“So what have you been doing for the last week?” I ask Charissa.
“Cooking food, eating food, making tea and looking at the rain forest” she replies.
This is a fairly accurate summary of our trip, with some crazy tour guides, nocturnal monkey attacks and Amazon skinny dipping thrown in for good measure. It was quite the adventure.
We began our 10 day trip in Leticia, capital of the Amazonas department, and the only city that you can fly to. There isn’t really any other way to get there, unless you’re coming by boat from Brazil or Peru. In Leticia we discovered 5,000 COP (£1.20!) capirinhas and witnessed the daily spectacle that is the arrival of hundreds of thousands of birds noisily flying to Leticia to roost in Parque Santander (it happens every day at sunset). Whilst we were at the park we befriended a jewellery seller called Greggy who, for the next five days, took it upon himself to be our tour guide, of sorts.
The following day he took us to a small town called Macedonia, about an hour or so by boat up the Amazon river, where he had a friend who would let us stay for a few days. It turns out Macedonia is a fervently religious Jehovah’s Witness community. There are no cars in the town, as the houses are all built on sticks and stand around two metres above ground. When it rains and the water level rises, everything is flooded and people get around by boat. No alcohol or cigarettes are sold in the town and, whilst tourists usually stay for an hour or so, they rarely stay the night. We ended up staying for five with our lovely hosts Germán and Sara who, for next to nothing (a night’s stay costs 15,000 COP and meals 5,000 COP), welcomed us into their home.
Highlights of our stay included going on a boat trip with Germán, where we were able to spot the Amazon’s famous pink dolphins, and going on a walk through the jungle to a Peruvian village where we ate a delicious (and enormous) lunch of fish (cooked over a fire wrapped in plantain leaves), rice, beans, pasta, salad and fruit. After, we went for a swim, the sky glowing with the rays of the setting sun in the west and a beautiful double rainbow in the east. We expertly avoided the sting rays and tiny penis-invading fish that apparently inhabit the waters.
I am yet to decide whether it was an overly positive or negative experience, but we were also able to go on a trek into the jungle with a friend of Greggy’s called James, who can only be described as a half-crazy, machete-wielding, marijuana fanatic (apparently the middle of the jungle, at what felt like 100% humidity, is not everyone’s idea of the worst place in the world to want to smoke a joint). Our trek lasted a good eight hours and was exhausting, but we managed to see and experience many weird and wonderful jungle things. James also told us about the time he got lost in the jungle for a week and had a vision in which he got so hungry and desperate that he ate his dogs ears and tail. Apparently this turned out not to be a dream after all, and indeed, his dog is mysteriously missing both its ears and tail. I came to the conclusion that I am completely unsuited to jungle life.
Drinking water from the bejuco tree
After our trek we were treated to an absolutely incredible meal – juanes de yuca – prepared for us by Sara and terribly photographed below. It’s something like a tamal, but made of yuca not maize flour, and with a piece of fish inside, wrapped in a leaf whose name I can no longer remember and cooked in boiling water. My written description doesn’t do it justice either, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
A few days later, we left Macedonia and got a boat further up the river to Puerto Nariño, a slightly bigger and, on the whole, much more touristy village that I’d visited a year ago. As soon as we stepped off the boat, we were approached by various men offering us cabins, hostels, boat tours – everything. We hung around for a while and eventually met “Monstruo”, a guy who runs a nature reserve outside the town and who let us stay in his home in Puerto Nariño in the meantime. On first impressions, Puerto Nariño is a place that seems incredibly committed to the environment. Like Macedonia, there are no cars or motorbikes (they would be pretty useless anyway) and there are countless signs dotted around warning of hefty fines for littering etc. And they seem to be working.
