Beginning of a journey: A welcome to the Basin

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South America » Colombia » Leticia » Rio Yavari, Amazon
November 2nd 2010
Published: January 15th 2011
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A pipe dream: I suppose that is what you could have labeled the idea of crossing the Amazon from the western border of Brazil to the Atlantic Coast. I can still remember when this idea popped into my head, long before I had ventured off Australian soil. You know, those TO DO LISTS you write after a heated discussion with someone about how crap your job is and if you could travel the world this is what you would do. Although, over the last 3 years I have been living out my dream. And on this second trip to Latin America crossing the Amazon was one of the first things on my agenda.

The length of the journey you can take across the Amazon Basin varies. If you are a purist, as in the sense that an adventure is only achieved if it is done in its entirety, then you could start this journey from Coca, Ecuador, and travel down the Rio Napo to Iquitos, and then onto Leticia/Tabatinga, the three way border between Colombia/Peru/Brazil where I decided to start my journey. I am more of a realist in this regard. It is still a significant journey and starting from Leticia works out nicely, meaning the entire journey is on Brazilian soil.

Whilst in Quito, a few weeks before starting this leg, post attempted coup, I met Kate who also had the idea of starting an Amazon trip in Leticia and heading downstream. So after a brief introduction we decided to meet in Bogota on an aforementioned date and then fly down to Leticia. This plan came into fruition a few weeks later. Following my trip to the Galapagos, I made a beeline for Bogota from Quito on chicken buses, private cars and private buses. I had spent nearly a month in Colombia previously and after maximizing the amount of time I could spend on the enchanted isles I left myself one hell of a journey. On reaching Cali at midnight after 16 hrs traveling I decided to finish this leg in one hit and boarded the 1am bus to Bogota. It was around 30 hrs in total but I was in time to meet up with Kate before or journey south.

Flying over the endless Colombian jungle really makes you think how many FARC members are hiding under your very eyes. It was news at the time as well, the military killing the 2nd in command on a successful air raid, putting further pressure on the group to continue their subversive operations. In relation to the incident where Colombian Diplomats were kicked out of Caracas because of suspected FARC soldiers operating in Venezuelan territory, it all just seemed so irrelevant, dense jungle as far as the eye could see, no visible borders, just jungle.

As expected, Leticia was steamy. Leticia being the Colombian border town, Tabatinga the Brazilian equivalent. Unlike other border towns, you are able to cross without producing identification. They both accept each others currency, at favourable rates as well, and business takes place through the borders to the point that you could be living in Colombia and working in Brazil. The language barrier seems to be overcome, the lingual similarities outweighing the obvious differences. It also makes for an attractive night out: some salsa in Colombia over a few cold beers and then sambaing the night away in Brazil, sipping on capirinhas. Could these men be any luckier? They are definitely spoilt for choice!!

Rarely would you say that it is unfortunate to have an Australian passport. Brazil is one such place. While Kate stamped herself out of Colombia and into Brazil with the ease of ducking down to the corner shop for some milk, I had to apply for a visa. The people in the Brazilian consulate didn’t seem to be in a hurry either, using the appointed visitor couches to satisfy their needs as the afternoon was winding down. And even on producing my paperwork in the office at 2:50pm, there minds were already in shutdown mode and told me to come back tomorrow, everyone taking a 10 minute early mark, going to the pub, down to the river, anywhere to escape the oppressive heat, humidity and headaches surrounding the consulate.

It would take a few days to get the visa, and today being Tuesday and there being a boat to Manaus on Saturday, Kate and I decided to hang around here and then attempt to get the boat on Saturday. There were 2 boats leaving a week, but the schedule didn’t seem rock solid, considering the Wednesday boat was now leaving on Thursday. There really wasn’t that much to do in Leticia, and considering the heat and that Kate had English blood running through her veins, mine Australian, finding some shade and cooling off with a few cold beers seemed like the only viable option. The locals seemed to think this as well.

