Picture this ... You're hiking through the jungles of Colombia, following a machete-swinging local guide. It's very hot and very humid and you're constantly swatting at mosquitoes. You've stopped to visit a family in one indigenous village. As you talk, the wife is mashing boiled yucca, a local food staple resembling potato, from which she's going to make homemade beer. She and other family members are wearing clothes that are so faded and threadbare from countless wash and wear that they resemble something you'd throw out rather than use to wash the floor. The husband tells you of his experience dealing with malaria which he caught, he believes, when he lost his way while fishing and had to spend the night in the mosquito-filled jungle. Their house is nothing more than a raised floor with a bamboo roof overhead and one tiny room at the back. The rest of the structure is open and serves as kitchen, living area and bedroom. It is bare of all but one hammock, 2 homemade wooden chairs, and a few wooden planks that serve as shelves for a variety of eating and miscellaneous items. One teenaged boy watches from a distance. 4 younger children - no make that 5 as there's also a baby - swing in the hammock, all eyes watching with open curiosity. Their smiles, although difficult to coax, light up their beautiful young faces. 10 steps from the house in the middle of an open area sits a white porcelain toilet. It isn't attached to any plumbing, nor does it appear to be set up like any kind of latrine, nor does it provide its user with any kind of privacy whatsoever. Now it's your turn to stare with open curiosity! As you say farewell, you're invited to return in 4 days time to partake in a weekend fiesta ... the yucca beer will be ready to drink then.
I never expected to visit Colombia. EVER. Colombia has, after all, a nasty reputation for being a drug-smuggling, gun-toting, guerilla-active country. Why would a peace-loving, guerilla-fearing gal like me want to go there?
Well, as it turns out, there's one little corner of Colombia known as the "Triple Frontier" where the Amazon River joins the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia. This area is popular with backpackers because it's a good place to organize jungle visits and it's also a convenient gateway between the three countries as border controls are within blocks of each other. More importantly, it's a secure and easy-going area with no active guerilla activity. So there I was in Leticia, Colombia's sleepy little border town.
There's a huge military/police presence in Leticia. I mean HUGE. I guess I should have expected that, being its a border town and in Colombia after all, but nevertheless it did take a while to get used to seeing all the fatigues and weaponry. But it seemed to be in the hands of the good guys, and it was never pointed at me, so eventually I relaxed.
Because it's in a very remote area of Colombia, services and supplies in Leticia are quite limited. Everything has to be shipped in by riverboat as roads outside of town are non-existent. Power blackouts are a regular occurrence; I think I experienced at least 2 per night. But the locals have adapted ... the power goes out, a few minutes later backup generators kick in, shops receive temporary minimal lighting and conduct business as usual, and about 1/2 hour later the power is back on again. No problem, the beer doesn't even get warm! But the generators aren't used everywhere, and you usually experienced dinner by candlelight and more often than not you had to stumble around in pitch-black hotel rooms and along dark streets until the power came back on.
I had planned on visiting the Parque Nacional Amacayacu, a park around 1.5 hours by boat from Leticia which takes in 3000 square kilometers of Colombian jungle on the northern side of the Amazon. But nasty teenagers fouled that plan. South America's seasons being opposite to ours, November is the month before their summer vacation when school groups go on field trips. The jungle, river and animals in Parque Amacayacu make for a popular destination with school groups, and as a result the park lodgings were fully booked.
Next I decided to do a multi-day guided trek into a virgin rainforest area south of the Amazon. Fouled again, by water levels this time. Even though I seemed to be experiencing daily rainshowers that I'm sure were in mind when the phrase "it never rains, it pours" was coined, the river levels in the flooded forest area had dropped in the last few weeks making small boat expeditions into some of the remote areas impossible.
So my third and final plan was to visit Puerto Nariño, a place around 1.5 hours upriver from Leticia, not far from Amacayacu. Thankfully there were no further complications to mess up this plan!
I met a very nice couple from Finland (Aira & Olaf) while waiting for the boat to Puerto Nariño, and since our travel plans were the same we decided to spend the next week traveling together. We were also now in Colombia, a Spanish speaking country, and my Spanish skills at that time were about as good as my Portuguese, so I was glad for their language proficiency and translation services.
