One of the things that’s been on my bucket list ever since I learned about it as a kid was the Amazon rainforest. I remember studying it in school and thinking of how incredible the place must be – guarding 10% of the world’s (known) animal species in its 6.9 million square kilometers of area.
I remember always associating it with Brazil, so it wasn’t until we started traveling through South America that I learned just how vast the rain forest and river are – with the rain forest being shared by the countries of Brazil, Peru, Colombia with 10%, and with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
While in Colombia we learned that visiting the Amazon from different countries predictably has different financial requirements. Brazil, as it’s the most popular, is also the most touristy and most expensive. Since we were already in Colombia, and we were planning on heading south, when I learned that we could access the Amazon rain forest through the gateway town of Leticia, we immediately made our way there.
I’ll be up front. I had naive, ignorant expectations of the Amazon. I imagined something like “The Jungle Book” crossed with “Avatar” and with a soundtrack made of those recordings of rainforest sounds that you can listen to at night to help you sleep. I imagined us deep within a lush forest with a canopy so high and so vast that it would be dark inside. I imagined exotic birds chirping and hoped I’d catch a glimpse of a puma or even an anaconda. I blame hollywood – but when it was all said and done I learned that the Amazon rainforest is a lot less “Tomb Raider” and a lot more “Arachnophobia”.
Arriving in Leticia and Figuring Out How to Get to the Amazon Rainforest
We arrived in Leticia in the middle of the afternoon and immediately felt the surge of heat as we got off the plain. “Welcome to the Amazon!” we said to each other as we walked out of the terminal and took the cab to our hotel. That’s when we discovered that it’s a pretty common practice to not include things like a toilet seat in hotel rooms. As in – there’s the toilet – but it has no seat. And in some cases no door. And forget about hot water, not that it matters much since the outside temperature is upwards of 36 degrees (C) and 100% humidity.
Nevertheless, we were in the Amazon! Sort of. We immediately went to work wandering the town trying to find out how exactly to get to this idealized rain forest adventure I had conjured up. There are tons of little travel agencies scattered through the tiny town of Leticia – which shares a border with Brazil and you have only to cross the street to suddenly be in Brazil (no, there’s no official border control). Each one had packaged Amazon adventures they’d sell you: first we’ll take a boat here. Then we’ll feed some monkeys there. Then we’ll see the pink dolphins. Then we’ll go check out this town over here. And whambamthankyoumam you’ll be back by dinner.
Thanks, but no thanks.
We grabbed our computers, found a wifi spot and started to look online. I found “Amazonas Jungle Tours” and read tons of glowing reviews on trip advisor, so I took a chance and sent Sergio a whatsapp message at around 6pm. He responded immediately, which I wasn’t expecting, saying that he was just coming back in to town with some clients he was bringing back from being out in the jungle but that he could swing by the bar we were at to chat. He came by, brought the three guys who were just getting back, and the next thing we knew we were all walking to this burger joint he knew to have one of the most epic Jack Daniels burgers ever. By the end of the night we parted ways with the agreement that by tomorrow at 8am we’d meet up again and he’d take us to the Amazon for three nights.
The Amazon Jungle Experience – Day 1
And maybe it’s because his name is Sergio but he showed up 10 minutes early when I had expected him to be running on south american time. He took us to buy insect repellent (“the good kind”, he said). Then he took us to his home, fitted us with ponchos (“the good kind” – apparently the ones we had for the Inca Trail weren’t that) and rubber boots.
Then he took us to the dock, introduced us to a guy named Reilly, and said goodbye.
So we just sat on the dock for an hour, wondering what was next. We saw boats come and go, and finally Reilly told us to get in that one. So we did.
And I was giddy thinking “We’re on the Amazon river! The largest river (by volume) in the world! We’re finally here!”
But we weren’t on the Amazon. We were on one of it’s tributaries. That was far less exciting, so I promptly passed out and didn’t wake up until we arrived at our destination, the town of Puerto Nariño, a couple hours upstream.
Once we arrived in Puerto Nariño and got settled in our accommodation, we were introduced to Reilly’s brother, Johnny, who would also be our guide, and taken for lunch followed by a walk through the town. Puerto Nariño is unique because it has no cars. It’s a pedestrian-only village of about 6,000 people, most of the population being made up of the 3 different indigenous communities of the area, though mostly from the Ticuna tribe. We wandered through the town learning more about these three tribes, about how they live and their folklore, as well as about the Amazon.
