When it comes down to it, the Amazon rainforest is really a place of mystery. Do people visit? Do they come back? Are there scary indigenous people who turn tourists into shrunken heads? When you have to take a plane, a car, and a boat to get there, you know you’re off the beaten path. Our trip to the Amazon was definitely one of the biggest physical challenges of my life in terms of necessary athleticism and taking care of myself, and yet, also fairly liberating.
I didn’t realize this before our trip, but Colombia actually has a perfect finger of land that juts into the Amazonias at a sharp corner with Peru and Brazil. It’s a very ideal place to enter the Amazon if you are better off with Spanish instead of Portuguese. Plus, the local town has amazing street food when the sun goes down.
Ryan, my best travel partner ever, booked us flights with no plans. We flew from Medellín to Leticia, Colombia, and got out at the airport without any idea of where to go from there. Some friends had given recommendations but without Wifi, we were ready to wing it. It happened to work out that one of the hawkers trying to catch gringos at the airport exit had a business card that we recognized for Hipilandia. It seemed liked the best starting place so we grabbed a taxi and started our journey through the odd port town of Leticia.
The Hipilandia Hostel lived up to its name. Even from our arrival, it was very obvious that there was at least one stoned occupant on the hostel patio at all times- and usually it was the staff. We laughed this off but later realized that the jungle is nothing to be blasé about. The woman who ran the hostel sold us on a three, full-day tour of the Amazon by boat for around $250 USD. At this point, I personally lowered my high-class standards, accepted the fact that I likely would not shower for three days, and said “why not?” Is there a more authentic way to do the Amazon?
So we jumped aboard a boat the next morning with our (very high) guide. It almost worked out well because he had the munchies and kept handing us snacks, including Garoto Garotices candies from Brazil. For you boujee folk reading this, we were not on a modern boat. At many points we exclaimed out loud how fortunate we were to have a cheap, blue tarp over the top to shade us from the sun and rain. We even picked up passing canoers to shelter them from the rain.
We were traveling 80 kilometers up river to Puerto Nariño and made a stop on day one at a family’s house on the river for lunch and some jungle hiking. Our guide had picked up tall rubber boots for us on the way to the boat and by God did we need those. Walking through the jungle is just constant sloughing through mud. We pudded our way along with our 80-year-old guide and his son who were hustling through the growth while swinging machetes.
To them, every tree and plant is medicine. Maybe that was our guide’s secret to being elderly but ultra-active. Want to get pregnant? There’s a tree for that. Have a belly ache? There’s a plant. Need something for mosquitos? Well.. forget that one. If that had truly been discovered, traveling to the Amazon would look much different.
Ryan will probably kill me if he ever hears the word mosquito come out of my mouth again. I am a human buffet and knew this would be an issue for me in the Amazon. The mosquitos swarm everything. You can see them in every video we took. The locals are constantly smacking bites. The only thing you can do is load up on bug spray and try to avoid excessive scratching. Easier said than done. In this area, yellow fever is really the biggest and only mosquito concern, and while I was guaranteed to get bit, I still chose not to get my fiebre amarillo vaccine because it is horribly expensive in the United States. (Ryan and I ended up getting it in Medellín for $20 USD before our trip.)
Our hiking went on as we treaded trees bent over waterways, with walking sticks, and trying not to slip in the mud. This hour and a half could have sufficed for all the jungle hiking we needed, but little did we know what the next day would look like.
After a great lunch of the largest fish in the Amazon, the arapaima, we said bye to the family that hosted us continued up to the river.
Now, this should be said: Ryan is a wild boy. Former Cub Scout. Mr. Survivor. I knew he would choose the most native options for sleeping and using bathrooms, so, after lowering my standards again and giving up the one possible night of having a bed with a mosquito net, I trekked with him and guide number two through the jungle to a “campsite” where we set up hammocks while it was still daylight for later in the evening. The hammocks were fine and we had mosquito nets so things were looking alright. The campsite had a tarp over the top that we were later extremely grateful for.
