When I announced to everyone that I was going to travel around South America and one country in particular; my concerned kin told me, ‘Don’t be stupid; you can’t go there, it’s too dangerous.’
Nevertheless, I was going. I wanted to prove people wrong and I was in need of an adventure. Life had gotten a little stale and South America seemed like the continent that offered the whole shebang.
A land of superlatives, ancient civilizations, rainforests and Caribbean style beaches; what more could I ask for?
Now, going back to what I mentioned earlier, one country in particular, which happens to be Colombia. I’d done my research and everything seemed to be okay.
Colombia as we all know; well most of us, is one of the largest producers of cocaine and one of the happiest places to live on the planet (wonder if there’s a connection?).
Some quick research: no recent revolutions or public protests since we all know South Americans love a good revolution and a protest. Perfecto, it was on.
I sailed down the Amazon into Colombia after a twelve-hour speed-boat ride via Iquitos, Peru. The journey was interesting; huge illegal logging boats sailed past us and it was noisy. Here’s a tip, don’t sit at the back where the engine is.
The majority of people were locals, apart from me and an American couple. Sailing on the Amazon was a joy and the size of it is incomprehensible. Local fisherman smiled and children on the banks waved and cheered at us like we were heroes returning from a revolution.
Arriving in Leticia Colombia
I arrived in the sleepy and touristy Amazonian basin town, Leticia. Leticia is part of the Tres Fronteras a point where Colombia, Peru and Brazil all meet.
There was so much activity going on. Fishing boats were coming in with their latest catch, boats were ferrying other travellers to different countries and men went rowing past in canoes with dogs as first mates.
Women sat around fanning their barbecues and the smell of meat was mouth-watering. There was also a large military presence since FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia / The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) still operated in the region. I stopped, inhaled and took everything in.
Visa? No worries…
I received my Peruvian exit stamp and in my best Spanish enquired about Colombian immigration.
The Peruvian passport-officer looked hot; I noticed that the fan in his tiny booth had stopped working and conversation with a gringo wasn’t on the menu. I started to get really hot as well; the Amazonian humidity was unbearable.
I could feel sweat cascade down my back. I needed to find immigration, pronto and a hostel. The passport-officer kept flicking his head in the direction of the military, gracias I replied.
I asked a soldier about my visa and what he said to me made me fall in love with this country even more. He put his hand on my shoulder and in a mix of Spanish and broken English told me not to worry about it today, mañana mañana. Phew; what a relief, all I needed now was a hostel.
Finding a Hostel and Food!
I found a wonderful hostel in a colonial Spanish building facing the river and treated myself to a private room; it was clean, spacious and bright. I sat outside on the rustic communal veranda.
The sun had started to set and the sky turned into a combination of candyfloss pink and a hazy purple which tripped an unforgettable psychedelic sunset. Gabriel the hostel manager joined me.
‘You want cerveza.’
‘Sí’ I replied.
He brought me an Aguila (South American beer from Colombia) and a frosted glass. We drank and talked.
‘The cerveza is on the house because I like you English, I like your humour’ he said.
Well, I was taken aback; this is the first time I’ve had a drink bought me because I’m English! Usually, it’s oh or bloody English. Gabriel had bought the hostel two years ago when he retired from the Police force in Medellín.
He was a captain at one of the most dangerous precincts in the country. He took off his top and showed me many bullet holes he’d acquired over a long and distinguished career.
When the cartels threaten your family, it’s finished. I agreed. The sun had set and it was time for dinner. Gabriel told me about a restaurant which served excellent food on the banks of the Amazon.
I strolled down to the restaurant which was only a short walk away and sat at a table outside. The humidity had started to drop and the breeze was pure ecstasy. I ordered from el menu del día and an Aguila.
First-course Sancocho; a traditional soup which consists of fish, onion, potatoes, spices and garnished with coriander. It’s served with a small plate of white rice which you dip in with every mouthful.
As soon as the waitress took away my bowl she plonked the second course down, rice, chicken and plantain. The portions were plentiful. More rice, yum, yum and the chicken legs were huge as if somebody had injected them with steroids.
