The Amazon - Colombia
Planning The Amazon
As an independent traveller I’ve tended to avoid organised package tours, as they are usually very expensive and you’re restricted in terms of what you can do. Finding information on how you can travel the Amazon on a budget was really hard. We didn’t have $100 a night for a room in an eco lodge, or $600 for a cruise that sounded awful.
After researching I found a great way to travel the Amazon on a budget of approx. £50 a day p/p – including tours, food, drink and accommodation!
Leticia and Puerto Narino
We flew into Leticia, which is located on the Amazon River at the point where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. Puerto Narino is 2 hours boat ride from Leticia on the edge of Amacayacu Natural National Park, a forest rich in wildlife and home to the indigenous Ticuna settlement. Nearby Lake Tarapoto is known for its pink dolphins. This is where we chose to base ourselves.
As our flight landed after the last boat for Puerto Narino had left we stopped in Leticia for one night. With plenty of restaurants, shops, ATMs and pharmacies, Leticia was a good base for us to prepare for the 4 days ahead. The town is very busy and quite polluted so I would not recommend staying there for long or making it a main base for exploring the Amazon.
When to travel
We travelled in February 2015. The water levels were quite high and some places were closed off due to flooding. This is common up until May/June. You are less likely to see as many animals when the water levels are high but we saw lots and the weather was actually great when we arrived. Clear, sunny mornings and afternoons, drizzle and rain in the evenings.
An ideal time to travel is apparently from July to December as the water levels are lower, however July and August are in high tourist season so things may be more expensive or certain areas may be over-crowded. Our guide told us that November was the best time to visit as water levels are average and it is drier so you can hike more comfortably.
We booked accommodation in advance – not entirely necessary for Leticia as there are many accommodation options, and the hostel owner didn’t have a record of our booking anyway but if you’re travelling further out it’s a good idea to have something booked. There is little internet access outside of Leticia and it took a few days for the Puerto Narino accommodation to confirm.
Day 1: Arrive in Leticia
We stayed in Mahatu Guesthouse in Leticia. The location is good as it’s a little outside of town and there is a small lake with some wildlife. It’s all quite pretty. The accommodation was very basic and a bit run down but good enough for just 1 night’s stay.
Things to See and Do
Parque Santander - Bird Watching at sunset (5:15 - 5:45 pm). Thousands of small parakeets fly to Parque Santander to spend the night in the park’s trees. The church next to the park will let you see this spectacle from the church’s bell tower. A small donation is required (COP 5,000). The tower also offers a nice view over the city and the Amazon river. The sight and sounds of the birds arriving is amazing.
Tabatinga - visit Brazil! About 1.5km to walk or take a tuk-tuk. Not much to see or do – it’s just fun to cross the border. We actually did this on our last day before going to the airport.
When I researched online I found a post on Trip Advisor that was quite useful: The Rundown on Leticia Amazon – Leticia Message Board. It gave me a complete overview of the area and a summary of the trips you can take independently.
Firstly, you need a good and reliable taxi driver. If the driver who takes you from the airport is nice and charges a good price, take his number in case you need a taxi again.
In Leticia we shared a room with Juan, ex-military turned jungle guide/estate agent (his other job in Bogota). Juan acquired his survival skills back when he trained with the army and was stationed in the jungle. Following his stint in the army he lived in the jungle for 2 years. He now returns to The Amazon whenever he has free time from work and goes deep into the jungle (with or without a tour group) – the jungle is his life.
This is a link to Juan’s company, Coltrek. To forewarn, not many people can stick a night in the jungle. I really wanted to do a day hike and after half an hour had to turn back. The jungle can be quite unforgiving.
Advice from Juan -
Go as deep into the jungle as you can for any chance of seeing wildlife. Most animals are nocturnal and will only come out at night. Organise a night-time hike if you can.
Shine your torch into the trees and around the ground at night. You will see the eyes of all the animals around you. Spiders usually have blue/green eyes reflecting back, certain frogs have red eyes, and cats – jaguar, puma also have red eyes.
If you’re sleeping in the jungle itself, in a hammock, you must have a net to protect you from the mosquitoes and vampire bats. When vampires bite, their saliva has an anaesthetising effect so you may not know you are bitten until you wake up with 2 holes. Vampire bats may carry rabies.
