Note: This is part 3 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.
Leticia is the southeastern-most city in Colombia. It has a population of 48,000 over a massive area of roughly 2,500 square miles (though most people are concentrated on the bank of the Amazon River), making it the capital of the Colombian Amazonas Department. That's not as impressive as it may sound. There's really only one other serious town in the department - the isolated village of Puerto Nariño, with a population of about 6,000. The other municipalities are just massive lines drawn on a map, separating low four-digit populations of people spread over thousands and thousands of square miles. Leticia exists at the southern tip of this strange little extension dangling from the bottom of Colombia, and the politics behind how Leticia came to become part of Colombia and not Peru are fascinating (start here if you're curious). You'll have to fly to Leticia to get there - no roads connect Leticia to inner Colombia.
Where to stay
I only stayed in one place in Leticia and, if I were to return, I would stay there again. That place is Leticia's Casa de Huespedes (Leticia's Guest House). The hostel is owned by an older woman named Luisa, who proved over and over again to be one of the most hospitable, friendly and helpful people I've met in my travels. I really couldn't have asked for more. She organized tours down the Amazon, negotiated prices on our behalf with the slow boat and hand-drew us maps of the region to help us coordinate our transportation. She's ridiculous and wonderful. NOTE: The WiFi at Casa de Huespedes is terrible, but it's better than anything else I experienced in the Amazon (Iquitos included).
Where to go
Leticia is a small town and largely serves as a jumping-off point to the Amazon. it's a home-base - there isn't a ton to do in the city itself. That said, there are a few things, and they're listed below:
- Parque Santander: For eighteen hours a day, this little park is a Plaza de Armas like any other in South America. There's a charming fountain in the middle. Vendors sell knick-knacks and street food, and old men smoke cigars. But every day in the late afternoon, the sky goes black and the screeching begins. Tens of thousands of monk-winged parakeets swarm after a day in the jungle to roost in the relative safety of the park's trees. If you weren't aware you were in the Amazon before, you certainly will be when you see this. Here's an underwhelming video on YouTube that doesn't do the experience justice.
- Maikuchiga Monkey Sanctuary: Down the river (and worth about a half-day trip), the Maikuchiga Monkey Sanctuary is a beautiful little experience. Informative and educational, it's also hilarious, because the monkeys descend from the trees and roughhouse with you.
Tour of the Amazon: I organized mine through Luisa at Casa de Huespedes, which I recommend, but there are plenty of local tour companies willing to organize something similar. Here's what you can expect to experience:
- Increasingly isolated jungle villages: You'll hop on El Bote Rapido (the fast boat) for jaunts further and further down the river. On the first day, we stopped in Loreto Mocagua, a small village of several hundred. on the second day, we went to Puerto Nariño (described above). On the third day, we stopped in a village so remote I can't find it on a map. These are tiny little fishing villages, isolated and unique and altogether their own communities.
- More biodiversity than you can handle: A 2005 study revealed that within 6 miles of Leticia, there live at least 100, but likely up to 125 individual species of frogs, making Leticia home to the richest frog fauna in the world. But it doesn't stop at frogs. You'll see snakes and insects and spiders and monkeys and dolphins and sloths, and and and, on forever. It will blow you away.
- Fishing for piranhas: There was one morning in my life in which I proactively tried to attract piranhas from a tiny wooden dory on the Amazon River. That's bizarre to me, even still. Our guide gave us a bamboo rod with bait-fish and taught us how to slap the rod on the water to attract them. This, for what it's worth, is the easiest fishing you'll ever do. Piranhas are everywhere, they're dumb, and they're vicious. Which makes it weird that the very next thing I did was...
- Swimming with pink river dolphins: If you're unaware, the Amazon Rainforest is home to its very own species of freshwater dolphin. Yeah. That's real. They look like this. About two hours after fishing for piranhas, our guide docked our dory on a muddy sandbar and instructed us to swim. I had a cut on my foot from a mosquito bite the day prior. "Won't the blood attract piranhas," I said, only very recently made aware of their commonness and bloodlust. "You're probably fine," he said. And so out I went. Glad I did, too, because there were these gorgeous, bizarre fresh-water giants right there alongside us.
- Night-fishing for caimans: This night was one of the most striking visuals of my life. Our guide took my friend and I out in a little dory on a tributary of the Amazon. The moon was full and poking through a matte of dark, silver clouds, and the whole world was this not-quite-dark shade of gray. Insects hummed this pounding, loud chorus and it was truly something else. We'd shine our flashlight in the reeds by the shore and, every once in a while, catch the red eyes of a caiman lurking in tall grass. We were completely unsuccessful that night, partly because my friend and I had no experience, and partly because the moonlit sky was making our presence obvious. A friend of mine went later, and he said they caught four. Under better conditions, it's possible. But under all conditions, the experience is wonderful.
That's it for Leticia! How do we get from Leticia to Iquitos? That's next. Continue below.