Taking the Rápido along the Amazon from Leticia to Puerto Nariño

The Amazon

The Amazon River

No roads link the towns and villages of the Colombian Amazon. Public transport between Leticia, the Amazonas department capital, and Puerto Nariño, the next largest town with around 6,000 mostly indigenous inhabitants, is by boat.

The rápido, or rapid launch, leaves Leticia three times a day at 8am, 10am and 2pm. It gets busy so it’s best to buy tickets in advance.

It’s possible to explore the Amazon using organised tours but we avoided these because, being chronically ill, I struggle to keep pace with healthy people; and besides there’s something innately satisfying about navigating your way around by public transport.

A boat ride along the Amazon is a great adventure for children

A boat ride along the Amazon is a great adventure for children

Once aboard the rápido, it’s worth tolerating the second-hand sweat left by the previous occupants of the lifejackets for the safety they provide in the unlikely event of a mishap.

The Amazonian breeze and the excitement of travelling the great river soon dissipate the dampness and odour.

With Peru on the left bank and Colombia to the right, the 87km between Leticia and Puerto Nariño takes around two hours in the rápido.

We passed wooden canoes, some powered by outboard motors, some by oars, as we ploughed through the brown water. Children splashed at the water’s edge while women washed clothes in the river.

Village jetty

Village jetty

Groups of wooden huts on stilts with palm-thatched or corrugated metal roofs punctuated the jungle to form small settlements along the banks. Santa Sofia, La Libertad, Macedonia and 20 July were some that warranted village name plates.

The rápido stopped wherever it was hailed or where people wanted to disembark. Wooden planks and makeshift log and mud steps formed embarkation jetties in villages along the way.

Dwellings on stilts along the bank

Dwellings on stilts along the bank

The Amazon is central not just to the lives of the people who live here and use it for transport, washing, bathing and fishing, but pivotal for all of us because of its role in maintaining the health of the world.

The ‘lungs of the earth’, as the cliché dubs the Amazon rainforest, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen producing 20% of the earth’s supply.

The Amazon crosses national borders and transcends them by affecting the atmosphere of the entire planet.

Amazonian tributaries fan out like veins across a large part of South America and the cooling effects of its rainforests help combat climate change.

Water falling as rain and snow on the Andes drains into the Amazon basin, which holds 20% of the world’s fresh water. Rich in flora and fauna, the Amazon is one of the earth’s most biodiverse habitats.

A boat we passed along the way

The Amazon highway

Interconnectedness with nature and each other can be felt profoundly here. Demand from the northern hemisphere threatens this river and its rainforests, but without it we would all suffer immeasurably.

As the río Loretoyacú converged with the Amazon, Puerto Nariño’s jetty came into view: more substantial than the village jetties and built on high stilts to withstand the tide during the rainy season, when water levels rise by several metres.

We’d completed our first journey on the jungle highway – the pulmonary artery carrying ‘rush-hour’ traffic. But our ancient route followed the wake of canoes whose oars must have disturbed these waters millennia before.

Here’s my video of the journey:


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La Jangada hostel, Leticia, whose owner has travelled the Amazon by bicycle-boat and whose staff’s efficiency and dedication remain unsurpassed

La Jangada hostel, Leticia

La Jangada hostel, Leticia

La Jangada hostel in the centre of the bustling Amazonian town of Leticia is conveniently located for restaurants and ATMs. It offers clean, reasonably-priced dorms and double rooms and has a cosy, house-like feel. The children enjoyed sharing their own upstairs double while we stayed in a downstairs double with electric fan and shower. Though there was no hot water, this didn’t matter as the temperature in Leticia was warm enough not to need it.

With a seating area in the reception and an outdoor dining area on the patio at the front of the hostel, there are plenty of opportunities to socialise with other guests and enjoy the excellent breakfast on offer. Local information about the Amazon is available, as well as organised excursions.

Sitting area and reception

Sitting area and reception

The Swiss owner, Hervé, is friendly and welcoming and has the distinction of having travelled 3,500km of Amazonian rivers in his bicycle-powered boat. You can read about his adventures here: http://www.hervepuravida.com.

All the staff were friendly and helpful, but for us the shining star was Nancy. Although I felt better in Leticia’s warm climate than I had in the cool altitudes of Bogotà, I still felt too ill to think properly. And Nancy organised us.

When we wanted to go to Puerto Nariño, two hours further along the Amazon, she offered to give me a lift to the docks on the back of her motorbike to book our places on the following morning’s rápido (rapid launch), the public transport between the two towns as there are no road connections.

