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Lost and Found

By Steve Hendrix
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 6, 1998; Page E01


    Bolivia Illustration (Illustration by Patterson Clark/The Post)
Sixteen years ago, a young Israeli named Yossi Ghinsberg flipped his handmade raft on Bolivia's Tuichi River, a tributary of the Amazon, and found himself lost in the jungle for three agonizing weeks. A lot of people are very glad he did.

Tico Tudela--a once impoverished Bolivian hunter who now wears a thick gold watch and drives a Land Cruiser--is glad Yossi Ghinsberg got lost.

A new merchant class of hoteliers and restaurateurs in the dusty frontier town of Rurrenabaque is glad.

The 500 people of San Jose--a tiny rain forest village that recently secured a $1.25 million grant and opened a world-class ecotourism lodge--are glad.

And finally, thousands of adventure travelers who have embarked on some truly eye-popping tours of Bolivia's Amazon basin are glad Yossi Ghinsberg got lost.

I'm a member of that latter group. If it weren't for Yossi Ghinsberg's near-death misadventure in 1982, I wouldn't be sitting where I am now--in the bow of a 30-foot dugout canoe, chugging upstream along the most spectacular river corridor I've ever seen. Before Ghinsberg, this remote corner of Northwest Bolivia was all but unknown to travelers. But now here we are, where the Amazon lowlands ripple into the first valleys of the Andes, flanked by river banks that alternate between stark red cliffs and impenetrable walls of jungle. All sorts of disembodied noises echo from behind those thick green curtains--grunts, crashes, the basso screams of howler monkeys. My wife, Ann, elbows me occasionally, pointing skyward as flocks of parrots fly raucous sorties out of the canopy gloom and into the bright sky above the river. We see these absurdly colored birds again on the cliffs, clinging to the sheer red walls as they pick at nutrients in the clay. My sense of privilege at being here is growing. This is a distinguished place.

It's also a dangerous place. There are six of us paying tourists aboard, if $50-a-head for four well-fed, expertly guided days in utterly unsullied rain forest can be considered even paying. We're in the charge of two Bolivian guides, one in the stern with his hand on the tiller of the ragged outboard, the other in the bow rhythmically stabbing a pole in the current to gauge the ever-shifting depth. Every 20 minutes or so, the bowman sings out in Spanish, the motorman cuts the engine, and we all leap over the sides to shove the boat bodily over the shallows, water racing around our straining knees. One slip on the rocky bottom could drive a person under, and the risk of being rollerpinned by the massive hull is real.

Of course, none of us would be here at all if this river hadn't once handled Yossi Ghinsberg so roughly.

The story of how the mishaps of a young Israeli adventurer sparked a tourism industry in this back corner of the Bolivian wilderness is a case study in survival, enterprise and the lengths some travelers will go to see nature at its most unspoiled. And it all started, as sagas so often do, with someone's bright idea to go looking for gold.

"Bolivia was just one stop for me," Ghinsberg told me in Rurrenabaque a few years ago, as we sat in an outdoor cafe, an adolescent monkey crawling over his shoulders. "It didn't work out that way."

Ghinsberg was several months into his grand tour of South America when he reached Bolivia in 1982, fresh from his stint in the Israeli navy and just one of the hordes of young muchileros (backpackers) swarming around the developing tropics.

One day in La Paz, Bolivia's airless Andean capital, Ghinsberg and two fellow vagabond travelers fell in with an Austrian expatriate named Karl, who held himself out as a gold miner, expert jaguar hunter and all-around master of the forbidding Bolivian jungle. The mysterious Karl offered, for a healthy fee, to guide the three gringos to a remote Indian village and some sure-fire gold sites along the Tuichi River. Ghins-berg--a thoroughgoing adventurer--accepted at once. A few days later, with a couple of bootleg rifles and a few bags of rice, the four of them were in a bush plane plunging down the slope of the Andes to the lush green floor of the upper Amazon basin.

But after weeks of arduous trekking through the jungle, the three began to doubt Karl's woodcraft, as well as his veracity. His promised Indian village--and the rich gold site it supposedly guarded--never materialized. Eventually, tired and discouraged, they backtracked to their starting outpost and commissioned some locals to build them a balsa-log raft. The plan this time: to float down the swift Tuichi in comfort to the airfield at Rurrenabaque.

The river, however, was no kinder than the forest. From the first mile, it was obvious they weren't prepared to cope with much beyond placid flatwater, and after two days of prolonged panic--with the worst white water fast approaching--their group split apart. Two of them, Karl the guide and Marcus, a young Swiss, refused to continue. They divided the provisions and began walking back upriver. Marcus turned and waved goodbye as they disappeared into the thick foliage. What happened to them after that remains a mystery. Neither was seen again.

