One of the first activities I truly enjoyed after moving to Bogotá was seeing the movie El Abrazo de la Serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent), so it feels like a fitting last hurrah before moving back to the U.S. to take my final trip in Colombia to visit the mythical region that is the setting and subject of the movie: the Colombian Amazon.
As usual, what follows is a blend of journal-style writing about my personal reasons for taking the trip and a long-winded, travel blog-esque trip report that aims to help other travelers. I couldn’t find many online resources for planning travel in the Colombian Amazon separate from travel agency packages. I hope the latter portion of this can help independent travelers who want information on the types of activities you can do from Leticia and perhaps also seduce you to spend several days deeper in la selva.
My Fantasy of the Amazon
The first week of February 2016, I saw El Abrazo de la Serpiente at Cine Tonalá in Bogotá. I had a rough few weeks of adjusting to altitude, pollution, and cultural attitudes after my arrival, and the film and the venue comprised a refuge. I was in a familiar art-house venue (very familiar; I lived blocks from the original Cine Tonalá when I lived in Mexico City ), and the transcendent experience of being absorbed by a powerful film was a comforting reminder of the types of artistic pursuits I hoped to engage with in Bogotá. The story of the Colombian Amazon reminded me of the reasons I was originally drawn to study of Latin America–issues of exploitation, colonialism camouflaged as efforts to benefit the locals, clever indigenous resistance, etc–and showcased the richness of indigenous cultures occupying a region that represents the extreme power of nature and unparalleled biodiversity.
I thought about the story and setting for weeks afterward, especially after attending a riveting talk with the co-screenwriter of the film (a talk that motivated me to travel to Cartagena and attend the film festival, another major turning point in my fellowship experience). I was disappointed that Embrace of the Serpent didn’t win the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, but the culture of Colombian pride celebrated the film as though being nominated was just as noteworthy as winning. And as the film continued to come up in conversation and I continued to ponder themes of the movie, I placed a big star on the Colombian Amazon in my mental map of the country.
From the beginning, I recognized that a trip to the Amazon would be adventurous, but I couldn’t help envisioning a trip to indulge my interests in the rich flora and fauna of Colombia. The legendary reputation of the Amazon as a land of dangerous tropical diseases and tensions between indigenous communities and the corporate interests that exploited them all intimidated me. Six months into life in Colombia, I had experienced my share of unpredictability and scary chaos, both in Bogotá and beyond as I travelled. While most of my solo travels had gone well, there was the occasional frightening and unsafe episode, which convinced me that visiting a region as remote and unfamiliar as the Amazon would be better with a travel buddy.
When I first proposed the Amazon to my parents as a destination for their visit to Colombia, they were quick to eliminate it from the list of possibilities. Wanting their first trip to Colombia to go as smoothly as possible, I opted to bring them to places I had already visited and knew they would enjoy, Cartagena and Tayrona, but I kept brainstorming for travel partners for an Amazon trip. When I floated the idea by a friend from college who has travelled as far as Tanzania to follow her passion for animal photography, she showed interest, and I threw myself into research about how to visit the Amazon. By the point she told me she couldn’t come, I was so wedded to the trip that I ran the idea by several friends but none seemed to jump with enthusiasm. My next pitch was to my dad.
Since my high school days of college visits, he and I have taken several trips just the two of us, and they’ve always been special. When he and my mom visited me, my dad fell in love with Cartagena, so when I decided to go back to the festival this year to report for The City Paper, my dad immediately agreed to join me. Originally, we planned to spend 5 days after the festival to sail to the San Blas islands of Panama, but the booking agencies that coordinate these trips weren’t as reliable as we’d hoped, and after reading enough horror stories of miserably sea-sick passengers suffering on the 30 hour open-sea crossing, I proposed visiting the Amazon instead. This time, my dad actually looked into the option himself, and he eventually concluded that it wasn’t as dangerous as he originally thought. Score!
When we landed in Leticia a couple of weeks ago, I was bursting with excitement. I was finally fulfilling my fantasy of visiting the Amazon, a visit that had been a year in the making.
Planning a Colombian Amazon Trip: How Deep Into the Jungle to go?
There are many travel bloggers that write extremely helpful posts for visiting various cities and towns throughout Colombia, but I found few resources for visiting the Amazon. Don’t be deterred if your preferred blogger hasn’t written about the Colombian Amazon–it is surprisingly straightforward, and if you’re not the type to research and plan ahead (not sure how you landed on this site, though…), you could simply book a flight to Leticia and find agencies once you arrive to do day-tours and possibly spend a night or two in the jungle. But researching intensively is my thing, I wanted to have a particular Amazonian experience, and I wanted my dad to enjoy the trip as well, and I am so glad I looked into things because I landed on some gems.
