When we found a small stand on the side of the road offering "Touristic Travel" I was doubtful that it would get us to our destination, expecting it to either be overpriced or a scam. We asked anyway because at this stage, it was our only lead on how to get to Minca. A burly looking gentleman started yelling random destinations at us in the hope that one would sound familiar in a sea of random Colombian city names. I eventually cut him short as I wasn't sure he was actually still listing places and may now have moved onto trying to sell us some other random gadgets such as the pile of TV antennas and random remotes sitting behind him. As soon as the word "Minca" left my mouth, he put his arm around my shoulder and led the three of us to a vehicle that I had previously considered abandoned and possibly only used to steal parts from. The driver window was missing, and the inside looked as if it had been stripped in a car heist or perhaps they'd just tried to drop some weight from the vehicle knowing that the drive to Minca is all up hill!
At this stage I still wasn't convinced this thing would actually run but for some reason we all jumped in and said nothing. Oh yeah this was our ride to Minca... Perfect.
We crawled up the hill to Minca in our beaten up old Trooper not-so-swiftly dodging 1m deep potholes as we went. Wade was in the back of the truck behind our seats, sitting precariously over the rattling gas tank while simultaneously attempting to hold the back door closed to avoid losing himself, our gas tank and our luggage! I'm sure the look on his face throughout the trip was one of genuine fear.... And probably for good reason! Haha
The drive up took us through small villages and some lush green scenery but nothing compared to the view from the top. I had found a place online that said they have tree houses, chalets and hammocks all up on a mountain side in Minca with an incredible view over the nearby coastal city of Santa Marta. How could we miss it!
The part that I had only vaguely mentioned to Wade and Hanna was that this place is up a mountain.... With walking access only! As we stepped out of the Trooper, our bodies still shaking from the bumpy drive up, we spotted a sign on a telegraph pole that said "Casa Loma"
"Follow the path behind the church. Stroll up the hill, past the school and then follow the signs to Casa Loma!"
We found the old white church in town and then creeped around the outside of it looking for the path to what would hopefully be our accommodation for the night. We followed a dirt road until we saw a Casa Loma sign where we turned off the road and up a smaller dirt track. Soon, the dirt track became a steep winding staircase that zigzagged its way up this mountain. Stroll up the hill. Really Casa Loma??? This was a freaking MOUNTAIN! The three of us were a sweaty mess after a day of walking around in 30 degree heat and finally this killer staircase was just the icing on the sweaty cake!
As the three of us battled the epic stair climb to Casa Loma we passed a small guesthouse and a cool looking bar. Our mouths were watering at the thought of a cool beer to break up our journey, but as we excitedly skipped our way up the last few steps to the bar our hearts sank as the closed sign came into view. A sip of water and a sigh of disappointment was all we could muster up so without a word we all put our heads down and continued the climb.
The signs to Casa Loma beckoned with promises of food, cool drinks and "The Best View in the WORLD"! By the time we reached the top I think the managers first words were "Hola! Please sit, here's a drink" closely followed by, "don't worry, we have cold showers". We must have looked even more rough than we felt! Casa Loma, you had us at hello!
Wade and I booked into a tree house and Hannah had this incredible little outdoor bedroom in the forest area at the top. We loved it and we hadn't even stopped to take in the view for all our efforts.
Heaven on earth! The beautiful Casa Loma treehouse perched on the top of the hill overlooking Minca and Santa Marta and our beautiful balcony complete with rocking chair and hammock!
We only booked in for one night so decided that in order to make the most of our time, it was best to drop our things and head straight out to one of the many natural features in Minca. It started pouring before we even decided where to go so we chose the closest which was a river with natural swimming pools. While we were standing by the bank of the river catching tadpoles and discussing whether or not to go in for a swim, a sudden wave of water began thundering in front us in a flash flood and the river rose around 1m in 2 minutes! It was one of the craziest things I've ever seen and we were all pretty glad we hadn't been swimming at the time.
