- Published on Sunday, 22 April 2012 19:18
Yes, I even listened to Guns 'N Roses as my flight prepared to land at the Leticia, Colombia airport smack in the middle of the Amazon jungle. I'm kind of a nerd like that. Someone once told me that the Amazon River basin and the rainforest that surrounds it are the lungs of the Earth. Flying over the jungle it was easy to see why. Endless stretches of jungle canopy as far as I could see from my airplane window performing the crucial task of providing oxygen for the planet. I was exhilarated to be here and I could not wait for the adventure to commence.
So leaving Villa de Leyva my aim was to not stay a night in Bogota as I had already toured this massive city and after where I had been the past several weeks I could not deal with the shock. So I booked a bus out of Villa de Leyva at 4:30am for the five hour ride down the mountains to the capitol city. I arrived at the bus transport terminal right on time about 9:30am. The flight I planned to take to Leticia left at 11:30am, a detail not lost on me as I waited 45 minutes for a taxi in the que. The driver understood my one word of Spanish "Rapido!" and I got to the airport just in time to buy my ticket, get through security and board my flight - sorted. On the flight I was to meet the beautiful and lovely Julie, a French girl who was on her way home to Lima, Peru where she studies International Law. We shared a cab and ended up staying at the same hostal together and it was again nice to have company. Once in town I went straight away to the Brazilian Consulate with my nicest shirt on to try and secure a Brazilian Visa. The Consulate official was very thorough and demanded my Yellow Fever Vaccination document which I have and dreaded proof of onward travel - which I do not have. Fortunately for me I rigged a fake E-ticket out of Brazil before I left the States and Brazil bought into this hook, line and sinker. I however bought into the Visa for $175 so I still think they won. Damn the US State Department making it hard for everyone to come to the USA. In retaliation I am charged exorbitant costs to obtain Visas to other countries. After this charade I set back to have dinner and drinks with Julie and we had a really good time together. She was to set out to Iquitos, Peru the following morning and man do I wish we had more time together but happy nonetheless for the time we shared, very cool girl indeed.
The following morning I was set to arrange my trip into the jungle. I wanted a private tour (none of the cookie cutter catered variety) and the girl working at the hostal had mentioned her uncle was a guide and I set up a meeting with him. Carlos was of the Yagua tribe and right away I felt really comfortable with him. He seemed to be very knowledgeable and the itinerary he set forth seemed exactly what I was looking for - boat journeys down the Amazon River and its tributaries, indigenous villages, and jungle treks and camping. I agreed to a three day/four night excursion into the wilderness. Looking back my intuition was again spot on as Carlos and the experience I had were absolutely amazing.
Being in the boat on the Amazon that first day I could barely contain my excitement. I was brought back to the days when I was a kid watching National Geographic programs about the Amazon River basin and the ecosystem that surrounds it and here I was on a boat floating down the largest (volume wise) river in the world. Our crew was my guide Carlos and Berto - el Capitan our driver. I called him el Hefe. I was also struck by just how large the river itself was from bank to bank and also how massive the equatorial sky is. For the first time in my life I was in the Southern Hemisphere and I was happy to be here. Visions of seeing jaguars, anacondas, and puma danced in my head but I knew chances of seeing any of these were remote at best as this is the rainy season and the basin is flooded to its highest level that even Carlos had never seen in his life. No matter though as I was happy to sit and admire the brilliant scenes of jungle on the river banks and the occasional famous Amazonian pink and grey dolphins playing in our wake.
That first night we stayed in the Yagua Indian village about 4 hours upstream from Leticia right on the banks of the mighty Amazon River. Really an eye opening experience seeing how these people live with basically nothing, but are truly happy amongst their families and their community. I also got to try Mataka which is the traditional brew they make from fermented Yucca Root. It did not taste very good but man did it pack a punch. A few more passes of the bowl and I was captivated by old jungle stories of phantoms and spirits told by Gustavo my host and graciously translated by Carlos. I was then put soundly asleep serenaded by the sounds of the jungle night with promise of a deep trek into the unknown the following day.
Up early Carlos and I were joined by Pablito who was our Indian jungle guide. Pablito was a tiny man all of 5' tall and showed up in shorts, t-shirt, and no shoes for our five hour trek deep into the jungle. This guy was amazing and knew everything about every root, tree, and plant we saw along the way to where we would camp. He explained all of the medicines and building materials used by the village that they obtain from the jungle and pointed them out to me. It was really cool to see generations of knowledge firsthand from Pablito. We also spotted several monkeys, tropical birds, sloths, and of course billions and billions of insects. We got to camp and we set to work gathering materials to build our shelter for the night. Supplies were abundant and a couple hours later we were sorted.
It was on this night Pablito told me of his Shaman ways and offered up Ayahuasca or the "spirit vine" to which he had previously prepared. Ayahuasca is powerful medicince used by the Yagua and Tikuna people alike for centuries in spiritual rituals and religious ceremonies. And who am I to turn down the spirit vine? Amongst the animals of the Amazon night and our roaring fire I drank the potion while Pablito played the drum and blew smoke around the site and into my face. About thirty minutes later I vomited. At this point Pablito drew a line on my forehead with some sort of stainlike clay and I kid you not, things instantly were not the same. The drum became louder and louder and I could feel every beat within myself. Colors popped out from the jungle as if it were daylight. Time slowed to a crawl, sounds became distorted and my reality had changed to a different plane. I was in the spirit realm now. I cannot really explain what happened through the night but I had visions of the jungle floor passing beneath me at a quick pace. I was always low to the ground and constantly had a feeling of needing to find the river and the waters edge. Hours later (with what seemed like 30 minutes) I was back into this realm having never left my spot next to the fire. I explained to Pablito what I had saw and felt and he simply said that I saw what I have always known all along. Powerful medicine indeed. I will never forget this night and I will contemplate this journey and its meaning for sometime to come.
The following day we left the jungle and I was back on the boat for the trip downstream to the Peruvian side of the Amazon. The scenery was again spectacular and even more so when we moved off of the river and into the black water lakes and tributaries in the jungle. The water was so calm it looked like a mirror reflecting the blue, cloud filled skies above. Very tranquil and when the occasional pink dolphin would appear it was even more so. We headed for a Tikuna Indian village to what would be our home for the night. We were in the lowlands now and everything was flooded. Entire homes were underwater and I really got a sense of just how dependant every aspect of these peoples lives are on the river and the ecosystem. Once in the village I was able to get some fishing line and tried to catch a piranha using a stick, hook and some meat. I was unsuccessful on the piranha but I did catch several little catfish to which I was quite pleased given my rudimentary equipment. I would have given anything for a proper rod and reel at this location.
The last day was mainly boating out of the tributaries, through the jungle, and back into the mighty Amazon River. On this day it rained most of the time, but I was happy. I couldn't come to the Amazon and not go through a proper rainstorm in the biggest rainforest on the planet. Overall this was a journey of a lifetime and truly a lifelong dream fulfilled. I'm very pleased with my decision to go on a private guided tour with genuine Amazonians with firsthand knowledge of the life and culture in this region. The total cost was $650 but for what I got in return it was money well spent. I'm now back in Leticia with about 100 mosquito bites. The only drawback from the jungle. I was even very proactive with trying not to be bitten, but the mozzies down here can bite through clothing. Oh well. Here's to Dengue Fever! That's what insurance is for right? So come Wednesday I'll hit the slow boat to Manuas, Brazil via the Amazon River and leave this wonderful country Colombia I have called home for the past two months.
El Hefe - The man always had a smile on his face and his thumb up in the air. Really a nice person.