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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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