From the Caribbean coast, I flew to Colombia’s easterly border town, Leticia, and the gateway to the Amazon. My Swedish friend Meys, who I had met in Uruguay three months ago, had coincidentally flown into Leticia the same day, so we met and wandered the city together. Being a Sunday, almost everything was closed except for some fairly dodgy street food stands on the corners. The town was enclosed on one side by the river, and by dense forest on the other. The port brought in all necessary foodstuffs, and there were several clothes and electronics stores. The largest building in the centre was the casino. Without any local bustle, the only sound was the low hum of invisible insects from all around.
We were told birds came to visit the local park every day just before sundown, so we made our way in that direction towards the end of the day with a few crispy empanadas in hand. To our delight and startling surprise, thousands of small birds and parrots flocked to a dozen trees from all directions. Some making their way through the streets and swooped just above our aheads. Collectively, the chatter was almost deafening. It was a monumental welcome to the Amazon.
Leticia is in fact located at the meeting place between three countries: Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Known as “Tres Fronteiras”, it is easy to drift between the countries as border control is not enforced. Leticia’s Brazilian neighbour town, Tabatinga, is separated only by an imaginary line and a few tired police officers. The Peruvian town of Santa Rosa is situated slightly away on the other side of the river Amazon, which is about 400m wide at this point by my reckoning.
The nights are a hot affair, and the breaking of the day’s first rays is an immediate wake-up call. My penultimate day in Leticia started with a large breakfast in Colombia. For lunch, Meys and I took a boat to Peru to enjoy their famous dish, Lomo Saltado. On the brief amazonian crossing we could witness fishermen floating, boat-taxis buzzing and river-houses sitting solemnly on precarious stilts. For dinner, we ventured into Brazil for fried fish and a Caprinha, thus completing a thoroughly South American day.
Whereas most visited Leticia to tour the nearby rainforest, I was here to take the boat to Brazil’s Manaus. In fact, by my judgement I was the only one here taking the boat. The last thirty entries to the hostel logbook stated visitors were both coming from and going back to Bogota. The day before leaving, I collected my Colombian exit stamp, my Brazilian entry stamp, one boat ticket, and then returned to Colombia for one more night in a bed.
1200km of river was ahead of me as I boarded the hollow white ferry the next morning. It would take 4 days to reach Manaus, and the whole journey (including full board) would cost 220 Reals (£55). A queue of individuals, families, bags and boxes shuffled on board, where we all jumped into the upper decks to set up camp. My two backpacks were meagre in comparison to the other loads of luggage. Some had carried several hundred kilos of bananas with them, others had huge stacks of nappies or bottles of “Inca Cola”. Clearly these were in-demand items further down the river.
Every passenger brought their hammock, making the middle deck a jungle of multicoloured hanging cloth. To the left of my pitch was a young mother and child, to my right was a smiling middle-aged man. Not taking into account which way the boat was facing when I boarded, I of course managed to position myself uncomfortably close to the loud motor, although it wasn’t long before the noise was simply part of the background.
We left the harbour and quickly started our route down the centre of the river. Several hundred metres of brown water flowed either side of us, and the river’s edge was generally a distant view. Occasionally we hugged a bend, providing a closer taste of the vibrant green canopy. When the sun lowered, the trees glowed and the rainforest disappeared into a misty haze behind. The biodiversity of the Amazon is legendary; almost 30 percent of the world’s species make their habitat there. It was a weird feeling to know that I was possibly close to a solitary wild cat, or a family of monkeys. Beneath me piranhas or an electric eel could be lurking. Unfortunately they were all invisible to me. Occasionally birds and bats would flutter by during their respective times of activity, and even the Amazon’s famous pink-nosed dolphin skimmed along the surface nearby on one occasion.
The riverside is not bare from humans though. Towns are few and far between, but houses (either nestled into the shore’s undergrowth or perched on the water) are generally positioned every few hundred metres, and we would rarely pass more than a couple of kilometres without seeing some sort of structure. Thin motor-powered boats would scoot along the water, either transporting boxes, returning from an early fishing trip, or occasionally towing a huge fallen tree log behind.
