Balsas on the Rio Alto Madidi in Bolivia

I have wanderlust.  Intense wanderlust; the kind of wanderlust that makes your teeth hurt, your hands itch, and your mind always turn to the new, the unknown.

I don’t often get to indulge in my wanderlust, so when I do I try to make it count.  Back in 2005 I quit the very nice job I had as the cellar-master of a lovely little California winery and left for South America, all in all spending about a year working on various ecology related projects and traveling.  It was amazing and, despite the troubles that emerged from it, eminently worth the experience for far too many reasons to enumerate.

One of the key drivers of my wanderlust is the desire to learn new things and encounter new challenges, and in Bolivia I got to learn some extremely interesting things about a plant I only knew a little about before.

Balsa (Ochroma pyramidale).  We in the northern hemisphere know it mainly from toy airplanes, model making, and sometimes from lightweight packing crates.  I suspect that a number of people reading this blog will have read about Thor Heyerdahl’s incredible 1947 Kon Tiki expedition where he and 5 companions spent 101 days traveling 4300 miles across the Pacific on a raft made from Balsa logs based on ancient Peruvian raft designs.  If you have not read this book, go out and get it immediately, also look for the movie he made while on the raft which is also incredible.  I digress, the point being that most of us know Balsa as a lightweight wood used for novelty items.

In South America it is used for far more than novelty items.  River rafts being key amongst the numerous uses of this amazing plant.

Our supply raft, Rafael and Franklin piloting it down the Río Madidi

Balsa is a short-lived, small to midsized tree that grows rapidly, reaching not much more than 90 feet tall in 10-15 years and dying within 50 years.  Balsa is in the Malvaceae family, a group of  intensely useful plants that included cocoa, hibiscus, durian, jute, okra, bass wood, and a number of ornamental plants.  In the Amazonian lowlands, where the rivers often over-run their banks Balsa trees often line the rivers in thicket-like stands along with Caña Brava (Gynerium sagittatum), a tall reed that looks like a fan-topped cross of Arundo donax and bamboo.

Balsa Colorado (red balsa) and Caña Brava lining a riverbank

The seeds develop in rugby ball shaped pods that break open to reveal thousands of tiny fluffy seeds that trickle out and drift away on the wind, or drop on the water to float down river.  They come to rest in the sticky mud of the river banks, then sprout and grow rapidly, trying to reproduce before the next flood that scours the landscape clean.

Balsa seeds are light, drifting on the wind and floating on the water

My first introduction to the diversity of uses Balsa can be put to was when I embarked on a 20 day trip into the Madidi National Park in northern Bolivia at the eastern foothills of the Andes.  To go in as deeply as I and my 2 traveling companions wanted to involved a guide, 3 porters/navigators, and a 2 day motorboat ride up the Río Tuichi where we were dropped off on the river bank followed by the boat turning and leaving us.

Welcome to the jungle – yes, that is an enormous catfish on the rock next to the river, caught with a machete

Our local guides and porters did not have backpacks, only synthetic canvass sacks filled with food and cooking gear, lacking shoulder straps.  The first 4 or so days of our trip involved long hikes, clearly there needed to be a better way of carrying these sacks than slung over one’s shoulder like Santa Claus.  Near where we were dropped off were some young Balsa trees, about the diameter of a broomstick, maybe larger.  The bark was peeled off and stripped down to the cambium layer, resulting in a long, translucent ribbon of surprisingly tough fiber which was, with the addition of several pebbles, swiftly put into use as shoulder straps for the carry bags.  This material was so tough that it did not need to be replaced for the extent of the trip.

After quite a bit of hiking, some interesting encounters, and a few adrenaline filled moments we crossed over a line of low mountains and followed the stream down the other side to a point where we could no-longer wade across.  We were on the Alto Río Madidi and we needed boats to continue.  There were trees and we had machetes.

Tío (we all called him “uncle”) peeling bark from a Balsa tree

We camped for several days felling 15 or so young Balsa trees with trunks about the diameter of your thigh, cut some short acacia rods, some Caña Brava, and made rope from the cambium of sapling Balsa trees.  When we were done we had two fine river craft, one for two people and everyone’s luggage, another for myself, my two traveling companions, our guide, and one of the porter/navigators.

Two rafts made with machetes from Balsa logs. A mooring rope of Balsa cambium is coiled on the foremost raft

For the remaining 16 days of our trip these rafts served us well, riding through flash floods, over rapids, banging into submerged logs and steep banks, with minimal problems, keeping us dry and stable the whole time.  When they needed repairs all we had to do was collect material from the riparian vegetation and we were back in business.

Balsa leaves are large and soft.  Many insects eat the leaves as there is little, if any, toxin in them, the tree spending its energy on growth rather than protection.  I have seen entire trees completely denuded of leaves within a day by leaf cutter ants.  We used the leaves as well.  The make adequate toilet paper (the lack of toxin being especially important in that instance), for cooking, and for carrying food.  We cut bamboo, filled the culms with freshly caught fish, packed Balsa leaves in the open top to prevent steam from escaping and placed the fish packed bamboo next to the fire to cook.  We carried lunches of roasted fish cooked the night before wrapped in Balsa leaves, and would pick them to use as seat covers on muddy ground.

Lunch carried wrapped up in Balsa leaves

The word balsa, means raft and the ones we made were proof that the tree is well named.

Me running rapids on the Alto Madidi with Tío in front and our guide, Pedro MasCuapa in the rear

A side note, the area we went into is sparsely traveled; the year I went in our group was the only one that had gone so far in and only 3 or 4 other groups had gone into the park more than a day’s hike that year.  If tourism were to increase in the area, a different raft solution would have to be sought.

These photos were taken with a Canon AE-1 with a 50mm 1.8 lens.  All the film was developed and scanned in South America and the picture quality reflects the abuse I put the camera through and the questionable film developing of the places I went to.

The final photo of me was taken by one of my traveling companions.

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