Yossi Ghinsberg had read all the classic novels and loved adventure stories. But Yossi didn’t just want to just read – he wanted to write his own story. He had a dream of venturing into a jungle – to join a lost tribe and fall in love and marry the tribal chief’s daughter. His fantasy involved finding a treasure and then returning to civilization with the treasure and his new beautiful wife. But that isn’t what happened.
At the first opportunity he had, after completing his service in the Israeli navy, he left home in pursuit of his big dream. He was 22 and ready for the adventure of his life, but what he would never have imagined is how his dream would ultimately turn into a nightmare that continually put his life in danger. He, two friends he met in his travels, and a mysterious “guide” entered a story that was eventually depicted in a tell-all book and made into a movie.
This is the story of a man who lived to tell the incredible journey he faced in the jungle of the Amazon.
After serving his mandatory time in the Israeli Army, Yossi was suddenly free of obligations eager to travel. It was the beginning of the ‘80s and Yossi was 21 years old. But before he could embark on his once in a lifetime journey, he had to earn some money to make it possible.
Fortunately for Yossi, his friend referred him to his uncle who was living in New York and had a business shipping old records to Africa. This uncle of his friend’s then offered Yossi a job opportunity. He bought him a ticket to New York and Yossi worked for him for a number of months, sleeping in his container trucks at night to save money.
In the coming months, Yossi was able to travel to Africa and Mexico, delivering the old records. He was fulfilling his goal of traveling, but he still wasn’t satisfying his ultimate dream of exploring the Amazon rainforest. Determined to make it down to South America, he needed to make more money. He first worked for a year in Norway as a construction worker.
He then moved on to Alaska, where he worked as a fisherman. He saved up a nice sum of money, bought a Chevy with a friend of his, and drove around the United States. When they arrived in the seductive and magnetic city of Las Vegas, he gambled his life savings one night at a casino and lost everything. Now broke, he had to figure out what his next move would be.
With time, Yossi finally had enough cash in his pocket to head to Latin America. It was 1981, and his hero, author Henri Charriere who wrote “Papillon,” had already passed away, but Yossi was determined to follow in the ways of his favorite author. Yossi flew to Venezuela – his starting point. He searched for tribes in a jungle but couldn’t find a place that was untouched.
He then recalculated his plans and hitchhiked his way from Venezuela to Colombia. In Colombia, he met a fellow backpacker named Marcus Stamm, who was a teacher from Switzerland. The two became fast friends and decided to travel together to La Paz, Bolivia. From there, they would head to the Amazon. Little did these young and naïve travelers know that their fate was about to change forever…
Marcus had persuaded Yossi to cross the border into La Paz, which was Bolivia’s administrative capital. “It was the last few weeks of his year-long break and he convinced me to spend them with him before he went back to Switzerland. I only went to Bolivia because of this guy,” Yossi Ghinsberg later recalled.
The Swiss man had missed a ferry that Yossi was on, but for some reason, the captain decided to turn the vessel back to pick Marcus Stamm up. “If the captain hadn’t gone back, my life would have been very different,” Yossi said. Shortly after these new friends arrived in La Paz, they met another person, a mysterious Austrian man named Karl Ruprechter.
Karl claimed to be a geologist and told the eager backpackers that he was planning an expedition that would involve searching for gold in a hidden, ancient village located deep in the heart of Bolivia’s Amazon jungle. It was exactly what the adventure-thirsty Yossi wanted to hear. This was going to be his new escapade.
It was now 1982, and Yossi was captivated by Karl’s stories, who described himself as a born survivor, a gold miner, a jaguar hunter, and jungle master. Karl offered to take Yossi, Marcus, and a third new friend, Kevin Gale (an American photographer) to join him on his expedition. Yossi may have had nothing but pure intentions, his lack of experience proved to be a major miss in this story.
He was young, carefree, and hungry for adventure. So when Kevin (a burly American, known among travelers for his strength and endurance), Marcus (a sensitive Swiss man), and Karl met to fully discuss the trip, Yossi ignored the logistics, details, and practicalities and focused instead on the romanticism of getting lost in the jungle – a dream he wasn’t willing to let die.
Choosing to go with Karl was an ill-fated decision, because there was a lot about the man that raised red flags. Karl would often change his story about his alleged jungle experiences. At first, he offered to lead the expedition for free, but then he turned around and charged the three men a hefty “guide fee.” He even threatened to cancel the trip because of an uncle who supposedly owned a ranch somewhere else.
