Into the jungle: Colombia's Amazon

In Leticia, the capital of Colombia's Amazon region, an encounter with the indigenous communities reveals the secrets of the jungle and intriguing tribal traditions

By Sarah Barrell
Published 6 Oct 2011, 15:15 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:56 BST

As ideas go, it wasn't my best. Taking a midnight jungle walk with a machete-wielding 20-something who's high on coca was, in retrospect, a spectacularly stupid idea.

But inside the maloca, the traditional palm-thatch longhouse that was to be my home for the night, things were getting messy. Abuelo, the community elder had drawn a coterie of sons and nephews around him in the sacred heart of the hut — a place that seems indistinguishable from the rest of the longhouse but for the rudimentary arrangement of tree-stump stools and a dusty dream-catcher suspended from a gnarly branch stuck in the mud floor. Here he set down tobacco and mambe (coca powder from the coca plant) and settled in for the night.

I've travelled beyond the 'Road of the Kilometres', a dirt track that runs 11 miles out of the Amazon port town of Leticia and ends abruptly, giving way to millions of hectares of dense rainforest. Here the road stops but life starts, although to the untrained eye, many things in Colombia's Amazon are easy to miss. Everything — from the spider monkeys in the jungle's dense canopy to the mystical symbolism of its plants — seems camouflaged, concealed. Only later, during my trek between the tribal villages that spread inland from this road, did I begin to understand. Just.

I'd learn, for instance, that the dream-catcher in Abuelo's hut had little spiritual significance, having been traded as a novelty item with a visiting tribe. And that the sacred space in every community maloca is defined differently — by proximity to the main entrance, say, or distance from the most prominent pillar. The very shape of these elegant palm and wood ancestral longhouses also tells a subtle story. Their designs are dictated by a complex spiritual symbolism unique to each tribe: a sort of worldview in architectural form.

These cultural nuances easily escape the untrained ear, too. My conversation with Abuelo Caetano, the 70-something patriarch of this Huitoto tribal village was deteriorating fast. His broken Spanish, muffled from the outset by cheeks bulging with mambe, became incomprehensible as the evening wore on. The talk broke sporadically for dancing — a sort of boisterous, monotone Hokey Cokey that had the women in creases of laughter. For all the carousing, you'd think the music had an irreverent narrative but instead, I learn, the songs are a sincere invocation to Juzinamuy (the Huitoto god) to grant wisdom, wealth and longevity. Sobriety, it increasingly became clear, is not a requirement of the pious in these parts.

For these celebrations (of which there are many in this particular maloca), men and women paint their bare torsos with lines of red and white vegetable dye; percussive bracelets, made with dried seeds, are tied around wrists and ankles; tree sap is used to glue patches of cotton wool-like fluff from chontaduro seeds to torso and arms. The effect is gloriously warrior-like — a look that Abuelo has clearly tired of. Another fit of wheezing laughter from the women alerts me to  the old man, who has swapped his grass skirt for a pair of bright blue underpants. Many of the others have also changed clothes; albeit into more modest jeans and combat trousers, ready to go home.

Their lack of torches, or concern about taking a two- or three-mile jungle trek in the dark, convinces me that a short stroll would be reasonable. I set out with Oscar, one of Abuelo's young nephews through the 'chacra' (the small subsistence farm surrounding the maloca), thick with spiky pineapple and yuca fronds. We bid 'buenas' to the families and couples who split off into the dense undergrowth towards their homes. The night is hazy but the Southern Cross and an upside-down Orion gleam like beacons above us, their otherworldly light complemented by clumps of phosphorescent fungus on the ground.

We're aiming for the river along narrow paths that Oscar increasingly has to clear with his machete. "I know the forest like this part of my hand," he says, pointing to its weathered back. But pretty soon, it's clear we're lost. Our planned 20-minute stroll has become an hour. We retrace steps, several times doing a sort of desperate dance between ominous walls of trees, Oscar swinging his machete ever more wildly. He tells me to wait and thrashes ahead. Standing statue-like, my calm beginning to ebb, I feel something making its way up my trousers. Then more, tens of them, tiny but biting hard with electric-shock stings, moving like a rolling bed of needles towards my thighs.

Hearing my howls, Oscar runs at me whipping my flailing limbs with his T-shirt as if I'm going up in flames. "Candelillas, candelillas!" he yells. I am indeed on fire, it turns out — with fire ant bites. My traumatised state seems to galvanise him, and he takes off through the thick undergrowth. I stay far enough behind to avoid the fetid shower of rotten wood and spiderwebs in his wake, but close enough to keep him in sight.

