When we ask people what they think of as the tourist highlights of Colombia, the answers invariably come back as Cartagena, The Coffee Region, maybe the Caribbean coast. The Amazon normally doesn’t come to mind. It is perhaps Colombia’s least well-known tourist attraction and an area that is normally associated with Brazil. Hence it is that much more surprising when you visit the Colombian Amazon and discover that it is a rainforest paradise, a vast jungle chock full of beautiful lakes, wetlands teeming with wildlife and of course the big river itself. You quickly realise that this should be on everyone’s list of must-see places on a trip to Colombia.
When we visited earlier on this year, we were a little apprehensive and didn’t quite know what to expect. People warned us that there is not much in the way of luxury in the Amazon, so we imagined bugs and mosquitos everywhere and not much comfort. However as soon as we left Leticia on our two day boat tour with trusty Juancho, King of the Jungle, as our guide all worries of where we might be staying that night faded into the background as we were treated to a visual feast by Mother Nature. We were impressed enough on seeing the Amazon river itself, kilometres wide with the far bank almost at the horizon, but then our guide immediately started to point out all the wildlife that was everywhere around us. And thank goodness he was with us, as his eagle-eyes spotted animals and birds that we simply would have been oblivious to. Scaly iguanas sunning themselves on branches, a pair of blue and yellow macaws hidden right up in the tree-tops, a family of monkeys playing around and jumping impossible distances between the trees. This was all within the first half hour of our tour. And it basically carried on in a similar vein for 2 days.
Juancho was literally tireless when it came to pointing out the staggering amount of animal and plant life on display. On seeing any type of monkey he’d be on his feet letting forth with a perfect Tarzan call and animatedly pointing into the jungle. He has been a guide in the Amazon for over 30 years and yet has the energy and enthusiasm of a little boy going to Disney World for the first time. It meant that the two days were not just non-stop with activities but they were great fun as well. That’s why he’s Amakuna’s chosen guide for our clients. With Juancho you won’t miss a single bird, animal, monkey, fish or interesting plant that you pass by. There were canoe rides through the dense jungle to find the massive Victoria Regia lilies, the largest water lilies on earth; trips into the middle of a perfectly-still lake to watch the sunset, impossible to tell where the water ended and the sky began due to the mirrored surface of the water; a night safari to go and see the caiman that come out to feed, searching for them along the riverbanks with a torch in order to spot them by the reflection of their eyes; a spot of fishing to catch the day’s lunch, who knew piranha was such a tasty fish?! We stopped at a native man’s house one afternoon who has a wildlife refuge where we handled a 4 metre long, 30 kilo anaconda! On dry land it was impressive enough, if it was in the water a human wouldn’t stand a chance against it. At the reserve we also saw quite possibly the ugliest yet cutest turtle you can hope to find, the mata-mata turtle, a throwback to prehistoric times that looks as if it hasn’t changed since the dinosaurs roamed the planet.
At night we slept in the floating houses of a native community that lives in the heart of the jungle, their buildings completely surrounded by water during the high-water season. True, it was not what you’d describe as luxury but it really didn’t matter. We could have asked Juancho to take us down the main tourist route and stay in an all inclusive 4 star hotel by the river, but on this occasion we wanted to experience the road less travelled, to swap comfort for adventure and go for a more authentic experience. And after such a full day behind us and knowing we had an early start the next day to watch the pink dolphins playing at dawn, we slept like the logs that we had seen so many of floating by us that day. Sure enough, the next morning the dolphins didn’t disappoint. There they were playing at the mouth of a small tributary, with their smaller grey cousins joining in the fun as well. With not a single other tourist around, it felt like a private display just for us, the dolphins jumping and diving to their hearts’ content.
I think we can honestly say that of all the trips we have done around Colombia recently, the Amazon has been easily the biggest, positive surprise. As we were leaving Leticia airport for the return flight, we turned to each other with a “Well, I wasn’t expecting that” expression on our faces. As we said at the beginning it’s not the destination that one immediately associates with Colombia. But after a visit to the Amazon, it might just be the region that you talk about the most when you return home and that you are most keen to show your friends the photos of.
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