Yossi and Kevin, an American, returned to the raft and launched it back into the current. Things went wrong immediately. The river contracted; the banks rose from flat beaches to sheer walls; the speed and force of the water quadrupled. They suddenly found themselves hurtling toward a roaring hydraulic Hell that could only be the infamous and un-runnable San Pedro Canyon. The raft rammed into a rock and was pinned by the relentless current. Kevin jumped out and made it to the shore, but only in time to watch the raft slowly shift free and plunge down a waterfall and into the canyon proper, with Yossi clinging helplessly to the logs.

He didn't last long on the back of that bucking raft, but he didn't drown. An eternity of minutes and an infinity of miles later, Ghinsberg found himself stranded on a narrow gravel beach, battered, breathless, alive and utterly alone. Over the course of the next 20 days, there must have been times when he would have preferred never to have surfaced at all from the black grip of the Tuichi.

It's hard to do justice to what Ghinsberg endured over those three weeks as he wandered about the deep jungle in search of some kind of trail, some kind of food, some kind of help. Here's but a meager catalogue of the trials the rain forest had ready for him:

The day he woke up with leeches attached to much of his body.

The day he slipped down a slope, deeply impaling his rectum on a broken stick.

The days the search planes passed overhead, deaf and blind to his frantic calls beneath the forest canopy.

The day he sank to his chest in quicksand. And the next day, when he did it again.

The night he urinated on himself out of exhaustion, only to wake up and find a swarm of termites devouring his salty clothes and huge patches of his skin.

The night he woke up with a jaguar breathing on his face.

The day the red, skin-rotting fungus on his wet feet finally made walking not just agonizing but impossible.

And then finally, there was the day when the drone in his head wasn't a hallucination and it wasn't another ferocious insect--it was a boat, guided by a burly riverman named Tico Tudela. Leaning over the bow, calling Yossi's name, was his friend Kevin. He was rescued.

Tico and Kevin carried the emaciated castaway downriver to Rurrenabaque. And that, effectively, is the happy ending to Ghinsberg's tale of survival in the rainforest. But it's only the beginning of the story for Tico, his town, the river, and the tiny, remote village of San Jose.

A few years after returning to Israel, Ghinsberg wrote a thrilling book about his adventure called "Back From Tuichi." (A compelling English translation was recently published by Random House.) It was a huge seller in Israel. Among the keenest readers, of course, were young Israeli travelers, who swapped the book around at youth hostels from Cuzco to Sao Paulo. Inevitably, one hot day in 1985, a group of seven Israeli backpackers climbed off a dusty bus in Rurrenabaque and asked where to find Tico.

"They came to ask me if Yossi's story was true," says Tico, an amiable bear of a man with a neat black beard and a jaguar's tooth around his neck. At the time, he was still scratching out a living on the river, hunting and trading. "They asked me to take them up the Tuichi, to show them everything." Tico shrugs and smiles, showing a hint of gold in his teeth. "So I started a business."

Word of Tico's jungle tours buzzed like a swarm of mosquitoes along the travelers' telegraph, and suddenly a new destination was added to the backpacker circuit. The Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia gave Tico's tours a rave, and before long signs in Hebrew, German and English were popping up in Rurrenabaque's shops and cafes.

By the time Ann and I arrived in Rurrenabaque during a summer in Bolivia, Tico's Agencia Fluvial had grown from a two-canoe operation to one of the largest employers in town, behind only the big timber and oil operations. Tico also owns a hotel, catering largely to the hundreds of tourists a month he takes to his camps on the Tuichi and in the nearby wetlands called the pampas. He still wears the jaguar tooth, but now his clothes are a bit newer than the Rurrenabaque average, and he's a bit more harried than his old compadres on the river.

Tico's hard work shows. The trip up the Tuichi is an unforgettable voyage. Our home for three nights is a cluster of log sleeping platforms high on a river-side bluff, our dining room a screened hut the size of a one-car garage. Meals are delicious, and usually fresh from the river. Days are spent walking the jungle trails, swimming the river, following the ever-pointing fingers of our astonishingly knowledgeable local guides. We see spider monkeys, black monkeys, toucans, parrots, white owls, crocodile, trees that bleed, trees that ooze poison, trees that give water and--my chilling favorite--thumb-size ants with Doberman jaws and a bite that can paralyze an adult for a day. On our final morning, we build a balsa raft of our own and float tranquilly back down the river.