We decided to chill out in a local pub and wait for sunset as we had been told that the sunset from our "treehouse" was supposed to be absolutely breathtaking. As the rain set in we decided sunset was not going to be anything too spectacular tonight so before it became too dark, we began the steep incline to our home for the night. As we reached the small cafe/bar/restaurant we saw earlier in the day, we realised much to our delight that it was now open. Wade hadn't noticed and almost walked straight by when we were greeted by a beautiful little Labrador-cross puppy. The owner came running out with a huge smile spread across his face and invited us in for a drink. How could we say no!
This little establishment, as little known as it is, is by far one of the coolest places I have ever lounged around while sipping ice cold cocktails. It was more or less a treehouse with the ground level being a bar/kitchen, then upstairs was a stunning balcony with the same incredible view of Santa Marta as we had from our tree houses. The balcony had a few beanbags, cute candles scattered around us and some awesome chill out tunes playing. If you closed your eyes and ignored the fact that the "clientele" consisted simply of the three of us, the bar owner (who also lived there) and 3 dogs, you could've been fooled into thinking we were in any classy cocktail bar across the world. After our third round of cocktails, the owner brought us up a bowl of hot, buttery popcorn and discovered that we had also not-so-subtly kidnapped his 3 month old puppy! It was such an awesome place, we could've sat there all night but eventually gave back the puppy, slurped our last cocktail and stumbled our way in the dark up to our tree house.
The following morning we ate breakfast while watching the sun glimmering off the city of Santa Marta in the distance. Immediately after breakfast we descended back down our dreaded hill and set off for "Pozo Azul" another set of natural pools only this time we read that they were bigger and more beautiful than the flooded river from the previous day.
As always in Minca, no walk is complete without hills and Pozo Azul didn't let us down. The views were incredible as we climbed up for a solid hour before reaching a sign that pointed straight down a long and winding path. We had gone from an open forest-type environment to suddenly find ourselves in thick, damp rainforest. We couldn't wait to dive right into the welcoming waters of Pozo Azul.
As we neared Pozo Azul we began to get the feeling that perhaps we wouldn't be alone as five, ten, fifteen moto taxis whisked by us. When we finally reached the sign for Pozo Azul and began our descent towards the river our fears were confirmed. We had completely ignored the fact that it was Sunday and from everything we had heard this was one of the locals favourite weekend destinations. There were people everywhere in the beautiful pools and cascades! We also should have taken another hint when we saw come coke bottles and beers being placed up against a rock in the river. I thought this was an odd place to store them and then I dipped my toe into the water. The water was FREEZING!!
I think my heart may have stopped for a minute as the ice cold water sent a shiver all over my body. Wade was game enough to go for a swim but Hanna and I opted for the smarter option and sat on the rocks dangling our feet in the water purely so we could say we did! Before too long, the three of us were reaching hypothermic levels so packed our things and left the crazy locals to swim in their icy pools.
We stopped a small hillside restaurant on our walk back to town where a local man took us into his rustic outdoor "kitchen" and showed us the variety of meats he was cooking in a large mud brick BBQ. He had homemade chorizo, tender roast chicken, beef and pork. Our mouths were watering immediately and he knew we were sold.
After stuffing ourselves with a shared plate of all the different meats and washing it down with a cool beer, we decided it was time to go and walk the remaining 2km back into town.
While we only spent around 24hours in Minca, it was well worth the effort and although we could've easily stayed another night in this quaint hillside village, we decided to pack our things and leave in time for an overnight bus to our next destination. As luck would have it, once we had paid our bill, packed our bags and said our goodbyes to the friendly treehouse hosts, the rain started and this time it wasn't just a sprinkle. We all tip toed as quickly as possible back down the steep and slippery bush staircase back into town, all fully loaded with our bags. By the time we reached the bottom we were soaked to the bone and happy to jump into the nearest dodgy-looking ride to Santa Marta! We jumped into the first available car and waved goodbye to Minca.