Below is a list of ingredients the army use as a repellent for mosquitoes. Buy these ingredients from any drug store in town and use as a repellent:
1 x bottle of alcohol (70%) from the pharmacy (approx. 300ml)
1 x bar of Nopiquex soap (small black bar)
1 x bar of Alcanfor (small white bar)
Tobacco (only if you are going on a proper jungle trek)
Empty roughly a quarter of the bottle of alcohol out (so there is enough space to fit the other ingredients). Roughly chop up the bars of Nopiquex and Alcanfor and put into the alcohol bottle. Shake vigorously and leave. It will all dissolve overnight.
Ok - we did this and it worked, although I did use 50% DEET as a back-up. When you get deep into the jungle the mosquitoes are everywhere and they are relentless. It’s hard work.
Before you leave Leticia
Buy any outgoing boat tickets a day in advance. You can reserve your place on the boat in an office located by the pier.
Take out cash and buy supplies.
Day 2: Journey to Puerto Narino and Swimming in Lago Tarapota
The village of Puerto Narino is eco at its best. Motorised vehicles are banned and the whole town recycles. I’ve never seen anything like it on the continent. The town has a selection of little restaurants, shops and bars and the accommodation was just lovely – by far the best in this village was Maloka Napu.
Boats to Puerto Narino (from 2015)
It takes about 2 hours to travel upriver to Puerto Nariño, and just over 1 hour to return. It costs 29,000 pesos each way. The boats depart Leticia for Puerto Nariño daily at 08.00, 10.00 and 14.00, and return to Leticia at 07.30, 11.00 and 15.00.
The owner of Maloka Napu, Ismael, lives with is wife and 3 young children. He was our guide for all of our trips. It was just us and him in a little boat. No big tour groups, no people, no noise. It was perfect! If you check on his website, you’ll get an idea of the type of trips he can organise.
Lago Tarapoto and Around
After putting down our bags and grabbing some breakfast in town we met with Ismael at 2:00 pm for a trip to Lago Tarapoto and the surrounding area in a ‘peque-peque’ (small motorised boat).
2:00 pm – 6:00 pm
COP 30,000 p/p (about £8 p/p)
The lake is famous for its pink dolphin, however due to tourism the chances of seeing dolphin in this lake are very slim. We were lucky enough to see two. Ismael did take us to other areas where the dolphin had moved to but because of the high-water levels we didn’t see any more. But the boat ride through the jungle canopy was mesmerising...
Swimming in the lake was an unforgettable experience. Not only did we see pink dolphin but also grey dolphin, sloth carrying their young, eagles and toucan.
Day 3: River Amacayacu, hike Parque Nacional Amacayacu and visit to the indigenous village of San Martin
The next day we headed deep into the jungle along the river Amacayacu.
COP 170,000 (aprox. £35 – £17 p/p)
We visited the indigenous village of San Martin and went for an hour-long trek into the jungle of the national park, Amacayacu, home to about 7 different species of cat (including Jaguar, Puma), deer, rats, vampire bats and another million species of animals.
Day 4: Day of Rest and Night-Time Hike
7:00 pm – 10:00 pm
COP 30,000 p/p (about £8 p/p)
We ended our Amazon Adventure in style on a night-time trek where we spotted scorpions, tarantula, a baby boa-constrictor and a ridiculous amount of hideous looking bugs. It was fascinating and looking up at the sky we saw the Milky Way. Absolutely stunning!
Day 5: Boat, Tuk-Tuk, Brazil, Take-off
On our last day we took the earliest boat back to Leticia and hired a tuk-tuk to take us down the road to Brazil before catching our flight back to Bogota.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Amazonians do breakfast and a huge lunch so it’s hard to find dinner. In Puerto Narino breakfast was served from about 7:00 am – 9:00 am and lunch from 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm. Hard if you’re out on a trip during the day. However, we managed to get some pretty decent street food and a few places were open by the pier, selling hotdogs and burgers.
Las Margaritas is a good restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch.
For ice-cream – GO HERE! A great ice-cream store located near the town’s watch tower.
The coconut ice-cream is INCREDIBLE. The local favourite – Copoazu was always sold out. Try it if you can! Then climb up the watch tower (Mirador) and catch the beautiful sunset over the Amazon.