Vestibule with staircase to upper floor

Vestibule with staircase to upper floor

I always loved motorbikes and owned a series of increasingly powerful machines in my youth. I made several trips across Europe on my Z750 and always intended to retrace Che Guevara’s epic motorcycle journey through South America ‘one day’.

But when chronic illness intervened, I found my balance affected and I was not confident about my ability to remain upright on the back of a motorcycle. Reluctant to admit this, I proffered my husband in my stead. ‘No,’ said Nancy. He doesn’t speak Spanish so he wouldn’t do. It had to be me.

Our downstairs double room

Our downstairs double room

I fetched our passports and hoped for the best as I mounted. Nancy proved a careful and competent rider and I was fine. In fact, the short walk from where she parked to the ticket sales office was more of a challenge than the motorcycle ride. Faced with a long queue which I would have struggled to stand in for any length of time, she went to the front and reserved our places on the 8am rápido for the following morning.

She sorted out what time we needed to have breakfast and how we liked our eggs and escorted us to the docks the following morning, making sure we arrived on time. Colombians know their identity numbers from their cédula ciudadano (identity card) off by heart, but I lacked the equivalent memorised information of our passport numbers.

Leaving Leticia docks on the rápido

Leaving Leticia docks on the rápido

I generally feel worse first thing in the morning and that day was no exception, it was as much as I could do to locate our passports and hand them to Nancy. She took control and ensured our names and numbers were entered on the rápido’s passenger list and we boarded the launch.

We would never have made the 8am if it hadn’t been for Nancy’s ‘above and beyond’ service.

I would recommend La Jangada as a great place to stay in Leticia, Colombia’s gateway to Amazon exploration.

Click here to read my blog post about Leticia.

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‘In the Dragon’s Jaws: Many Exquisite Jewels’ [1]

Jungle claims the ruins on the outskirts of Leticia, Amazonas, Colombia

The jungle claims the ruins on the outskirts of Leticia, Amazonas, Colombia

The jungle had begun to claim the roofless walls and incongruous pillars that lured my eldest daughter. She likes taking photographs of derelict buildings and these ruins on the outskirts of Leticia in the Amazonas department of Colombia were irresistible.

Naturally I couldn’t let her venture in alone, but those voices I’d dismissed as ignorance and prejudice before leaving for Colombia began to stalk me:

‘The Amazon! What do you want to go there for? It’s just jungle and guerrillas,’ a friend from Medellín had said. ‘Dangerous’, ‘deathwish’ and ‘crazy’ were words some associated with our trip.

‘Where’s your sense of adventure?’ I’d reposted.

Overgrown ruins, Leticia

Overgrown ruins, Leticia

I’ve always prided myself in my fearlessness and courage (except when it comes to spiders). I’ve never shied away from physical combat when the need has arisen, which was frequently in a previous occupation. No-one has ever physically defeated me, though many have tried. Even shortly before becoming chronically ill, I broke up a fight; and, in a separate incident, dragged a man from beneath a train. It would be fair to say that I’ve suffered from a Batman complex from an early age.

But now, for the first time in my life, I had to face the fact that I was too physically ill to be capable of defending myself and my daughter. This was quite a realisation for me – no intrepid prowess or swaggering machismo was going to get us out of whatever lay in store for us within the ruins. I had to come to terms with the fissures appearing in my Batman complex.

The jungle advances

The jungle advances

My daughter swiftly dismissed my attempts to persuade her to photograph the ruin solely from the outside and in we went.

Graffiti and rubbish battled with advancing foliage for the dilapidated plaster and crumbling brickwork.

We took a few photographs before realising we were not alone.

The voice that spoke belonged to a wiry, bearded man lying on some flattened cardboard boxes, his few possessions by his side.

‘Come in,’ he said, as if inviting us into his home. There was pride in his voice as he encouraged us to look around. We had a brief chat with him before taking a few more shots. Then I cautiously asked him if we could photograph him.

‘Of course. Shall I stand up or stay here?’

‘No, no, stay where you are. That’s perfect,’ I said.

'Come in and take a look around.'

This man who had so little welcomed us with generosity of spirit

We took some photographs and another man appeared and wanted to be photographed too. He smiled and laughed as he pressed himself against the wall in his chosen pose.

