Yeah, that's my boy yossi," says jovial Tico Tudela, pointing proudly to a photo on the wall of his travel agency in Rurrenabaque. Located in northwestern Bolivia, Rurrenabaque—or "Rurre" for short—is a launchpad for backpackers and rafters headed into the Amazon. "My boy Yossi" is Yossi Ghinsberg, a former Israeli soldier who put Rurre on the backpackers' circuit.
Eighteen years ago, Ghinsberg and three others undertook a disastrous search for gold and Indian ruins in the jungle here. As Ghinsberg details in his book, Heart of the Amazon, first published in 1985, the four were eventually divided and lost along the Tuichi River. Ghinsberg's life was saved when a member of his party and Tudela found him and brought him to the village of San José de Uchupiamonas. In 1995, when the village, six miles upriver from Rurre, decided to capitalize on the ecotourism boom, Ghinsberg helped villagers win a $1.25 million grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, $200,000 of which went to building the Chalalan Ecolodge.
Opened in May 1998, the lodge runs on solar power, has plenty of potable water, and serves exquisite local fare. Its three traditional cabins, with chonta-palm walls and jatata-leaf roofs, house only 14 people at a time. Yet the principal attraction of the lodge remains its location: Chalalan is situated well within Madidi National Park, the most biologically diverse wilderness reserve on earth, according to scientists. Toucans, macaws, aracaris, trogons, and mot-mots abound.
The best time to visit is during the dry season, April through November. Chalalan Ecolodge charges about $150 per person per night during those months, and $80 during the rainy season, December through March. Several U.S.-based outfitters arrange tours to the lodge, including Explore Bolivia (303-708-8810; www.explorebolivia.com). Tico Tudela's Fluvial Tour (011-591-892-2372) offers jungle and rafting trips for $25 a day that stop at Chalalan on request.