By Peter Majerle Photo by Andrés Madrigal
Join Costa Rica international Traveler on the journey to Columbia - part 4 will bring you to Amazonas.
If Bogotá is intense in its human element, Amazonas hums and zings with the electricity of nature at its purest form. Leafy, in a permanent state of tropical renewal, Amazonas is the kind of place where you feel that the jungle would reclaim the city if everybody just left for a couple of weeks. This is the end of the line, the steamy lowland tropical destination of adventure movies, the stuff great stories are made of.
Amazonas is the southernmost department in Colombia, sharing a border with Peru and Brazil. There are no roads leading to Leticia. Motorcycles are the main mode of transportation, and dozens cluster together at red lights. Leticia, in fact, is six weeks away from Putumayo, the next largest city in Colombia, by boat, and a feeling of frontier isolation pervades.
Life floats by, slowly, like a fallen tree down the Amazon. The slow, tropical rhythm of life takes on a whole new meaning. An urban aficionado might think that life goes like this: You catch a fish. You cook it. Lunch. Take a shower. Sit in the shade. Maybe you have a beer, maybe not. Call it a day.
In fact, nature lovers will most certainly feel that this is paradise. To the city slickers among us, Amazonas is like an inhospitable city full of strange denizens, as assorted as any place on earth, a huge, sprawling maze of green and bursts of color and an incredible network of waterways. It’s teeming with inhabitants, diverse, exotic and dangerous. It is very much alive, the kind of place that encourages spiritual growth and exploration. It’s about as much of a change of pace from Bogotá as you can get.
I pay attention. Along the Amazon River, as the sun sets, the jungle becomes ever more lively, and the growing din of nature’s song is broken only by the occasional passing motorboat, the sound of chopping from the kitchen, the chatter of workers as they stroll by.
In the jungle away from the Amazon, many different indigenous groups live, still strongly entrenched in a way of life that has changed little over the centuries. I don’t have the chance to get that deep into the area; I leave for Costa Rica tomorrow. However, I have gotten a good idea of what Colombia has to offer, and my surprise is pleasant. I have just one souvenir that I am yet to get.
My father is a retired firefighter, and he has a collection of shoulder patches from fire departments in the U.S. and around the world. Wherever I travel, I try to find a fire station and trade one of his St. Paul, Minnesota patches for a local one. So I find myself in Leticia’s fire station, chatting with the local firefighters. It’s an atmosphere of good-natured ribbing, leisurely conversations between intense bouts of hard work. One firefighter asks me what I think about Colombia, and I tell him that it’s nothing like I expected, that I’m very pleasantly surprised. He goes over to a whiteboard and draws an amorphous shape.
“Do you know what this is?” he asks me. I have no idea what this unidentifiable object might be, so I answer “ah, an amoeba? A map of Colombia?”
“It’s a tiger,” he says, which it looks nothing like. “Things aren’t always what people make them out to be.”
Ride the Amazon: The energy of the world’s longest river is palpable. The main artery in the area, you’ll take the Amazon just about anywhere you go.
Isla de los Micos (Monkey Island): Thirty years ago, this was home to an animal trafficker. Today this is an animal refuge, home to some 10,000 squirrel monkeys. Island curators have specific feed times and allow visitors to participate if they want. I chose not to.
However, I still saw hundreds of these tiny monkeys, mothers with babies on their back, and a glimpse into their behavior (albeit altered).
Tabatinga: There’s no official border crossing, so you can simply take a taxi or walk to this forgotten corner of Brazil. The contrast between the Colombian and Brazilian sides is interesting. Be sure to check out the outdoor market along the Amazon, where people peddle their wares and boats dock before making the three-day journey downstream to Manaus.
Colombia: Nuts and Bolts
Language: Spanish is Colombia’s official language. English is spoken at better tourist hotels.
Currency: Peso Colombiano. As of press time, the conversion was 2,500 per U.S. dollar.
Transportation: Colombia is a very large country, and drive times between regions can be quite long. If you’re going to travel domestically it would be advisable to fly. There also is an inexpensive national bus network. In cities, public transport is plentiful and inexpensive.
Costs: Colombia is much more inexpensive than the U.S. and Europe, and slightly cheaper than Costa Rica. A beer will cost around $0.50 and you can have lunch at a cheap counter for around $1. High-end hotels and restaurants are much pricier, but still less than you’d pay in an international city of comparable size.
On the web:
For information on traveling in Colombia, check out these sites:
Casa El Carretero
Cartagena, Colombia: +57 (300) 660 4475
Receptivo Viajes Chapinero L'alianxa
Tel: (57-1) 7443434 Exts. 8-133 / 8-208
All Inclusive Hotels & Resorts
Costa Rica Tel (506) 2291-7373
Discover exotic Costa Ballena. Contact us for special rates per person, per night, taxes and breakfast included, double occupancy.
Reservations: 2786-5354 E-mail: email@example.com *¨Restrictions apply