In retrospect and even from an outside opinion, the whole thing smelled fishy. But Yossi’s connection to Karl at that time was based on his spirit of adventure, and not on any analytical thought. So he didn’t ask too many questions. A carefree attitude is certainly fun in some circumstances, but the Amazonian jungle is not a forgiving place.
Had Yossi and his new friends recognized the gravity of the situation they were about to be in, maybe tragedy might not have occurred. A few days before heading into the jungle, Yossi told people of his plans. He sent a message to the Israeli embassy, a note to a local friend’s family, and a long letter to his brother Moishele in Israel. Despite his lack of experience, telling people was the right thing to do.
Telling others of your travel plans is smart because it’s the best way to make sure someone will notice if you don’t actually return. Yossi ended up leaving many of his belongings behind in Bolivia, including his watch. He wanted to be a pure adventurer, feeling as though he would manage without keeping track of time.
He didn’t expect to find himself in a life or death survival situation, in which his watch would come in handy. The four men then boarded a flight to the village of Apolo (still in Bolivia) where their trek would begin. Karl’s plans were to hike from Apolo to the nearby village of Asriamas, and then through the jungle to their final destination – the village of Riberalta.
It didn’t take long for Karl to demonstrate his skills. Their first night out, he impressed his travelers by improvising a shelter out of bamboo and nylon sheeting (even though there was a tent) and laying down a carpet of leaves. Karl may have known how to handle himself in the jungle, but the man was no leader.
The truth is the man was a drifter, who inability to stay focused on a collective goal would ends up taking the whole group down and ultimately risking their lives. Nonetheless, their first few days proved deceiving – they were ideal. But it’s mostly because they were still within the borders of civilization. They hiked from ranch to ranch, appreciating the hospitality of locals who gave them shelter, food, and treated them as guests.
The first cracks in the group dynamic started soon after. One morning, Karl hurried along a jungle path with Flaca (“Skinny”) the dog (who Karl was insistent on having with them) and left the others behind. Yossi, Kevin, and Marcus came to a fork in the trail, and only by luck did they pick the path that brought them to the spot where Karl and the dog were resting.
This was yet another red flag for Karl, who was supposed to be their guide. Four days out, the group arrived at the Asariamas village, on the edge of the Tuichi River. (Yossi’s book is called “Back From Tuichi”). There they ate, rested, and restored their dwindling food stores. Karl’s plan was to move forward and upstream to the Cocus River, then to the Colorado-Chico River, which would then take them to the “Indian village” where the gold was supposed to be.
Yossi began to worry about the amount of food they had on them, but Karl assured them there would be enough game to hunt along the way. He promised the men, that the jungle was bursting with animals that they could hunt with the rifle they brought with them from La Paz. Karl would usually wake before everyone else and make breakfast.
The group began to rely on Karl so much that they even started calling him “Poppa.” But their early and seemingly safe days in their journey started to see more cracks in the group, with the foursome breaking into pairs. Karl and Marcus spent most of their time together while Kevin and Yossi did the same. When they hit the waters of Tuichi, Karl led the group on a climb that would take them over the mountains.
The group continued to put its collective faith in Karl, who had a map that the group mistakenly never examined themselves. The map wasn’t very detailed, but it was the best one they could find in La Paz. For what it’s worth, however, Karl did have some useful skills in the jungle. He taught them how to collect water from bamboo shoots.
And when he shot a monkey from the trees, he built a structure in which to smoke the meat. But Karl’s greatest flaw as a “leader” was that he didn’t teach them a thing about route-finding. But then again, the guys didn’t seem interested in learning where they were coming from, nor how to find their way back. Either way, as Karl predicted, their trek over the mountains did indeed bring them to the banks of the Cocus River.
Karl wanted to follow the river towards the gold, but the guys started to doubt the route by that point. By then, the group grew increasingly hungrier. They did manage to hunt a goose, a monkey, and a sloth. But still, relying on hunting as a primary source of food is a huge mistake. Their rations of food were quickly dwindling, their gear was decomposing, their feet were starting to rot from being constantly wet, and the route was unclear.
The guys were dreading another grueling climb over the mountains. So they opted to return to Asariamas, where they could restock and change their plan. While they should have parted ways with Karl, he joined them instead. Once they got back to the village, they discussed new options.
At first, Marcus wanted to go back to La Paz. He had developed a bad case of trench foot, but their weeklong rest let it heal to the point that he felt able to continue on with the group. The decision was ultimately made to remain in Asariamas and build a raft and float down the Tuichi River to another village called Rurrenabaque.
While the rest healed them physically, it did nothing to improve the group dynamics, which kept deteriorating. By the time they hit Tuichi, they were in two separate pairs: Kevin and Yossi; Karl and Marcus. Their inability to get along only made the already dangerous trek down the river even more problematic. They never even agreed upon a plan if things went wrong and were separated in the Amazon.