Photo: The main lodge at Casa Loma and the incredible view over the surrounding mountains
Our next destination, San Gil, had been suggested by Hanna in the previous days and Wade and I loved everything we read about it. It's an adventure sports and natural paradise down the eastern side of Colombia and an overnight bus trip away. We were stoked to be able to continue travelling together for a few more days so celebrated with a combination of Aussie and Swiss card games and some cold beers to kill time while waiting for our bus.
With two nights locked in at San Gil, our biggest decision from here was going to be choosing between the array of adrenaline filled activities on offer once we arrive - canyoning, white water rafting, waterfalls, hiking.... Yes please!!
Now not any old place would have us packing up and departing the wonderful city of Cartagena, but our next stop was well worth it. We booked a bus from our hostel directly to Taganga a small seaside village from where we hoped to enter Tayrona National Park. Many tourists choose to catch the boat from Taganga directly into the park because it means avoiding the long, hot walk into the campsites, however there is also the option of the bus. The bus takes you to the park gate on the eastern edge of the park from where you walk for around 45 minutes to arrive at the first campground.
We had decided to do the walk because:
a) I had read that it's quite beautiful and you can see wildlife along the way
b) it seemed like the more adventurous and natural route into the park and
c) it was cheaper and we're now tightarse backpackers!
The thing we hadn't counted on was a 30 degree day with 90% humidity - the walk was strenuous to say the least! Most people leave the majority of their luggage in a bigger town and just take the necessities into the park. Not Wade and I! Due to the spontaneous nature of our travel, we took everything with us because we had no idea where we would be going next. This certainly didn't help our cause as we walked up and down rock staircases, across soft sand and hopped over tree roots crossing our path!
After 45 minutes and almost 5 litres of water, we finally arrived at Arricifes Beach and campground. We were hoping our 5L water bottle would last us at least 2 days due to the price of water in the park but had clearly underestimated the walk in!
Our friend Hanna had told us were she would be staying and without wifi or phones our only choice was to stay at the same place and hope to see her. Within half an hour of settling into our tent and showering a familiar face strolled by. In a 150sq km park we had managed to find our one friend!
That night we had a few beers and watched the sunset from the beach before deciding to spend the following day exploring the park by doing the 4-5hour trek to the historic remains of the indigenous village of Pueblito.
The walk from Arricifes on the east of the park to Cabo San Juan (the furthest west campground) was 8km of stunning beaches, natural pools and groves of palm trees that looked like they had been plucked straight from a coffee table book!
By the time we arrived at Cabo we were already hot and sweaty but that didn't deter us from our goal to climb up to Pueblito. The trek was only 3 km according to the sign but what it lacked to inform the naive traveller is that it is almost directly up the side of a mountain. We spent the next 2 hours puffing and sweating our way up steep tracks, crawling over huge boulders and spotting a variety of wildlife.
Photo: The trek to Pueblito took us over, under and in between huge boulders to reach the remains of the city at the top
Eventually we reached Pueblito near the top of the mountain and could immediately vouch for its nickname as the "Little Lost City". The remains of Pueblito are scattered between what is still today a small indigenous village. Moss covered steps and smooth rocks used for grinding foods are scattered around the remains of ancient buildings. It's a beautiful site, almost as beautiful as the man selling ice-cold water under a shady tree!
The water man mentioned to us that there was an alternate route back down the hill which was welcome news after we had literally hauled each other over some 1m high boulders and weren't so sure about a downhill strategy!
The track was much easier as it avoided the rocky valley we had climbed up but it was also much steeper and covered in loose rocks. We tip toed our way down the track and finally sighed relief as we heard the ocean crashing in the distance.
