Colombia, day 2: Dying to visit the Amazon

Hundreds of explorers never made it out alive from the Amazon. I wasn’t even going to make it in.

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Blog day 2 Avianca

The Avianca airline steward at check-in was a trainee but she knew all the right questions to ask.

“And, could you please write down the number of someone to contact in case of emergency?”

I gave her my mum’s mobile. After all, mum’s first question when I told her I was headed to Colombia was “Do you have a will?”, and her second was, “No, seriously?”

It therefore made sense she be the first to hear if my plane had gone down. I imagined the airlines comms team making the phone call with one of those “Good news/bad news” opening lines:

“Hello Mrs Davies, its Avianca Airlines, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is we’ve lost your son somewhere between Bogota and the Amazon. The bad news is, you’ve just inherited all his debt.”

My angst worsened when, on the plane, the lady next to me looked out the window and made the sign of the cross. At this we were still only taxiing.

Hundreds of explorers never made it out alive from the Amazon. I wasn’t even going to make it in.

Landing at Leticia airport, in the south-eastern tip of Colombia, the lady next to me repeated the sign of the cross, and I started to suspect she might be do this gesture fairly regularly. The plane had been without incident, my concerns mislaid. At least for now.

The airport was a tin shed, most of which was given over to a rickety luggage conveyor belt, straining to keep up. Every minute or so the belt would grind to a halt, and the operator would kick start it by running on it with his foot. It was better than the gym, and soon most of the passengers joined in too, realising this common exercise was the key to getting their bags asap.

One of the more interesting items on the belt was two blocks of gravelled concrete. I’m still not sure whether this was somebody’s luggage or part of the airport that just that moment had collapsed. Third hypothesis: you’ve heard of rocks of cocaine? This was a full concrete slab of it.

“Are you British? You don’t look British.”

“I’m Australian.” I told the tour operator who met me at the gate.

“I knew you weren’t British,” she continued.

In years of backpacking, I’ve decided the only thing separating Brits and Australians is that we are more sunburnt, and less drunk. Controversial, I know.

Three hours later, I had swapped the plane for a low-slung motorised wooden canoe, Colombia for Brazil, and we were motoring in darkness and a thunderstorm up the tributaries of the Amazon, a full moon rising as we headed to the camp.

Colombia, days 3-5: On Dangerous Ground

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts?

Blog post 2 camping amazon
The guide and I were camping alone in the jungle last night, and he had a literal potboiler of a story.

When he was 10, his childhood friend was kidnapped, and eaten, by a local indigenous tribe.

“Why was he eaten?”

“Because he was white.”

We unwrapped the palm leaf parcel that had been roasting on the fire. It was a delicious local river fish known as arapaima, or by locals as “the other white meat”.

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts? The daily offer of activities around the camp gave a fair overview.

Piranha fishing
Piranhas are legendary for devouring whole carcasses of cows within minutes, much like the Polish tour group that arrived that night. In reality this only happens in exceptional circumstances. Tempting fate, we took a motorised wooden boat into a mangrove forest close by the lodge with a handful of bamboo fishing rods.

The guide cut up a large fillet of fish into bite-sized pieces, which we threaded onto hooks and cast into the water. To attract the piranhas you slap the bamboo rod repeatedly on top of the water. This is said to simulate a chicken – though what a chicken might be doing slapping around in the middle of a mangrove forest was not explained.

After 2 hours the guides had caught 2 piranhas and a small catfish. I had caught nothing, but had singlehandedly fed the fish at least half of the fillet. It was not a good return on investment for those in the group wanting to eat fish that night.

Night walk
In the land famed for its jaguars and anacondas, what beasts of the night were lurking in the shadows? “Look there!” said the guide, within seconds of starting up the moonlit trail.

“Where? What is it?” I followed his finger. Not to any large shadows in the trees or the forest, but to a frog half the size of my thumbnail sitting on the step outside my cabin. Tiny, but incredibly poisonous. I made a note to wear shoes for my nightly pee.

The tarantulas were all hiding that night. But I did see some rats, and a cool phosphorescent leaf litter that made the whole place feel like Upside Down world (for the Stranger Things fans among us).

Jungle camp-out
I decided to up the game. A night in the jungle, just the guide and me, what could go wrong? The weather, for starters. Due to torrential rain, what was planned to be a day-long hike to the deepest darkest forest was scaled back to a 15-minute hike to the rear campsite over the ridge behind.

The guide showed me the rubber tree, the popularity of which led colonialists to enslave thousands of young boys to work in rubber plantations. The type of shitty job you never bounce back from.

He showed me the telephone tree, which sends a booming echo audible across the valley when you strike it with a stick – and is for emergency use only.

And he showed me the traditional way of lighting a fire with damp wood – burning a plastic bag to kick-start the kindling.

That we slept in hammocks, slung between two trees under a tarpaulin and mosquito net. And I was lulled to sleep, not by the exotic sounds of the Amazon forest, but of a thousand mosquitos attacking my body like locusts on a wheat field. Malaria takes two weeks to kick in, so there’s every chance I will always remember this special night.

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Day walk

Perhaps it would be easier to see beasts and critters in the day, lacking night vision as I do.

We set out towards a known Harpy eagle’s nest, one of the largest eagles in the world, which feeds on monkeys, opossums and sloths.

This reminded me, sloths were very close to top of my animal bucket list.

“There’s lots of sloths around here,” said the guide.

“Can we see one?”

“Sure. Just be at the campsite around siesta time. You’ll see Brazilian sloths, Germans sloths, Australian sloths…”

I’d very slowly walked into that one.

As we headed back to camp, a sudden rustle in the trees above and a hard nut the size of a grapefruit whizzed down in front of the guide’s nose.

If you thought sagging balls were something eventually to be scared of, the falling nuts of the Amazon can be a life-ending event.