All in all, the Ghinsberg effect shows no sign of fading as more operators offer tours up and down these waters. It's part of a general tourism boom in Bolivia. Tucked between Peru and Brazil, Bolivia has long offered one-stop adventure travel to hard-core mountaineers and jungle expeditionists drawn by the country's rugged beauty, Andes-to-Amazon variety and cultural richness (Bolivia boasts South America's only majority indigenous population). But now a fragile economic renaissance and a stretch of political stability have opened the door to more mainstream travelers, and tourism is increasing by as much as 20 percent a year.

But sadly, neither that boom nor much else in the way of economic development has ever quite reached all the way upriver to San Jose, the village of Takana-Quetchua Indians that Yossi searched for in vain during his time in the jungle. With young people fleeing to La Paz, some visionary people in San Jose decided they needed to create a tourism boom of their own. And who better to ask for advice than the original Tuichi tourist, their friend Yossi Ghinsberg.

Ghinsberg came through for San Jose in two key ways: He put them in touch with the Inter-American Development Bank, which ponied up a $1.25 million grant to build a state-of-the-art, solar-powered ecolodge in the middle of the jungle, and to train the local people how to manage it. Secondly, he put San Jose in touch with Conservation International, a Washington environmental group that has pioneered much of the ecotourism field and that was instrumental in getting 4.5 million acres around San Jose declared as the Madidi National Park. With access to a powerhouse team of resort designers, ecologists and community development experts, what San Jose came up with may be unique in the world, a spectacular, community-run ecolodge called Chalalan.

I once visited Chalalan as a work in progress while on assignment for International Wildlife magazine. It was impossible not to be dazzled by the spooky beauty of its setting, a misty jungle lake ringed by low hills. Now construction is complete on a compound of stylish cabanas, lodges and trail networks, all several stars above the other rugged camps available on the river. And this summer, three specialty tour companies in Texas, Canada and Colorado booked the first groups of visitors to Chalalan.

Visitors--after a short flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque--will begin their trip to the jungle with a simple boat trip along the unpredictable Tuichi River.

Just as Yossi Ghinsberg did.

Steve Hendrix writes about the outdoors and travel for numerous publications, including The Post and Outside magazine.

Details: Bolivia

Getting There: Travel to Bolivia is getting easier--slowly--but don't expect a European-smooth experience just yet, especially if you venture outside of the major cities of La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. The rewards are well worth it, but be prepared for phone service that is sketchy, hotels that are charming but challenging, roads, buses and local air service that are often on the nail-biting side. Bolivia is generally safe. According to the State Department, travelers to Bolivia should guard against ordinary street crime in the cities, while violent crime is infrequent, particularly in the Amazon lowlands. However, tourists should check with the U.S. Embassy in La Paz before traveling to the Chapare region between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz in the country's interior. This is the coca-growing district, and anti-narcotic activities "periodically create a potential risk for travelers to that region."

Typically the best time to go to Bolivia is the dry season between March and October, but it's hard to generalize about the weather in a country that embraces both Andean peaks and Amazon lowlands.

American Airlines offers daily flights from Washington to La Paz and Santa Cruz via Miami, starting at about $670.

Tours: The easiest--and most comfortable--way to experience the area of Yossi Ghinsberg's Bolivian misadventure is the new Chalalan Ecolodge run by the village of San Jose. Working with Conservation International, several tour operators have begun offering package trips to Chalalan, located within the 4.5-million-acre Madidi National Park:

  • G.A.P Adventures (266 Dupont St., Toronto, Ontario M5R 1V7, 1-800-465-5600, offers weekly seven- and eight-day trips to Chalalan from La Paz for $595 and $675 (Canadian dollars), including accommodations, ground transportation and meals. Air fare is extra.

  • Explore Bolivia (6551 S. Revere Parkway, Suite 160, Englewood, Colo. 80111, 303-708-8810, offers rafting and kayaking on the Tuichi, including a nine-day lowland sampler that stops at the Chalalan Ecolodge Oct. 21-29; prices range from $845 to $1,880 depending on number of passengers. Prices include air and land transportation within Bolivia, meals, guides and accommodations. International air fare extra. Led by noted Bolivian adventurer and photographer Sergio Ballivian.

    If you want to take one of Tico Tudela's tours, be prepared to wing it a bit as his company is not plugged into modern tourism networks. Normally, travelers simply arrive in Rurrenabaque and sign on to one of the several tours leaving daily through Tico or one of the other tour companies in town. They average between $50 and $100 for one- to four-day trips to the jungle or pampas. The best way to reach Rurrenabaque is by air. Bolivia's military airline--TAM--flies there from La Paz three times a week for about $60 round trip. Book through travel agents in La Paz (or in the United States) or, if you speak Spanish, by calling TAM directly at 011-591-2-37-92-86.

    Information: Tourism Office, Embassy of Bolivia, 3014 Massachusetts Ave., Washington, D.C. 20008, 202-483-4410.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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