The Amazon has to be extremely high up on the list of amazing places one must visit before one dies. The Amazon to some is seen as being one of those almost mythical and exotic places that one would love to visit but would never have the chance to do so. To be honest before I arrived in Colombia I too held very similair sentiments. While traveling through the beautifully vibrant country of Colombia I discovered that the Amazon Basin was a mere two hours and a relatively low cost flight from the sprawling Capital City of Bogotá. What's more, it is rumoured that this region is where the mythical pink freshwater dolphins thrive. "What? Dolphins in the Amazon?" I hear you cry. "Pink Dolphins? Crazy!" Yeah no shit right? Nature is crazy like that huh? Ok so if you had me at the mere mention of the Amazon then you definitely had me at the mention of Pink Dolphins. So being in very close proximity with access to somewhat affordable flights my decision to visit the Colombian Amazon was pretty much an absolute no brainer.
Instinctively I moved quickly to take advantage of this virtually once in a life time opportunity. Previously I had figured that the only way to access the Amazon was via Brasil which could prove a highly difficult, long and expensive exercise. So I happily booked my flights from Bogotá to the Amazonian city of Leticia for a mere $220,000 Pesos (approx $74 USD) and my new adventure was set to begin. [Continued below]
Flying into Leticia I endured perhaps one of the most violent bouts of turbulence I had ever experienced in my life. Our dated aircraft tip-toed it's way right through the middle of an angry and aggressive Amazonian rainstorm for a very, very painful thirty minutes or so. Moments after touching down, skidding along the run way and finally coming to an abrupt but thankfully peaceful halt the airplane burst into a round of grateful applause directed towards our brave pilot in recognition of him not killing us. Yeah cheers mate! Nice one! Welcome to the jungle baby was the first thought to race through my head as I gratefully disembarked from the small rickety aircraft.
Leticia is the largest city in the Colombian Amazons totaling a population of only 35,000 inhabitants. This small city directly borders the Brasilain town of Tabatinga which is only a short 10 minute walk away. Leticia is a small, chaotic but relatively safe town and it happily boasts to be the safest place in Colombia. The biggest risk here is being run down on the street by its over abundance of erratically driven scooters. For me Leticia more closely resembles a small Mexican town than your typical Colombian Puebla with its disorganised ramshackle streets, erratic traffic, cluttered shops and raw street restaurants. Even the people residing in Leticia differ in appearance to the predominantly Hispanic Colombian population obviously due to the stronger indigenous bloodlines prevalent here.
While I found Leticia to be interesting for half a day or so it is not the most attractive place on the planet and after listening to some sound advice from a friend I made a V-line straight for the sleepy Amazonian village of Puerto Nariño . Puerto Nariño is only two hours north up the Amazon river by boat from Leticia and it is of close proximity to the Amazonian Lago Tarapoto which is rumoured to house the illusive Pink Dolphins that I had traveled so far to find. [Continued below]
So the following day I decided to bail on Leticia and I chartered the local fast boat service to embark on my virgin journey into the Amazon region. The small river bordering Leticia quickly fed into the vast dirty brown waters of the Amazon. Here the right side of the river houses the Amazonian borders of Colombia while directly across the river to the left are the northern borders of Peru. In fact the borders of four countries virtually meet on the waters of the Amazon here with Colombia, Brasil, Peru and Ecuador all being of very close traveling distance to each other.
