We had time for one last Colombian trip for our Fulbright year, and it felt like the Amazon was the way to go– even though Mary and I dragged our feet the whole way. Planning trips are a pain, and planning a voyage to the Amazon is on a whole different level. Plus, after the bed bugs and stomach virus in La Guajira, I was super nervous I’d be recovering from the Amazon during my final weeks in Colombia.
Fortunately, the entire trip ran smoothly via Amazonas Jungle Tours and both of us had a wonderful time. It ended up being one of my most special trips during my 10 months in Colombia.
We landed early in Leticia’s airport and were picked up by our tour guide’s father, taken to the office, and fitted for heavy duty ponchos and thick boots. As I haven’t been able to buy even one pair of shoes for my US-sized feet during my time in Colombia, it was a huge deal that they had boots in my size and larger. Then, we were loaded onto a water taxi and shipped about two hours northwest to Puerto Nariño.
Upon arriving in Puerto Nariño, we met our tour guide, dropped off our stuff, and took our first boat ride to see part of the Amazon. Almost immediately, we saw pink dolphins, gray dolphins, sloths, owls, herons, eagles, monkeys, iguanas… it was incredible. I give all of the credit to our guide, Joaquin, who was an expert at picking out camouflaged animals. A huge benefit of this tour is that they keep the groups super small, so it was just Mary, Joaquin, and myself. Also, the guides are native to the area, so Joaquin was able to answer every question we had about parasitic trees and piranhas and where the anacondas lived (fortunately, not near where we were staying).
At times, we used our boat’s motor to power us through the river, and other times it was paddles-only in denser, swamp territory. Either way, we were almost always alone. Just us and the animals wading through the Amazon. As spooky as it was when we were discussing snakes and alligators, we loved it.
Our boat ride ended around sunset, when we came across a group of bottle-nosed dolphins feeding. That night, we had a classic Colombian dinner (soup, fish, small salad, plantains) before heading out for a night hike.
Again, it was just the three of us in a part of the forest close to the hostel. We were only out for about an hour, but that was plenty for me. It was so, soooo very dark. And so, soooo very muddy. This would’ve been generally ok if it weren’t for the fact that nearly everything there is so dangerous. Bugs that implant themselves in you when they bite you (Joaquin was bitten once, and his friend had to cut the bug’s web out of his hand with a knife), the beautiful and highly poisonous dart frogs, the spiders that have venom strong enough to paralyze an adult human. And don’t lean on a tree– those, too, have spikes.
Honestly, it amazes me that anything can survive there. But now that we’ve made it out (alive), I’m glad we did the night hike. The bugs and creatures that come out at night are really distinct from the animals and creepy-crawlies during the daytime.
Mary and I slept in bunks at a hostel-type spot, though we didn’t see many other tourists (maybe one other couple?) and definitely no one from the US. In fact, one of the guides said that I was the second African-American he’d seen in seven years of doing these tours. He told me that once he hosted a Black-American visiting from New York, and now there was me! Our tour guide, Joaquin, chimed in that this was “so exciting”! Hah. Somehow I feel like this blog post’s talk of poisonous snakes and spiders isn’t going to encourage more Black people to travel this deep into the Amazon…?
The next morning, Mary + I left with Joaquin + Hector, another tour guide, for a daytime hike. As knowledgeable as Joaquin is about the jungle, Hector seemed to know even more about the plants of the Amazon. We trekked through the forest learning which plants are poisonous and which have water inside, in case we’re ever lost in the forest. (GAH!) We learned where poisonous snakes like to hide, and how to set traps for hunting. We attempted to swing on vines (I was unsuccessful) and heard stories of companies attempting to cut down the Amazon’s trees to make wooden products for rich Americans. Ugh.
Eventually, we arrived at a reserva for lunch. Mary and I were drenched in sweat by the time we arrived, but Joaquin and Hector seemed unaffected from walking in this intense humidity in long sleeves, long pants, and thick boots. The family who lived at and owned the reserva had a pet monkey who really took to Mary, and a large pond in their backyard with small alligators, caimanes, and piracuru, one of the largest types of fish in the world (pics of piracuru here). The four of us had a great time together. Hector + Joaquin are about the same age as Mary and I, and at this point, Mary and my language skills were strong enough to joke around with them in Spanish.
After a siesta next to the reserva and watching the animals in the pond, we hiked back to Puerto Nariño and went for an afternoon swim. The water felt great, considering how hot and humid the day had been. We took some convincing that we wouldn’t be eaten by piranhas/anacondas if we jumped in, and eventually got in.
That night, Mary and I took a regional dance class in a super hot studio, ate dinner, and called it a night.
On our third day, it was time for Mary, Joaquin, and I to move on to a small community an hour northwest of Puerto Nariño (now about 3 hours by motor boat from the city of Leticia). The community, Santa Clara de Tarapoto, is home to about 45 people, or “now 48!”, as Joaquin told us. We boated up to our floating home, and headed out almost immediately to go fishing for piranhas.
“In the movies, piranhas eat people. Here, we eat piranha,” Joaquin explained to us. Wise words.
We saw piranha, but didn’t have any luck in catching them. So, we went back and ate lunch sans fish with a family from the community, and took a nap back in our bungalow. The family had a super naughty pet macaw (definitively naughtier than the baby monkey the day before), and I was not a fan.
Later that afternoon, we went for another swim. This time, a kid from the community, Daido, joined us. He was super cute and had no issue teasing Mary and I soon after meeting us foreigners. That morning, we had seen a baby dolphin, no bigger than a foot long, with its family; and in the afternoon, we saw tons more pink and gray dolphins as we swam. It was incredible. Even Daido must have thought so, because he created a song that roughly translates to “Dolphins in the river, jumping jumping without stopping. SPLASH SPLASH SPLASH!”
That evening, we went for a nighttime boat ride. We saw a bunch of monkeys along the way, and a killer bees’ nest – which may have scared me more than anything else that trip – high up in a tree.
Again, by nightfall, it was so soooo dark. The view of the stars was incredible, but the point of this boat ride was to see caimanes! Daido’s father sees the reflection of their eyes with a flashlight and catches them out of the water with his bare hands. NBD.
We got up really early on our last day, boated back to Puerto Nariño, and then took the larger boat back to Leticia. It was a choppy ride going back and Mary and I were both relieved to be back on land. We spent the afternoon lunching and hanging out in Leticia, and took a short trip to Brazil, because it’s an open border along the Amazon.
Overall, this was one of the coolest, most unique experiences I had during my entire time in Colombia. I’m really happy we forced ourselves to go, even though we didn’t feel like planning another trip. And I’m equally as happy that, before I went, I did not research all of the plants, animals, and bugs that could have killed me in Las Amazonas. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
Tour : Amazonas Jungle Tours; 4 Days / 3 Nights
Tour Operator : Sergio Rojas
Price per person : 1,200,000 Colombian pesos / $400USD (No translator; All inclusive- 3 meals/day, water, lodging, ponchos, boots)