We flew into Leticia, Colombia, yet another place of high humidity, but this time, a land covered by the tall and green trees of the Amazon Jungle. As we flew into the small jungle town, seeing only the jungle going on forever out into the distance, we thought, “Where does anyone live here?” The jungle was so impressive, so green – and even a bit intimidating. When we landed we knew that we would only be spending two days in Leticia, one of which was the day we arrived. We also knew that there would be a few hoops that we would have to jump through before able to leave Colombia and travel into Peru.
Luckily, we found one of the best hostels we have stayed at, if only for the simple fact that our host had all the knowledge we needed to make our journey to Peru, taking a boat 10 hours up the Amazon river from Leticia, Colombia to Iquitos, Peru. And a huge plus, she spoke perfect english. Score! We got to the hostel around 2:30pm and immediately sat down with our host as she explained the town. One special thing about Leticia is that every night at around 5:30pm, thousands of small parrots come flying from the jungle to perch in the trees of the main square for the night. We had to see this – what an unexpected and unique experience, we thought. She also offered to book us for an all-day jungle tour the next day, which we desperately wanted to do. The only problem was that we would have to spend the rest of our first day making our travel arrangements for Peru, as there would be no other time to do so. As she started to describe the task we were about to embark on, our eyes got wide and we realized we only had about two hours to get it all done. Paul and Victoria’s South American Amazing Race was about to begin.
3 COUNTRIES IN AN HOUR AND HALF
First off, we had to leave the hostel and make our way back to the airport that we had just flown into. Thankfully, Leticia is small and taxis are extremely easy to find. Our taxi driver took us to the airport where we ran in and got our exit stamp on our passports from Colombia. While we went into the immigration office our taxi driver waited for the three minutes it took us to get this done. He drove us back into town and through broken Spanish, we explained that we needed to go to the dock to find a boat to take us across the Amazon river to a small island in Peru, Santa Rosa. We felt so very lucky, since the moment we got out of our cab, a young man locked eyes with us and said, ‘Santa Rosa?’, and led us down a short, muddy embankment to his water taxi boat. Phew, one task down two more to go. We boarded his small, long, and very skinny wooden boat while stepping through other small boats to start our short trek across the Amazon River. This took about 8 minutes and suddenly, we were in Peru.
Our boat driver, just like our taxi driver, understood exactly what we needed to do and why we were heading to Santa Rosa. We got the impression that the only travelers coming through from Leticia to Santa Rosa are going straight to the immigration office for their paper work and right back over the river. The moment we stepped of our boat, we were waved down by yet another man. He yelled, “Immigration?”, we replied, “Si”, and off we went in his small motorcycle taxi which, in the jungle, are called “tuk-tuks” (pronounced with a “two” sound). Right away, we got stuck in the sand and other tuk-tuk drivers helped push the motorcycle out of the rut, and then off we went into the small shanty town. Within minutes we were at the door of the immigration office. Thankfully our host in Leticia had warned us that the man that runs the office is usually very crabby, often drinking beer in the back, and to be patient for him to arrive at the door. Sure enough, an unhappy looking man eventually opened the door, led us to his office, and handed us pens and immigration papers. We filled them out, handed him our passports they were stamped for our entry into Peru, and throughout this 3-minute transaction there were literally no words spoken. It was a very odd and awkward experience, but one we still laugh at. Our tuk-tuk driver had waited outside for us, took us back to our friendly boat driver who had also waited for us, and we made our way back across the Amazon river, but this time to Brazil.