Man who appeared in Leticia ruins

Second man who appeared in Leticia ruins

I spoke a little longer with the first guy. He was a gracious host whose hospitality was humbling. I felt guilty I’d even considered being afraid when I’d entered the ruin. How wrong I’d been! This man who had so little welcomed us with generosity of spirit. He put our curiosity above whatever his own desperate situation must have been.

My Batman complex cut in again – I wanted to ‘save’ him, but I could give him nothing in return. I didn’t even have money on me, not that he asked for any.

There are over 5 million forcibly displaced people in Colombia[2]. I don’t know if he was one of them. I wanted to stay longer – to find out his story, but felt too ill to continue conversing for long. I thanked him profusely and we left.

I can still feel his dark, soulful eyes – expressive of whatever ill had befallen him, but which he put aside to show us courtesy and kindness. I will not forget this humbling experience – a lesson that the unexpected need not be bad, and further lessons in humility and letting go of the Batman complex. Looking at his photograph still provokes feelings of gratitude, respect and connection.

A butterfly amongst the ruins - beauty can be found in surprising places

A butterfly amongst the ruins – beauty can be found in surprising places

Both the dispossessed and the chronically ill are often invisible in our societies. Maybe this common ground strengthened our connection.

I hope by writing this I can express that connection and validate this man, as validation is all I can offer him. And as a chronically ill person, I know how important that is.

[1] Setcho Juken, quoted in How to be Sick by Toni Bernhard

[2] UNHCR figure for end of 2013

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Leticia: Colombia’s Gateway to the Amazon

Leticia dockside

Leticia dockside

I was too ill to shower on the morning of our flight from Bogotá to Leticia (apologies to COPA Airlines and my fellow passengers), and I welcomed the chance to sit quietly and rest for the duration of our two-hour flight from the Colombian capital to the capital of the department of Amazonas. The flight announcement reassured us that weather conditions in Leticia were good, as was the security situation.

Much as I love Bogotá, I must, on this issue, disagree with its liberator, Simón Bolívar, who regarded its high Andean climate as one of the best in the world. He even earmarked it as somewhere he intended to convalesce during periods of ill health[i].

I, on the other hand, struggled with the high-altitude Bogotá air and found it exacerbated my illness. As soon as I stepped off the plane in Leticia, warm humid air began to ease my breathing.

Motorbikes and mototaxi in Leticia street

Motorbikes and mototaxi in Leticia street

Located on the far southern tip of Colombia, the town borders Brazil and Peru and has a tropical rainforest climate with an average temperature of 27C. While the temperature remains steady all year round, rainfall varies with season. Even in July, Leticia’s driest month, more rain falls than in London’s wettest months, but it tends to come in heavy downpours rather than relentless drizzle and Leticia enjoys more hours of sunshine per year than London or Bogotá.

Originally a Peruvian town, Leticia became part of Colombia in 1922, though border skirmishes between the two nations continued until 1934.

Leticia is the largest Colombian settlement for hundreds of miles, yet has no road links to the rest of the country. The only way in and out is by plane from Colombia or by boat from Peru and Brazil. Iquitos (Peru) is ten hours up river by boat and Manaus (Brazil) a three day boat journey along the Amazon.

Leticia fruit stalls

Leticia fruit stalls

From its colourful houses and fruit stalls to the constant hum of motorcycles and squawking flocks of parrots, Leticia is a lively frontier town. Motorcycles outnumber cars many times over and it is not uncommon to see families of three or four on one motorcycle without a crash helmet between them. Leticia still has a small-town feel, but caters well for travellers with hostels, roadside cafés and ATMs.

As is the norm in Colombia, you have to go through a locked (albeit glass) door to use an ATM. The one we used had the reassuring presence of an armed guard who spent his day in the small lobby, occasionally reading, listening to music or practising a few salsa steps.

Leticia docks

Leticia docks

A favourite activity among visitors is to cross the borders to Peru and Brazil. We began our ‘three countries in a day’ challenge with breakfast in our hostel in Leticia before heading down to the dock area to take a boat over to the smaller Peruvian settlement of Santa Rosa de Yavari.

Santa Rosa is much smaller than Leticia. Most of the wooden buildings are on stilts to accommodate floods during the rainy season. A central concrete footpath forms the ‘main drag’ where some hostels and restaurants can be found.

Santa Rosa, Peru

Santa Rosa, Peru

Tabatinga, Brazil

Tabatinga, Brazil







After lunch in Peru, we took a boat back to Leticia, then a mototaxi to the Brazilian border. Tabatinga is a continuation of Leticia and around the same size, though less attractive. After a short walk we stopped for a drink in a roadside café before heading back to Colombia.

