Looking out the plane window, awe overtook me as I gazed down at the beginning of the Amazon Basin in Colombia. I saw thick, lush rainforest in every direction. My eye followed a river snaking through the bush. Small waterways spread out like a spider web prohibiting any easy land transportation. There were no villages or roads.
We land in Leticia, Colombia’s frontier town on the Amazon River, 800 kms from the nearest highway. The only access here is plane or boat. Sweltering heat hits me as I walk into the one room airport. The clunking sound of the luggage conveyor bounced around the room, growing louder as the gears stuck from time to time.
Grabbing my small suitcase I searched for my ride. I stepped out of the airport and spotted a young boy perched on a brick wall, flapping a paper with my name on it. He wasn’t paying particular attention to the crowd of people climbing into air-conditioned vans headed for hotels with pools. His father did spot me however, and he deftly flagged a taxi for our 20-minute ride to the river.
We cross Leticia as motorcycles zip every which way, cutting in and out of traffic. At first glimpse, the Amazon seems fetid and languid. Vultures circle overhead, scouting for refuse while others picked at scraps. The smell of hot, sticky mud mixed with grilling food attacks my senses. Colorful umbrellas shelter women selling their snacks. People lounge under a few trees, avoiding the heat, while a barefoot man walks past with a mountain of plantains on his shoulder.
The city slopes into the thick muddy riverbank of a seemingly distant Amazon. I walk the wooden plank over the low tide to a floating dock. As passengers leap from dugout to dugout, we quickly board our long boat and I find a seat beneath the woven palm roof to protect me from the scorching sun. The motor bubbles to life as we pull away from Leticia. Floating houses line the river, some sun-bleached, others brightly-painted.
River to another world
We head down river flanked by two countries, Colombia and Peru. After a routine check at a Navy control post, we can appreciate the Victoria Amazonica Lily floating with its white flower in nearby ponds. A monkey appears and hops on my shoulder for the free ride. We arrive at our floating lodge for the night. Charming hammocks line the balcony. My fellow travelers kick back in the open air, grab a seat on the upper deck and we all prepare to watch the last moments of the sunset on the Amazon.
Day Two. The river teems with families, young and old, men and women, checking their nets. They work their way down the webbing, gently lifting it out of the water, gathering it in their hands, carefully untangling a fish then letting the net drop back into the water. They continue to work, meticulously moving down the net heedful not to rip any holes.
Life revolves around survival. Resting in the boat for the next six hours, my journey takes me towards Brazil. The boat turns off the Amazon River near Benjamin Constant into the Yavari, a river flowing some 1,200 kms from the Peruvian highlands into the Amazon Basin, still very much unchartered.
The Yavari is lighter in color than the Amazon and a meandering waterway coveted by a vast canopy of rainforest. From Benjamin Constant south a new world unfurls before me. I watch as grey river dolphins leap out of the water, my eyes peeled for the Pink Amazon Dolphin, an endangered species which navigates and hunts in the estuaries of the Yavari.