Puttering down the river in an open boat searching for pink dolphins, battling mosquitos on a 5 hour trek from Peru to Brazil through dense muggy jungle. Encountering sloths, tarantulas, caimans, giant blue morpho butterflies, centipedes, scorpions, monkeys and watching pirañas fill the boat for dinner. Four wild days adventuring in the Amazon were all we hoped… And more.
When we booked our flights to the Amazon we wanted to get up close and go deep into the heart of the jungle. We’d been in South America over 9 months now, and while we had touched onto the outskirts of this complex ecosystem, we’d been waiting for the right place to venture into its heart. Leticia, Colombia felt like the right place to do it. Settled in between the borders of Colombia, Peru and Brazil it offers a unique opportunity to understand the cultures and the day to day life of the people of the Amazon in 3 different countries, but also to witness wildlife in the different ecosystems coexisting within the Amazon itself.
With the arrival of Sam and Shayna our group of 2 was now a merry family of 4 and even with the extra brain power we had still landed in the middle of the Amazon without a clue of how we were going to organise everything. When we were approached at the airport by “George of the Jungle” and his mate Miguel we were obviously skeptical, but I’ve come to the stage where I’ll happily listen to anyone if we don’t already have a plan, we can always say no after all! They started to tell us about their tour, then offered to pay for our taxi to town so we could continue the conversation in their office. We had travelled from a comfortable 20 degrees to a muggy 30+ degrees so after clarifying that we may not be interested in the tour, we graciously accepted the offer of the taxi.
We listened to their spiel and decided their price was too high so went to explore Leticia and chat with a couple of other operators. Some didn’t have English guides, one was too expensive and one seemed ok, much cheaper than George but not as in depth. So we went back to George and Miguel and offered the lower price, because we were 4 and it was 6pm the evening before the tour left, our drastically reduced offer was accepted. 400,000 pesos ($200aud) each for 3 nights and 4 days. Food, accommodation, water and English speaking guide to lead us through the dangers of the deep dark jungle.
The 1st morning we headed off on the boat with Miguel to stop in at the Peruvian Island of Santa Rosa where we bought supplies of biscuits and a couple of bottles of the Brazilian sugarcane spirit cachaça. 3000 pesos per bottle ($1.50aus) not included in the price of the tour. After stocking up we made our way to our 1st stop on the tour, a little village which was also on the Peruvian side, and on our way we got our 1st glimpse of the unfortunate looking pink amazon dolphins. There were 2 swimming together and their brilliant hot pink skin was even brighter than I’d expected. This was one animal I was super excited to see and the experience definitely didn’t disappoint! Miguel even let us jump in the river to splash around and try to attract them closer. It didn’t really work because we still had to maintain our distance, but Shayna and I were happy to be cooling down in the lukewarm chocolate coloured waters of the Amazon River.
Once we arrived at the village we set up our hammocks and watched the local kids play football while the lady of the house prepared our lunch. I say house but really it was more like an open wooden shed on stilts, set up with a kitchen and a bedroom for the family to share. I was stoked our hammocks had mosquito nets because the place was very “at one with nature” which was perfect for the experience we were looking for. Lunch was fresh river fish, rice and salad, all locally sourced and tasty. After lunch we sat around and let our food digest and the sun go down a bit before heading into the jungle on a peresozo hunt (also known as a sloth). Miguel told us about the different trees and how the landscape changes during the rainy season. I tried to focus on this but the mosquitos were insane!
Then we saw him, Mr Sloth slowly climbing up a branch making the leaves all soggy with his sloth spit. At that moment, all my mosquito worries melted away in his little smile. When asked if we wanted to hold him none of us felt comfortable taking him off his branch, so Miguel took his machete and chopped the whole branch off so se could get a closer look. He really didn’t look one bit bothered so we took the opportunity to take a few pictures with the little dude.
When we got back there was just enough light left to head over to the main hub of the little Peruvian village where there was a school, a kindergarten, a shop and a football field where all of the women in the town were enjoying a friendly (but serious) game of football. We bought a nice cold beer and enjoyed being a part of small town amazonian life.
After footy and a great dinner we went off for a night hike to appreciate the predators of the Amazon. The night was still pretty hot and sweaty but when the number of bright little spider eyes reflecting back at our torch-light became apparent, there were bigger things at the front of my mind. Within 5 minutes our guide had found a giant tarantula and was offering me a hold. I have always wanted to hold one of these hairy beasts so I was all over it like a rash! As a kiwi kid growing up in NZ (where everything is harmless) we just don’t have the same fear of spiders drilled into us as the kids in Aussie do. But Steve, Sam and Shayna all held the monster spider as well! On that walk we saw dozens of different hunting spiders, some of which were so creepy looking you couldn’t get me to touch one in a million years! We also saw a mummy scorpion, with hundreds of tiny babies on her back and appreciated the poisonous trees of the low wetlands.