Since we were leaving on a Thursday, the boat company that we needed to take up the Amazon into Peru was a Brazilian one. Therefore, we had to purchase the tickets at their office in Brazil. Somehow (we are still not totally sure how we managed this so perfectly without a good map), we got off the boat at the main dock, walked along haphazard planks overy the muddy beach, through streets filled with markets, took a couple random turns, because they “felt right”, and in about 10 minutes we were at the ticket office, which looked nothing like a ticket office one might find in the states. We knew we were at the right place though, because our host had given us landmarks around the office, thank goodness! We bought our tickets, which was only possible to do once we had both the exit and entry stamps from Colombia and Peru, hence why we had to go through all three tasks in that specific order. After the tickets were bought, we started walking towards the main street that would take us back into Colombia, several blocks away, and strangely did not have an official border crossing, meaning we were able to walk straight into one country from another with ease. We stopped along the way to escape the heat and have a celebratory treat. Our host had told us that if we had time, to stop and have an açaí drink. Açaí is a berry found in the Amazon Jungle and they make a slushy-like drink out of it. It’s popular in the states as a health supplement, packed with antioxidents. We sat in the air conditioned shop, ate our treat, and within minutes we we were crossing the border back into Colombia.
All of this, incredibly, took just over an hour and a half. We left our hostel at 3pm and crossed back into Colombia just before 5pm. We were just in time to make it to the main square of Leticia and watch the thousands of parrots make their way into the trees to perch for the night, which was a spectacular sight (and sound), as promised.
The next day, we left our hostel at about 7am to make our way down to the dock and get on a boat along with about 25 other people for a day of sightseeing up and down the Amazon river. Right away, we made friends with a very sweet Colombian girl, Deandra, which ended up being even more helpful than one could imagine. She spoke great english and was able to fill in the pieces of the descriptions coming from the guide that we couldn’t put together, since he spoke only spanish.
Our first stop was actually what had sold us on the tour – Isla de los Micos, or Monkey Island. We got off the boat, walked through the small but impressive souvenir area and were led towards a clearing in the trees. As we were walking to the clearing, countless small and unbelievably cute monkeys appeared out of the jungle and were following and leading us. We got into the clearing and within seconds, the monkeys were climbing and jumping all over us. They were jumping from the trees, from other people and literally climbing up our legs from the ground. One might think it would be scary, but we were both so ecstatic. The monkeys were so light, and so soft, almost like they were small cats.The tour group was in the clearing for about 25 minutes and the entire time we were covered by multiple monkeys, on our heads, shoulders and back. One even found Paul so appealing that he sat on his shoulder and nuzzled his small monkey head into Paul’s mesh hat. By far one of the coolest experiences we had in Colombia.
Next, we made our way down the river to a part of the jungle that is still inhabited by a tribe of indigenous people. We were seated to watch a song and dance performance by the women of the tribe, then walked through booths selling their handmade gifts ranging from huge wooden bowls to intricate bracelets and earrings.
Our next stop was to see a pond where the largest lily pads in the world grow. We learned that the plant was named Victoria after Queen Victoria, because she had pushed forward and funded the exploration of the jungle that led to the discovery of these impressive plants.
Our fourth stop was for lunch in the small town of Puerto Narino. The timing was perfect – we ate lunch while watching as a heavy jungle rainstorm passed through. As the rain started to clear and became a light drizzle, we made our way up a tall lookout tower that gave us a great view of the isolated jungle town. Since it is not connected by roads, there are no cars in Puerto Narino, so all of the “streets” are really just wide sidewalks. We watched from above as school children walked home in their uniforms, and people walked through town, just like it were any other place in the world. On one side of the lookout, we could see the Amazon river and across the river to the jungle of Peru. On the other side, we saw jungle that stretched so far, it was overwhelming. All the green, the trees we had only ever learned about in school and seen in pictures. It made us feel so very small and far from home.
As we made our way back to Leticia, we stopped a few times along the river to try to see the dolphins, and eventually found a spot where there were a few occasionally popping up out of the opaque brown water. There are two different types of dolphin that inhabit the river. One is the cute grey type that most people would recognize. The other is what they call the pink dolphin. Because of the name I thought that the dolphin would be cute like its cousin, but I was wrong on that. They have a strangly shaped, large humps on their back and are more of a pink-grey hue. They might not be the prettiest of animals, but definitely were one of the more exciting things to see while traveling down the Amazon.