Now we knew that this track met the ocean on a secluded beach west of the other more touristy campgrounds. We also knew there was a nudist beach on our walk back to Cabo but what we didn't know was there was a second nudist beach just for really close male friends to "hang out" on. While Wade quickened his pace and almost ran to the next beach Hanna and I tried to have a normal conversation while walking past some sunbathing men but all I could think about were the logistics of these naked men laying around without so much as a towel between the sand and their.... Yep, try not to think about it for too long!
Hanna left Tayrona a day before us so Wade and I spent our last day lounging around on the beaches while trying to avoid a group of French tourists who didn’t understand the meaning of personal space. It was such a peaceful and romantic day - Wade and I lying together on the beach while two elderly French women had a conversation over the top of us and their male companion decided to drape his sweaty t-shirt over my belongings. Such tranquility and bliss!
We left Tayrona the same way we entered, with the dreaded walk to the park gate, only this time it seemed much quicker and was made all the more special by some monkeys jumping over head and a capybara scuttling across the track in front of us.
Our next destination was Taganga and upon learning that it is the cheapest place in the world to undertake PADI Scuba Training, Wade jumped at the opportunity. I was unable to do it due to issues with my ears, but who am I kidding, the thought also terrifies me! So while Wade spent his days breathing underwater, chasing huge fish and learning all about the rules and regs for scuba diving, I chilled out with a few beers on our private balcony overlooking the beach. It really was a win win situation!
Photo: Wade working hard at becoming a PADI certified diver...... while I admire the sunset from our balcony in Taganga!
With a new PADI qualification under his belt, Wade proudly accepted his certification and spent the following days looking up all of our upcoming destinations that offer Scuba Diving. Looks like there will be more beers and balconies on the cards for me!
As always, there are plenty more photos from our time in Tayrona National Park, they can be found in our "Colombia - Part 2" Photo Album!
Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. The architecture and colourful tree lined streets of the Walled City are unlike any place I have ever visited.
The vibrant windows framed by Bougainvillea are just asking to have their photo taken and the atmosphere is lively, almost festive, all the time. The temperature is sweltering, street vendors sell freshly sliced tropical fruits and every street corner offers a new possibility to explore. I loved it from day one couldn't have been happier that this would be our home for the coming weeks.
Arriving in Colombia and finally departing Portuguese-speaking Brazil also marked the start of our next 4 months in Spanish speaking countries. We were excited about this as we would both like to achieve a basic grasp of the language during our time in South America but Brazil had really put the brakes on our progress. Before leaving Brazil we had discussed the various places we could settle for a week or so to attend a Spanish language school and it just happened to make sense that we would get started ASAP. So there we were in the beautiful, historic coastal city of Cartagena, ready to make ourselves comfortable, smash out some Spanish and explore the city….. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Cartagena is a reasonably large city however for most travellers, their visit centres around the UNESCO listed Old Walled City and the nearby backpacker suburb of Getsemani. The walls of the Old City of Cartagena are an incredible insight into this city's history. They were built between the 16th and 18th centuries to protect the city from pirate attacks. The walls are up to 20 metres thick in sections and several cannons still stand next to observation turrets, defensively watching over the ocean.
We chose a hostel on the well known backpacker street Calle Media Luna. The street has some very well known party hotels (one of which is owned by a friendly Aussie) but with the atmosphere comes a higher price and we actually wanted something quieter seeing we would need to be at school by 9am everyday. Wade and I opted for a smaller, cheaper hostel only metres away from the party hostels but with a quieter, more local feel to it. Hotel La Española had a unique charm about it that only faded slightly when we realized on day three that we were in fact right above a pumping nightclub!
Within our first few hours of arriving in Cartagena, a few things occurred that at first surprised us but over the next 2 weeks would become part of everyday Cartagena life. For starters we met a well dressed, super creepy man who wanted to know all about us. We stopped to chat seeing as he seemed extremely interested in where we had been and what we were doing in Cartagena. It was only after we told him our names and where we were from that he quite openly introduced himself as the local drug king pin. He offered us an array of goods including free samples, all of course because we were his new friends and “he liked the look of us”…. Whatever that meant! It only took us three days to find an alternate route around town that avoided our new friend on our daily walking path!