That evening we went to the dock that we had arrived at and watched the sunset.
We went back to our little cabin and waited to meet up later in the night at around 9pm (remember the sun sets at about 5:30 here) for a nighttime jungle walk. Wait, what!?
We put on our boots, covered ourselves in insect repellent, flashlights, long sleeves and long pants and marched into the jungle, making sploshy sounds as we went with our feet getting stuck in mud. We had one of the guys, Reilly, leading the way with a machete in hand chopping through the brush. Johnny was taking up the tail. I had my hands plastered to my torso – there was no way I was going to touch anything. We had been warned about that – don’t put your hand on a branch to help yourself over a step since that branch might actually be a snake. Or worse. Wait, what!?
And so for an hour we blindly wandered through the forest at night, only seeing what our flashlights pointed at, thankfully, and missing all the other terrifying things. We so mostly insects – creepy, disgusting insects, and more spiders than I’ve ever seen in my life – including tarantulas (which, I had made clear, I did not want to see. Show them to Jordan, thankyouverymuch but if you tell me there’s a tarantula beside me I can’t be held responsible for bolting into the darkness to get away from it). The sounds we heard were just like the recordings you listen to of the rainforest to sleep at night – but with more crickets chirping and the sound of mosquitoes zipping past your ear on their way to their next meal spot (you). We saw some frogs, and some poisonous frogs.
I had wanted to see an anaconda, but it wasn’t in the cards. I think this was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done – walking in the pitch black through a jungle with two kids with machetes and a little dinky flashlight to ward off whatever it is you want to ward off in the rainforest. But we survived – though I came out of it covered in welts left by the mosquitoes that had clearly ignored the fact that I was completely doused in repellent and went to town on me anyway.
After waking up and having breakfast we were taken back to the dock we arrived from, early enough to catch the fishermen returning from their early morning outings and selling their catch.
At the dock we boarded a tiny private boat – just the 4 of us (us and the 2 guides). This was Amazon day.
It’s important to note that during the rainy season (and we were in it) the river rises and the rainforest floods. There’s a high part and a low part – the high part you can explore on foot – which we did some of during our night walk. But the low part is flooded, which means you have to navigate through the water to explore.
So there we were, on a tiny boat with two guys paddling and the one in the front regularly pausing to chop his way through the vines with his machete.
I think it’s taken me so long to write this post because I feel like I can’t adequately capture the experience of drifting through a rain forest on a tiny boat listening to all the sounds you’d expect to here, drenched in the uncomfortable heat and humidity, taking it all in. It was everything I had hoped for. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a curtain had been opened for us when we slipped from the main river and tucked into some vegetation and we were now watching a private show being performed just for us 4.
We weaved through the dense trees, sneaking past trunks so close together that our boat would get stuck and we’d have to all grab hold of the trees to push ourselves along. All the while we’d be looking at the wildlife, the vegetation, the amazing trees with their branches sprouting roots and vines all reaching down towards the water. I felt like we could have grabbed any passing vine and climbed up, and up, and up.
It didn’t take long from the moment we slipped into the canopy for us to spot what the guys called a “Slow Monkey”, but which in fact was a sloth. It was mesmerizing and yet hilarious watching this creature move from branch to branch – it moves so slow it looks like it was practicing Tai Chi.
I honestly can’t imagine how it would escape a predator since I’ve never seen anything move so slow. Not even tortoises.
But we were entranced – just watching it make move after calculated move, dancing from branch to branch.
We were in there for hours – we saw more monkeys than I can count, all racing each other through the high branches and jumping from tree to tree. It was an absolute joy to see them run – so much so that I didn’t bother taking photos (they would have come out too blurry anyway) and just enjoyed the show.
We even came upon several iguanas – but unlike the ones in the Galapagos, these were tree iguanas!
And every now and then we’d hear a loud splash and know that an iguana had just divebombed into the river.
We spent the rest of the day in there, exploring. We came out of the jungle canopy to look for the famous pink dolphins of the Amazon, and felt surges of excitement every time we got a glimpse of them. There are two types of dolphin that live in the Amazon river: the pink dolphin and the gray dolphin. The pink is not known for jumping or sticking its head above water like the gray is – so you have to content yourself with seeing the odd glimpse of a fin here and there. Even so, we were entranced, gazing into the river intently trying to predict where one would flash a flipper.