We had dinner with our guide, who offered us an outdoor shower option with a very large tarantula. This thing was a whopper and we had plenty of fun with it, but felt it wasn’t worth taking our clothes off and exposing ourselves to the mosquitos bare-butt for a shower. We then walked back to our campsite that we had previously set up. I think this was when the “jungle” really hit us. Our mosquito nets were now decorated with jumbo grasshoppers. I’m talking the size of a man’s hand. The kind you see in apocalyptic movies when the wild takes over. Absolutely incredible, but also unnerving that something that large might slip inside our nets while we sleep.
The nighttime is a whole new ballgame in the rainforest. First of all, the actual rain is insane. We put a lot of trust in a cheap tarp against the plentiful buckets of rain that it collected. It fell so hard and with such force that at one point I grabbed Ryan’s hand through the net just hoping we wouldn’t wash away in our little swinging hammocks. The only other spooky part of the night was our guide waking up and searching around the campsite with a flashlight. To this day we do not know what on Earth he heard, and honestly, don’t want to know.
Morning rolled around and we realized we survived a whole night in the open Amazon rainforest. The rain had let up and it was our window of opportunity to find a good spot for a bathroom break. Our guide gave us breakfast, and took off running out of the campsite with the toilet paper. Our theory is that toilet paper doesn’t exist for our guides so they hold it all in until they get tourists with paper- maybe this is dramatic, but you don’t know how sacred it is until you don’t have it.
We ate our breakfast of hot chocolate, fresh fruit with cereal, and eggs while he was gone “on business.” I had learned to pee in the woods long ago when I worked at a summer camp in Maine, but Ryan did give me a whole spiel on what to do when you gotta poop. I will leave that post to him. Also, my bowels were too shy and I couldn’t do it anyway. But we took the paper from our guide when he returned and headed off. He shouted after us “espalda a espalda!” with a laugh, recommending that we poop back to back. Y’all. I am an independent woman. I ventured my own way. But I did see a bright green frog during my alone time and the thought crossed my mind that that cute little guy might kill me while peeing.
Then the rain started again. We had made it abundantly clear the night before that we had done enough walking and just wanted to go fishing in the morning. So clear that our walking guide, who spoke no English, whittled us fishing poles. Yet, someone else insisted we should do a 2-hour morning hike and the boat would pick us up at the end. We figured they knew best and we had done our part in communicating what we wanted, so we followed their advice, in the pouring rain.
Three hours later, no boat picked us up. We had followed our native man to the right location on the river, but there was no boat. Absolutely drenched, with no water or food, we parked our butts on a log and emptied the inches of water we had collected in our rain booties before following our guide toward a different path.
Hour four goes by.
This two-hour hike had become almost six hours of being lost in the jungle. Even though he couldn’t communicate it in words, our guide was telling us that the situation was less than ideal as he used his machete to mark new paths in the trees so that if nothing else, we could hopefully backtrack what we had done. There was no end in sight. Ryan and I kept our cool fairly well but were finally contemplating what it would be like once the sun went down after what we had been through the night before with the rain and bugs.
Our guide brought us to a new bend in the river and just started hollering. This was it. At the point where he just stops and yells, I had lost all confidence of getting out.
By the Grace of God and no less, our boat captain heard him after about the fifth full-belly growl. This had to be some serious indigenous telepathy. We got a good holler back and I think a little tear came to my eye. Within minutes, our sweet, smiling boat driver pulled up like a hero. We jumped on that boat and immediately ripped all of our soaking, filthy, sweaty clothes off and hung them over the side of the boat. We were so wet our hands and toes were pruned. Trust me when I say the Amazon really breaks down any walls of embarrassment when you start getting too in touch with basic survival mode.
Our boat ride back to the town was so long it became evident what a miracle it was that our boat driver found us. He had to have motored his way up the river for at least 20 minutes and been at the perfect time and place to catch our fleeting calls of help. This is a moment that I should be looking back on with more healthy fear than I had at the time. Again, the Grace of God.
It became an infuriating ride back as we rolled into our base camp and everyone quietly realized what we had been through when we didn’t show up four hours prior. I put my clothes back on and walked straight into their outdoor shower to scrub off thick mosquito repellant and chunks of mud embedded in my clothing with a quick hair rinse.