With the raft was complete, the group set out. They had on them ten pounds of rice, eight pounds of dried beans, a large handful of plantains, some vegetables, and some spices. For some unknown reason, Karl, who was in charge of the group’s finances, traded off most of their gear (fishing lines, hooks, lighters) during their second stay in Asariamas.
They left themselves only one half-full lighter for the remainder of the journey. But nobody voiced their opinions on the lack of preparation and survival supplies. Maybe they were angry, frustrated, or simply wanted to make it to their destination already. They head out on the Tuichi, which was the last time that they would be a group of four.
The river went from placid to wild, the raft bashing from rock to rock before they managed to get to shore and regroup. Karl, rightfully so this time, insisted that they hike around the pass, but the other three were anxious to get moving and ignored his warnings. While Karl was hunting, Yossi and Kevin boarded the raft and Marcus grudgingly joined them.
The three made it through the pass alive but lost all their oars and poles on the way. Luckily, Kevin was strong enough to jump in and pull the raft to shore, with Yossi and Marcus still on it. They hiked back to get Karl and the rest of their gear and returned to the raft. Their next obstacle changed things forever…
Things changed forever when they hit a notorious section of the Tuichi River known as Mal Paso San Pedro. The rock canyon ends in a swift waterfall. That’s when Karl suddenly decided to stop there, and instead of using the raft, he would instead walk to a village he thought was in the vicinity, where he would rent donkeys to carry him back to Apolo. Marcus agreed to tag along.
Yossi and Kevin, however, made the wrong move and took the raft. It may seem foolish, but they figured it was no less risky than Karl’s alternative. And so the next order of business was to split their survival gear. Karl and Marcus took the rifle and the tent, whereas the fishing gear, the machete, and most of the nonperishable food were given to Kevin and Yossi.
Early the next morning, they said their goodbyes, and whether or not they knew it, it would be the last time Yossi saw Karl or Marcus ever again. Kevin and Yossi set off on their raft, adding a smaller life raft that they tied on top (in case of emergency). And things went wrong immediately. The raft was pinned up against a rock at the entrance of the dangerous Mal Paso San Pedro.
As water was furiously rushing all around, Kevin swam for shore, where he was to throw Yossi a vine and pull him to safety. But as soon as Kevin dove in, the weight of the raft shifted and came loose. Yossi was thrown down the river and into the wild waters by himself for what must have felt like an eternity. He was then thrown over the falls and into the river’s torrent.
Amazingly, he survived the drop uninjured and found the raft floating nearby. When he swam to it, he saw that the little life raft (with the food and survival gear strapped to it – what Yossi called a “life pack”) was no longer there. He was now separated from Kevin and alone in the Amazon, with no backup plan in place.
Yossi then caught eye of the life pack trapped between rocks on the far shore. He tried to retrieve it, but the waters were too strong. So he improvised a shelter for himself and decided to wait until the following day to try again. That evening, he fed himself that by eating the palm heart of a palmetto tree, as Karl had taught him. I guess Karl did come in handy.
For Yossi, he knew that he was going to survive. And in moments when he began to feel hopeless, he would say a new personal mantra to himself: “Man of action, man of action.” The next morning, Yossi went to look for the life raft. Eventually, he made it down to the raft, and luckily, to the life pack, too.
He couldn’t be happier to see the rice and beans, lighter, flashlight and matches, the map, mosquito netting, a poncho, first aid kit, insect repellent, and wallet – all intact. Yossi was starting to display survival techniques. During his first day completely alone, he used the red poncho to make a signal in case Kevin showed up. He even successfully killed, skinned, and gutted a poisonous snake (which he used for fishing bait).
He started to walk back in the direction towards Kevin, but his feet were in bad shape. He was developing the same trench foot that Marcus dealt with for so long, but Yossi’s was worse. To ease the pain, he took a pill from a box labeled “uppers” in the first aid kit and headed back up the Tuichi. But the drug in Yossi’s empty stomach wasn’t sitting well.
Its effect on him was like a hallucinogen and like a man possessed, he ran through the jungle for hours on end. Determined to find Kevin and fueled by drugs, he scrambled up a cliff, putting himself at great risk. He even fell off the wall at one point, but luckily for him, his backpack broke his fall.
Yossi settled down and waited five days before coming to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to find Kevin. His feet began to heal and his fever was gone. Now that he was in better condition, he decided to walk down the river to a small camp called Curiplaya, where he hoped people would be. By that point, Yossi learned very well that all of his movement from then on out must be measured and calculated.
