Monday, August 29, 2011

The Amazon of Colombia ~ Of Beauty, simplicity.. and hope

Expansive. Deep. Laid back. Simple. Eager to befriend. Colombia's Amazon will steal your heart.

A fascinating, welcoming country, Colombia is blowing stereotypes out of the water ... from the beauty of its people, to a diverse landscape from Caribbean waters to Andean mountains to the rivers and jungles of the Amazonas.

A World Hidden


For most travelers, a trip to the exotic expanse of the Amazon in Colombia, starts in Leticia.

Leticia, Amazonas, Colombia

There are no roads leading into the southern Amazon from inside Colombia ... at all. Flying in from Bogota, or arriving by boat on the Amazon river from Peru or Brazil, or simply walking or scootering in from next door Tabatinga, Brazil, are the only ways to get in.

Leticia's river passages leading into the Amazon can take your breath away.

Quite entertainingly for most first time visitors, Leticia's waters are the point where Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet on the great river...known as Tres Fronteras in Spanish and Três Fronteiras in Portuguese.

Shot from Tabatinga, Brazil. Leticia is the far back green sliver on the right, and Santa Rosa, Peru, is the green on the left

A sunset on the Amazon, with three countries embracing you, is spectacular ... something to email home about, with a photo.

Leticia (Colombia), Santa Rosa (Peru), and Tabatinga (Brasil) confluence - Tres Fronteras, Amazon

Absolutely safe, with a heavy militarized presence, Leticia is a small, unassuming frontier town with a relaxed tenor.

It has a lively crowd, hotels, hostels, stores, restaurants ... and a kicking fish and produce mercado.

Amazonian fish

Buyers and sellers


The pirarucu is a very large Amazonian fish that can measure up to two meters long.

Leticians are keen to get to know you... if you don't act too much like a tourist, here only to get your money's worth of the Amazon, with scant regard for her people that make this place so special. You might make friends easily within hours of arriving, and be welcomed into their homes. Ah, how Jose Cuervo unites people around the globe.

This host's home was on a street pretty much like any quiet street back in your own hometown ... except that she spoke Spanish and her next door neighbor spoke Portuguese. Yes, Leticia and Tabatinga are like two neighborhoods seamlessly interlacing each other ... giving rise to an obligatory photo op like the one above outside her home ... right foot in Brazil, left foot in Colombia. You can wander about in Tabatinga, no visa needed, no questions asked. Colombian pesos are accepted in Tabatinga: 1 Mil (1,000) Pesos = 1 Real.

Santa Rosa, Peru

Before heading off into the jungle, most tourists will give tiny Santa Rosa, Peru, just a 4 minute boat ride from Leticia, a whirl. Santa Rosa is also the place where you'd catch a fast or slow boat upriver to Iquitos, Peru...8-12 hours away, for about US$70 for the fast one.

Santa Rosa makes no bones about being a tourist transit point - as evidenced by the proverbial semi-captive Toucan who quite stately keeps an eye on the comings and goings...

... if he's not trying to pilfer your stuff or join the party.

The macaws are in on the action too.

Tabatinga, Brasil

And of course if you love Brazil... and crave the beautiful sound of Portuguese, or simply want to check it off your list of countries visited, simply walk or take a motorcycle taxi into Tabatinga ...  a steamier town with a 'nightlife', but classic dockside views.

Take an inexpensive boat ride, all to yourself, and enjoy the Amazon river, up close and personal.

Time for the Jungle?

So the inevitable question, asked sooner or later: 'How do I pick a jungle tour operator?'

Most travelers will look up their guidebooks, or search for reviews on the internet. And you should. Pick someone you're comfortable with and that offers the program you need. This photographer came across a self-effacing one-man tour company, Borugo, a name borrowed from a famous half rodent-half hare like creature of the Amazon, on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree online travel forum.

A chain smoking hippie, Alejandro Carrasquilla met the writer over a beer in Leticia and set up a plan  ... meet a Ticuna community deep in the Amazon in the Parque Nacional Natural Amacayacu region and explore life in the jungle.

Notwithstanding the cigarette smoke, Borugo's services were hired.

You might meet other backpackers who may also decide on a dime to join you on your adventure.

The Ticuna

Centuries-long denizens of the Amazon, the Ticuna people have their own language, and a classic Amazonian way of life - hunting, fishing, gathering. Today, kids go to school, and some youngsters leave to work in Leticia, but the community tries to preserve its culture as much as possible.

You could spend some time with your hosts, eat lunch, and then get ready to boat off deeper into the jungle, further in from the Parque Nacional Natural Amacayacu.


Do As the Ticuna Do

This is the Amazonas. What a privilege to get a little taste of their life.

You might be put up in a tall open shelter in the jungle, that the Ticuna use when they go hunting and wood and leaf collecting for days on end.

You may encounter families working in near isolation in the jungle.

Freshly caught Amazonian fish, including piranha, will be cooked for all.

You can always decide to hold off on the caiman...

The fish are wrapped in leaves, then cooked over an open fire.

The Ticuna light a kind of tree bark and gum ... it keeps the giant mosquitoes away.

You might be greeted by young hunting experts ... this lad's got himself a borugo!

And more fish to boot.

It's a simple life, but hard.


A place of beauty and simplicity, the Amazon has an hypnotic effect on travelers.

Colombia'a tranquil Amazonas fosters hope for the greater South American Amazon.

This is their home.

Bring back only memories, show your displeasure with corporations or governments that plunder this land of spirits, follow grassroots efforts and take heart that such life exists on our planet.

Child of the Amazon, may she grow up and have her river always teeming with fish and her rainforest home green and pure.

The River Amazon

Travel Tips

  1. For airlines within Colombia, this is a helpful list . Aires usually has the best promos.
  2. All internal flights to Leticia route through Bogota. You can fly from say, Cali, to Leticia, but the flight will stop first in BOG and a change of planes may be required..
  3. Leticia is safe, with a heavy militarized presence.
  4. If you're arriving from within Colombia, you do not have to get a stamp in your passport. But if you're arriving from Peru or Brasil, you need to get an exit stamp from those countries in Santa Rosa or Tabatinga, then go from the docks to the Leticia airport and get a stamp from the DAS office; there's also a DAS office in the Leticia town center, not sure what it provides.
  5. If you only have a backpack, simply walk from the airport to the town center - 10 minutes. Or take an inexpensive moto-taxi (motorcycle) or moto-carro (a 3-wheel taxi).
  6. You can use the same coveyance modes, or simply walk, between Leticia and Tabatinga. No visa required. Tabatinga is much bigger than Leticia; to get to Policia Federal you'll definitely want to take a moto taxi.
  7. You need to take a boat from Leticia to tiny Santa Rosa, 3-4 minutes. No visa required to visit.
  8. There are quite a few hotels in Leticia; refer to your guidebook or simply walk around the small town center and ask for rates.
  9. If you're leaving Colombia from Leticia, say to go via boat to Manaus in Brasil or Iquitos in Peru, you need to get an exit stamp from the DAS office in Leticia and get an entry stamp either at the Policia Federal office in Tabatinga, Brasil, or at the port in Santa Rosa, Peru, before your boat journey.
  10. A fast boat upriver to Iquitos is about US$70 and takes 8-9 hours.

Jaguar Amazon (Not photographed by author)