Actually all things in Leticia seemed to run at a pretty mediocre pace. The Laundromat guaranteed our clothes back in 3 days time. The Colombian consulate seemed to be open for barely a few hours. Kate and I were still adjusting ourselves to this place, this idea of time. A town that has no roads coming in or going out, just the steady flow of the largest river on earth (contentious claim disputed between the Latinos and the Africans). I still recall my first trip in Thailand where adapting to Thai Time meant more than adjusting your watch. Looking at the even tan I still have on my left wrist is a reminder of how much I had learnt: I didn’t even own a watch. I got up when I wasn’t tired, I ate when I was hungry, beer o’clock could strike at any hour (it was past midday somewhere in the world) and ‘being in a hurry’ actually didn’t translate into Spanish or Portuguese.

With my passport at the Brazilian Embassy and the boat to Manaus leaving on Saturday we had a few days to explore the area. Day tours up the river and into the nature reserves were geared towards people who had trouble closing their wallets. So we decided to make our own forage into the jungle, taking a boat 3 hrs upstream to Puerto Nariño, a small town on Colombian soil that felt more isolated. Looking on a map you might comment that Leticia seems pretty isolated. Well, it is, but its still a reasonably sized city so you kind of lose that sense that you are in the middle of the jungle. The main streets of Puerto Nariño were footpaths, there was no need for roads considering the absence of cars. Proud to show off their new recycling initiative Kate and I, being the only tourists arriving on the small dock, were given a presentation and shown the new green and yellow bins located around the river, even posing for a photo with the officials. Sitting on a restaurant porch having lunch, sweating profusely, consuming copious amounts of water, eating the fresh morning catch with the usual trimmings of rice, beans and bananas, I had a good feeling about this place.

We found a really nice guesthouse, an enormous bungalow really, run by a young family. Kids were climbing up the enormous tree out the front, throwing down the fruits of their labour to their mates on the ground. It was a mandarin like fruit, yet different. Like most of the fruits in the Amazon, they are only native to the area, and are a weird mix of the fruits that you have grown up with. Making the statement ‘It looks like an apple and kind of tastes like a mango and a passionfruit combined’ wouldn’t raise an eyebrow out here. Ordering at a juice bar is interesting, the language barrier a minor hindrance compared to the alien fruit in front of you.

The owner recommended a guide for us to show us around the area. And the price was about a quarter of what they were offering in Leticia. So we met the guide on the small dock, boarding our small private vessel, just the two of us, chauffered down the river, in a setting so distant from the romance of Venice, the damp air not filled with sweet Parisian perfume, just our olor corporeal. The river was at its lowest level in 100 years, so the back creeks were starting to dry up as well, which could potentially isolate communities who use the rivers as their only mode of transport. Ironically, last year the river level was the highest in 100 years! Walking up the steep bank and through 30 metres of scrub we were shown on a trunk of a tree the water level the river was the previous year. It was so hard to imagine, this watermark a good 15 metres higher than the current level. The December rains were beginning though and the river was expected to rise about 5 metres in the next 2 months.

Walking through the scrub we were shown various trees that are used in herbal medicine. When I was in the Cuyabeno Reserve in Ecuador I chewed the bark of a tree which was a form of anaesthetic, numbing my tongue for a while. I didn’t eat anything this time. Well, actually that’s not correct. I did eat a bug, you know, Bear Grylls moment and all that, after the guide told me it was a good source of protein. And no I don’t fall for that all the time! I did manage to squirt the red juice from a berry that is used for dying clothes/jewellery all over my white shirt, ruining it beyond the stage of motherly advice on stain removal.

A small lake with giant lily pads was overlooked by a local man whose name escapes me. He had a small shack built on the shore, million dollar views and all that, with an outdoor kitchen stocked with the morning fish and fruits. The lily pads, scientifically named Victoria Amazonica, is the biggest aquatic plant on earth. If one was escaping through the jungle, you would almost feel safe running across them, albeit the scene would be reminiscent of an episode of Takeshis Castle. The white lily flowers appeared delicate adjacent to the giant plant, the lake taking on a red tinge, waiting for the next rains to clean the surface.

