for adventure though not necessarily to have one themselves, started turning up by the thousands. Rurre turned into a mecca, its dusty streets paved with cement, it’s adobe-brick, thatched-roof buildings replaced by bigger structures of cement and real brick. An airport was built, and a military base.
On Donato’s Yacuma tour, which lasted three days and cost $40 US, you got a three-hour jeep ride with maximum four other people and a cook, to the Yacuma. There, you met your guide, got lunch, and then experienced a two-hour trip up the river, during which trip you would see capybara (the mother of all gerbils, world’s largest rodent), caimen (a kind of croc), turtles, monkeys (both howler and squirrel), and bird species by the dozen (toucan, hoatzin, macaw, heron, falcon, eagle). You might even see the elusive pink dolphin, to the preservation of which a section of the Yacuma has lately been dedicated as a Reserve.
Dinner at camp, sleep, then up early to walk the pampas, during which the valiant guide would, with luck, produce a cobra and an anaconda. Back to camp by noon, lunch, siesta, and then a fishing trip for pirrhana, the honor of your particular home country resting on your skills, with the guide providing expert advice. Then dinner and a moonlight trip up river for sightings of crocs frozen by the light of flashbulbs and flashlights.
The next day, breakfast, a trip down the river with the promise of even more sightings, lunch, and a ride back to Rurre.
And that’s how it happened, more or less.
Donato was supposed to be with us throughout our Yacuma River tour, but on the morning of our departure, only a driver and cook were in the jeep. We saw Donato a couple of hours later, when the jeep crapped out near a highway stop about 40 miles out of Rurre. It was the differential. The driver found a phone, and Donato fairly speedily arrived in another jeep and drove us on to the river. He was his usual self, chatting, smiling, describing what we would see.
He spoke only Spanish. The rest of us knew this, but Harry, from Germany, a builder of robotic systems for automotive factories, didn´t. Harry was an overflow from a La Paz agency. He had been told not only that Donato would be the tour guide, and an expert one at that, but also that he spoke perfect English.
"It is very important for me," Harry explained as we bounced over the rugged road. "I speak German of course, and Russian, but English only a little, and Spanish not at all."
Viv did the translating for Harry.
Harry was number five of the party, filling the tour group to Donato´s maximum. Two Canadians, Julia and Miles, from Toronto, had booked on with Viv and me at Donato’s office.
At the river, Donato introduced us to the waiting guide, Obedio, who had almost no English, though he was learning. He helped Obedio unload the jeep into the riverboat, while we were eating lunch prepared by the cook, Roxanne. Then he drove off, "to help the driver of the other jeep with repairs."
We saw all the wildlife on the river that Donato promised. It was, in truth, more than we’d hoped for. The banks of the river were lined with, especially, capybara, which are unbelievably cute, making you want to take them home and build giant wheels for them. The crocs were everywhere, some of them up to eight feet long. Squirrel monkeys came down to the river bank to get the bananas that Roxanne gave us to hand out. There were elegant fishing birds everywhere.
The pink dolphin eluded us, but we still had two days in which to see them.
If Harry was upset with Donato from the beginning, the rest of us lost confidence in him when we saw his camp. We were shocked, and could tell that Obedio and Roxanne were too: both shocked and embarrassed. The camp consisted of a rough-hewn picnic table, two rows of five wooden, single beds, and a large blue tarp on poles covering all. There were no mattresses on the beds, and two of the beds had collapsed. The tarp had torn off the poles in several places. There was garbage everywhere—mostly plastic water bottles, plastic bags, and banana peels.
Roxanne started to pick up garbage and sweep the ground, while Obedio unloaded the riverboat. We helped them both.
"Do you work much for Donato?" Viv asked Obedio.
"Mostly I work for Inca Tours out of La Paz. But I did one trip for Donato last summer."
Then Roxanne and Obedio disappeared upriver in the boat to "get things."
We were left to talk. What concerned us most was that along the river we’d passed the camps of various La Paz and Rurre agencies and noted their comforts — the blue tarps spread over wood-framed and fully screened buildings, the outhouses, the doors decorated with croc skulls. Most also featured cooking sheds with wood stoves and clay ovens. One camp even had a roughly-made but still-inviting suana.
Harry had the most to say, and he said it loudest. He was worried because he’d brought nothing with him but a camera, a flashlight, and some clothing. The tour agency had told him that all he needed was the camera. Donato had given him a flashlight and sent him to the Rurre market to buy batteries, sun protection and a long-sleeved shirt. The rest of us, more experienced in South America and on our way further into the Amazon, had sleeping bags, bug repellent, bathing suits, and medicine kits. None of us had netting, though we were all on Larium for malaria. Donato had said there would be netting. Obedio had told us not to worry, the mosquitos would not be out so early in summer. He was right, it seemed, so far, but why Donato’s talk of screens?
I had to pee, and followed a trail, the best beaten of three trails that led off the river. The trail led to a blue plastic tarp wrapped around a pole frame and collapsed over a solid wooden box with a plastic toilet seat on top. I pushed the tarp frame upright and it stayed there. The seat was comfortable.
"The outhouse looks okay," I told everyone when I got back. Not much comfort, they seemed to think.
Harry produced a Leatherman and started wiring collapsed poles back where they belonged and fixing the beds. The rest of us found string lying around and started tying the tarp back up.
Obedio and Roxanne returned with mattresses, mosquito nets, and kitchenware. Roxanne had, apparently, expected the camp to have glasses and cutlery to go with what equipment she’d
There followed a busy hour, Roxanne cooking by candlelight on her propane stove and the rest of us using flashlights and the leatherman to fix beds and tie up mosquito netting. Roxanne’s spaghetti was great, though that was all she was able to produce, she explained, because it was so dark. We hit the sack early, as the itinerary had stated we should, and fell asleep quickly, serenaded by the huge and varied orchestra of the jungle.
Viv’s bed collapsed. Harry’s bed collapsed. We made the necessary repairs, and went back to sleep.