Colombia: Leticia, the City Lost in the Jungle
On the Amazon River, Leticia lies near the borders of Peru, Brazil, and Colombia
By Alanna Brannigan
From the airplane, the jungle below seemed limitless.
It is amazing that the trip from Bogota to Leticia is just a tiny sliver of the vast Amazon Rainforest. Even the air we glided through reflects the terrain below. Turbulence abounds as the plane passed through raincloud, and thunderstorm alike.
As I stepped off the plane in Leticia, Colombia, I was not quite sure what to expect. We circled the city four times, so I have now gotten a grasp on the sheer size of my new home and it is much bigger than I had expected- and when I say much bigger, it has more than two streets.
The air felt as heavy as fog, as the afternoons most recent down pour begins to clear, and my hair jumped to attention, creating a very unflattering afro.
Now after living in Leticia for close to four months I often forget that I am, in fact, in the middle of the jungle. That is until the weather turns from blue skies to flooded streets, or I notice the grass that was cut just a week ago, comes up to my waist once more.
A Modern City
Other times the poisonous frog, or tarantula in my shower will snap me back to life. Yet despite this, Leticia is a very modern Colombian city. It has several dining and nightlife options but when it comes to entertainment, most people move past the city limits.
On the outskirts of town, a number of indigenous communities dot the Amazon River. Many of them welcome outsiders, eager to share their customs and legends. The River itself is crawling with pink and gray dolphins, piranhas, anacondas and other marine life; while the canopy above teems with a variety of monkey species, sloths, toucans, and other bizarre animals.
Disappointingly, it is not as simple as renting a boat and heading into the pristine wilderness.
A guide is often necessary. They know where to go, and many speak the indigenous languages. Pre-packaged tours are common, which include food, drink, and all activities. Which is a blessing when the closest ATM is a couple hours away by boat.
A Melting Pot
Leticia itself is a cultural melting pot, half of its residents are from surrounding indigenous communities, Peru, Brazil and more still from other places in Colombia. Rolos (people from Bogota) are always telling me that they like the relaxed lifestyle that Leticia bolsters.
This translates into Leticians being 30 minutes late for any engagement, compared to the standard 15 Colombian minutes. More still, there is a steady influx of Peruvians, and Brazilians into the city. As the tri-region area, Leticia shares invisible borders with Peru, and Brazil.
Santa Rosa, Peru is literally a seven-minute boat ride dock to dock across the river, and extremely safe. You will often find information stating that you should not stay in Santa Rosa after dark, this is merely a river crossing advisory. In years past, boats would travel at night, without lights, across the river… which in some cases resulted in collisions with other boats or debris.
However, now there is a law in effect that prevents such activity. You are welcome to cross with a boat with lights, however, this will cost more and they are much harder to find. So better to travel during daylight hours or stay the night. Just keep in mind there are not many accommodation options.
Eating in Peru
Peru is the best luncheon spot in the area. There are many options along the waterfront, mostly touristy but worthwhile for the view. Ceviche is Peru’s national dish, and always worth a try. They only use local fresh water fish here, so it’s a nice change for those of you who have tried the ocean fare in Lima.
After lunch, I always digest a little by taking a walk down one of the many dirt tracks leading away from the main walk way.
If you can find the soccer field, continue past it and there is a wild Agave tree to your right. Just please don’t take too many!
Oh, and don’t forget to stock up on Cusquenas before you return. Even Colombians agree it’s the best beer in the area (and the real reason it’s the best luncheon spot in the region).
Like Peru, no stamps are needed for a day trip to Brazil. Simply walk over the border. The border itself is virtually unmarked. A simple sign with a clock marks the way. Technically the time in Brazil is an hour ahead of Leticia’s, however, a few years ago Tabatinga ‘unofficially’ decided to employ the same time as Leticia and Peru. This is largely because many Brazilians work, and shop in their adjacent countries, and vice versa.
Tabatinga is virtually just one long dusty extension of Leticia. It’s worth a visit, to view the juxtaposition of cultures. The difference is truly striking; signs and sounds turn Portuguese, as your flooded with green, yellow, and red memorabilia. Otherwise, there is not much to see besides the weekly dance show.
Every Sunday at La Comara. Scantily clad women and men, with feathered, sequined costumes grace the stage with a variety of classic and modern dances. Entry is free before 5 pm or 5.000 pesos afterward. The place is mostly cleared out by 10 pm, and a Tuk-Tuk is necessary as its too far to walk on foot from Leticia. Watch the video!
Many backpackers choose to take the slow boat to Iquitos, Peru or Manaus, Brazil from Leticia. These boats leave every few days and last for a few days.
The ticket price includes communal daily meals, but its best to bring your own plate and fork.
For almost four times the price you can opt for a dirty cabin, but most people just sling up a hammock like the locals. These boats are the most economical mode of transport out of Leticia and give the City of Leticia an island feel. Especially, since the only other option is flying.
These boats are the most economical mode of transport out of Leticia and give the City of Leticia an island feel. Especially, since the only other option is flying.
Leticia Is a Jumping Off Point
Understandably, the city of Leticia is not the main event of any adventure holiday, but it is best not to hole up in your hotel room till your driver knocks on your door to start your adventure. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to the best burger in Colombia (maybe even the world) at Legends Bar and Grill.
It is also a fantastic spot to soak in some wicked art work, and rock classics. If something more upbeat is your style then head to MOSSH, which is adjacent to the park, and has lots of dancing and features music videos. Restaurant wise, I recommend Vikingso. It recently opened in Barrio Esperanza which I dare say is never frequented by tourists. Get a Tuk-Tuk there for $3.000 where they serve up Peruvian and international food.
Lazy? The street food is pretty good too but only opens up for dinner around 6pm. Best carne is at the port.
Perhaps the most well-known facet of Leticia is the daily bird show. Every evening Leticia’s resident parakeets come in from the jungle to roost safety in Santander Park. At about 6 pm the noise is truly deafening! Adjacent to the park is a white church, where you can climb the church tower for a better glimpse of the birds, a panoramic view of the city, and its surrounding beauty. It is a really sociable event, the sleepy park comes alive with vendors, couples, travelers, and families alike.
For more variety birdwatching, grab a scooter and head to the Kilometers. The KMs is a road on the outskirts of town, and a jumping off point for most tours. Tikuna and other indigenous villages line the tropical road.
At KM 7, there is a free swimming hole. Turn right at the sign for Rio Takana and it is located at the end of the skinny road. Many times monkeys and snakes have crossed my path on the way there.
When you do finally make it to your destination (it should take ~30 minutes driving) make some noise before jumping in, you are swimming in a branch of the Amazon River after all!
It would be a shame to discount Leticia at first glance as merely a jumping off point rather than a city to get to know. It is a city brimming with culture, friendly people, and good food. However, most people just skim the surface.
When asked how tourism has affected Leticia, most locals are torn. It has definitely brought in money, and job opportunities. However, as a meeting place for trade, it could definitely survive without foreign dollars.
Either way, Leticians are fiercely proud of their home. One local called the city “surreal”, while others describe it as “unlike anywhere else”. This is not uncommon. If you give it a chance, you will see why…
It is necessary to get your Yellow Fever vaccine 10 or more days before arrival in Leticia. The vaccine is free at the International El Dorabo International Airport in Bogota.
Canadian born and bred Alanna Brannigan has been traipsing the globe solo for the past two years. These days she spends most of her time drinking red wine, off the trodden track in Central and South America. Next stop: Nepal.