Semana Santa, or my spring break, was a couple weeks ago and my parents flew down to go adventuring with me. So naturally, I decided we should go to the wildest place I could think of and we headed for the Amazon rainforest. It’s a good thing they love me, because my mom’s not a fan of the heat and an Amazon trip isn’t exactly known to be comfortable, but this is what kids are for, right? Anyway, it actually turned out to be much more pleasant than I was expecting and we only melted in the heat a few times, meanwhile we enjoyed what we started calling a ‘friends and family’ tour of the Colombian Amazon.
We decided to go with a guide vs trying to figure things out on the fly, and I’m very glad we did because we got to explore much more than if we had gone alone. Our guide told us he was one of only 5 local guides who spoke English, so we felt pretty lucky to be his ducklings for 5 days. He grew up in Leticia, the main Colombian town on the Amazon river, and grew up with an indigenous name but changed it to Elvis because he got teased at school. He is also very into birds which was exactly what my bird nut self was hoping for.
We started the trip a ways inland from the Amazon River at a nature reserve in the old growth jungle. This was not actually the first time I’ve been to the Amazon rainforest, but this was definitely the wildest and tallest jungle I’ve ever experienced. We stayed in a tree house which was 2 flights of steep stairs off the ground and still had a full forest canopy above it. After an afternoon walk looking for birds and finding mostly mosquitos, we were surprised by a little canopy tour. The first platform was near the crown of a ~115ft massive, old tree and to get up they hooked us into a cable and winched us up by hand. Our two young guides clearly did this a lot because after winching us up they climbed up themselves using ascenders (a device that slides up a rope but not down).
The craziest part was the full body inchworm maneuver they did as they climbed. One of the guides told me it was the best part of the job because he didn’t need a gym membership. Anyway, besides making me acutely aware of my lack of arm strength, the canopy was super fun. It included several ziplines and a monkey sighting! Yet again, I was completely in awe of the height of this forest. Despite being more than 100ft up, there was still so much forest above us.
The next day we went to visit some friends of our guide. This lovely indigenous family welcomed us to hang out at their home (a 20min hike into the jungle) for the day and shared with us the most amazing pineapple of my life. They had two young boys and I was initially confused why when offered pineapple they turned it down like most kids would turn down broccoli. Shortly thereafter we learned that the family grew over 500 pineapples a year, mostly for their own consumption, so the little guys were probably more than a little tired of it.
After lunch, we tagged along as grandpa went to collect a fruit called ‘Milpeso’ which is a relative of Acai and grows on a palm tree, as does Acai apparently. The more you know. The fruits were at least 80 feet up and the grandfather of the family, who was in his 70s, scaled the tree in a matter of minutes using a piece of webbing between his feet and nothing else. The plum-sized fruits were then soaked in hot water and mashed to make an almost hot chocolate-like drink. After being good and melted from the day so far, we jumped in the river that ran by their house (a tributary of the mighty Amazon) with the boys. Only afterwards were we told that there could be Piranhas and Electric Eels in it, but as grandpa laughingly told us, “We eat the Piranhas, they don’t eat us.”
Left two photos: The traditional roof material of the area is a particular kind of plam-like leaf that they weave into these incredible roofs that can last 20 years. Right: this is an Ice Cream Bean. Its a giant bean pod that grows on a tree and inside is a really sweet pulp, that is delicious.
We came ‘home’ to one of the strangest sleeping arrangements we’ve ever stayed in: a plastic, inflatable bubble or ‘burbuja’ which has just got to be one of my favorite Spanish words. On the one hand, it seemed like a great idea because you should have been able to see the jungle around you as you woke up, but someone forgot to account for humidity and it got so steamed up we couldn’t see much. It did, however, do a fantastic job of throwing people's voices around, causing a good deal of startling each other. After dinner we had what I’m coming to realize is a classic ‘foreigner in Colombia’ experience. We were handed a plate of marshmallows on skewers and perplexedly ate most of them unroasted, laughing at their attempt to ‘feed the Americans what they are used to.’ Then as we walked back to our bubble, we walked past a campfire and realized that they were probably just as confused as we were that we hadn’t roasted them. This has become a theme here that there almost always seems to be some fairly vital piece of information that isn’t explained and must just be assumed that you already know or will figure out. It comes in all sorts of forms, one of the most common being asking what is or isn’t in a particular food. Such as asking if there is anything other than fruit in a juice three times and being told no three times until they think to add ‘well, sugar of course’. Or being told that something has no meat twice before it's amended with ‘well, it has meat in the sauce’ with the look of ‘wasn’t that obvious?’ This is also a really fun time when dealing with the doctor's office. :) Coming from a society that assumes you’re a little dumb and don’t know anything unless it’s plastered in your face, it’s an adjustment.
On the third day, we finally reached the full glory of the Amazon river. We took the public ferry boat up river to a local village, passing Fantasy Island which appeared in front of the Leticia docks only 30 years ago as a part of the constant shifting of the river. Despite being definitively more tropical, the river actually reminded us a lot of the Mississippi, minus the big barges. It appears that very few large shipping boats travel the river in this area which surprised me. After arriving at the small, fairly primitive hotel run by Elvis’s nephew, we went off on a motorized canoe adventure into the Flooded Forest. Because we were in the Amazon during the rainy season (it’s across the equator from Barranquilla so has opposing weather), the water levels were high, submerging this forest of specially adapted trees. These trees are used by the local community as floats for docks and houses because even sitting in the water for years, they will not rot. While on the water, we saw some lovely, colorful jungle birds and experienced the weirdly magical sound of ripe berries plopping into the water at random. We all agreed that birding by boat was vastly superior to birding on foot for a myriad of reasons including the airflow and lack of worry about running into something that wanted to bite you. We came back to the village to the spectacle of the muddiest soccer game I’ve ever seen. It looked like a great time, but I feel bad for all the moms that had to wash that superbly muddy clothing.
On our final full day we crossed the river to Peru and stayed at a lodge on a beautiful lake. The canal to the lake was amongst a crazy species of water plant that is home to a very wacky looking bird called a Hoatzin. While at the lodge we got to experience a beautiful afternoon rainstorm which was actually one of my favorite memories of the trip. You would think the rain would have driven everything under cover but the birds seemed to be enjoying it. There were two seagulls perched on a pole out in the water for the entire storm, facing into the wind and two beautiful little swallows that would come perch near the dock and shake off their feathers periodically.
That evening we went exploring by boat again and saw the eyes of a 12 foot caiman named Lucas and a baby caiman trying its best to convince us it was a stick. Our guide for the night (not Elvis), used his headlight to find the eyes of the little guy and then hopped out of the boat barefoot and a few minutes later hopped back in the boat holding him. We got a good look and learned that being a baby caiman is not a great deal because after you leave home you have to watch out to not get eaten by your own mom. I’m glad my parents aren’t caimans or this trip might have ended differently… On this boat adventure we also experienced something the internet doesn’t even seem to know about (is that possible?). Hidden in the floating water plants were a bunch of tiny worms using the same biotechnology as fireflies to light up in a beautiful twinkle of fairy lights.
One thing that surprised me about the Amazon was the color palette. It included a million shades of green (no surprise, but the local community must have a few more words than English’s all encompassing ‘green’ to distinguish them). It also included the blue of the sky which was as clear and expansive as a Colorado bluebird day and the muddy brown of the water. Then there was the vivid red of many of the plants and beyond that only a very limited selection of anything else.
I will be back shortly with part 2 of my parents' visit, but for now enjoy your cool and changing weather. My taking 1-2 cold showers a day to fight the hardly varying heat self, is a little jealous.