As our tour was coming to what we thought was an end, we landed at a small town where even more magic happened. Inside a couple of small shelters, we spent about 30 minutes in what can only be described as an Amazonian petting zoo. We got to see not only more monkeys of a couple different species, but got to hold and cuddle a baby sloth, which proved to be Paul’s most favorite part of the day. At one point I was holding a sloth, with a monkey on my shoulder and a parrot on my head – cuteness overload! I had no idea parrots of that size were as heavy as the are! We were even able to hold and pet a small tiger-like cat. We still are not sure of the name, but know that it is a relative of the tiger. It was pretty restless and wild-eyed, and we were only allowed to hold it for a second while taking a photo before its handler took it back. As we were leaving we came across the largest rodent in the world, the Capybara, grazing in a grassy area near the shelters. It is a close relative to a guinea pig, so it looks like a HUGE guinea pig, about the size of a big dog. They are grass-eaters and very tame – it seemed to completely ignore us as we stood beside it. After seeing a couple other people pet it, Paul was brave enough to get a photo petting it. I opted out of that, and took the pictures instead.
BOAT TO PERU
Since all of our paperwork and passports had been stamped to leave Colombia and enter Peru, we got packed and ready to embark on our next part of our South American adventure. All I can say is that the amazing race of being in three countries in less than 2 hours was far more easy than the ten-hour boat ride to Iquitos, Peru. We woke up at 2:30am, and a tuk-tuk picked us up at the hostel to take us to the dock in Brazil at 3am. There, a small boat took us across the Amazon River to another dock in Santa Rosa, Peru, where we waited around about an hour until we were able to board our boat. Incredibly, while we waited we were pleasantly surprised to run into a german couple whom we had met on our second night in Cartegena, Colombia, at our very first hostel. They too were traveling to Iquitos. Small world.
Finally we were able to board the boat, which basically was a floating bus. It had rows of seats, and no deck or anywhere else to go. The seats were below a row of windows so you couldn’t even look outside unless you stood up in front of your seat. All of this made the 10-hour boat ride feel more like 24. It was cramped, hot, and muggy, and both of us were ecstatic to get off the boat once we docked in Iquitos.
THE BIG JUNGLE CITY OF IQUITOS
Iquitos, Peru is the largest city in the world not connected by road to any other place. As a result, all things imported are coming mostly by boat, and some by planes. Since we knew this, we were very surprised to see how large the city itself actually is – it felt like a big, bustling, fairly modern place. There are few cars, but the cars that we did see were more consistently nice than any other cars we had seen for the most part along our trip. The majority of transportation for average people are motorcycles and moto taxis, and as a result, the streets seem chaotic, like a never-ending motorcycle rally coming from all directions.
Since the city is in the jungle, we expected it to be extremely hot, which it was! Thankfully our room had air conditioning (our first in quite a while). We spent a couple days in Iquitos. One day, we made our way down to the largest market we had been to yet. It is a place rather hard to describe, but almost everything and anything one would need for day-to-day life can be found in the market. Different booths had everything – clothing items, household items, health and beauty products, small electronics, a ton of different foods. Every type of fruit and vegetable. Freshly-caught, bizarre-looking fish from the Amazon river, sold whole or as prepared dishes. Then we started to enter the “meat department” of the market. This was an area that was interesting, to say the least. We saw every type of animal to be caught or raised along the Amazon, Chickens in their entirety, or parted out into piles – even just baggies of chicken feet. We walked past tables with complete heads of alligators, and to top it off we even saw an armadillo literally cut in half from head to tail (a complete cross-section), which was an eye-opener for sure. After a while of being in this area, we were overcome by the undescribable smell of all of this stuff wafting around in the afternoon heat. We made our way out and caught a moto taxi back to the main plaza. But we must say, we are glad we spent the hour we did walking around in the market, being able to see the way of life in that part of the jungle was a lesson, experience, a small adventure and one that we will never forget.
We spent about a week in the jungle and after that we were ready for some city time. We boarded a plane in Iquitos and made our way to the city of Lima, not only for a change of pace but to meet and continue our Peru trip with our friend Melissa!