Part of the reason I chose to do an extended trip through South America was because I couldn’t choose where to visit first on a short vacation: Machu Picchu, Rio de Janeiro, Patagonia, or the Amazon. So naturally, I decided to do them all, plus a bunch of other awesome things in between.
As part of my budget adventure, I planned on taking the three-night slow boat through the Amazon from Leticia, Colombia to Manaus, Brazil because this would only cost me $75 with all meals included, as opposed to the $700+ to fly internationally from Colombia to Brazil (more on this coming soon, stay tuned!). So naturally, it made sense to fit my Amazon experience in during my time in Leticia or Manaus.
(Aside from the cost breakdown at the end, this post is all about the two-day tour I took from Leticia. More info about the other seven days in Leticia, Manaus, and the three-night boat journey coming soon.)
My initial search for Amazon tours brought up a ton of options from Manaus. But they also seemed a bit expensive, and seeing as Manaus is a city of nearly two million, I thought it might be an odd place to go off the grid and spend some time in the secluded depths of the Amazon. Luckily when I arrived in the small tri-border town of Leticia, I met three other solo travelers who wanted to do a tour from there. Since there were four of us it ended up being about 1/3 the price that I was budgeting for one from Manaus, at 240,000 COP (roughly $100 USD). Sold.
We chose the two-day, one-night Javari tour from La Jaganga Hostel, and it was everything I wanted in a quick trip to the rainforest. We considered the three-day, two-night trip, but it really didn’t seem to offer many more activities than the two-day.
The trip took us on the Javari River which separates Peru and Brazil. The idea of an organized Amazon tour was really off-putting to me at first, but it’s pretty much the only option unless you want to end up lost in the Amazon by yourself. Luckily, this didn’t feel like a tour at all. Instead it was just us four and our guide, Francisco, and it felt like we were hanging out with a friend who was just showing us around. We didn’t see another tourist until we were heading back to Leticia on day two.
Here’s how our two days went:
We left the hostel around 8:30am in a ten-minute taxi ride to the port across the border in Tabatinga, Brazil, where we met with Francisco. With his round belly and beaming, gummy smile, we all instantly loved him. The five of us jumped in the wooden, canopied boat as Francisco turned in three different directions, pointing out Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. After crossing over to Peru for a quick, yet crucial beer run, we took a leisurely boat ride alongside pink and grey dolphins, brown water, and lush green trees.
About three hours into the ride, we passed a house and waved at the kids as we zoomed past. Next thing we knew, Francisco was turning the boat around to take us for a visit. We climbed the stairs to the wide-open room that hovered over the water on stilts. The family of about nine kids and four adults sat inside, grating and cooking yucca, and spoke Portuguese despite being on the Peruvian side. The kids were in charge of peeling and cutting up the yucca before handing it off to the women to press through a machine and then grating it by hand. Then the man cooked it in a giant pan over a fire, and us gringos ate it by the handful.
After our afternoon snack, we continued down the river to another house which was one of only a couple that we passed during the whole 3-4 hour boat ride. Like the last, this house was also on stilts. Since it’s rainy season and the forest is flooded we weren’t able to find dry land to hang up the hammocks, so we stayed the night in this house. It was basically two separate “houses” joined by a short outdoor walkway. One was a fantastic, huge kitchen complete with hammocks, a portable cooktop, a wooden table and bench seats. The other was two stories high, and the main sleeping quarters. The top floor appeared to be for the family, and us guests were split up into rooms: boys in one, girls in the other. Each room had two mosquito-net covered beds and mesh windows that looked right out at the river. The three bathrooms each had a refreshing shower that used rainwater from a tub on the roof, and for the most part you felt like you were showering outside. Quite honestly, it was kind of like a wilderness dream house.
I unloaded my bag in the room and went for a quick swim because I couldn’t resist playing with the most adorable puppy ever who was climbing on some scraps of wood in front of the house. The water was only about thigh-high, a further reminder that the flooded area around the house is actually dry land during the dry season. Totally unimaginable.
The family prepared us food which was surprisingly phenomenal. I thought it would be a lot of bland rice and beans like most tours, but again, this was nothing like a normal tour. We had yucca, potatoes and beans, lentils, arepas, pork chops, eggs, fish, piranha, pasta, cucumber and onion salad, carambola juice, camu camu juice, spaghetti, and a few other things I didn’t really recognize but loved the taste. It was like eating at an old friend’s mom’s house; they fed us well and there was a ton food every time we sat down.