Around 1.5 hours and 3 police checkpoints along the river later we arrived in Puerto Nariño, a tiny village kind of in the middle of nowhere. It was blissfully quiet, with no cars or motorized vehicles other than boats, and very few people. As we wandered down the few streets of town, we noticed that lodging choices were slim and seemed to be either "very basic" or "extremely basic". We decided to be adventurous, save our money for some tours, and so we went with "extremely basic". Although I was thankfully left alone in my room, Aira and Olaf had some little nighttime visitors (rats) that ate their papaya fruit and stole a pair of their socks!
Being in the Amazonas region, the heat and humidity at Puerto Nariño was almost unbearable, and there wasn't a whiff of a breeze. This is one time when I was actually thankful that only cold-water showers were available. Swinging in a hammock provided at least a miniscule relief from the heat, but sleeping was near impossible since the rooms didn't have AC or even a fan. But what else would you expect in a remote place like this where generator electricity was only available to the whole village for a few hours each evening.
Through our budget hotel (which is up for sale by the way in case anyone is looking for a business opportunity) we organized a few day trips. One was to Lago Tarapoto, a beautiful lake accessible only by boat (as is everything in the area) frequented by pink river dolphins.
Arriving at the riverbank at the appropriate time for our lake tour, we searched and searched for our guide boat. Time passed but still no fancy powerboat appeared. Eventually, not far from where we waited, we noticed a half-flooded sorry excuse of a wooden boat being bailed out by some sorry looking locals. Yep, you got it, that was our tour boat! After bailing at least the majority of water from the boat, we waited further for the motor to be attached, and then for some petrol to be added. We hesitantly climbed on board when all was finally ready, fearful that the damn thing would sink somewhere in the middle of the lake, but we somehow survived, enjoyed the trip, and even hired the same guide and boat to take us on a combined hiking/boat tour the next day to visit nearby indigenous villages.
Restaurants in Puerto Nariño were about as plentiful and promising as the hotels. With only 2 to choose from we picked the one nearest our hotel, and were pleasantly surprised to get a fantastic meal of grilled piranha and beers, all for the price of about $1US per person. We enjoyed the food so much that we kept going back to the same place for subsequent tasty meals.
The next day we donned rubber boots, essential if not particularly attractive attire for hiking in areas with daily rainfall!, and set off on our cross-country hike. On foot we crossed tenuous bridges, partially flooded plains, and jungle areas thick with vegetation. This is the first area where we actually saw patches of rainforest being cleared - trees were being chopped down and land tilled in order to be used as farmland. You always hear about the big corporations coming in and destroying the rainforest, which I know happened in the past and is I'm sure still happening, but in my travels through the jungle to date all that I've seen is land being cleared by the locals, no evidence of big company destruction in sight.
By boat we headed further upriver into more remote areas. We visited three small villages that day, all in beautiful settings along the river. Although noticeably poor, the streets and houses were surprisingly tidy. The people we met were very friendly, quick with an offer of food or drink, and always happy to chat about their lives.
Leaving Puerto Nariño after a few days, we decided to stop at Parque Amacayacu to do a full day of hiking. We couldn't stay overnight at the lodge, but the park was open for day hikers. Upon arrival we donned rubber boots again and set off on a guided hike in their jungle. Initially we hiked in an area that was very developed, with groomed hiking trails, signage, etc. And lots of teenagers! After about an hour we reached a ranger station where we were to meet a boat and guide that would take us to a more remote virgin jungle area. While waiting for our boat we were wonderfully entertained by a group of monkeys, small and large, young and old, inquisitive and playful, happy to steal the fruit which our guide had brought along.
Our boat dropped us off in the middle of an area where no trail exists and where machetes were necessary to pass through the thick vegetation. How the guide knew where he was going I'll never know. We learned a lot about the vegetation in the area that day but unfortunately saw no animals ... except for mosquitos ... LOTS and LOTS of mosquitos!
Heading back to partial civilization, we arrived in Leticia just in time for their annual Triple Frontier Music Festival. Once again I found it strange to see gun-toting military men organizing seating arrangements for the festival. Isn't that usually done by volunteers?! Entertainment, which was mostly lively Latin musical groups, ranged from very good to very amateur, but I was also surprised and pleased to catch one more glimpse of a Brazilian group performing the capoeira.
Anyway, after relaxing in Leticia for a few more days, our brief visit in Colombia was over and it was time to split company with Olaf and Aira. From Leticia we were moving in opposite directions. They had booked passage on a riverboat heading downriver to Manaus in Brazil, and I had booked passage on a fast boat heading upriver to Iquitos in Peru.
Currency: Colombian Peso
Exchange rate: 1USD = 2750 Pesos