Note: This is part 2 of a comprehensive 5 part guide to the Amazon Rainforest (specifically the stretch between Leticia in Colombia and Iquitos in Peru). For the guide’s introduction, click here.
This section is for general, universally-applicable guidance for the Amazon (and some is broadly applicable to South America, Colombia and/or Peru). What do you bring, what do you do, and how do you interact? It's all in here.
Before you leave
If you're thinking about booking guides, tours and hotels before you arrive, I recommend you don't. That sounds counterintuitive, I know. Let me also be clear: this isn't a free pass to skip your research. Do research first, without question. But don't actually *pay* people in advance. The websites you're stumbling upon? They're literally built to prey upon you - Americans or Europeans whose sense of pricing and costs is completely distinct from the way things operate in South America. Those websites are built to maximize the margins for the company. Online, you'll pay what appear to be reasonable costs for Europeans and Americans. In-person, you'll pay high costs for locals. You're being ripped off either way, but the scale of the ripoff is an order of magnitude higher from your web browser than it is in-person.
- Take none of this personally. You're interacting with people whose annual income is roughly what you make in a month, and they know it. They've got families to feed and lives to live.
- One caveat: hostels and hotels. Yes, the same laws of economics above apply here, but I’ve found the stability of knowing where I’m going when I arrive outweighs price inflation. Also, HostelWorld takes a small fee, but it’s generally not a ripoff.
- If you're thinking about booking guides, tours and hotels before you arrive, I recommend you don't. That sounds counterintuitive, I know. Let me also be clear: this isn't a free pass to skip your research. Do research first, without question. But don't actually *pay* people in advance. The websites you're stumbling upon? They're literally built to prey upon you - Americans or Europeans whose sense of pricing and costs is completely distinct from the way things operate in South America. Those websites are built to maximize the margins for the company. Online, you'll pay what appear to be reasonable costs for Europeans and Americans. In-person, you'll pay high costs for locals. You're being ripped off either way, but the scale of the ripoff is an order of magnitude higher from your web browser than it is in-person.
What to bring/be prepared to buy:
Boots that can get muddy and a good pair of sneakers and flip flops.
- Many of the tour companies will provide you with knee-high rubber rainboots, but you may want your own, too.
- A thin raincoat and maybe a light sweater (just in case - you likely won't use it).
- Bug spray. Endless bug spray. The highest level of DEET you can get your hands on. From the comfort of wherever you sit right now, you may harbor all sorts of hesitancy to glom on the DEET. I promise you, your allegiance to that particular standard will erode within six hours of wheels down in Leticia.
- Long sleeve shirts and pants with thin fabric. You'll want to be cool, but you'll want the bugs gone more.
- Some kind of portable charging station for your electronics. You're going to go days without access to a wall socket.
- Be prepared to buy a local SIM card. Claro, Tigo and Movistar are the big three in Colombia, but Tigo drifts away in Peru. Go with Claro or Movistar. Even still, enter with the expectation that you're going to be absent cell service and WiFi for most of your trip.
If you plan to take the slow boat from Leticia to Iquitos, buy a hammock in the city from which you depart. They should run you 50k-100k COP, ($15-30 US). Also bring:
- A neck pillow
- A few good books.
- Pre-download a dozen episodes of your favorite podcasts (ahem) and lots of music. You're definitely not going to have the WiFi firepower to do so in either Leticia or Iquitos.
- Snacks. The food on the boat will get old after a day or two.
I'm not a doctor, but:
- Get your Yellow Fever vaccine and bring your certification card. They didn't check for me at the Colombia-Peru border, but I'm told they often do.
- Apparently, the same is true for your Measles bump.
- You may want to bring Malaria medication. I brought it but opted against taking it (many people report sleeplessness and hallucinatory, vivid nightmares. That didn't interest me). This is a decision to make for yourself.
- Boots that can get muddy and a good pair of sneakers and flip flops.
What to leave behind:
- Unnecessary electronics.
- Anything flashy (those Ray Bans should stay home, as should that Apple Watch).
- Bush/safari jackets. You're just gonna look like a jerk.
Interacting with people
The people of the Amazon are wonderful and accommodating. They want to help you, and if you interact with them appropriately, they will reciprocate tenfold. Below are a few rules of thumb.
At least try to speak Spanish
You don’t need to be fluent, but you should try to start with Spanish. Fumble through what you can and smile with warm eyes. Memorize this phrase for the moments in which you fail: “Lo siento, mi español es terrible.” (I’m sorry, my Spanish is terrible. “Terrible” is pronounced ter-ee-bley). Laugh at yourself. Your humanity will shine through the language barrier, and people will help you.
“No dar papaya” and useful insights about the safety of South America
The relative safety of South America carries a stigma in North America and Europe. And let’s be clear - there's good reason for that. But it’s not outlandishly dangerous. Not in a way that will surface day-to-day, anyway. That said, there’s a mental shift you need to understand in South America (and Colombia especially). It can best be summarized in the Colombian idiom “No dar papaya.”
The phrase directly translates to “Don’t leave papaya,” but it more generally means, “don’t let yourself be taken for a ride, and you won’t be.” Don’t leave your iPhone on the table at the restaurant where passers-by can snatch it. Don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket. Don’t walk around with a Rolex in the streets of a city in which you likely make in a month what the average local makes in a year (that’s just average US GDP per capita to average Colombian GDP per capita).
It’s worth noting the other side of the idiom: “Take the papaya you see.” People in Colombia and Peru aren’t bad people (far from it - they’re generally wonderful), it’s just that their ethical compass is constructed with a looser relationship to laws on the books than you’re used to. Be smart and be friendly and people will treat you with respect. Leave your iPhone on the table when you go to the bathroom at a restaurant, and it’ll be gone when you return.
The advice above will help you out of jams (or prevent them in the first place). Other basic feedback applies that should apply wherever you are in the world, too. Stick to lighted streets. Avoid walking alone in less populated areas, especially at night. Keep an eye on the people around you. Mothers pushing strollers, families and children? You’re probably fine. Scattered military-age men? You’re probably fine there, too, but maybe work your way back to a more populated area.
That said, the people in Colombia and Peru are generally warm, inviting, accommodating and friendly, and this goes doubly so for the rural populations of the Amazon. They want to help you. Their culture is inclusive and inquisitive, and if you extend yourself, they’ll reciprocate. Ask for directions if you’re confused. They’ll get you where you’re going.
Next, we'll cover the city of Leticia: a little history, what to do, booking tours and more.