Before I give away the secrets of the places I discovered, let me explain a bit more about the types of ways you can visit the Amazon from Colombia. Regardless of how you plan to spend your time in the Amazon, if you are traveling in other parts of Colombia, you will have to arrive to Leticia via plane from Bogotá. Three airlines (LATAM, Avianca, and VivaColombia) offer flights on this route, one flight per day on each airline.
If you want to be guided from the minute you touchdown and deposited back at the airport for your flight back to Bogotá, then check out groups like Sergio Rojas’ Amazon Jungle Tours. Several friends have travelled with them and enjoyed the experience.
If you would rather be able to pick which activities you want to do, you could base your visit in Leticia, where you will find comfortable hotels, and contain your adventures as day trips. In Leticia, there are lodging options ranging from eco-hostels to the all-inclusive Decameron and slightly less fancy options at Hotel Anaconda and Amazon BB. If you select to base your stay in Leticia, then you will find many booking agencies offering day tours and half-day tours (the Amazon BB website has a pretty thorough listing of tours that their company offers, which give a sense of the activities you can do in the Amazon). Many agencies offer packages to spend a night or two in the jungle, either in treehouses like those at the Reserva Tanimboca or at smaller, privately-owned facilities. Staying at a hotel in Leticia seems to be the most popular way to visit the Colombian Amazon.
If you want to be in a smaller Amazonian town, you can take a boat up the Amazon river to reach the more rustic Puerto Nariño. This town is well-located for many activities, like pink dolphin sighting trips to the Lago Tarapoto, but you can also visit as a day-trip if the lodging offerings there are not your style.
I have always had difficulty with packaged trips because of my obsession with researching a place and finding something that is my style, so I was not convinced by the several-day packages of Sergio Rojas nor the plan to stay in Leticia and do overly crowded day trips with the types of vacationers that absolutely require hot water and AC in their hotel. I wanted a medium-to-hot on the spicy scale, reasonably authentic jungle experience, and, most importantly, I wanted to make the decisions and have independence.
Marasha Nature Reserve gave me exactly what I wanted even though I didn’t really know what I wanted before I got to Marasha. The best surprise of my Amazonian adventure, the lodge is located on a lake just off the main Amazon river but technically on the Peruvian side of the river, just south of the Peruvian Amazonian town Puerto Alegria. While the Marasha website has all the information you could need to plan a trip, Marasha doesn’t have a robust publicity program, so I’ve learned that most people discover the place by word of mouth. I was lucky enough that both of my roommates stayed in Marasha when they visited Leticia, and countless other friends who also had been to Amazonas reaffirmed my decision to spend a few days at the lodge.
The Magic of Marasha Over Several Days
After hearing of fantastic experiences from my friends and reading reviews that further endorsed the decision, I booked 3 nights at Marasha for me and my dad. We originally planned to spend 4 nights in the Amazon, and we would spend the night before our flight in Leticia to sight-see closer to Leticia before our flight. Last minute, we had to change our itinerary to arrive a day later, cutting our time in Marasha down to 2 nights. I would have loved to spend 3 nights, but with 2 nights we were still able to do nearly all of what Marasha offers.
If you and your traveling companions want comfort and a more posh resort vibe, Marasha would be better visited as a day-trip. If your group can rough it even a tiny bit, you should spend at least one night at Marasha. Before arriving, when I was researching activities in Leticia, I noticed that many tour companies offer a day visit to Marasha, and many travelers who stay in Leticia participate in these types of tours. Since reaching Marasha by boat is quite involved, requiring a 30-40 minute speed boat ride up the Amazon then a shorter canoe or motor boat ride on a small river to the Marasha lake and lodge (or a hike during the dry season, June to December), visitors who are at Marasha for the day spend much of their time in transit. The journey to Marasha is part of the experience–in fact, my arrival to Marasha was one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip–but Marasha is also a spectacular place to relax and enjoy without darting from one activity to the next, and this is simply not possible because of time constraints if you are visiting only for the day.
