08 April 2015

Leticia: Colombia’s Gateway to the Amazon Rainforest

Posted in Blog

Last month I jumped at the chance to travel to the southernmost tip of Colombia and explore Colombian Amazonia. It was such a spur of the moment trip that there was little time to book any tour or hotels.

For an Amazon tour, I lacked a lot of the right gear – but most of the time that's the way I choose to travel and get to know a place. As long as you have the basics, you can almost always find everything you need once you get there. Pulling out a map, the first thing that struck me was Colombia's sheer size and how far I had to travel to get to Colombia's southern point. The area I was heading to on the world's mightiest river even resembled a fishtail on the map. On the two-hour internal flight from Bogota I was to fly further south than Quito in Ecuador and would arrive at the remote outpost only a stone's throw from Brazil and Peru. Completely inaccessible by road, my destination was Colombia's jungle town of Leticia nestled on the banks of the Amazon River.

The in-flight magazine happened to feature an article on my destination. I was interested to learn that Leticia, the capital of the department of Amazonas, is one of the major ports on the Amazon River and Colombia's gateway into the Amazon rainforest. The city has a population of 33,000 and borders the Brazilian town of Tabatinga and Peru's Santa Rosa, which lies across the water. Records suggest that Leticia was the name given to the settlement by an engineer named Manuel Charón back in 1867 when the area was part of Peru. Charón succumbed to the elixirs of love of Leticia Smith, a beautiful lady from Iquitos, and to perpetuate her memory, he named the small Amazon jungle port. A swathe of land north of the Putomayo River and the town of Leticia were claimed by Peru in 1932 and after a short-lived conflict the League of Nations awarded Colombia the disputed land in 1933. Leticia is known as one of the safest places to visit in the country due to a large military base in the border town.

After touching down at the tiny airport, I paid my COP$20,000 tourist tax and took a city map from the tourist information desk while I waited for my bag. It was still early enough in the day that the sun hadn't quite burnt through the clouds but I could instantly feel the jungle heat and the soupy humidity in the air.

Colombia Amazon Tour

Looking out over the Amazon River from the port of Leticia

The first thing on my mind after walking the 30 minutes into town was to find some lunch. A few local people pointed me in the direction of Tierras Amazonicas restaurant in the centre of town. A mix of tribal masks, Amazon landscape paintings and antiqued maps met me inside - and the food on the menu was equally diverse. There were plates on offer from Colombia, Brazil and Peru and I can highly recommend the local fish soup with a side order of patacones. The Brazilian recipe of fish moqueca was very good but the dish I will remember most was unquestionably the Peruvian speciality of mixed ceviche. They also offered some delicious juices made from fresh Amazon fruits such as the delicious camu-camu and copoazú. Tierras Amazonicas was also a great place to hang out for a few beers and to meet other travellers.

There weren't many taxi cars around town as the most popular mode of transport was the motorbike – they were everywhere. I enquired at a shop and found that the cost to hire a motorbike for 24 hours was only COP$50,000 with no deposit required – some good information for later during my trip. For now, I hailed a tuk-tuk that could fit my bags and headed the eleven kilometres out of town to a hostel that had been recommended by some travellers.

Omshanty is a jungle retreat that welcomes you with beautiful gardens filled with exotic plants and lush trees. Raised wooden walkways lead to rustic cabañas that can be rented as private rooms or as dormitories. Kike, the owner who originally hails from Madrid is a great source of information for any tour into the Colombian Amazon rainforest. There are some short nature trails around the grounds of Omshanty and I managed to spot some vividly coloured poison arrow dart frogs and a couple of huge plate-sized tarantulas close to the path! The jungle flora and fauna is definitely not for the faint hearted as trails are muddy, there are lots of flying insects and you are entering mosquito territory. The combination of constantly damp clothing, frequently reapplied bug repellent and intense jungle downpours is to be expected but certainly isn't for everyone – however if you are looking to find out, then Omshanty is a very good introduction to any jungle experience.

Colombia Amazon Tour

 Natural Swimming Pool nearby Omshanty

In the late afternoon I pre-ordered dinner from a Ticuna family that lived across the road from Omshanty. They suggested I go for a walk to a swimming spot located 4 kilometres away along a paved side road while they cooked dinner. The walk itself was interesting as I passed by farmland and indigenous Ticuna people going about their daily routines at home. At the end of the road was a flooded forest where darkly stained, tea-coloured water gently flowed amongst tree trunks. It was a serene setting and the perfect opportunity for a swim to cool off. On the way back to the main road I got caught in an intense jungle rainstorm and needed a change of clothes before I went for dinner. To my surprise there was an armadillo on the BBQ that had been caught and killed by a Ticuna huntsman. As there wasn't much else on the menu I was given rice, yucca, salad and a portion of armadillo for dinner, all washed down with a few cold beers. The armadillo tasted a lot like turkey! That night, safely tucked in under my mosquito net, I slept soundly through the night-time noises of the rainforest.

The next day, I packed up my belongings and took the local bus into Leticia. I went straight down to the Malecon where boats come and go for different destinations up and down the Amazon. The place was bustling, a hectic little marketplace full of hawkers, money exchangers, tuk-tuk taxis and an array of wooden motorboats and dug out canoes. I found everyone I met to be extremely friendly and a lot more relaxed than in the big cities. I had prepared myself a shopping list of extra items I would need for a short expedition up the Amazon. I managed to acquire rubber boots, flashlight, hammock, mosquito net and a sturdy poncho in one swoop, all at a fraction of the cost if I had bought them in Bogota.

After a breakfast of fresh papaya, huevos rancheros, strong coffee and a copoazú juice near the beautiful Parque Santander, I made my way down to the port. I was ready to catch a boat 3 hours upriver where I was to meet my guide for a 4-day jungle adventure in search of wildlife, deeper into the Amazon rainforest.

Mark Boultwood

About the author:

Mark Boultwood is an Englishman currently living in Bogota, Colombia. Mark first ventured to South America in the late 1990s, years later found himself volunteering at an animal refuge for a year, caring for a Jaguar in the depths of the Bolivian jungle. His passion for travel and new experiences landed him a decade-long role specialised in leading small group tours from Mexico right down to the tip of Argentina and almost every country in between. His interests include wildlife photography, hiking and collecting treasures from the places he travels. He is a freelance correspondent for Uncover Colombia. Follow him on Twitter @markboultwood

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