Discover pink river dolphins and Indigenous culture in the Colombian Amazon

Arrive in Leticia, the humid ‘capital’ of the Colombian Amazon, and you’ll already feel far from home; but journey a further 30 miles by boat upriver for wild river safaris and memorable encounters with Indigenous communities.

A Central American squirrel monkey spotted onthe Isla de los Micos, near Leticia.

 

Photograph by Julian Walter
By Hannah Summers
Published 15 Oct 2022, 06:03 BST

His watery eyes urging me to listen, 75-year-old Victor Angel Pereira stares at me intently. “This,” he says, while pointing to a tree next to him, “is what I give people for head and stomach issues. But not much,” he says, stopping to make sure I appreciate the gravity that comes with his role as village healer, “because too much and you’ll die.”

Here in the depths of the Colombian Amazon, right at the very southern tip of the country, deadly plants are remarkably low down on my list of concerns. One day here has gifted me sightings of a multicoloured dart frog the size of a thumbnail, yet one of the most poisonous creatures on the planet; a furry tarantula suspended in a web at eye-height; and a trail of bullet ants, which can cause 24 hours of intense pain with one bite of their tiny jaws. I also learnt that the presence of a snake on the breakfast table has the capacity to wake one up more efficiently than a cup of coffee.

There’s perhaps a reason the jungle was referred to as the ‘green hell’ by the Conquistadors. But not to visit would be to miss one of the most fascinating and varied ecosystems in all existence. Colombia is the most biodiverse country per square mile in the world, with the Amazon occupying a region within it as large as California. While some travellers come specifically for the birdlife (750 of Colombia’s 1,900 avian species are found here) or even the palm trees (Victor tells me there are some 40 varieties where we’re standing), I already sense that my most meaningful encounters will be with the people that call the Amazon home.

Park rangers from the Indigenous Borikada community patrol parts of the Amazon designated for conservation and protection of the isolated tribes.

Photograph by Juan Arredondo

Gifted some sugarcane for my onward journey, I say goodbye to the healer and his village of San Martín de Amacayacu and return to my base by wooden boat. Calanoa Amazonas is a lodge-style hotel home to a number of treehouses that look out over the tree canopy towards Peru, just two miles away, across the dark waters of the Amazon.

And while the hotel prides itself on its dedication to the arts, hosting workshops and artist residencies, most travellers make the journey here — around 30 miles by boat from Leticia, the Colombian Amazon’s ‘capital’ city — for the wildlife. On our first night, we join the lodge team, staffed from the neighbouring village, on a humid, night-time walk through the forest. Within seconds of setting off, head guide Sergio León spots a neon-green manakin bird, no bigger than a hen’s egg, sitting statue-still on a low branch. We press onwards, torch beams guiding us. When a downpour comes, as it regularly does in these parts, Sergio shows us how to wrap up our cameras and phones in banana leaves to keep them dry.

The next day, we’re in search of Amazonian ‘pink’ river dolphins, known here as boto. Specially adapted to navigate the web of tree roots that spread out underwater, this vulnerable freshwater species can grow up to nine feet in length, and when they breathe, they barely breach the surface, making them notoriously hard to spot. The river stretches for miles on either side, but somehow Sergio has found them: we spy one, then another as they surface, rosy-hued against the murky tide. But they’re far from the only attraction; on a branch, Sergio spots a four-foot-long green iguana, while, further down the riverbank, we see a pair of pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkeys in the world. They launch themselves between the branches of a tree and scratch at its bark to release a sap they find delicious.

On our way home, Sergio steers us to the dock at Mocagua, a sleepy village belonging to the Ticuna, one of the Indigenous tribes that live along the water. Here, cats, dogs and chickens live in harmony, snoozing beneath the shaded wooden houses built on stilts, while people come and go. On the outside of each house are huge, multicoloured murals of Amazonian creatures, each representing a different ancestral group in the community.

The ceiba tree is central to Amazonian folklore surrounding the origins of life.

Photograph by Julian Walter

In the 1960s and 1970s, living here was neither easy nor safe; many Indigenous communities left during a brutal border conflict between Colombia and Peru. But in subsequent decades, thanks to government interventions — such as providing schools and electricity — some families have returned. And with them, many traditions have been maintained, too, from fishing to artisanal crafts.

In a large workshop filled with clay pots and palm leaves, I meet Matilde, who’s teaching her eight-year-old granddaughter how to weave baskets out of dried palm leaves. Outside, surrounded by their pets and livestock (a flock of chicks have settled atop a sleeping dog’s belly), they expertly crisscross and fold the fronds, talking as they go. “We’re very proud of our traditions,” Matilde says as she surveys the final flourishes of her work. “It’s important to us, and it makes me happy to see how much people admire it.”

Her granddaughter hands me the basket she’s made, cautiously surveying my reaction. I love it, I tell her. Delighted, she skips off to start another.

How to do it: A five-day stay in Calanoa Amazonas lodge starts from £1,075 per person, including return flights from Bogotá, transfers to and from Leticia airport, guided excursions and full board but excluding international flights. journeylatinamerica.com 

Published in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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