The two hour journey traveling against the mighty current of the powerfully raw Amazon river was a true attack on the visual senses. Rich thick green Amazonian jungle lined the banks of the Amazon contrasting strongly with the murky brown waters and the clear deep blue skies high above. Every so often we would pass by thatched houses of indigenous settlements that would line the river banks. The driver of our craft was very careful to slow down for smaller craft and canoes to avoid capsizing them. While he also kept a close eye out for the partly submerged giant logs barely protruding from the coffee coloured waters and a little to often for my liking he was swerving to avoid them at the last minute. Being sunk in the middle of the Amazon river was clearly not sitting at the top of my bucket list although it would of made a great travel tale if I survived. [Continued below]
Two hours later as we veered off the mighty Amazon river and down a smaller river where the dirty brown waters of the Amazon soon gave way to the glassy black waters leading to Puerto Nariño and the entrance of the famed Lago Tarapoto. Disembarking from our boat I was soon greeted by the quaint and peaceful riverfront town of Puerto Nariño . This small, cute and relaxed village with only 2,000 inhabitants was of stark contrast to the slightly chaotic town of Leticia and it was hard not to fall in love with the charm radiating from this characterful town. A very small, clean, well organised village with plenty of charm is what the Eco village of Puerto Nariño is to me. It was a pleasure to wander the footpaths of this quaint puebla which is completely void of traffic with the only vehicle here being the local village tractor.
The indigenous locals living here hail from the Ticuna, Cocama and Yagua tribes and they are very shy, relaxed and humble people. This temperament for me was very refreshing when compared to many other tourist towns around the world as you are not harassed or pressured to buy or to particapate in anything. How long it will stay this way is anyone's guess but hopefully the people of the town do not overly embrace a capitalist money driven mindset of the western world any time soon. [Continued below]
Once I had completed my quick tour of the town and checked into my accommodation it was time to have my first attempt at searching for what I thought at the time was the "illusive" pink dolphins. As it would turn out the freshwater dolphins actually heavily populate the waters of the Puerto Nariño region and can be easily spotted within the waters of Lago Tarapoto.
The dolphins live within the calm glassy black waters of Lago Tarapoto but venture daily into the edges of the Amazon river where the jet black waters of the lake mix with the rapidly flowing chocolate brown waters of the Amazon. In the mid afternoon everyday like clockwork the dolphins swim in and out of the waters of the Amazon to gorge themselves on fish until they can stomach no more. These beautiful animals average a daily intake of no less than 3kgs of fish per day.
Surprisingly there are actually two different species of dolphins that live here side by side. With the larger and more unusual species being the pink dolphins (Inia geoffrensis) which tend to be less active and slightly more illusive. The pink dolphins are actually not dolphins after all and are classed by scientists as toothless whales. Surprise, surprise. The males reach up to 2.5m in length and can tip the scales at almost 200kgs. While their smaller grey cousins who sport pink bellies, Riverine Tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis) have more in common with their ocean dwelling bottlenose cousins that you and I are more accustomed to. These cute little guys tend to be far more active, playful and vibrant and thus making them much easier to spot. The grey dolphins can often be spotted jumping completely out of the water and even occasionally doing flips. These little grey guys are cute, really cute and are often spotted in a small family pod with the babies closely following by the side of their mothers.
My first day in Puerto Nariño was a truly special day. We spent two hours admiring these beautiful animals as they fed and played in the heart of the Amazon as the sun began to set. They are truly amazing creatures and how they came to abandon their oceans homes and swim into the heart of the amazon is one of natures true little mysteries.
Capturing images of these unpredictable creatures proved a very challenging task indeed and they are easily the most difficult subject I have ever tried to capture with my camera. Trying to predict where they would surface, firing the shutter in time and somehow still having them in focus was a very difficult task indeed. Trying to nail good shots of these lil fellas almost makes surf photography feel like child's play. Although at the end of the day I am happy with some of the images that I was able to capture but nevertheless for every good shot I had there was over a 100 I had to bin. A true photography challenge if ever there was one. [Continued below]
After we had finally had our fill of dolphin spotting we proceeded deeper into Lago Tarapoto to explore the somewhat eerie flooded forest in its center. During rainy season when the water levels on the Amazon are at their highest the forest in the middle of Lago Tarapoto is completely flooded and can only be accessed by paddle canoe. Floating through the ancient forest filled with monkeys, spiders and who knows what else was a truly surreal experience.