As ever, we had a pretty chilled time in Puerto Nariño and our days there usually consisted of going for a wash in a nearby river (our host’s house had no running water), making huge breakfasts, wandering around the town, relaxing in the hammocks, going for dinner three days in a row “donde El Calvo” – we even went for a beer in one of the town’s two “nightclubs” (one of which is tragically called “Punto G”). One of the most noteworthy things to happen during our short stay was, without doubt, being woken up at 3 am by the appearance of a very tiny, very cute and incredibly playful monkey on the balcony where we were sleeping – he was happily jumping from hammock to hammock, apparently after having been discovered in our host’s baby’s crib. Only in the Amazon…
After staying a few nights we decided to move to the reserve, a 20 minute walk outside the town. It essentially consisted of a house in the middle of the jungle, complete with banana trees, a little lake and our own personal mochilero-nest-laden tree. Calling it paradise would be no exaggeration. “Mochilero” is the name of a bird frequently found in the region whose nest resembles a bag (a mochila). It can easily be recognised by its distinctive cry: a delicious plopping and rippling kind of noise, like fat raindrops falling into a pool of water. Unlike any other bird I’ve ever heard.
We were warmly welcomed by Marcos, the man in charge of building the house, who was eager for us to try all the different fruits that were growing in the reserve: the sweet yet acidic, almost fermented-tasting cupuaçu, the strange guama pods and tiny bananas. He told us about the animals living nearby, which terrifyingly included carnivorous (i.e. man-eating) monkeys. He was a great host. Half of us stayed in hammocks in the house and others put up tents and built a shelter outside. Marcos seemed pretty impressed with their efforts, and so was I, especially when I found out that the tents were completely waterproof anyway.
In the evening, and inevitably always after it had already got dark, we made campfires and cooked dinner. The nocturnal chatter of the birds, the thunder and my unfamiliarity with sleeping in a hammock made for an interesting, if not very interrupted, night’s sleep.
Whilst in Puerto Nariño we also decided to go on a spontaneous trip to Lago Tarapoto, with friendly, local man Larry. The whole idea started because Sara had a sudden longing to get on a boat and we wanted to swim. We ended up being driven around for a while by Larry – observing more pink dolphins and the renaco tree, also known as “el árbol que camina“. We swam in Lago Tarapoto, which is apparently full of piranhas, though Larry subdued our fears somewhat by reassuring us that they don’t attack unless you’re bleeding and not moving. Sara did get repeatedly nibbled by some unidentified fish, but our swim was otherwise uneventful. Once back on land, Dario (the boy who had introduced us to Larry), suddenly asked me if I’d been to Puerto Nariño before and wasn’t I the girl who got bitten by a parrot? (This could only happen to me). And indeed, it was me. It’s strange to think that someone with whom you shared no more than three hours of life might remember you a whole year later. It’s nice to be memorable.
Back in Leticia, we went to Parque Santander again and made friends with two more jewellery sellers, Veronica and Maximiliano, from Argentina. They’d been travelling through South America for three years and were gradually making their way to Mexico. They were the most friendly, beautiful couple, with an impressive array of hand-made jewellery. True to the stereotype, they were drinking mate, and we got to know them as the cup, full of that bitter, green-tasting liquid, was passed around. The following evening Veronica taught us the basics of bracelet making and, after several false starts, we each managed to make something that resembled a bracelet. The others brought cachaça to the park. After a lengthy discussion we established that it is essentially the aguardiente of Brazil (i.e. horrible), and they were happily singing and drinking until late.
On our last day we went to Brazil. The Brazilian border town of Tabatinga is essentially just the other half of Leticia, but in Portuguese. There’s no gap at all between them. We set off with the idea of eating ceviche and inexplicably ended up in a Chinese restaurant. It was an enjoyable trip nonetheless, and thankfully I didn’t have to put my 1A beginner’s Portuguese to the test.
My Amazon adventure came to and end on 5th October. Unfortunately, LATAM decided to move everyone else’s flight to 7th. We later learnt that flights had been cancelled so that the planes could fly to Barranquilla instead, where there was a qualifying mach for the World Cup. Obviously.
Like many other parts of this incredible country, the Amazon is a unique and unforgettable place, home to many happy memories