Ten frantic minutes later, we pop out at the chacra. But for my guide, Segundo, who is waiting with some stern words for Oscar, the maloca is silent. We stumble down to wash stinging legs in the creek before creeping into our hammocks for a fairly fitful night's sleep. I dream of walking through a forest that seethes under my feet, vegetation sprouting back minutes after it has been cleared; of paths that turn in on themselves, leading nowhere.

Jungle tales

Abuelo is up long before us the next morning. The night's excesses have left this hardy man — known by some as 'Diavolo', due to his super-human fortitude — seemingly untouched. He potters around his day's chores, feeding the chickens, putting out slop for the maloca's permanently hungry pack of skeletal puppies. Up on the stilted deck of his hut, we eat scrambled eggs with woody corn, sweet white bread and even sweeter coffee. I'm fortified. I even agree to a swim in the river — the very same river that eluded us the night before. Nothing looks the same in the light; we reach the water, in an Eden-like jungle clearing, within minutes, and cool overheated heads in its surprisingly chill currents. Overhanging vines provide Tarzan ropes for plunges; fallen trees make mid-stream islands.

"The water moves fast — it's hard to swim," says Segundo, letting the current take him 20ft or so down-river in seconds as demonstration. "But there are no eels," he pants, fighting back against the flow. He is referring to the electric kind, those that prefer the muddy beds of slow-moving rivers. Not keen to relive last night's agony, I'm pleased to hear it. I wonder aloud if our misfortune was partly to do with Oscar's hubris about being master of the jungle. Segundo nods sagely and reminds me how, every time he is about to go into the forest — from road, river or community hut — he asks for permission to enter. I now recall Segundo discreetly stepping aside each time we've set off, kneeling quickly to inhale mambe and blow tobacco smoke low across the ground.

It had seemed a fairly perfunctory ritual; the tools for it — cigarettes, mambe and other tobacco products — kept in a tattered bum bag around Segundo's waist; the mambe itself stored in an old jar of Choc Listo — a powdered chocolate drink for kids. "Feel the vitamins," commanded the label on the front. Segundo grinned at the irony, but, in fact, this is a serious business. He explains that his tribe, along with most others in the Amazon, everywhere from Peru to Brazil and beyond, believes the jungle is very much a living thing, both physically and spiritually, governed by very Old Testament-like gods. I'd hear several stories during my time in Leticia's communities of people getting lost in  their own patch of jungle, just like I had with Oscar. Tales of a seasoned soldier stranded for days, forced to live in treetops and survive on bamboo water; of one of Segundo's friends, missing all night on a route he walked every day. "It's like the trees move," he says.

"A path is clear and then closes. You pass the same place many times, even though you're sure you've travelled in the opposite direction." The jungle is one of the hardest environments in which to navigate, so it seems natural that a healthy respect for its complex nature and a period of meditative calm before plunging in would be prudent. Yet the Amazon's tribes, traditionally nomadic, have been navigating its darkest pockets, successfully, for centuries. In fact, every other trek or boat trip I did was without incident, and all because, Segundo insists, he observed the required rituals of respect.

That night we set up camp in the jungle; hammocks strung between trees, and I listen to Segundo's creationist stories around the campfire — Huitoto legends of snakes, floods and vengeful gods. We seem very far from civilisation but the distant boom of the ceremonial manguaré drum sounded our proximity to the nearest village. The jungle's white noise lullaby swiftly rocks me to a deep sleep in my hammock. It's all too easy to be spooked by fireside stories.

At the river

We break camp before dawn. Segundo strides ahead of me, fuelled by nothing but morning coffee and regular lung-loads of mambe. I trot sweatily behind, stopping as he points out tree after tree with magical, mystical and medical attributes. Within a 30sq ft patch of forest, you could treat everything from cuts and abrasions to diarrhoea, impotence and arthritis. Ulysses butterflies flop about our heads like huge, blue silk hankies and fabulously named oropendola birds dart to pendulous tree-top nests, long yellow tails flashing in time to the rhythm of their goofy, watery calls.

But it was from the water that we'd see the most spectacular wildlife. Later that morning, we step out of the jungle into a small community. Retrieving a couple of kayaks from a storage hut, we bid land and civilisation goodbye, paddling off into a network of narrow water channels. We drift past the Gothic buttress roots of cieba (or kapok) trees, in and out of vast 'walking' strangler figs that twist along the banks, creating surreal, sculptural cages above the water. Onwards we paddle all morning, my arms aching, my entire body soaked from relentless sheets of warm rain. I couldn't be happier.