If you can only do a day-trip visit to Marasha, you would arrive to the lodge around 9:30am or 10am at the earliest, do an activity or two (hiking a short trail to a ceiba tree where you will observe many animals, perhaps doing the zipline ride across the lake from the ceiba, kayaking the lake and river connecting the lake to the Amazon, fishing for typical Amazonian fishes, etc.), eat lunch and then depart from Marasha around 3pm. But the day-trip rules out several unique experiences like watching the sunrise in the jungle and the night-time animal sightings from boat or on foot. The lighting in the Amazon becomes beautiful right around the time that the day-trippers leave and is increasingly dramatic as the sun sets, and Marasha is well-equipped for relaxation with many hammocks on the floating docks, so spending the night at Marasha affords many extra options for a fuller but balanced, tranquil and exhilarating, jungle experience.
For those of you who are restless and can’t fathom napping in a hammock while on an Amazonian adventure trip, your personal guide will be full of ideas of activities, and you could easily fill your itinerary for a multiple-day stay with activities. For me and my dad, we did every activity our guide proposed and loved every one, so by the afternoon we were ready to nap and read in the hammocks. For our style of traveling and for what we hoped to get out of our trip, it was the perfect balance of being active (hiking, kayaking), learning about flora and fauna from our guide, the occasional thrill during night-hike sightings of poisonous snakes and frogs or a caiman encounter in the night canoe trip, and free time to unwind and appreciate the beauty of Marasha’s lake and facilities.
To give you a better sense of what it would be like to stay at Marasha, I’ll tell you a bit more about what we did:
Day 1: We arrived to Leticia around 2pm and were picked up at the airport by someone from the Marasha office. The three of us caught a cab to the Marasha office in downtown Leticia where the Marasha agent explained what was included in the package and we paid (they only accept cash, but there are ATMs in Leticia so you can get more cash if you need more). The cost includes all meals, unlimited beverages (coffee, hot water for tea, cold filtered water, and lemonade), and all the activities with a guide assigned to your group. (A quick note about guides: they are Peruvian, many of indigenous ancestry, and they only speak Spanish. If no one in your group speaks Spanish, you can hire a translator. But honestly, if you don’t speak or understand much Spanish, even if someone in your group does, you will miss out on a lot however you decide to visit the Amazon. International tourism is starting to grow in the region, but it will be several years before those in the tourism industry speak fluent English.)
While at the Marasha office in Leticia, I asked the agent about popular activities to do on an Amazon trip that were not available at Marasha. Specifically, I wanted to see pink dolphins. The agent proposed a day-trip where a Decameron day-tour group would pick us up from Marasha on our last day. I knew Decameron had a good reputation for being the hotel chain of choice for upper-class Colombians, and the tour included nearly every activity we hoped to do that wasn’t offered on-site at Marasha, so we booked it.
Once the payment was settled, we were walked down to the dock area of Leticia. We boarded a speedboat, and during the 30-40 minute ride to the dock of Marasha across the Amazon River, our driver fielded our questions and pointed out which shores belonged to Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. Once we reached the dock at Marasha, we met our guide, Wilder. Our guide and others from the lodge unloaded some provisions from the speedboat, and we prepared to board a large canoe that we would take to reach the lake and lodge.
As the canoe journey began, we noticed some beautiful trees surrounding the canoe path: our Marasha experience had truly begun in full. We leisurely paddled to the lake, with the guide naming plants and animals all around us. The shapes of many of the plants near the canoe path were intriguing, and the reflections on the calm water (until our paddling generated ripples, disturbing the tranquility) were striking. We also saw many types of birds and several sloths. The guide mimicked various bird sounds and as corresponding species responded to his calls, he explained the type of bird he was interacting with. He also explained the names of the animals and plants and their meanings in the different languages, Portuguese from Brazil and the different Spanish words used by Colombians vs Peruvians. Once we entered the lake, the guide noticed a strange shape across the lake, and once we saw it move, he confirmed it was a 4-6m long caiman. We learned a lot, but this was only a small taste of what Marasha had to offer.
The first glimpses of Marasha from the canoe as we approached were stunning. At the first of several floating docks, we unloaded our luggage and made our way to the main lodge with the beverage area. Arriving to an empty lodge in the middle of a remote lake was pretty special, though our guide explained that more guests would be arriving later that night and many more the following day. Our guide gave us a quick tour of the facilities as we waited to be shown our room, and we also noticed some chiguiro (capybara) animals in a green area near the main building. Our guide brought out bananas, and he introduced us to the mother of the 30 or so animals we were feeding.
By now it was getting dark, and we were shown our room. We settled in a bit and were so exhausted from our day of traveling that we napped until 7pm when our guide knocked on our cabin door to let us know that dinner was served. The food was simple but tasty, and the portion was generous.