But he had no idea which direction to go, as he no longer saw the river, which before then, was his only reference point. His only choice was by the steep banks of the Tuichi. The trip had to wait until morning because darkness was setting in. He made a makeshift tent from the mosquito netting and armed himself with whatever he could find to use in self-defense. He then sat nervously as total darkness came.
During the night, Yossi heard sounds around him, the rustle of leaves and what sounded like footsteps. So he turned on his flashlight and saw a jaguar standing just a few yards away, staring at him as it waved its tail from side to side. Yossi screamed, but the jaguar didn’t move. In a panic, he took out used his insect-repellent flamethrower, pressing on the nozzle and lighting the spray with his lighter, spitting out a flame.
When the can was empty, Yossi was left scorched and temporarily blind, but at least the jaguar was gone. When the sun came up, and Yossi felt more alive than ever, he began his trip back down to the Tuichi. He eventually made it back to the edge of the river, where he swore to himself to never again venture into the heart of the jungle.
He came upon a cave, which was another of his lucky breaks during his time alone. There, he holed up for the evening. At that point, he had spent nine long and frightening days alone in the jungle. He took an extra day in the cave to rest, let his feet feel, and dry his clothes. He also managed to grab some fruit from the trees around him.
After resting, Yossi set off again. He stumbled upon the village of Curiplaya, which was abandoned, but he was ecstatic to find four huts – with beds! – Just calling his name. He then used his time there to plan his next moves. He walked to a town called San Jose, which he figured, by looking at the map, would take a few days.
The trail led him to a sandy beach littered with driftwood. Thinking like a survivor, he decided to gather the logs into the shape of the letter Y and the number 12 – his first initial and the date. The next day, he came across the nest of a wild chicken, with six freshly laid eggs. He ate four of them and put the other two in his pack.
But then as he was walking down a steep hill, he slipped on some wet grass and pierced his backside on a dry stick. He was drenched with blood, and in lots of pain, but kept moving. He then stumbled into a hornets’ nest, which swarmed him and stung him mercilessly. He did what you technically should do – he threw himself into the river.
The jungle was really taking its toll on Yossi, but the thought of reaching San Jose kept him going. During these low moments, he began to hallucinate, the mind’s own form of self-defense. For many, it can lead to insanity, but for Yossi, the dreams gave him the push he needed. But first… a storm ensued.
The rain poured down all night and it didn’t take long for the water to be up to his waist. He was almost swept away in the flood, as he grabbed onto trees to keep himself up. The next morning (his 17th alone), he was determined to make it to San Jose. As he fought his way back towards the Tuichi, he thought he heard a sound high above. Looking up, Yossi saw a small plane. He screamed and waved, but it didn’t make a difference.
He eventually made it to the Tuichi River, but there was only a drop of 20 feet or so into the turbulent water. But he was physically drained, little more than skin and bones. His trench foot got worse to the point where walking was nearly unbearable. At times, he had to crawl on all fours. By the evening, he came to a puddle of water in the mud. He walked right through it but started to sink.
That wasn’t a puddle – it was quicksand. Yossi panicked, thrashing around, which only made the quicksand take him in more quickly. He was now waist-deep. He then calmed down, regained his composure, and wiggled his way slowly out. Half dead, Yossi curled up on the floor of the jungle waited for the morning to come.
As morning came, Yossi pulled himself up to a sitting position and couldn’t believe that he was being swarmed by thousands of red termites. He thought he felt itching, but thought it was ants or that he was just hallucinating. But these termites were actually going for his flesh. He crawled through the jungle, trying to make it to the beach.
He figured he would either die there or be rescued. Later that day, he did find a beach, but it wasn’t the one he was seeking. Nevertheless, it was thrilling to find a hut so he could literally collapse inside of it. After some rest, he explored the beach, and realized that he was back in Curiplaya. He spread his poncho out as a signal.
As Yossi lay in the hut, he contemplated his fate. It was now 19 days since he was lost and alone, and death was certainly an option. But he thought that maybe he could do more, especially if he stayed put. Maybe he would even be able to survive an entire season until the San Jose residents return to camp in the village.
He suddenly heard something above him, but he figured he was hallucinating again. But the sound got louder, and this time he couldn’t ignore it. He staggered out of the hut and saw four people getting out of a canoe on the beach. One of them was Kevin. And no, he wasn’t a figment of his imagination – Kevin was 100% real.
It turns out that after they got separated in the Tuichi River, Kevin had spent a couple of days looking for Yossi. But with no sign of his friend, he then floated down the river on a log. He was floating towards San Jose when he spotted two men hunting in a stream. They led him to San Jose, where Kevin was hoping to find Yossi. But nobody there had seen him.