Eight miles of walking in six hours. We had stumbled over branches, climbed up rooted hills, sloshed through thick mud puddles, and crossed rivers on delicate tree limbs. I’m not one for hiking so I have no comparisons, which was probably a good thing, because Mr. Survivor Ryan ranked it as one of the harder hikes he has been part of. At that point I felt lucky to have stuck with it as well as I did. But, looking back, there’s really no other option. Sit there and wait to die? Maybe I just had a lot of faith in Ryan. If I was with anyone else, I think I would have accepted defeat early on. Ryan is just one of those guys with uncanny confidence in nature and it really permeates the emotional stability of those around him, even if he knows the situation is starting to go awry.
We deuced out of that campsite as fast as we possibly could. There was a very solid understanding that we would be doing no more walking as long as we were in the Amazon. I think everybody was more than on board with us for our sake and we took our evening boat ride up to the next campsite.
About an hour into the ride, we spotted it. Honest to God. Pink dolphins. Of all my travels, I can’t think of a single sight that sounds more unbelievable and culminating than saying “I saw a pink dolphin in the Amazon rainforest.” I knew they were real. I did. But now I REALLY know they are real. The eight-year-old girl within me was cheering on my adult self for continuing to chase adventure and have this moment. Even though I lived in Florida for a couple years and saw dolphins regularly, this moment had a depth of emotion that I was surprised to feel and it turned our trip around. We went from impending doom in the rainforest to grateful hearts of reflection on how incredible it was to actually be on the trip of a lifetime.
Our next campsite was a floating, open-air “house” with a darling old man who ran it for visitors. We set up our hammocks and skeeter nets on the beams with perfect views of Lago Tarapoto. There was no running water but we did have a (non-flushing) toilet which was a porcelain blessing. Our little old man showed us how to bathe in the river from a platform close to the water.
Water. Water. So much water.
Night two, less surprisingly, brought more intense rain. Supposedly we were in the dry season, but nighttime really suggested otherwise. Throughout the night, I continually stroked the bottom of the deck with my hand to confirm that water wasn’t raging across the floor and sweeping our stuff away. Every time, I was shocked to find it was still bone dry when the overpowering sound of rushing rain water suggested we might need an ark.
Again, poor Ryan. I woke him up at 3 a.m., cold and panicking that we were floating away. We listened to the rain and ate a few packets of galletas [cookies] to get through the strongest part of the downpour before relaxing about the weather enough to sleep.
Morning three continued to look up for us with sunny skies and our host handing us two fishing poles of twigs and line before we even had breakfast. We sat on the edge of the floating house and bobbed around with little carved fish cadavers, catching bait for a day of piranha fishing.
Which we freaking did. We fished for piranha and caught one. To say the least, these are spooky little critters. They were smaller than expected and their teeth didn’t look any more menacing than the average salt-water fish in Florida- or so we thought. Our guide pulled back one of the lips and we got the true view of a full set of pointed chompers. You can’t say we don’t have plenty of respect for the deadly force of the Amazonian ecosystem.
Even so, less than ten minutes later we were jumping in the same piranha-infested water. The lake was actually quite refreshing and not as filthy as the water flowing in the river. Still, I wasn’t trying to test my luck and I kept my dip at a minimum. We made a joke not to pee in the water due to the fabled penis fish (google it) and our guide jumped into the conversation with a screaming laugh. From a man who spoke zero English, he knew exactly what we were referencing. I still couldn’t take away from the conversation if he was telling us it was real or if we were just gringo tourists who had watched too many episodes of Monsters Inside Me.
Overall, I left the Amazon knowing this was the adventure of a lifetime. While there were moments of total fear, there were even more moments where we said “wow. We really did this.” I can’t say for sure what character it built or what lessons I learned, but I would recommend making a trip to the Amazon as native as possible. No resort or indoor plumbing can give you a true Amazonian experience. Let your guard down, let your standards drop, and you might be surprised what you can do.