Make friends with the locals... Tick!
We were then offered lunch by a motherly Spanish woman as we walked passed a very homely looking doorway. I used my basic Spanish to ask what the food was and how much it would cost. The price was cheap enough and while I didn’t understand every word, I gathered that we had a choice between chicken, beef or fish. We sat at a table surrounded by locals who were all eating plates of delicious looking food but we had absolutely no idea what WE were getting. Ten seconds later "Mamma" (as we decided to name our oh-so-efficient chef/waitress/business owner) came back with an icy cold juice and a bowl of hot soup. At first the thought of hot soup in 30 degree weather with 80% humidity sounded terrible but this soup was incredible! Wade looked vaguely disappointed at the fact that our lunch was soup and juice but I assured him that Mamma said something about chicken or meat and I had asked for one of each. Before we had even finished our soup there were two wonderful plates of deliciousness sitting in front of us. One with grilled chicken, rice, beans, plantain and salad and the other the same but with steak. Our lunch was awesome and when we asked for the bill at the end we really didn't know what to expect seeing as Mamma had somehow also sneakily added soup and a drink to our lunch order. In total, twelve thousand peso. Hmmm the new exchange rate was still messing with me a little but I'm sure that equals $6 or $7 for the two of us. I gave Mamma a large note just in case I my Spanish translation was wrong but no it was right. I thought she was going to hug us when we left the equivalent of a $2 tip and we left more satisfied by a meal than we had been in weeks. I asked Mamma about the juice and soup and she simply gave me a confused look and said “Menu del Dia”. I looked this up later and as it turns out, lunch meals in Colombia consist of soup, a main plate and a fresh juice all for one small price!
Eat Colombian style "Menu del dia" like a local.... Tick!
We spent the rest of our first day in Cartagena speaking to the different Spanish schools in town. While they all seemed great we chose to go with Babel and couldn't have made a better decision. Prior to signing up to Babel, my grasp of the Spanish language could be entirely attributed to a combination of:
1) The extensive vocab of Speedy Gonzalez
2) an App called "Mind Snacks" (try it, it's awesome!) and
3) the song from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics which for some bizarre reason, at the ripe old age of 7, I decided was the coolest song around.... it wasn't.
On our first day at school we had 6 people in our class. By day two, we were down to four and by day three we were down to three. Wade and I found ourselves a new friend in James the pommie, who within minutes of meeting we immediately loved his wicked sense of humour and even better was that he only had a slightly better grasp of Spanish than ourselves! Our teacher Gisella was fantastic although it took her a few days to accept that she had somehow scored two of the most typical "naughty boys" at school in her class of three! The poor woman had no idea what had hit her. By the end of our first week we had a vague understanding of verbs and adjectives but knew without a doubt phrases such as "porn star", and even had an hour lesson on the history of Colombia including guerrillas, drugs and Pablo Escobar (all in Spanish of course!). In all honesty though, as much as we strayed from the normal curriculum, Gisella was a fantastic teacher and somehow the three of us English-speaking morons managed to really improve our Spanish over two weeks of school.
Speak Spanish like a gringo…. Tick!
During our two weeks of study we even had two school excursions! The first was to a small beach called Punta Arena which we accessed via a 20 minute boat ride from Cartagena. We wandered this idyllic island for the day playing word games and learning vocabulary relating to our surroundings. Our second excursion was to the local market, Mercado Bazurto. While Wade cringes at the mere thought of markets, I loved every minute strolling the alleys of this truly local market while learning all about the local foods and trying some of the more unique fruits and foods on offer.