So Kevin hired raftsmen to take on the Tuichi to Rurrenabaque, where he thought Yossi might be. The locals told him that Yossi had no chance of surviving that first waterfall that Yossi fell into when they separated. And even if he did, he would have starved in the jungle. Kevin didn’t give up, though.
Kevin flew to La Paz, where he started communicating with the Israeli embassy and the Bolivian government. Some precious days later, he managed to finally convince government officials to begin a plane search for Yossi, even though they kept telling Kevin that the chances are very slim. The plane search proved unsuccessful, but Kevin pressed on.
He went back to Rurrenabaque, where he hired a local man named Tico to take him on a boat up the Tuichi. It took time, as all the debris floated down the river, but Tico was a master navigator. Day turned to evening, and still no sign of Yossi. Tico was getting agitated, telling Kevin that they had to turn around at the next beach and head back. And just as the boat began turning around, Kevin saw what looked like a corpse emerge from a dilapidated hut.
By the time Yossi was found and rescued, he had lost 35 pounds from the hunger, infection and diseases he suffered from being nearly three weeks in the jungle. He wasn’t able to head home right away, though. He spent three full months recovering in a hospital. Once he was better, though, he didn’t decide to head back home.
Since he was beyond grateful that Kevin Gale hadn’t given up on him and that he was rescued, Yossi organized additional search and rescue teams to go back into the Amazon. He was hoping to find Marcus Stamm and Karl Ruprechter. But sadly, his admirable efforts bore no fruit. The two men were never seen from or heard of again.
Over the year, Yossi settled back into civilized life. He said in the countless interviews and the books that he wrote that he doesn’t regret his fateful trip into the Amazon. But he does, however, regret losing Marcus – his first traveling friend. News spread of Yossi’s amazing story of survival and he became something of an iconic figure.
He appeared on some of the biggest news networks and was even featured in the Discovery Channel documentary show, ‘I Shouldn’t Be Alive.’ In 1993, about ten or so years after he was rescued, he wrote his first book, ‘Back from Tuichi.’ The book made him famous, also selling millions of copies worldwide and was translated into 15 languages.
Yossi will always be grateful to the locals and have respect for this vast wilderness region. And that’s why, around the time he wrote his first book, Yossi Ghinsberg returned to the land that nearly took his life with a goal of developing sustainable tourism. After negotiating with the InterAmerican Development Bank, he was able to get a $1.25 million grant.
With that money, they built a solar-powered eco-lodge not far from where he got lost all those years ago. The Chalalán eco-lodge still operates today and is at the forefront of Bolivian ecotourism. But nowhere was his tale as popular as it was in Israel. Back home, his story became a cult classic and inspired many Israelis to visit this mainly undiscovered part of Bolivia.
Due to the newfound reputation among post-army Israeli backpackers, Bolivia’s Amazon saw a real increase in visitors over the following decades. Rurrenabaque transformed from a little-known village into a major tourist hub, as Israeli-orientated businesses started to spring up to meet demand. Among those businesses were hardcore survival tours which provide treks into the jungle with brave backpackers and a local guide.
They would venture deep into the jungle for weeks, often with little more than a machete and the expertise of the guide. But a political conflict in 2014 led to Bolivia requiring a steep Visa fee, and since many backpackers have little cash, there was a major decrease in tourism. Sadly, it destroyed tourism in Rurrenabaque.
In 2017, his story was enacted in the thriller, ‘Jungle,’ starring Daniel Radcliffe as Yossi Ghinsberg. It was filmed for six weeks in April and May of 2016 in Colombia. The movie follows Ghinsberg’s meeting with his three travel companions and his lone trek for three weeks in the Bolivian jungle without any supplies or help.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Yossi, joined by Thomas Kretschmann and Alex Russell, among others. The Australian film didn’t do so well in theaters, though. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 60%, based on only 48 reviews. Basically, people felt that it was a little too “Hollywood” and not raw and real enough. Too bad.
Ghinsberg is the co-founder and CEO at Blinq.me, which is a Silicon Valley-based tech-startup. In 2015, he launched the mobile app, which adds a layer of context to mobile messaging apps. It alerts the user to new information about the person they’re communicating with. Ghinsberg has also been a motivational speaker since 2001.
Yossi, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, has married three times and has four kids: Mia, Cayam, Nissim, and Shalem. Ghinsberg married his current wife, Belinda, on March 7, 2010. Ghinsberg and his family have lived in Australia, Israel, and the United States