IF, LIKE me, you love animals and especially exotic ones, then Madidi National Park in Bolivian Amazonia is the place to find where the wild things are.
The 18,958sq km park in the upper Amazon basin boasts at least 272 recorded species of mammals, 1254 species of birds and 204 species of reptiles within a variety of microclimates.
There are a number of tour operators to choose from, but we settled on the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge for its low environmental impact approach and the fact that it is an indigenous community-owned and run venture.
Turns out eco-friendly can also be pretty romantic; think candlelight, canopies of diaphanous mosquito netting, fringed hammocks and the sounds of the forest floating in to a traditional-style thatched-roof cabin.
Okay, so admittedly the sounds of the forest are not always calming - at least not until you learn which animals are responsible for some of the strange noises.
We learnt fast about plenty of the jungle's inhabitants and were soon able to pick out the familiar voices.
We were fortunate enough to share the lush surroundings with tapir, capybara, armadillo, six species of monkey, two species of squirrel, caiman, deer, fishing bats, macaws, toucans, peccary and piranha to name a few.
Not to mention the big one, the king of the jungle.
Since the guides told us they only spot them once or twice a year if they're lucky we had barely dared to hope we'd catch a glimpse of an elusive big cat but still, it topped the wish list.
It happened while we were tubing down the Tuichi River one afternoon. Relaxing in the cool water and watching the world go by, our reverie was broken by movement my eagle-eyed partner had spotted on the far bank.
Communicating silently with hand gestures like some kind of overly excited commandos we piloted our inner tubes to the shore.
Our guide Raul picked up the tracks and we stalked quietly through the long grass in our togs until, not more than 10 metres away, there it was - a jaguar. As majestic as you'd expect (and certainly more so than we looked at that moment, barefoot and grinning from ear to ear).
Mission accomplished, high fives all round, but alas no photographic evidence as we were in the water at the time of the rare sighting.
The animals are certainly a big drawcard but at the Ecolodge we also got acquainted with the fruits of the forest and learnt how to cook some of the local dishes that were prepared by the on-site cook.
There's no need to carry snacks on a hike when you can pluck wild guava, palm fruits or cacao straight off the trees - the kind of organic, hand-picked, single-origin "chocolate'' that even the most discerning hipsters would approve of. And the likes of Rosemary Stanton, too, for that matter.
The bilingual guides, who all hail from the nearby indigenous San Jose de Uchupiamonas community, are also happy to offer insights into their culture and traditional life inside one of the most biodiverse regions on earth.
Visit madidijungle.com for more information.
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