The family was so friendly. Apparently they live in town, but they built this house as their kind of getaway house, and to host tourists for an extra income. My only regret is that I didn’t speak more Spanish or Portuguese so that I could’ve conversed with them more like the two in our group who were fluent in Spanish.
After we ate, we set out on the boat again to visit a wildlife conservation area, which looked just like another house on stilts in the middle of the rainforest. When we pulled up in the boat two monkeys immediately ran aboard, climbing on our heads, curling up in our laps, and almost instantly finding and devouring the bag of camu camu berries we’d just picked. The whole time we wandered the property, the monkeys followed us around curiously, hanging from the trees while snacking on fruit and watching our every move.
Then we got the chance to play with an anaconda that was contained in a wooden shack. Snakes don’t scare me, so I wasn’t so much worried about it biting or choking me as I was about not being strong enough to lift it or take it off without dropping it to the ground and pissing it off. Turns out, with a little help, it wasn’t as heavy as I’d thought and I managed to get a photo with it.
En español, we learned a bit about the gigantic nearly-extinct arapaima fish and some pretty awesome looking turtles, when suddenly we heard this loud, barreling train-like noise, and looked over to see a wall of rain pouring down about a half mile away and a rainbow forming right in front of us. With my camera and lenses in my hand, two of us sought shelter under the house along with a dog and her pups, a few chickens, and a little girl, while everyone else went up into the house.
After the brief rainstorm, the sky cleared and we headed to a lagoon to watch the sun set while pink dolphins swam around us. It was definitely one of those “holy shit I’m in the Amazon Rainforest” moments, where my dreams as a third grader were finally fulfilled. Now if only I could figure out a way to see dinosaurs and make it to outer space, third grade Kim would be so jealous.
We went back to a delicious candlelight dinner when I realized, and revealed, that this was my first candlelight dinner ever. I think everyone laughed at me. Afterwards, Max and I headed out on a canoe to search for some of the nocturnal animals of the Amazon with the neighbor. This guy had a flashlight that could easily illuminate trees fifty feet away as he searched for the different creatures of the night. It was all kinds of awesome just paddling around this wide open lagoon under the light from a nearly full moon and hundreds of stars. We floated around to the choir of jungle animals as our guide pointed out the different sounds of monkeys, tree rats, frogs, and other Amazonian creatures.
Every so often he’d spot a pair of red eyes and paddle closer. Before I knew it he was pulling small caimans into the boat, letting us hold them before throwing them back in the water. They seemed to freeze up as soon as you touched them, and when we threw them back in the water they swayed their body back and forth like they were still in shock before disappearing.
We also saw a snake swimming through the water, a wide-eyed owl perched on a branch only a few feet away, a tarantula clinging to the side of a tree, and I nearly bashed my face into a bat that was hanging on the side of a branch before it got startled and flew away. It was a truly amazing experience that I couldn’t believe the other two had missed out on by going to bed early.
When we got back, Francisco was partying down with some cachaça caipirinhas he’d mixed up. I tried one but it was a bit too sweet for me, and since I was the only non-Spanish speaker still in the room, I got ready for bed and retired for the night by 10pm.
It started getting light out at the absurd hour of 430AM and the family started stirring about just as early. I looked out the window to see grey skies and decided there wouldn’t be a great sunrise so I went back to sleep.
At a slightly more reasonable hour (about 7AM) I finally got up and showered. After another delicious breakfast, we set out in a canoe to go piranha fishing, which was probably the most hilarious experience of the entire two days. Five of us piled into what probably should’ve been a three-person canoe, without life jackets, and set out again with the neighbor guy. The water was about an inch from spilling into the boat and flooding us out, as we cautiously turned our way into the jungle. Every slight move tipped us to the side as I regretted bringing my SLR on board, so I shoved it in my waterproof bag for safe keeping. After about a half hour we ended up in a pretty strong current, which had us bashing into branches, careening straight for a tree. Josh, the Aussie in our group who was paddling in the front, looked for direction on which way to go but the tide carried us much quicker than the guide could direct us. We crashed right into the tree as Josh calmly stood up, quietly mumbled some profanities, and jumped into the water without even rocking the boat. I knew something had happened, but the slow rate at which he calculated his next move and jumped out without capsizing us was rather impressive. Just as quickly, I realized that he’d just ran right into a swarm of wasps when I saw at least a hundred of them flying around a grey nest. Both Josh and the paddle were being pushed downstream with the current and we kind of just sat there watching as the guide backed us up away from the wasps. Josh eventually climbed back on board with stings all over his face and neck, and I held off on making fun of him until later in the evening.