Out into the Amazon's lake-like expanse, we become surrounded by giant pads of Victoria Amazonica lilies, each the size of a coffee table, their stupendous white flowers hidden until sundown, when they unfurl with a speed that recalls the footage of a time-lapse camera. Further upriver, by the pretty port town of Puerto Narino, we manage to summon pink and grey river dolphins by whistling and slapping the water's amber surface. They appear like sand banks on the horizon, the pink ones doing a superb impression, half submerged, of lazy hippos in a water hole.

The river's bounty is also on display at one of Puerto Narino's riverside restaurants, where we eat a meaty pirarucu fish, steamed in banana  eaf, and served with the staple accompaniments of beans, rice and crunchy cucumber salad.

Surrounded by Puerto Narino's flower-filled gardens, picket fences and children clutching schoolbooks, we seem far from tribal life. But a tiny enclosed terrace off the restaurant, the pensales, shows how close this Catholicised community remains to its roots. This room is where pubescent girls were once enclosed when newly menstruating, remaining there for between three months and a year, with only maternal contact. On emerging, the girls endured a hair-pulling ceremony, inflicted by female elders, and were almost bald before they were considered women of the community. Our boat driver insists the ritual is still practised in this region; Segundo suggests otherwise.

I spend a final night lulled to sleep by the Amazon's buzz and hum, this time in one of Puerto Narino's simple riverside lodges. Cold beer, freshly squeezed juices from exotically named (and not quite translatable) jungle trees, and a bed rather than a hammock make this feel decidedly civilised. Some guests, however, don't concur. They're travelling around Colombia with a suitcase of wine from their native Chile — apparently a home comfort they can't live without. It's not until I've travelled a few hours down river by motorboat back to Leticia that I succumb to old habits.

The town sits hard on the border with Brazil and within spitting distance of Peru. Leticia merges with the Brazilian town of Tabatinga, where shopping opportunities are a guilty pleasure worth indulging in. Cheap Bahian hammocks, knock-off CDs of Brazilian pop, rainbow displays of Havaiana flip-flops and shop signs in Portuguese are the only sign you've crossed the border. Brazilians, Peruvians, Colombians and tourists move about with impunity, driven by the sort of vociferous, slightly fishy trading you'd find in any almost-respectable port town.

I queue up at a churasscuria (Brazilian grill) alongside a tough-looking group of motor-taxistas (female motorbike taxi drivers), the rulers of this region's few dirt roads. We eat from a gut-busting buffet of grilled meats and spicy sausage — a palate-pleaser after days of river fish and rice, then kick back to watch a hot, humid storm roll in across the river. People are running for cover but all I can think about is getting back on a kayak and going with the flow of this mighty river.




Getting there

There are no direct flights to the Colombian Amazon. European carriers fly from the UK via their European hubs to the Colombian capital, Bogota: Air France via Paris; Iberia/Avianca via Madrid; and Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Delta and United fly via the US.

From Bogota, flights to Leticia take about two hours with Copa Airlines and LAN and cost around £100 one-way. Hotel de la Opera in Bogota's La Canderlaria colonial district is a highly recommended hotel for layovers.

Average flight time: 13-18h, depending on connections.

Getting around

Numerous trekking and boating firms in Leticia offer Amazon excursions, mostly day trips or overnights to the port town of Puerto Narino. It's easy to book on arrival, but for the best guide/route, book ahead.

When to go

Leticia has a tropical climate with temperatures around 30C. The wettest month is May, the driest July, but this being the rainforest, downpours can happen at any time. Humidity hovers around 80%, rising to 88% from December to February. The beginning of the dry season in July and August is a popular time for tourists.

Need to know

Visa: British visitors do not need a visa to enter Colombia, if staying up to 90 days. Travellers should have a passport with at least six months validity and a return ticket.

Currency: Peso (COP). £1 = 1.3 COP.

Health: Yellow fever and Malaria is prevalent in the Colombian Amazon. You may need a yellow fever vaccination certificate to enter Leticia. Ask your tour operator/GP for updates. A
strong DEET formula mosquito repellent is essential.

International dial code: 00 57.

Time difference: GMT -6.

How to do it

Meriden 72 offers a four-day Amazon trip out of Leticia from $1,815 (£1,116) per person, with full-board accommodation, guide, activities, camping equipment, and return domestic flights from Bogota to Leticia. International flights can be arranged.

Travel The Unknown offers the seven-day Amazon Adventure, including Bogota and Leticia, from £1,575 per person, including flights, accommodation, transfers, guides and most meals.

Original Travel offers a nine-day trip to Colombia combining the Amazon and Bogota including full-board jungle accommodation/B&B in Bogota, guides, transfers and flights from £2,800 per person.

More info

Bradt Travel Guides: Colombia. RRP £17.99.

Footprint: Colombia Handbook. RRP £15

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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