Descending to land in the Colombian Amazon, from the aeroplane the mighty river looks like a gargantuan Anaconda. It zig-zags through dense green jungle and forces its way into the horizon as far as the eye can see. My first impression is that it’s really good to see so many, many trees, even though it’s common knowledge that the rainforest is under severe threat.
Here the bustling frontier town of Leticia is the gateway to the section of the river where Colombia, Peru and Brazil meet as neighbours. The three countries share the bounty of what is now arguably known as ‘the world’s longest river’ – beating the Nile, as some recent research has shown. The Amazon runs for almost 7000km, from the Andes mountains in Peru across the South American continent via Manaus in Brazil, to empty into the Atlantic Ocean.
Our adventure starts with a local water taxi transfer departing from Leticia’s muddy riverbank. A handful of tourists join a colourful mix of indigenous people returning to their villages along the river after business in town. Shopping and luggage are casually tossed onto the open roof of the low-slung motorboat. As we strap on our life vests, we cross our hearts and hope not to die, praying that our bags will survive the trip with us.
Sixty kilometres upriver, our destination is Calanoa Amazonas. Hidden away within a private nature reserve on the banks of the Amazon, the lodge is an initiative of Colombian artist Diego Samper and his wife Marlene. Not just another tourist lodge, Calanoa Amazonas is a unique small-scale settlement that strives to be self-sufficient, working with the local community to curate sustainable and respectful tourism.
Located beside the Amacayacu Natural Park and several indigenous communities of the Tikuna, Cocama, Huitoto and Bora people, Calanoa works closely with the local villagers. ‘We aim to contribute to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity in the Amazon region’, Samper says. This is done by supporting education and the conservation of natural resources, promoting sustainable economic practices and importantly, the preservation of ancestral knowledge and cultural practices. ‘The indigenous people are the original inhabitants of the forest, and we depend on their knowledge of resources and traditional techniques’.
Calanoa’s 125 acres of land is a natural reserve and a veritable garden of Eden for the collection of tropical fruits, medicinal and useful Amazonian plants. Hundreds of hardwood trees, fruits and palms have been planted in order to supply food, fibres and building materials for the lodge, which was designed by Samper himself. Combining traditional building techniques with a contemporary approach, the sustainable architecture uses local materials and resources. Woven palm roofs and minimal walls improve air circulation in the humid jungle environment. Rainwater is collected and filtered to provide the water supply needed and a hybrid system of solar and fuel-generator provides limited electricity. Not much electricity is required; in a tropical rainforest, there is no need for hot showers, hairdryers or powering up electronic equipment. At night, thunderstorms chase a cool breeze through the jungle to make sleeping without air-conditioning bearable.
The treehouse structures are built on stilts, elevated above the jungle floor, allowing guests to be fully immersed into the wild greenery whilst enjoying views across the river. Nature is invited right into the basic, but comfortable wooden cabins, where you can watch monkey antics from your bathroom. Only an insect screen shields you from the creatures of the wild.
The central pavilion is the heart of Calanoa. Guests gather here around the long dining table to break bread and share stories of their adventures. We meet three different families from Bogota. Wonderfully warm and entertaining, they are fluent in English. We make friends, laugh a lot and learn much about Colombia over the next few days spent around the dinner table with them. As for most Colombians, a visit to the Amazon was a bucket list trip.
Like everywhere else in the world where travellers gather, sunset is celebrated on the Amazon. As the sun dips into the river on the horizon, we sit on the jetty and clink our glasses of caipirinha made with Brazilian cachaça and fresh lime. Dusk sets in and birdcalls and monkey screeches are drowned out by the cacophony of millions of nocturnal insects and other creatures waking up. We head back to the lodge for dinner. At night the central dining pavilion and hammock swings are draped in mosquito net – not for the romantic effect, but to keep ferocious mosquitos and other jungle critters at bay.
A wooden deck connects it to the kitchen pavilion, a generous space open for guests to visit and participate in the preparation of food, if they wish.
Here the friendly local cooks prepare simple Amazonian dishes, juice strange-looking jungle fruits, bake arepas (corn cakes – the Colombian staple food), marinade ceviche and grill delicious, freshly caught river fish over open fires. Surprisingly, even the catfish tastes really good.