Eventually it was time to call it a day, mainly because it seemed like a storm was going to break, but before we turned in Jordan wanted the chance to swim in the Amazon river:
Then we headed to the small indigenous community where we would be sleeping that night. It was just a collection of 12 houses on stilts, where 40 people lived with no electricity, no running water; not a whole lot really.
But we had hammocks and a little cabin with a patio so we tried to cool down by relaxing and reading while we waited for dinner.
Dinner was served in one of the family’s houses – we ate with them a typical meal of chicken, potatoes and plantains. After dinner we went back to our cabin to wait until nightfall when we would be getting back in our little boat to go searching for caimans (think of an alligator)- but this time with one more passenger: the father of the family with whom we had dinner, who’s nickname was “Rambo” because he was known for reaching over the edge of the boat and grabbing the caimans with his bare hands.
We sailed in the night for what seemed like a long time – but we didn’t mind. The breeze was so welcome, it was so hot, even at night, that the movement from our little motorboat was keeping us cool and content. We had lost any hope of seeing any of the caimans – but then out of nowhere Rambo reached over the front of the boat and snatched something clear out of the water.
It was a baby – only a couple months old, a white caiman. I felt bad for the poor thing – being ripped out of its home and handled by people. After holding it I got instant remorse and didn’t want to hold any others for the rest of the night. It’s just as well, Rambo only caught one other one – and it was also a baby – this time maybe three months old, and a different species – the black caiman:
We were exhausted by the time we headed back to our cabin, and even so, I found it hard to sleep. Mosquitoes biting me, uncomfortable heat, and was awoken in the middle of the night by a torrential thunderstorm that was pounding down on our little thatched roof.
The next morning we had breakfast again with Rambo’s family – but this time we were surprised to see a parrot fly right into the window and perch itself beside us while we ate.
The family (including the 3 children) seemed totally unphased by its presence, and I soon learned her name was Manuela and she had been coming by to visit for longer than they could remember. I was shocked at how bold she was – she threw herself straight into my breakfast – eating the poached egg and the potatoes, only pausing to say her own name in a shrill, old-lady like voice. “…. Manuela!…..Manuela!….ManuelaManuela!”
It took me a while to realize it was her saying it – I thought it was one of the kids. But I said “hola” and she said “hola” and that’s how I met Manuela, the parrot that stole my breakfast.
We headed out to go fishing, though it wasn’t piranha season so we were really just hoping to catch anything. I had never fished before but they handed me a little metal hook with a piece of chicken skin on it, tied to a rock, tied to a line, and told me to throw it in the water and see what happened. We fished for a couple hours – and I’m convinced I had, and lost, a gigantic creature that would have fed the whole community for dinner. Twice I felt the tug of the fish biting the line, and twice I started to pull and felt strong, heavy resistance – almost too hard for me to pull with that thin little line. And twice I lost it and pulled up nothing but my empty hook. Jordan’s convinced that both times I got the hook stuck on a log at the bottom of the river and subsequently dislodged it from said log – but I know better. I felt the biting on the line. I felt it pull against me. I know it was probably a gigantic, fat, juicy, fish. And yet we came back without a single catch.
It was time to head back down the river to Puerto Nariño, where we would do another jungle walk (though thankfully this one was in the daytime. We stopped along the way at a caiman conservation project, and hiked through more of the rainforest. I didn’t like it as much. It was so similar to the forests I’ve been in that aside from having watched as Johnny hacked down a palm tree to make us each a walking stick, there wasn’t much difference. With the flooded part of the rain forest you really felt you were in a rainforest. This part just didn’t have that same feeling.
But we passed through more foliage and saw the trees we had seen in the flooded area – but this time on land with their bases visible. I’m convinced this is the tree that they used as inspiration for Avatar. In the Amazon it’s called the “Tree of Love” or sometimes the “Tree of Life”.
Once in Puerto Nariño again we were handed over to some other guides, since Johnny and Reilly had new guests to take out, and we just wandered around the town and relaxed. We spent the night there and the next morning we headed back to Leticia – except that we didn’t make it back to Leticia day.
Why not? Read the next instalment about the time we got stranded in a police outpost in the middle of the Amazon rain forest and had to spend the night there.