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.
Whilst most tend to Leticia and organise visits via their hostels and hotels. However, I would recommend skipping Leticia altogether and heading out to one of the communties along the river to experience authentic Amazon life. From Leticia, there are boats to Puerto Nariño every day, which stop at the communities of Santa Sofía (KM35), Zaragoza, Macedonia and Mocagua.
We stayed in the community of Mocagua 60km from Leticia along the river. It 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.
We stayed in Tomacache, beautiful 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 , visiting the monkey rehabilitation centre.
What to do
The night canoe trip will take you to the depths of the jungle, with nothing but torches to guide the way. When you can barely 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.
You can go on a boat ride to see dolphins and appreciate the vastness of the river and the Amazon. You can get quite close and, with any luck, you’ll see quite a lot of dolphins leaping along the river, against the backdrop of the sunset.
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.
Tours & DIY Options
Tours in the Amazon
It is difficult to find information about local tours in the Amazon, and any companies that do often have minimally functioning websites. Amazon Jungle Tours is a hugely popular option, however, it seems their recent popularity has made them a bit less responsive to queries. Most people tend to go to Leticia, and book tours via their hostels there. Again, I have seen very mixed reviews about the quality and authenticity of these tours, especially a most offer just day-trips.
Scouring through hostel reviews and Couchsurfing (filter: Leticia) to seek advice, I found David who lives in Leticia and organises tours to the jungle in cooperation with Henry at Tomacache and the community of Mocagua. He was fantastic to work with, is happy to answer all your questions and will cater to your needs. We paid a very reasonable $900,000 for 4 days, 3 nights all inclusive (except flights). He has set up his own company Tomamazontours. The best way to contact David is via whatsapp +573175368338*.
Tour vs. do-it-yourself
Even if you generally tend to avoid tours, the lack of information online might persuade you otherwise. After our trip, I contacted Henry at Tomacache for the breakdown of costs for accommodation, transport, meals and activities and actually it does work out cheaper to do a tour rather than going alone. As an individual, you will be charged per activity (ranging from $100,000-$250,000COP), in addition to each meal and night of accommodation, so unless you only want to sit around the lodge and do nothing, a tour is your best bet.
If you decide to DIY, check out the advice below.
Bogotá – Leticia
There are no roads to Leticia, the only option is to fly to Leticia from Bogotá. There are flights every day with LATAM and Avianca. If you want to head straight for the Amazon communities, you want a flight that arrives early because the last boat leaves at 1.30pm. Otherwise you will have to stay a night in Leticia. Depending on the time of year, expect to pay around $200,000 return.
Leticia – Puerto Nariño
Speedboats go between Leticia and Puerto Nariño three times a day and lasts around 2 hours. The boat stops at the local communities, Mocagua is at 60KM.
Leiticia – Puerto Narino departing 8AM, 10AM and 2PM
Puerto Narino – Leticia departing 7.30AM, 11AM, 4PM
This will be incuded in your tour and they will organise the trips for you. If travelling individually, tickets cost $30,000 per journey and you should 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.
$30,000 tourist tax at the airport
There are a three banks in Leticia – BBVA, Bancolombia and Banco Agrario. I’d advise getting cash in Bogotá before, especially if you are not planning on spending time in Leticia.
The National Park 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 bring (pack light!)
- It’s muggy and hot so bring loose clothes
- If you go into the deep jungle, long-sleeved tops
- Insect repellent
- Torch (really important!)
- Trainers if you wish – you will be given rubber boots for going into the deep jungle
- Spare chargers / batteries and portable chargers as there is only electricty for a few hours a day.