Thank goodness we arrived at the tri-frontera in the daytime, otherwise I´m not sure how I would´ve navigated the river and its coasts shared by three nations. First we stopped at a seemingly random shore to unload the cattle. Those poor cows. It was a hellish journey for them, unable to move in their little pens, getting rained on, and without shade for three days in the fierce jungle sun. One by one, they were persuaded to once again walk the plank, and their spirits seemed cheered by the fresh grazing to be had on land.
The boat stopped and let most of the passengers off in Santa Rosa, Peru. The crew would continue upriver another day into Colombia, and then return. I made plans to catch them on their way back to Iquitos, and hopped off into the morning heat with my backpack.
Santa Rosa is a tiny town on an island in the Amazon, with a little port of peki-pekis that zip over to Colombia and Brazil across the river. With one street, a few houses, a restaurant, and a couple of vendors, its main attraction for me was the immigration office. My passport was stamped out by a young lady in a tank top and miniskirt. I let her know the nature of my trip, and she told me she´d see me on my way back into Peru.
Well then, off to Colombia. I meandered down to the smattering of pekis, and only found one with its owner. Despite his boat´s little Peruvian flag, he rolled his eyes when I told him I only had soles. Peruvian currency is weaker than Colombian pesos or Brazilian reales, and even in Santa Rosa the people never want their own money.
The little trip across took less than ten minutes, and we landed in Leticia´s port. On all sides were small boats flying a medley of Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian flags. I thanked the boat driver and took my first steps into Colombia.
The first stop was changing money. A young man with blue braces gave me enough pesos for a couple of days, and handed me a toffee the color of his skin. ¨Welcome to Colombia! ¨ His smile shone with a blue glimmer. Anything in Colombia will cost a number of thousands of pesos, and thus began the constant game of conversion.
Leticia, like Iquitos in Peru, is the country´s center for jungle tourism. As such, there are luxury hotels and tourist trinket shops spread around the center. Asking a couple of people along the way, I found a modest place to stay. At reception, a young guy struck up a conversation with me in perfect English. He was a Colombian guest, who had recently finished his masters program in the U.K. and soon would be off to Australia for work. As I needed an entry stamp into his country, he gave me directions to the immigration office at the airport.
I started off walking, admiring beautiful colonial estates, shrines, and a huge military compound on the long road there. Soon I realized that of the many passing motorcycles, those with an extra helmet behind the driver served as taxis. This was a change from the motokar taxis of Peru, where I had never seen a helmet on any motorcyclist.
A sweet older man stopped for me, I popped his spare helmet on, and off we went to the airport. He told me he´s wait for me to get my stamps. Inside, I saw a lot of European tourists headed back to Bogotá, and more arriving ready for jungle trips. The Colombian official was a muscular guy a couple of years older than me, curious how my trip had been from Peru. Although he seemed disappointed I wouldn´t be getting to know Colombia better, I persuaded him to give me both entry and exit stamps. I gave him a huge thank you and told him his country seemed lovely. The kind taxista returned me to Leticia´s center, and refused payment for the whole loop.
So, for just a couple of days, I explored Leticia and Tabatinga. While distinct, there is an overarching jungle culture that blends them together. The bright colors of people´s clothing, foods based on tropical fruits and river fish with yucca and plantain, and the relaxed pace of life in the heat. However, in a short time I did get some impressions of Colombia and Brazil.
Colombia, in comparison to Peru, is more modern and even here in the jungle enjoys the perks of development and infrastructure. There was a park near my hotel with a playground nicer than any I´ve seen in the U.S., and yes I did frolic. Also, there were nice murals along some of the streets. The people, while kind, were much more distant and mellow and the average Peruvian. There were more people with European features, and the development is rewarded with higher prices. I met a few interesting folks from the Caribbean, who had some long-winded tales of ending up in the most far-flung corner of Colombia. I liked Leticia, and it´s food was great. My only complaint is the constant math equation I had to process each time I needed to buy something, after so much time in Peru. Silly pesos.
Brazil blew my mind. It is such a huge country. I was absolutely amazed that I was in the far west of the nation, and it stretched all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It seems so distant, when I have never even been to the East coast of my own country. However, the tri-frontera is only a few days away from Manaus, a large jungle city. The people in Tabatinga are undeniably Brazilian and very proud of it. Folks here were browner, the ethnic alchemy of the country apparent in people´s features. They speak to everyone in their musical and emotive Portuguese, and understandably act aloof when spoken to in Spanish. An unexpected perk was finding coconut milk, which isn´t part of Peruvian cuisine but is big in Brazilian food.
When I went to a little bar and view tower in Tabatinga with a new Colombian friend, he asked in Spanish and the girl attending answered in her own language. The languages are similar enough that the neighbors get by. From up on that hill, I saw the bustling market of Tabatinga fade gradually into Leticia´s shore, and across the water was tiny Santa Rosa. Boats zipped and chugged in all directions between the towns. The next day I would catch one back to Peru.
The same girl at immigration didn´t really care that I was in her country on as a university researcher and it didn´t make a huge difference to her that I had letters from the dean. She very generously gave me six more months, and one of her beautiful smiles. Thus I was good to go, and rejoined the lovely crew from before for another gorgeous ride on the Amazon, this time upriver.
Here in the middle of the Amazon not only were there modern cities, but it was one of the most tranquil and peaceful international borders I´ve ever visited. Although it has a reputation as a smuggling site, it is a peaceful place. The Amazon is spectacular as it is, but the tri-frontera has a unique flavor that is not distinctly Peruvian, Colombian, not Brazilian, but a delicious blend of them all.
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