By Joanna MarracelliThe Amazon rainforest. Just the name alone conjures up images and emotions associated with this majestic area. It spans across of much of the northern part of the continent of South America, covering 7,000,000 square kilometers, which is mostly rainforest. The Amazon River snakes along this area stretching all the way from Peru into Colombia until it empties into the ocean in eastern Brazil. The Colombian portion, known as Amazonia, comprises almost one third of the country’s total area. To help put this in perspective, it’s about the size of California or larger than Germany. We’re talking really big!
Visiting this area can, thus, be daunting for the visitor. Traveling to the cities in the Amazon is a reality far away from the images that you imagine in the jungle. The cities along the river and in the basin are just that, cities. Leticia, Colombia functions just as any other city would. Loud motor cars, ATM’s, crowds–you get the idea. If you are imagining dug-out canoes packed to the brim with bananas and tribes of indigenous people, you can forget about the big cities. True, they offer convenience but not much else in the way of an Amazon River adventure.
Fortunately, the idealized, romanticized version of the Amazon does indeed exist. You just need to get out of the major cities in the basin to find it. Puerto Nariño, Colombia is an excellent choice for those that want to experience the jungle itself and not just have another ordinary city experience. This tiny place is more of a village than a city and serves as an exemplary model for sustainable living. Located just a mere 87 km up the river from Leticia but it feels worlds away.
Getting here is fairly uncomplicated. To arrive, you must first go through Leticia, which is the main city in the Amazonia part of Colombia. From here you can take a boat trip lasting two hours, which then deposits you in the harbor of Puerto Nariño. There is minimal but sufficient accommodation in the village as well as a handful of restaurants which serve a similar, simple (mostly fish) menu. This is one destination that is not based around the food. You don’t come here to sample Colombia’s best foods but to instead get a glimpse of what it’s like to live somewhat isolated in the Amazon jungle.
What makes Puerto Nariño so unique is its sustainable living model. The world can take a lesson from this small village which embodies the concept of ‘green’ in a very non-trendy way. For starters, motorized vehicles are completely banned. Even the ubiquitous motorcycles, which are found all throughout Colombia, are not to be seen. To get around, you simply stroll the manicured sidewalks while the jungle looms directly in the background. For longer jaunts, you can hop in a dug out canoe which act as taxis in the area.
For the most part, everything here is immaculate and you can find trash and recycling bins on almost every street corner. Most mornings you will find citizens of the area who are out to sweep up any garbage. Rainwater is collected and used for the town’s washing and gardening. Electricity is provided by an energy-efficient generator which only runs until midnight. The population of about 6,000 is mostly indigenous people comprised of the Ticuna, Cocama and Yagua groups. Besides fishing, most of the economy here depends upon eco-tourism, something which because of their way of life and doing things, has attracted a fair share of tourists.
There is much to do here, as the Amazon rainforest is teeming with life and sounds. Not to be missed, is a boat trip out onto the Lago Tarapoto where you can spot both pink and grey river dolphins, various species of birds and indigenous life along the river. It’s easy to hire a private guide to take you out onto the river, just ask around as there is no official tourist office. Some guides, although very few in number, are even bilingual. The best time to see the dolphins is at either sunrise or sunset. Both of these times are sublime experiences in of themselves, just to witness spectacular views of the river and sun.
Another boat trip worth doing, is fishing for river fish, especially piranha. These fish are indigenous to the Amazon river basin and are known for their extremely sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Hire a local guide and he will take you fishing for these little suckers. If you catch one big enough, you can even keep them to fry it up for dinner. Ask the guide to stop along the rainforest so you can get out and admire the larger-than-life trees and vegetation. The jungle is alive with sounds and smells that you have never experienced before. Walks to other nearby indigenous towns like San Martin or 20 de Julio can be had by just following the town’s sidewalks. Ask a local to point you the way.
There are a few choices for where to sleep but no luxury options. But that’s not why you are in the rainforest. To truly be at one with the jungle, you absolutely must stay at Hostal Alto del Aguila (there are no addresses in Puerto Nariño). And although it’s located slightly outside Puerto Nariño, it will remain a highlight of your visit here. Friar Hector is your host and he and his band of monkeys and macaws will be eager to greet you.
A handful of cabanas are scattered around the gorgeous property where you are literally immersed in the jungle. Friendly capuchin monkeys will gleefully leap on your shoulders while macaws hang around. At night, fall asleep to the sound of semi-terrifying insect sounds and listen to the jungle rain hit your tin roof. Accommodation is extremely basic here but mosquito nets are provided. Remember that this isn’t a luxury jungle lodge and just relax and enjoy the beauty of this special place.
Food options are similar to accommodations in that they are also very basic. River fish, especially the pirarucú, is abundant and tasty (especially when wrapped in banana leaves). Other Colombian staples, including the standard fare of chicken and rice, can also be had, as well as tasty soup. Just remember that you are isolated pretty far from the “mainland” and all the food has to be transported or caught. For this reason, options are quite limited here. Don’t miss the pirarucú or the other popular fish, gamitana.
Remember to leave your luxury expectations behind when visiting this special place. Go with a sense of adventure and filled with curiosity and you will enjoy all the Amazon jungle has to offer. This is rustic, non-city life here folks. Remember to take all the money you will need with you, as there are no banks or ATM’s in Puerto Nariño. It’s also worth noting that you should have your yellow fever vaccination before entering any area of the Amazon rainforest as well as precautions against malaria. Mosquito repellent is requisite as is a good attitude.
How to arrive: To get to Puerto Nariño, it’s best to go through Leticia first. To get here, you must take a flight. All flights within Colombia operate on either LAN or Avianca and cost about US $150-180 (one way) from Bogotá. The flights within Colombia all go through here. You can also fly in from Manaus in Brazil or Iquitos in Peru. From Leticia, take a rapid boat which leaves three times a day (at 8, 10 am or 2 pm). Cost is about 30,000 COP (US $15) one way. The ticket office is located in the marketplace along the waterfront in Leticia. It’s best to buy the night before to ensure it doesn’t get filled up.
Where to stay: The best option is clearly Hostal Alto del Aguila. There is no website but you can call or email: Phone: 311-502-8592/E-mail: email@example.com. Rooms are very basic but cheap and the scenery, wildlife and host just can’t be beat. Cabanas are 22,000 COP (US $11) per night. Try to get the one with the private bathroom. If that is just too rustic for your taste, Hotel Casa Selva should do you nicely. It’s cleaner and has more creature comforts but no monkeys! It’s considered luxury in town, set in a stately white two storey building and prices reflect this at 115,000-190,000 COP (US $60-100) for a double room. They can arrange tours for you directly at the hotel.
Where to eat: Restaurant Tucanare is a local’s favorite. It’s perfect for set meals of the day. Las Margaritas seems to be the fanciest and best place in town and it’s here that you will want to try the fish. The meats are pretty decent too. Metare restaurant isn’t too shabby either and worth the price you pay for the set lunches.