Leticia: Colombia or Amazon?

After five and a half days cruising along the Amazon River, our journey to the edge of Brazil was complete but it was a somewhat unsettling transition into Colombia.  My Colombian friend, Fernando, assured me that this was not the real Colombia but simply another Amazonian town with the subtle changes in currency, flag, language and food.  Indeed the presence of jungle lingered with the daily spectacle of screeching parrots (or perricos) and nearby Via Tarapacá, a road lined with botanical gardens, swimming holes and canopy adventures.

The green and yellow markings of Brazil

The green and yellow markings of Brazil

Compared to the locals, our arrival in the Brazilian border town of Tabatinga was anticlimactic with no family to greet us and no car to whisk us away.  Instead the four of us had to traipse through dark, empty streets until we found a taxi.  Crossing the border was uneventful too – only the subtle change of paint along the bases of roadside trees and lampposts signalled the change of country (from Brazilian green and yellow to Columbian blue and yellow).  We had to return on a later day for the formality of a Brazilian exit stamp, while the awkward official process of entering Columbia was completed by an irritable immigration officer at Leticia’s police station.

Top Tip: They have only recently started giving Colombian entry stamps at the police station.  It’s easier to get this at Leticia’s airport before your onward flight, but it is important to get the entry stamp within 24 hours of officially exiting Brazil (or Peru).

Adjusting to Colombian currency was also disconcerting, paying unfavourable rates with Brazilian Reais at bars and struggling to withdraw Colombian Pesos from banks.  We tried to satisfy our internet needs after a week of withdrawal but faced the all too common battle against patchy hostel wifi.  We did manage to make our separate onward plans but when René and I went in search of a few farewell drinks we struggled to find any kind of night scene.  In the end we settled for street food and take-away beers at the late hour of 10pm!

The sunset spectacle of swarming perricos

The sunset spectacle of swarming perricos

If we were feeling indifferent towards this Colombian jungle town, then the sunset arrival of screeching birds to the central Parque Santander certainly improved our impressions.  Having arrived early, the event was a long time coming with bird numbers gradually building until the sky was coated with swarms of ‘pericos’ swirling around the trees like a plague of locusts to an almighty commotion of screeching.  Words really don’t portray the sheer number of birds, but hopefully the video below can illustrate this.

My final day was spent riding a scooter along the road to Tarapacá with various attractions indicated by their distance from Leticia.  With the inevitable slow-preparation, disorientation and wrong turns, I arrived at my first stop at Km 10 significantly later than intended but I was still able to complete my morning activity.  This consisted of tree-climbing (actually rope-climbing with attached harness and ‘ascender’ device), zip-lining and various walking/climbing techniques across an assortment of hanging bridges and platforms in the canopy.  The highly recommended course established by Omagua was fun, the guides were cool and the experience was fantastic, although I would have relished more time in the canopy.  Completing the course in a group of one (an oxymoron if ever I’ve seen one) meant I had my own personal instructors/cameramen but it also resulted in speeding through each activity.

Follow these links for demonstrations of rope-climbing:

I dropped by the Reserva Tanimboca at Km 11, practicing my Spanish to learn that their snake farm was currently empty, then followed a detour to Rio Tacana along a dirt track.  The swimming hole there was deserted except for two young girls enjoying their backyard swim.

The next adventure – continuing my streak of overseas transportation misdemeanours – was running out of petrol.  You may laugh but once again I blame this on somebody else, namely the man from whom I hired the scooter, because he had told me it would not need refuelling!  Fortunately this calamity occurred across the road from the property of an undoubtedly amused local, who directed then generously drove me to a roadside vendor and brought me back with a bottle of petrol.  During my enforced lunch break I began one podcast series for learning Spanish, called Coffee Break Spanish, while sheltering from the rains and looking across another swimming hole.

My final stop was the excellent Mundo Amazonico at Km 7 where I was personally guided along two of their themed tours.  My guide, Rafael, was the son of the owner of 29 hectares of land that had been devastated by failed attempts at cattle farming.  The family has rejuvenated the rainforest and today offers visitors the opportunity to see 300 native species of the Amazon without having to delve deep into the jungle.

For the first tour I was guided through their botanical garden, learning the healing properties of various Amazonian trees, flowers and medicinal plants as well as tasting some delicious mixed tea.

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The second tour focused on the cultural aspects of the local indigenous tribes, practising archery and demonstrating my natural aptitude at blowing darts!  We discussed the decline of indigenous communities, eating turtle (which is only allowed for special celebrations nowadays) and the integrity of so-called shamans that sell ayahuasca to tourists.

My last night was once again very quiet, settling for drinking a couple of beers while reading in a hammock.  I met some interesting characters at La Jangala hostel, including the owner who shared the story of his epic adventure along the Amazon River riding a pedal-powered boat.  I also met a Spanish guy looking to spend six months living in Amazonian communties and once more discussed ayahuasca – a psychadelic brew made from an Amazonian plant that can give powerful spiritual hallucinations.

The balls are all that bounce in sleepy Leticia

The balls are all that bounce in sleepy Leticia

And so the next day I left Leticia with a mixed impression.  My visit was worthwhile for my final day activities along Via Tarapacá and the impressive spectacle of swarming perricos in the town itself.  I would particularly recommend visiting Mundo Amazonico to anyone passing through or to those without the time or money for a multi-day excursion into the jungle.  But for anyone hoping for a lively Colombian arrival, I would lower your expectations.  After all, Leticia is a sleepy jungle town.

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