The plantain looked like something that had dropped off the chicken. But it didn’t touch the sides. Dessert was guava ice-cream and it was probably the best I’ve ever tasted, all for the price including alcohol: £3.
I headed off back to my hostel because the mosquitoes were a problem. Earlier in the night one had flown onto my arm. I gave it a slap and flicked it off. That’ll teach it.
But what I didn’t realise is that the Amazonian mosquitoes are the SAS of the mosquito world. It buzzed around on the floor shook its wings and dive bombed me again, ziiiiiiiiiip, past my ear; please leave me alone. I left with my thoughts and a full belly.
Let’s Go Fishing!
I was awoken at 5 am the next day by a rap at the door.
‘Señor, it’s Gabriel wake up.’
I fell out of bed and opened the door.
‘Sí’ I said rubbing my eyes.
‘Get dressed we go fishing, 10 minutes’ he said with a big grin on his face.
Now, I’ve never been much of a fisherman but I thought, when in Rome. We made our way to his canoe and picked up 2 tintos; off a vendor. This flavoursome black coffee was the perfect pick me up.
Gabriel passed me an oar and instructed me to row. I looked back and the sun was starting to rise. This huge golden sphere rose into the morning sky while sun rays were equally distributed over Leticia.
We made our way upstream to a small Bolivian settlement. The Amazon at this time in the morning was serene; a place of sanctuary. The flora on the banks was reflected perfectly into the water as if someone was holding a mirror to it.
I looked up into the sky and soaring above were orange-winged Amazonian parrots and in the water were the Queen Victoria lily pads, biggest I’d ever seen.
We pulled up to the settlement and a Bolivian man stood there holding a sword and dressed in a Chelsea football strip. He stepped into our canoe.
Off we went. I thought I’d been rowing for hours, but in fact, it was only 35 minutes, I was starting to get hot. I put both my hands into the river and splashed water onto my face. My new Bolivian friend was laughing because I was sweating.
‘OK señor?’ he said.
‘Yes, I’m fine. You sit there and do nothing’ I said sarcastically. Gabriel laughed.
After five minutes our Bolivian friend stood up and motioned with his hand to stop and be quiet. He stood at the bow of the canoe with his sword raised as if he was going to jump aboard another ship like a pirate but dressed in a Chelsea football strip.
After two minutes he jabbed the sword into the water and flung the net in. Then there was an almighty struggle. The fish he was trying to catch was a monster it took all three of us to drag it into the canoe. We looked at each other and smiled. Gabriel passed me an oar.
‘Let’s go to the settlement and divide the fish up’ he said.
Arapaima – The Largest Freshwater Fish in the Amazon
We arrived at the settlement and dragged the fish onto the banks. Gabriel told me it’s called the Arapaima the largest freshwater fish in the Amazon. It was enormous; about six feet long and had a body shaped like a torpedo.
Blackish green scales edged with red markings going from the top to the bottom and huge cat-like teeth. It took them around 15 minutes to remove the scales with the sword and gut the fish.
The fish was then cut up and Gabriel took his share and the rest would be shared amongst the villagers. Handshakes all around and off we went.
A part of me was glad to be back on terra firma and another part enjoyed the nautical lifestyle. It was 7.30am and Leticia was a hive of activity. We made our way back to the hostel and Gabriel said breakfast is at 8.30.
I shaved and showered. I heard movement and voices outside my door, so I got my passport and other belongings together.
Outside Gabriel had put a table next to my chair and on it was a frosted glass full of Aguila and the fish we had caught. Gabriel joined me and told me the fish produces boneless steaks which are considered a delicacy.
I sat back in my chair overlooking the magnificent Amazon River thinking; people have got the wrong impression about Colombia. I took a sip of beer then a mouthful of fish and smiled. This is the best way to start the day.
About the writer: Kristian Benitez is an Open University undergraduate of English language. When he’s not travelling he lives in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain. He loves listening to his favourite music; The Beatles and Love or playing his guitar and going surfing!