About an hour and a half after setting out, we dropped our poles (sticks with fishing line and a hook tied on, baited with fish) into the water right in the middle of some shrubbery. Almost immediately I could feel the piranhas biting, but the first few times I pulled the hook up those bitches robbed me of my bait.
Now you should know that I’m a fairly poor sport. I’m fiercely competitive when it comes to dumb shit. I learned early on that I suck at sports and it’s a waste of energy to get pissed because I suck at soccer, basketball, kickball, running, etc. I just do what I can and have fun. But when it comes to things like bowling, beer pong, Mario Kart, tejo, and apparently fishing, I get livid when things don’t go my way. I focus intently and the only words to leave my mouth are usually curse words. So you can imagine the scene as we all sat quietly in a canoe while the piranhas stole my limited bait right off my hook.
Then the guide caught one.
Then Josh caught one.
Then I got pissed.
Using that anger, on the next nibble I yanked the hook right from the water and voila—a piranha! I shouted a few obscenities, took some pictures, and to add insult to injury to the piranha, the bait was still in tact when we took it off the hook. I dropped the line back down into the water and felt another bite. Again, I pulled a second piranha up less than 20 seconds later, with the same piece of bait. Talk about killing two fish with one piece of bait, suckersss!
I was on a roll. At this point, Josh had also caught two and stopped for a smoke, Susannah had given up a long time ago, and I put another piece of bait on my hook. We only had a couple of pieces of bait left, and after my adrenaline wore off I realized what a dick I was for baiting up again when Max had yet to catch a fish and was still trying. After another piranha robbed me of that piece, I reluctantly put the pole down and decided to chill out and let Max try to wrangle one in with the last pieces of bait. He didn’t, by the way.
The ride back to the house wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the ride in, as the guide took the helm and guided us through a calmer area full of giant Amazon water lilies. We returned for our last delicious lunch which also included the freshly prepared piranha. They don’t have much meat on their bones, but piranha meat is delicious. It’s not fishy at all, just super juicy and tender.
Around 2pm we packed up and left the house for another leisurely ride back to Leticia. We saw toucans and tons of other colorful birds flying in the sky, sloths slowly climbing amongst the leaves, huge towering ceiba kapok trees, and all in all completely different scenery as we cut through the jungle.
We made it back to Leticia around sunset, as James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” BLARED from the Peruvian border. Definitely a weird choice considering how little English music I’ve heard down here, but it gave us a good laugh.
Should you do it?
Duh, that goes without saying. Visiting the Amazon was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had so far, and I barely scratched the surface. It was a fantastic two days and I really think we saw and did a lot. If you do the same tour during the dry season you’ll probably have more options to hike through the rainforest, sleep in hammocks outdoors, and possibly see even more wildlife. But we definitely got to see much more than I thought we would, and I can’t recommend this experience enough. I would love to go back during the dry season and do a longer trip, but come on, $100 for two days of transportation, food, lodging, and activities? Totally worth it. It’s worth noting that the more people you have, the cheaper it is. And if you need a translator you will pay even more, so it helps to have at least one person in your group be fluent in both Spanish and your native language.
Pricing breakdown for ten days in the Amazon region:
Flight from Bogotá to Leticia: $112 (though one guy I met said he booked one for $40, I have no idea how)
Three nights at La Jangada Hostel in Leticia: $30
Two-day, one-night tour: $100
Three-night boat from Leticia to Manaus: $75 (more on this adventure coming soon!)
Two nights in Manaus: $21 (I redeemed hotel points for a free stay, just had to pay taxes. But you can find a hostel for just as cheap.)
Grand total: $338, averaging about $33.80 per day, plus a little extra for food in Leticia and Manaus.