Due to the river systems being at a low level, caimans were easier to spot. Our local man had a few caimans keeping him company, one near the kitchen and the smaller ones in the water accompanied by tiny turtles (in comparison to the Giant Turtles I had just seen on the Galapagos Islands, they were like ants). I held the big caiman, adjusting my hands to the coolness of its skin and their dinosaur like armour. I am scared of snakes (growing up in Australia will do that to you) so reptiles come ever so close to that category and makes me feel a little uneasy. I don’t know what I was fearing, its mouth was roped shut and it wasn’t going to do me any harm. Kate’s reaction to holding the turtle took the cake though, holding the little one in her hand and then freaking out, dropping it to the ground, the equivalent of a 20 storey building for this small creature. Luckily turtles are built to last and it made its way back to the water as if nothing had happened, walking it off…..slowly of course.

The sense of space out here is astonishing. Away from the river in the small tribituaries the water, clear blue and still, reflects the enormous vaulted sky, the shores splattered with endless green, interrupted by the occasional white trunk; dark clouds looming in the distance, reminding you of the circle of life, making you feel so small and inconsequential, a place where nature is king and water is the religion. The silence adds to this grandeur, making us feel like strangers, the only noise coming from high in the trees, the language of the forest.

Stopping on the riverbank we found this amazing tree, which on first appearances looked like a group of trees. The original tree has grown as per normal, and then began to branch out sidewards. For some reason only known to nature roots started growing down from the branches until they reached the ground. This then continued happening, more branches growing outwards and then down to the ground. Being surrounded by this group of trees and then realizing it’s only one tree is truly amazing. There were a number of branches hanging down, which catered to one of my hobbies: swinging on vines like a kid.

We passed many local fisherman on the way out to the meeting of the two rivers, where we would hopefully see some pink freshwater dolphins. Some had their canoes full of fish, nets bunched at the back, paddling back home to a happy family no doubt. Others were still spreading their nets, making a circle of the area, reeling the net back in with a variety of white fish of all sizes. The engine to the small boat was switched off and we just waited, listening intently, focusing on nothing but the surface of the water, for the sound of a dolphins breath as it came up for air. It was so peaceful, a beautiful sunset was forming as well, the clouds acting as a mirror, reflecting the orange colours that the dipping sun was giving off. And then came the dolphins. There are two types of river dolphins in the Amazon, the pink and the grey. They don’t look like the famous bottle nosed dolphin. Their beak is long and thin which then leads to a bulbous nose and a fin/hump on their back. They definitely add to the richness of colours along the river. They usually travel in pairs, and we were lucky enough to get a glimpse. They started popping up in the distance and they gradually came closer to the boat. You just had to put the camera away and enjoy witnessing them in their natural environment. When the camera was at the ready it was difficult to take a shot before it dived back under the surface. Coming back to the port, seeing a few more dolphins along the way with the most memorable sunset capped off a day where we witnessed the beauty of the river.

The journey back to Leticia was over no sooner than it started. Downstream on a speedboat couldn’t be a faster way to travel and we were back in the early afternoon. We would have liked to have stayed in Puerto Nariño for one more night but we were running low on money (no ATM) and I wanted to be sure to get my passport and the boat tickets for Saturday. On Friday morning we kept ticking the things off the list: Brazilian visa, exit stamp for Colombia, laundry, hammock, rope. We needed to cross the border to Tabatinga to get our boat tickets and our entry stamp into Brazil. After waiting for a taxi, I thought that walking would be a good idea. It was hot though, bloody hot. And with the distances in mind completely underestimated by the time we reached the port we were sweating profusely. Then we were directed to the port for the boats to Manaus, which was ‘just up the river’. One vendor gave us the tip that we could just walk down the bank of the river, a shortcut. Shortcuts are never shorter, yet we decided to trust the locals.

Kate’s version of the story, short and sweet, is like this:

“walk around in the heat?? Kate we'll get a taxi, at the end of this road, we'll get a taxi. oh theres no taxi, oh well....
Oh a short cut what a good idea,
Kate 'Dan I recon a short cut in a bad idea'
no no, good idea.

Well, lets just say that I have never seen someone burn so quickly in my life!! Kate’s fair English skin wasn’t in the least appreciative of the Brazilian sun. Tickets in hand, we shared a 2 litre bottle of Fanta (water didn’t seem satisfying enough), and then made the rest of our errands on the back of a motorcycle, the easiest way to get around town.

So our bags were loaded with books, our unused hammocks ready to be used, and our sense of time left at the border, all ready for the 4 day boat to Manaus.

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