It takes getting used to the humidity and the relentless orchestra of jungle sounds, but we finally drift off to sleep and wake up at first light to the distant hum of boat traffic on the river. The mighty Amazon is awake, the day has begun, and adventure awaits.
When arriving at Calanoa, guests are issued with rubber boots. Once you set off into the jungle, you understand why. We discover that the jungle is a minefield of poisonous plants. During the wet season when the river rises up, this is no place for ordinary shoes. Thick mud everywhere, as dense as rich dark chocolate, but like an evil jungle monster, it grabs hold of your foot and sucks into every step you take. Its either rubber boots, or barefoot-like the indigenous tribes who tread lightly and instinctively know where not to step. We follow our guide as his machete cuts our way through a wall of dense, moist foliage. He points out countless different types of plants, many of which are extremely toxic. I catch myself a few times wanting to grab onto a branch to steady myself, but quickly learn to use a walking stick in the one hand, tucking my other fist safely into my pocket.
It is estimated that there are 390 billion trees in the Amazon rainforest, divided into 16 000 species. As we stop to take a breather, we crank our necks to look up through the green canopy to look for the top of a gigantic five hundred-year-old ceiba tree (it is also known as a kapok tree). It’s impossible to see its crown – and we settle for a tree hug, spreading our arms wide around its broad base. I rest my face against the trunk, close my eyes and breathe in its solid, earthy smell, feeling the rough texture on my cheek. For a few seconds I have to swallow hard as my heart breaks for the vulnerable, but proud and wise ancient tree. May it survive deforestation. It’s a small, private, and very special Amazon moment for me.
The Amazon rainforest is home to 427 mammal species, 1300 bird species, 378 species of reptiles, and more than 400 species of amphibians. It’s hot and steamy and as we make our way through the jungle, we get used to the idea that the Amazon is about the ‘little’ things. We’re not exactly bumping into sloths, jaguars and toucans, but hear birdsong everywhere, discover beautiful butterflies, spot colourful little frogs, laugh at monkeys’ tricks and marvel at strange-looking insects. A few hours later, we reach the river again and get into a small wooden boat that quietly makes its way through mangroves along a tributary. It’s a thrilling moment when I reach over the side to dip my hand into the murky river. I imagine the unexplored underwater world teeming with strange creatures living under the surface – piranhas, turtles, anacondas, pink dolphins…
… And then we see him. My heart stops when the elegant curve of a pink dolphin’s square forehead suddenly breaks through the surface.
Showing a flash of a pink belly, he glides gracefully back into the river. We watch him for a few minutes as he circles around unhurriedly, inquisitively watching our boat with his small beady eyes. The Amazon river dolphin is considered a magical creature. This has been good for the preservation of this freshwater mammal species. Grey when it is young, it develops its pink colour as it grows older. Adults can be as big as 2,3m in length, weighing as much as 150 kilograms. Spotting a pink dolphin in the Amazon is an unforgettable moment – one of the world’s most unique wildlife encounters, perhaps ranking right up there with witnessing Africa’s wildebeest migration, or spending time with the mountain gorillas.
Exhilarated and spent, we slowly sail downriver to our lodge. It was a very good first day in the Amazon. For tomorrow, our guide says, our options are to go swimming in the river, or fishing for piranha. Fortunately, not in the same parts of the river! But that’s another story…
• Leticia is the capital of the Amazonas department which is located on the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Tour agencies in the city can arrange tours into the jungle should you not wish to actually stay in the jungle.
• For nature-lovers, Tanimboca Natural Reserve offers lodging in tree houses just 11km from town.
• Visit Santander Park at dusk, when thousands of parakeets arrive to roost. Be sure to bring a hat with you, though – it gets messy!
• It’s also a unique experience to have breakfast in Colombia, lunch in Peru and dinner in Brazil.
• Fly from Johannesburg via Sao Paulo or New York to Bogota. There are daily flights from Bogota to Leticia.
CURRENCY AND TRANSPORT TAX:
• The local currency is Colombian peso (cop).
• A tourist arrival tax of 32,000 cop per person (approximately R140) is charged in cash on arrival at Leticia airport. From Leticia airport it is an easy 15-minute taxi ride into town (approximately 10, 000 cop or R45) to the dock from where the river taxis depart. The water taxi from Leticia to Calanoa Amazonas costs 26,000 cop (approximately R115) per person one-way.