Discovering the incredible Amazon rainforest as an independent budget backpacker can prove a challenge, but the Amazon rainforest in Colombia is accessible and affordable, if you know where to go! Most travellers will look to their hotels and hostels in Leticia to organise their Amazon jungle tours. However, I would recommend skipping Leticia altogether, and hopping on an Amazon boat that will take you to the local river communities and experience authentic Amazon life! There are several Colombia Amazon tours that offer this, but the best thing is – you can do this with or without a tour!
The beauty of the unknown is rare in a world where modern civilisation has dominated and destroyed much of our planet, but the incredible Amazon rainforest remains an impenetrable mystery. We read about the existence of uncontacted tribes who live in the depths of the Amazon, the plethora of plants with medicinal qualities and potential cure for cancer and the constant discovery of new species. To the local communities that live on the river, the Amazon is their back garden. And it is to these local communities where you should go to discover the secrets of the Amazon.
There is very little information about the Amazon online, since internet barely reaches the dense, isolated jungle region. I spent ages searching online and finally came across somebody who could help me organise my trip to Amazon rainforest in Colombia!
WHERE TO STAY & WHAT TO DO
Mocagua – An Amazon River Community
From Leticia, there are boats to Puerto Nariño every day, which stop at the communities of Santa Sofía (KM35), Zaragoza, Macedonia and Mocagua. The community of Mocagua, 60km from Leticia along the river, is a wonderful community of around 400 people which is only just starting to attract tourists, or rather, it is opening itself up to the possibility of tourism. There are three lodgings in Mocagua, along with a few “restaurants” (family homes where they serve you food) and several señoras who make and sell artisanal crafts from their homes.
Tomacache is a beautiful lodge with raised wooden huts with thatched roofs right on the riverfront. It is run by Henry, who is a lovely, shy but friendly father-like figure, through whom you can organise activities which are led by local members of the community. There are a host of activities you can do, such as dolphin watching, pirana fishing, night canoe trip, camping in the deep jungle, jungle walks, buying artesanal crafts and visiting the monkey rehabilitation centre.
The night canoe trip will take you to the depths of the jungle, with nothing but torches to guide the way. When you can barel see anything you are forced to really listen to the sounds of the jungle, the wild calls of animals in the night. If you’re lucky you might even spot frogs, tarantulas, monkeys, caimans, and snakes!
You can go fishing the old-fashioned way (with a glorified stick). Our guide caught about ten fish, our outdoorsy New Zealand companions also managed to catch a few, but obviously, us city kids from London caught nothing, instead we got our bait caught in the plants several times. It’s a good test of your survival skills. I know I would definitely die in the jungle.
For the more adventurous, overnight camping is a must – you will be taken along the tributaries of the Amazon and taken deep into the jungle, where you must set up camp with hammocks under a plastic sheet and cook your own dinner on a fire. Enjoy a night jungle walk to see caimans and sleep to the sounds of roaring jaguars (rare, but I heard them!). In the morning, enjoy a walk getting to know the plants and trees that could be vital to your survival in the jungle.
Visit the unmissable Maikuchiga monkey foundation* and rehabilitation centre. This centre aims to protect monkeys from being poached and sold on the black market. Those who are endangered or, often, babies who are orphaned are taken to the foundation to be looked after until they are ready to be re-released into the wild. The monkeys are absolutely adorable – they are playful and curious and really nosy. They will run around, climb all over you, open your zips and look inside your bags. There were about seven baby monkeys, and one older one who was ready to be re-released into the wild. You know they are old enough when they stop becoming playful, but instead become lazy, violent and territorial.
*Not to be mistaken for monkey island! Please do not go to monkey island!! It is not the natural habitat of the monkeys, but a “reserve” created by Decameron as a business venture. They were brought especially to the island for tourists. Like a zoo – it is a tourist trap which does not prioritise the wellbeing of the monkeys, they are stuck on the island, semi-domesticated and will not be released into the wild.
The Indigenous Tikuna Tribe & The Close of National Park Amacayacu
Traditionally the Tikuna indigenous tribe has always lived off the jungle; fishing and hunting for food and felling wood to build houses. However, in the 70s, the government created the National Park Amacayacu and conversation project to protect the land. They approached the tribe as they wanted them to stop felling trees and hunting animals, and the tribe agreed to the project on the condition that they would be given jobs. They came to an agreement, hiring workers from the surrounding indigenous communities to work at Amacayacu. They were given training in gastronomy, hospitality and tourism and the National Park flourished for many years. After ten years studies showed that the jungle was recovering well and so they decided to continue the project.