Once we exited the forest we tried our hands at animal spotting and the Amazon being the Amazon there was definitely no shortage of wildlife on offer where numerous monkeys, sloths, iguanas, eagles and various other bird-life were easily spotted from the banks of the lake.
We ended the day with a swim in the lake as the sun magnificently set apon the Amazon. Quite literally natures beauty was erupting all around us as the sun slowly set and for good measure the dolphins begun to return to waters of the lake as the final light of day begun to fade. Whether our tour guide was eager to return home or whether he was merely concerned for our well being I will not know but our swim in the lake was quickly cut short when our guide mentioned the fact that these waters were heavily populated by Piranhas. Looking back I did feel a few slimy things bump into my feet while I was swimming and thought nothing of it at time. Scary stuff.
This day was truly one of the most memorable days of my travels to date and you could not of possibly scripted it any better. My time spent in the Amazon is easily one of the highlights of my adventures and after one day I was more than happy with my decision to visit and explore the area. [Continued below]
The remainder of my week in Puerto Nariño was spent further exploring the lakes and waterways, Piranha fishing (with absolutely no luck), eating Piranha, hiking into the Amazon jungle, visiting indigenous villages and relaxing in Puerto Nariño in the local Snooker bar with a few beers and the locals as company.
My visit to the Indigenous village of San Martin was a very interesting experience especially with being able to observe how the modern world had merged with the traditional Amazonian Indigenous way of life. While the village had access to power, telephones and TV they still managed to maintain a very simple lifestyle living off the beautiful land that surrounds them. A beautiful peaceful existence. From San Martin you can easily venture as deep into the Amazon jungle as you wish but just ensure that you have permission from the village elders, full supplies and a local expert to guide you. [Continued below]
So there you have it! If you are visiting South America please, please, please make sure you make an effort to visit the Amazons. The Amazon can be relatively easily accessed from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brasil. So if you are in the region you have no real excuse not to visit and experience all of the beauty and adventure the Amazon region has to offer. I promise you that it will be one of the most amazing and unforgettable experiences of your life. [Continued below]
Travel Tips for Puerto Nariño
Many people commence their trip into the Amazon solely based in Leticia where in fact many of the major points of interest are of close proximity to Puerto Nariño anyway. Getting to Puerto Nariño is only a 2 hour flight into Leticia from Bogota followed by a two hour fast boat ride up the Amazon for a bargain of $30,000 Colombian pesos (approx $10 USD). From here you can arrange many excursions yourself at a fraction of the cost of package tours. Although a basic grasp of the Spanish language is essential to carefully arrange more complex trips and to try and avoid hidden costs as well as understanding the directions and explanations from your guide.
The living costs in Puerto Nariño are surprisingly cheap and are actually much cheaper than most places I visited in Colombia which was the last thing I expected in the middle of the Amazon. Budget accommodating is available in a number of hostels and hotels in Puerto Nariño but I would recommend Hostal Alto del Aguilaand. Although Hostal Alto is a 15 minute walk outside of town it has an amazing location overlooking Lago Tarapoto, is highly affordable and it even hosts it's own resident monkeys and Macaws. Decent meals can be sourced from as little as $6,000-$12,000 pesos (Approx $2-4 USD) in a range of restaurants and street vendors in the village. While we were also able to arrange private boat tours to view the dolphins and the lake for only $60,000 pesos (approx $20 USD) for up to four hours per boat. Local tour guides could be hired for as little as $50,000 pesos a day to guide you through the Amazon jungle.
If you do prefer to have everything organised for you before hand, money is not an object and you do not have a lot of time of your hands than by all means the all inclusive package deals are your better option. However, I strongly feel that by personally arranging your own DIY tour you are definitely putting all of the money directly back into the local community. Other essentials for your visit... well bring plenty of mosquito repellent, get your yellow fever vaccination and if you are going deep into the amazon bring some malaria medication to be on the safe side. Otherwise enjoy your Amazon adventure.