Amazon sunset

Amazon sunset

Leticia offers craft markets, a few small museums, a park and a botanical garden, as well as opportunities to zip-wire through the jungle canopy; all heralding what lies ahead further into the Amazon rainforest.

Its main function is to serve as the Colombian gateway for Amazon exploration, but it has character and is a delightful place to visit in its own right.

Here’s my video of the Tres Fronteras (Three Frontiers) – Leticia, Santa Rosa and Tabatinga:

[i] He expressed these sentiments in a letter to General Francisco de Paula Santander in 1822

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Colombian Independence – Reverberations of a Vase Smashed 200 Years Ago

Independence Day Celebrations in the Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo,  Bogotá

Independence Day Celebrations in the Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo, Bogotá


Before independence, Colombia (or the Viceroyalty of New Granada of which it formed part) was permitted to trade only with Spain, a country unable to supply its market. Spaniards ran its administration; even elite criollos (American-born Spanish descendants) were excluded from eligibility for high administrative posts – a sore point amongst some who sought to maintain unity with Spain by arguing for their right to equality as ‘offspring of the conquistadors’[1].

Spain’s military and political position weakened during the Peninsular War and surrounding events. Whilst Europe squabbled, its colonies seized their opportunity: Quito, Caracas, Cartagena and Cali declared a level of independence and by July 1810, Santa Fe de Bogotá was something of a viceregal island bastion.

La Casa del Florero (the House of the Vase) - Llorente's residence, now the Museum of Independence, Bogotá

La Casa del Florero (the House of the Vase) – Llorente’s residence, now the Museum of Independence, Bogotá

A plan to liberate the capital emerged: on 20 July 1810, patriots asked the Viceroy for an open meeting to discuss independence, which he predictably refused.

They also requested the loan of a vase from Spanish merchant Joaquín González Llorente to grace the table of visiting patriot sympathiser Antonio Villavicencio, again knowing he would refuse. He did so arrogantly, provoking the patriots to smash the vase, which inflamed Llorente further.

Once the masses took to the streets protesting Spanish arrogance, demands for a meeting to settle the future of New Granada grew louder and more persuasive. Only the Mayor of Bogotá’s intervention saved Llorente’s life, and the Viceroy had no choice but to agree to the election of a local junta.

The junta gave Santa Fe de Bogotá a level of autonomy whilst remaining loyal to the deposed Spanish king, Ferdinand VII; but declared full independence in 1813.

Portrait of Simón Bolívar, Quinta de Bolívar, Bogotá

Portrait of Simón Bolívar, Quinta de Bolívar, Bogotá

La Patria Boba (The Foolish Fatherland) (1810-1826) marks a period of instability and clashes between federalist, centralists, royalists and patriots in New Granada, culminating in Spain retaking the region.

But no one expected Simón Bolívar – the Spanish left the Andean route to the east unguarded, as they considered it impassable. But Bolívar led an army, including a British legion, through the waist-deep malarial waters of the llanos and over the freezing peaks of the eastern cordillera. Taking the Spanish by surprise, his decisive victory at the Battle of Boyacá on 7 August 1819 won full independence.

Whilst the events of 20 July 1810 began the process of independence, the Battle of Boyacá finalised it.

Independence Day Celebrations

Today 20 July is celebrated as Colombian Independence Day, though 7 August is also a public holiday celebrating Bolívar’s victory at the Battle of Boyacá.

Independence Day cookies given to passengers on COPA airlines

COPA Airlines Independence Day cookies

Independence day fly past in Bogota

Independence day fly past in Bogotá


A great place to enjoy Independence Day festivities is the Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo, where Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada founded Santa Fe de Bogotá in 1538, near the indigenous Muisca capital of Bacatá.

Traditional music and stilt dancing enhance the party atmosphere while you enjoy some empanadas and a glass of guanábana juice followed by arroz con leche or salpicón.

But how independent is Colombia today?

On 20 July 2010, 200 years to the day after Llorente’s vase was broken, 18,000 people marched through Bogotá protesting against the policies of the then president Alvaro Uribe and colonialism. This led to the foundation in 2012 of the Marcha Patriótica, a social and political movement ‘for the second and definitive independence’.

Their struggle for peace and democracy embraces a negotiated end to the long-standing armed conflict and reparation for the victims, agrarian reform including stabilising food prices and land reform, reversing damaging free trade agreements and stemming the tide of economic imperialism.