However in 1985, Uribe came to presidency and privatised the PNN, selling it to Decameron, a large, corporate tourism firm. Decameron brought in their own workers, wanting to keep 80% of the profits for themselves and gave only 20% to the local community. Consequently, there was high unemployment in the surrounding communities and people started to leave, seeking opportunities elsewhere. However, Decameron did not last as their infrastructure could not withstand the natural floods of the Amazon, which destroyed everything. It was left destitute. Now surrounding communities such as Mocagua are trying to recover tourism business, using their initiative, and to open their own lodgings and restaurants. Because internet has not reached these communities, they rely on word of mouth to bring in tourists. Most work with local guides in Leticia, not large tour companies, and this way business/profit goes directly to the local community.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Amazon Jungle Tours
There is very little information about the Amazon online, since internet barely reaches the dense, isolated jungle region. As previously mentioned, people tend to organise tours from their lodgings in Leticia – these are usually pretty cheap but I have heard very mixed reviews about the quality of these tours and how much you get to know the jungle. I spent ages searching online and only found fantastic-sounding tours catered for rich foreigners and way out of my price range. After much research, I found Tomamazon tours, based in Leticia, who work with Henry the owner of Tomacache and the small community of Mocagua.
$900,000 per person for 2 people, 4 days and 3 nights, including airport transportation, boats to lodgings, all activities, meals, an English speaking guide and rubber boots. Prices can be negotiated, especially if you are a group, you have more leverage to haggle.
TOUR VS DO-IT-YOURSELF
As a budget backpacker, I am never keen on organised tours and insist on doing everything independently. However, the lack of information online can make this difficult, especially if you have limited time. It is definitely feasible to take the public boat from Leticia and stop at any local community, however weighing up the costs of accommodation, transport, meals and activities, it was definitely more economical to organise this particular trip with Tomamazon Tours rather than independently. As an individual, you will be charged per activity (ranging from $100,000-$250,000COP), in addition to each meal and night of accommodation. If you prefer to maybe only do one activity and laze around by the river, going with a tour probably is not worth it. However, if you want to experience the deep jungle, go canoeing, fishing, see rescued monkeys and dolphins at sunset, such tours are definitely value for money. They also support local communites! The tours are tailored to your needs – for example, because our flight landed after the last boat to Leticia left, we had a private boat that took us Mocagua (which noramlly costs $400,000COP!). If you have any questions about our experience, feel free e-mail or comment below and we will do our best to help you!
How to get to the Amazon in Colombia
1) Fly from Bogota to Leticia
2) Get a boat from Leticia to Puerto Nariño
From Leticia, there are boats to Puerto Nariño every day, which stop at the communities of Santa Sofía (KM35), Zaragoza, Macedonia and Mocagua.
Transportation to and from Leticia are usually included in Amazon jungle tours, otherwise it costs $30,000COP per journey and it is recommended to reserve in advance.
Leticia to Puerto Nariño
8:00, 10:00, 14:00
Puerto Nariño to Leticia
7:30, 11:00, 16:00
The trip takes around 2 hours. Mocagua is 60km away
Your tour will organise the return for you. If travelling individually, buy your tickets in advance in Leticia as they can get fully booked. For the return journey, speak to your host about reserving a place as they only stop at the local communities on request.
Things to note
$30,000 tourist tax at the airport
There are a three banks in Leticia – BBVA, Bancolombia and Banco Agrario, but it is better to get cash in Bogotá before, especially if you are not planning on spending time in Leticia.
PNN Amacayacu is closed to the public indefinitely (officially because of floods). Local communities such as San Martín and Mocagua offer eco-touristic services.
WHAT TO PACK
The key is to pack light!
Loose clothes – it very muggy and hot!
Long-sleeved tops for the deep jungles (you will be bitten alive)
Flip-flops or sandals
Trainers if you wish, although you will be given rubber boots for going into the deep jungle
Malaria tablets if you feel they are necessary. I didn’t take them but most foreigner travellers are more cautious (locals will just laugh at you)
Battery packs and portable chargers (there is only electricity for a few hours a day)