The guide explained that right after dinner we would do a night safari boat ride to find some caiman and see other nocturnal animals of the Amazon. We put on our head torches and eerily set off. The noises of the frogs at night contrasts starkly with the songs of the many birds during daytime, and our guide also showed us an unusual species of nocturnal bird. In silence, he scanned the shores of the lake, hoping to catch reflections with his head torch that would represent eyes of caiman. He pointed out several eyes reflecting back at us, but each time we neared, the caiman disappeared. But as we approached the edges of the lake, our guide also pointed out bioluminescent larvae, small sparkling specks. Then we turned down to enter the small river that we had paddled down to reach the lake. Things suddenly felt more claustrophobic, but with full trust in our guide we trudged onward. He paddled us off the main boat path as he was hunting caiman, eventually grabbing a small white caiman and holding it in the boat. He explained the significance of the animal, and encouraged us to hold it, but we were too fearful.
Exhausted after the adventure, our guide explained that we could sleep in the following morning and would do a sunrise boat ride on the morning of our last day (it turned out to be rainy that morning, so we missed out on a jungle sunrise). We unfurled the mosquito nets above our beds, took quick rinse offs, and went to bed.
Day 2: Around 7am our guide woke us up for breakfast then we set off for a canoe tour with three other girls who had arrived late the previous night. On the canoe ride, we followed the perimeter of the lake and saw more flora and fauna. We saw many white herons, perhaps 30 or 40. Also impressive on the ride was the many groups of Victoria Regia. These massive lilies are typical of the Amazon, and the Marasha lake has quite a few.
After this ride, our guide told us about several species of fish in the Amazon and in the lake. One on of the floating docks, Marasha has a small water cage where they keep several fish. Our guide fed them, and we were amazed to see the violent ripples in the water each time he dropped a piece of meat, the ripples revealing the massive size of the fish. The pirarucu, a fish that is also one of the most popular typical foods of the region, was especially haunting because I could see its eerie mouth but not its full body until it convulsed to grab a falling piece of meat.
Next, our guide led us on a short hike through the nature reserve to point out other species. The hike ended at a ceiba tree, central to the religious beliefs of many indigenous groups both in the Amazon and throughout the Americas. The ceiba tree is the starting point for the zipline activity at Marasha, requiring participants to first ascend 35m to reach the zipline platform in the tree. No one in our group was especially interested in the zipline, so we hiked back to the lodge for lunch. The lunch was a buffet-style meal for a very large group including day-trippers from Leticia and student groups that had arrived for their stay at Marasha.
After lunch, we rested in the hammocks for a bit to digest then set off on a kayak tour of the lake. It was very hot at this time of day, so some of our companions wore swimsuits and shorts for the activity, but my dad and I were concerned about mosquitos, so we wore our long sleeved shirts and pants over our swimsuits. I’m glad we were covered up, especially because the sun was so strong. It was a fairly long ride, so by the time we returned to Marasha we were ready for our naps in the hammocks. We stayed in our restful positions, getting up only to take the occasional photo as the lighting changed and the lodge looked beautiful.
We took a few snapshots of the sunset before setting off for a night-hike before dinner. The mosquitos were pretty vicious, and our group got really spooked to come across a snake curled up only centimeters from our feet. We were all wearing heavy-duty rubber boots (necessary because of the mud on the trails), but the notion of a snake curling around our ankles was enough to freak us all out enough to prompt us to go back to the lodge. Of course, just as the guide was explaining how dangerous the snake that we saw was, a fat toad jumped onto my boot. I shrieked and jumped as high as I could, feeling extremely grateful we were almost back at the lodge. Seeing the tarantulas and night frogs was interesting, but I had enough of the night-hike. It was more contact with predators than I wanted.
After dinner, our guide announced he was taking the 3 girls who had arrived late the previous night for a night safari boat ride to find caimans. My dad wanted to go out again so we joined them. It started to rain while we were out on the water, and we weren’t seeing much, so we turned back early to get to bed with the hopes of waking up at 5am to see the sunrise.
Day 3: The rain got heavier throughout the night, and at the 5am wake up call, we were warned we probably wouldn’t see the sunrise because of the clouds, so we opted to sleep longer. We had breakfast at 7am, then finished packing to leave Marasha at 8am. At the Marasha dock on the Amazon river we were deposited with the Decameron group for our day-tour, and we said our final goodbyes to our Marasha guide.
After Marasha: The Day-Tour Experience
The combo day-tour with Decameron was rougher than we had hoped. The first stop at the Monkey Island was fun, though be warned that the monkeys (including mothers holding their babies on their backs) will crawl all over you, you will lose control, and it may be overwhelming. The monkeys pooped on my dad’s head (we were told this must mean he has a good energy), and we still loved the experience.