Marcha Patriótica leaders are often stigmatised as having links with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group and Latin America’s oldest). This stigmatisation is like a green light code for would-be political assassins who enjoy almost certain impunity. So far, 30 Marcha Patriótica leaders have been assassinated and many more have received death threats.

Bogotá graffiti

Bogotá graffiti commemorating the the thousands of trade unionists and members of the Unión Patriótica assassinated with almost total impunity

This grim déjà vu of the murders of 3,600 Unión Patriótica leaders and members in the 80s and 90s with almost complete impunity is a brutal warning of the risk of political genocide that left-wing organisations must face if they are to participate in Colombian politics.

The Marcha Patriótica assassinations also undermine the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, currently taking place in Havana. A condition for peace is the inclusion of the left in Colombian politics, but the assassinations show this will not be tolerated.

Multinationals and Free Trade Agreements

Multinational oil and mining companies continue to strip Colombia of natural resources, causing environmental damage and an increased forced displacement of local people by paramilitaries, while profits go into the pockets of foreigners and a small but rich and powerful oligarchy.

Trade agreements have flooded Colombia with cheap, genetically modified imported food from multinational corporations ruining many medium and small-scale farmers, who cannot even compete with neighbouring countries whose governments subsidise farming and transport costs.

Protesters in the Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá, protesting against inequality and free trade agreements

Protesters in the Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá, protesting against inequality and free trade agreements

The agreements were signed with the promise of more jobs and economic growth for all, but in reality the small print contained devastation for many Colombian farmers. Riot police confiscated produce now deemed ‘illegal’ and farmers were threatened with jail. But this produce was not coca, but rice.

The terms and conditions of the free trade agreement with the United States criminalised the farmers for doing what their ancestors had always done – taking the best seeds of the harvest to sow for next year – and obliged them instead to use only ‘certified seed’, mainly produced by large multinational corporations. Far from creating jobs, many were lost – not just farmers but their labourers and those traditionally involved with drying seeds. And ‘certified seed’ can only be used once as saving seed for the next harvest infringes copyright law.

Once the multinationals have the monopoly, they are free to impose whatever conditions they like – obliging farmers to buy fertiliser and pesticide ‘packages’ along with their seeds, after all the genetically modified seeds might not grow properly without them.

Even indigenous people who live in intimate communion with the land have not escaped. They too have been forced to abandon their traditional farming methods in favour of ‘certified seeds’, sometimes inferior and not suited to their specific climatic conditions.

The ‘War on Drugs’

Coca shrub

Coca shrub

Perhaps a switch to coca crops is the answer? Coca is a profitable crop, its leaves being the raw material processed to satisfy the demand for cocaine in Europe and North America. It yields harvests three times a year and can be grown in various different climates.

But the US ‘war on drugs’ has meant that US planes and Colombian planes paid for by US money have fumigated huge swathes of Colombia ostensibly to destroy coca crops but in reality taking a huge toll on people, environment and any living thing in the vicinity.

Though Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has spoken out against the ‘war on drugs’; and, during a recent trade visit to Colombia, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said ‘Nobody can say the world is winning the war against drugs,’ their sentiments have yet to transform into policies.

The ‘War on Terror’

The 'War on Terror'

The ‘War on Terror’

The United States occupies several military bases throughout Colombia, not just under the auspices of the ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on terror’ against the guerrilla, but also to afford them the opportunity of conducting operations against governments who do not share their philosophy. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia for example all have left-wing governments.

Our involvement

From the time Europeans first set foot in the Americas and devastated the indigenous populations we inextricably linked ourselves with that continent. Now, in an age where profit and capital know no borders yet the word ‘immigrant’ is used to disparage, independence is a delusion for the benefit of multinational corporations and the small oligarchy that feed off them.

Are European and North American taxpayers fortifying an oppressive Colombian military in the name of ‘foreign aid’? How comfortable are we that our governments sign free trade agreements that have such a devastating effect on our trade ‘partners’? Would our drug habits be better tackled by the more efficacious method of educating users rather than annihilating growers and everything that surrounds them?

Until we abandon the exploitative notion of ‘each for their own’ and treat all human life as equal, we can only hope that Colombia wins its ‘second and definitive independence’ sooner rather than later.

For more information:

How free trade agreements affect Colombia (in English):

Social and political commentary on Colombia (in English):


Marcha Patriótica (in Spanish)


[1] Camilo Torres Tenorio, Memorial de Agravios (Memorial of Grievances), 1809.
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