Every 100km or so we would approach a larger settlement, where the boat would dock and load/unload cargo. Our final stop of the first day was met by federal police swooping in to search the boat. My bag was searched twice, which along with the initial search before boarding the boat brought my daily search total up to 3. That might have been a personal record.
The boat was equipped with a small kitchen that served three meals a day. Breakfast at 6am, lunch at the strangely early 10:30am and dinner at 5pm. The blasting announcement in Portuguese was the giveaway for the meals being ready, and everyone eagerly charged forward to form a queue. The food was well varied, and always served with watermelon; I was probably eating as well on the boat as I had been previously in Colombia. The temperature rose steadily throughout the day, and only really dropped again in the early hours of the morning. When the sun fell past the horizon, most retired to their hammocks for the night as there was little worth staying awake for, before rising again with the Sun for the early breakfast.
Of course there were huge pools of time spent gazing at the endless bends of river ahead, or simply swinging in the hammock. I managed to finish three books during those times, with topics varying from British politics to the history of Afghanistan to tales from Nordic mythology. But I knew these educational days were soon to end on the fourth morning, when everyone suddenly drifted to the side of the boat to greet the new view. The skyline of Manaus had suddenly risen from the endless green horizon.
Manaus is based on the north bank of the Rio Negro, just upriver of Encontro das Ãguas (“Meeting of Waters”) between the Rio Negro and the Solimões to form the Amazon river proper. These two powerful rivers meet, touch, and flow for miles side-by-side without mixing. The dark, warm and slow moving Rio Negro simply rides next to the sand-coloured, cooler and faster Solimões, with only the occasional swirling eddy breaking out and dancing between the two bodies until they eventually settle their differences and merge.
Although Manaus was previously known as “City of the forest”, any image my mind had conjured up of a metropolis being swallowed by trees and vine was quickly cast aside. A swathe of modern buildings stand tall in the centre, and the two sides of the river are connected by the impressive Rio Negro bridge, which spans 3600m across the water. The port houses plenty of huge shipping boats and ferries, giving the impression you’re at sea rather than at the centre of the continent.
The boat docked and I strolled off into the suffocating midday heat. Without internet in Leticia, I had arrived without a map or booking in the city, so I stumbled around blindly until I could find some WiFi. Around the docks were streets of crumbling old colonial buildings. Now taken up by obscure shops, their colours were fading but they still hold their classical architecture. Manaus’ riches were centred around the booming rubber trade of the 19th century, and with it brought a flux of wealthy European settlers who made their mark with art, culture and architecture. Their centrepiece, Teatro Amazonas, is the gold-domed opera house originally envisioned as the “jewel” in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. With its superior design and materials largely imported from Europe (the iron framework was from Scotland, marble pillars and chandeliers from Italy, the cupola’s 60,000 tiles from France), it took 20 years to complete, and still stands magnificently to this day (admittedly after a period of restoration).
In the glory days, rubber barons would apparently swagger around the city, burning money to light cigars and accompanied by their diamond encrusted wives. They would even send their laundry to Paris. Of course the city couldn’t stay rich forever; their downfall was triggered when an English trader smuggled the seeds of the rubber tree (Hevea Brasiliensis) out to replant elsewhere in the British empire. It didn’t take long for the trees to flourish in these lands, and to this day Asia still rules the rubber trade.
After a long depression where even electricity became a luxury, the city regained its trading power through other means and is now bolstered by eco-tourism and being a base for many Amazon rainforest research groups. But it will never reach those dizzying rubber highs again. After a night staying near the docks, I moved out to a quiet and friendly neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. The nearest street had a dozen houses and restaurants with outdoor barbecues, each selling roasted chicken and fish. Far from the flamboyant centre and the restless rainforest, everything was simple and quiet. It might be even the quietest place in the Amazon.