Moments after we boarded the boat and set off for our next destination, the motor of our boat gave out. Being a single-motor boat, the guide and boat driver couldn’t do a whole lot. It was uncomfortable because we couldn’t tell why the motor was failing but we could tell the people in charge couldn’t fix it. The rest of the day, the boat was struggling and the guide was hand-pumping gas into the engine, nearly doubling the time we spent on the water. I still can’t understand why they didn’t simply send another boat and transfer us to a functioning boat, but it was scary at times, and it cut many of the activities short since we required much more time to get from place to place. I was disappointed because I think the motor failing is the reason that we didn’t see many pink dolphins. I only caught a quick flash of a massive pink fin, and when we reached the lake where we were scheduled to look for pink dolphins, we were many hours behind schedule, so our guide simply turned back.
The other activities were enjoyable, though the visit to the indigenous community was very staged, and the indigenous “performers” introduced to our group were visibly uncomfortable. The lunch in Puerto Nariño was nice, especially the yucca fritters that reminded me of doughnut holes. Walking through the town and up to the mirador was nice though the guide didn’t explain much. Puerto Nariño felt very small, with a few groups offering tourism activities, and I was glad that we opted to stay in the jungle for several nights rather than Puerto Nariño since it is still a town and doesn’t feel like Amazon wilderness like Marasha. For travelers who want to stay in a small Amazonian town, Puerto Nariño is your best bet, though expect rustic lodging and very few food offerings.
On the way back to Leticia, the Decameron tour stopped at a reserve with many Victoria Regia. It was already pretty dark by the time we arrived, so our visit was short. We then rode back to the dock at Leticia and took in a beautiful sunset on the Amazon River–the only positive thing to come out of the boat motor dying and the unpredictable delays and breakdowns was the sunset. If things had gone as scheduled, my dad and I had planned to drop our luggage off at Anaconda Hotel then go to Parque Santander to watch the daily gathering of tropical birds that happens around 5 or 6pm. Since we had missed this by the time we came back, we settled into the hotel room then I scoped our dining options. We applied lots of repellant–a combination of our vigilance and the fewer mosquitos in the Amazon than we expected, we actually weren’t bitten at Marasha but had more trouble with bites in Leticia–then walked to dinner.
On TripAdvisor, I had found a restaurant called El Cielo Fusion Amazonico, and we absolutely loved the place. It has many specialties of the region that feature Amazonian ingredients, and the quality to cost ratio is unbeatable. The waitress patiently explained the whole menu and offered recommendations. She suggested an appetizer of stuffed worms called mojojoy, and as resistant as I was to the idea, we actually enjoyed them! As a main dish, I ordered a casabe–similar to a flatbread or a pizza but made with a base of yucca–and my dad choose the seafood au gratin. Both were delicious, and the juices of typical Amazonian fruits were very refreshing. If we had had time for another meal in Leticia, we undoubtedly would have gone back for more.
Day 4: Before our 2pm flight, we went on a short zipline tour organized by our hotel’s agency to the Reserva Tanimboca. To reach the ziplines, we took a short hike through the reserve, a guide explaining what we were seeing. It was pretty redundant considering the thorough descriptions our guide in Marasha had provided. To reach the zipline platform, we had to ascend 35m using a rope climbing technique that was completely foreign to both me and my dad. It was more difficult than we expected, especially considering other zip lining experiences have required no effort or strength. In the end, we both successfully reached the platform then flew across two thrilling lines. We crossed a suspension bridge, then the descent was the final thrill. We raced back to our hotel to grab our things then were off to the airport.
The trip was jam-packed, very informative, and surprisingly relaxing. The Marasha portion was the relaxing part, since we could put our full trust in the guide to plan activities and even wake us up for our meals. It may seem ironic that I enjoyed this so much considering how resistant I was to doing a packaged tour, but I have no shame to admit that as a constant-planner, it was a fantastic break to have a guide taking care of absolutely everything for us, and not allowing the possibility for my controlling tendencies to override his plans.
Summary: Main Tips for the Amazon
- Stay at Marasha! You won’t regret it. Spending a night or two in Leticia at the beginning or end of a trip to the Amazon works well, but be sure to give yourself at least one night in Marasha.
- Pack thoughtfully: bring flashlights, head torches, extra batteries, long sleeved clothing and long pants, comfortable socks to wear under rubber boots, and lots of mosquito repellant.
- Try to get a window seat for the flight–the views as you fly in and leave help give you a sense of the scale of this massive river and the jungle that surrounds it.