That night when we got back, we sat under the light of a bright, round moon, squeezed limes and enjoyed cachaça capirinhas while Miguel told us fables from the grandparents of the Amazon. We heard about lost spirits and the mother of the moon who was looking to steal peoples’ eyes. As a Peruvian who’d grown up in the jungle and had been a tour guide for 20 years, the knowledge he passed on to us really felt like it had been handed down from generation to generation.
The next morning we woke up in our hammocks to the sounds of the jungle waking up. We were to have breakfast then embark on our 5 hour hike from the Peruvian village to a hut in the Brazilian territory of the Amazon. This is where we would be based for the next couple of days. We filled up our water bottles and headed off. If you are thinking of taking this tour make sure you bring a 2 litre bottle as you have to carry your own water for the trek, and some of us were caught short not having bottles big enough! I would also suggest insisting on leaving early. Walking through the jungle in the midday heat is pretty hard! But we made it. And we saw lots of interesting plants and bugs along the way. I also dropped my favourite Bolivian hat along the way without realising but Miguel was kind enough to run back with me about 800 metres where we found it lying in the path. I tell ya, I thought we were following a pretty clear track until I tried to go back by myself, lucky we had a good guide.
After almost 6 hours hiking we were hot, sweaty and mosquito infested, so the river and the boat were a welcome sight! Me and Shayna jumped straight into the river. The water was hot and very brown but still felt good on my itchy skin and aching muscles. The boat that came to meet us was not who Miguel expected, and when we got to the cabin he found out that Jose (George’s captain) had engine trouble and wouldn’t be able to join us until tomorrow morning. These things happen in the Amazon so we would have to make do with the supplies that were there, spaghetti for lunch still satisfied our starving bellies!
As the sun got lower we all piled back into the boat, we were off to enjoy the sunset over the Amazon from one of the lush white sand beaches that can be found here during the dry season. These beaches are where the three different breeds of Amazonian turtles lay their eggs once a year. On the way to the beach we saw beautiful grey dolphins leaping out of the glassy water under the low orange sun. This place was unreal and the sunset will go on the list of the most memorable I’ve witnessed.
After we’d gone back to the cabin for dinner we jumped back into the boat and under a sky of a million stars we headed out to look for caimans hiding on the banks of the river. The guys used a big torch to see the reflection in their eyes then sped up to the banks ready to capture them and pull them into the boat. They are small alligator like creatures that can grow up to 2 metres, but we only managed to catch one baby. I wasn’t crazy about this activity because the caimans probably didn’t like being held in the boat. But being out on the river under the cool nights sky with the full moon rising in the distance was epic. That night we had lovely cold showers and real bunks to enhance our sweet jungle dreams.
The next day was all about piraña fishing! We had enough exertion the day before, so were all happy to have a relaxing day in the boat. After breakfast we got ourselves organised and headed out to find a shady fishing spot. We used raw chicken as bait to start with but as the fish started coming in we were able to use raw fish instead. The great thing about fishing for piraña is they will eat any meat, any fish, dead or alive. They will not however eat a whole human and contrary to popular films, they are not a threat at all if there is no blood in the water.
To catch our lunch we used simple wooden sticks with a short length of fishing line tied to the end. The technique was to splash on the surface of the water with the rod to attract the piraña, let the bait fall, then as soon as you feel a nibble, yank the rod to snare the fish. We all did quite well and even after throwing back the smaller ones ended up with almost 20. Piraña and fish in general is a staple food in the Amazon and you’ll find it on the menu of most restaurants. By the time we got back Jose had arrived with the rest of the supplies so that days lunch was abundant and we ate like The Kings of the Amazon.
After a super chilled afternoon enjoying cold beer from a nearby cabin / shop we grabbed our hammocks and went out on the boat to find a place to set up our camp in the jungle. We only went 15 minutes from the hut by boat and could still see the river from our site but that was good enough for me! Setting up the hammocks was sweaty work so the mosquitos started swarming as soon as my shirt was sticking to my back. But space cleared and hammocks hung it was time to get our lines back in to catch a new batch of piraña to cook over the camp fire.
Cooking piraña on the fire was a really nice touch but to be honest, I preferred the pre-cooked lentils we’d bought from the house as I was starting to feel a bit sorry for the little guys. Being surrounded by dense jungle and sleeping next to the light of the fire was a really unique and magical experience. I was hating on the mosquitos but my hammock was serene and protective, so underneath it I felt at peace and at one with the airy sounds of night birds and monkeys chattering away to each other under the light of the full moon.
The sun rose over the river on our last day of the tour and we knew we had a long boat journey back. It was a peacefully tranquil day of dolphin spotting and a couple of cold beers.
This tour was one of the highlights of my whole time in South America and I would highly recommend Miguel as a competent local guide. You probably don’t need to worry about finding George (Jorge) because he will find you. I did read somewhere his number is 320 858 1297 but they don’t have a website so just ask about when you get to Leticia.