Seeing as our two weeks of Spanish School were the most routine we have had in the past 3 months we decided that we deserved a break on the weekend for all of our hard work! The beaches in Cartagena are nothing to write home about and by Australian standards are pretty miserable, so we decided that along with a group of girls from school we would head to Playa Blanca for the weekend. Playa Blanca is either a one hour drive or boat trip from Cartagena and once you are there it has all the makings of a remote, idyllic island only technically it is part of the mainland.
While it is an absolutely stunning beach, we all agreed that the vendors on the beach offering everything from bottled water to oysters to creepy massages kinda ruined it a little. Eventually we headed down the beach to the overnight accommodation where there were far less tourists and therefore far less people trying to sell you warm oysters and unwelcome foot rubs. The one salesman that every tourist welcomes is the Coco Loco man. He spends his day strolling up and down the beach selling ridiculously strong Piña Coladas and other rum based concoctions in fresh coconuts and all made from his wheelbarrow. The guy is a genius!
We all decided to stay the night on Playa Blanca seeing as all the tourists leave at 4pm so we had the beach more or less to ourselves. We chose a small thatched roof hut as our accommodation for the night and Wade and I made a daring move when we decided to give the hammocks another "crack"! Lucky for us, this shelter held up better than our last and we made it through the night unscathed.
Our second day on Playa Blanca was spent swimming, reading and hooning around on a jet ski. It was a great escape from the city for a few days and really made us feel ‘normal’ again by having a weekend!
During our second week in Cartagena we spent some serious time exploring the city. By the time we left the city, we had walked every street within a 1km radius of our hostel and thoroughly explored the museums, architecture and alleyways of the magnificent fortified Walled City. During the days Cartagena is a stunning combination of bustling plazas, colourful window frames and blossoming bougainvillea while after dark the city shines in all it's beauty from the vantage point of the historic walls surrounding this unique UNESCO listed city.
I was sad to say goodbye to Cartagena. It had been our home for 15 days - longer than we have spent anywhere on our trip so far! Hotel La Española had really grown on me. Angela, the owner greeted us by name and asked about our day at school every time we passed her and the toilet-seat-less toilet and PVC pipe for a shower head now looked like cute quirky features of our home away from home.
We spent our last night in the city having a few ice cold beers out on the busy party street with our school mate James and the local beer vendors (who we now knew on a first name basis) while sweating in the city's never ending humidity.
It was a fitting, if not poetic end to our time in Cartagena.
Ever since I was a child I've always dreamt of visiting the Amazon. I'm not sure if it was Disney's "The Jungle Book", the incredible illustrations in Graeme Bass's "Animalia" or my childish fascination with all things creepy and crawly, but I wanted to see the Amazon and finally my dream was going to become a reality.
We arrived in Manaus, the main departure city for Amazon tours, in the middle of the night at an ungodly hour when most hostels don’t allow check-in. Unfortunately for us, this meant our only option was to attempt our first nights sleep in an airport. We were both pretty pumped at the idea and before long sleep deprivation kicked in. After a brief, fatigue fuelled argument when I refused to sleep on the floor, I found a cleaner who lent me some spray and wipe and I managed to clean a small marble wall that doubled as both a garden edge and my temporary bed for the remainder of the night. I may be a traveller but we all have our limits and call me crazy but sleeping on dirty Amazonian airport tiles was mine!
When first light broke, we couldn’t wait to get out of the freezing cold, mosquito ridden airport so we grabbed our things and headed into the sticky, humid air outside and towards the bus station. You could practically smell the jungle hanging in the thick air!
Our hostel was basic but the staff were kind enough to let us into our room by 9am and even offered us a hot breakfast while we were waiting. Much like other visitors to Manaus, the main purpose for us being there was to organize a tour into the jungle and surrounding river regions, but on day one, all we could think about was a shower and a soft bed.
Manaus is one of those modern day tourist towns that actually has had a varied and fascinating, however little known history. The city was originally founded late in the 17th century by the Spanish however indigenous tribes had been living off the land in this region for centuries. Then during the 19th century the rubber industry boomed and inspired many Europeans to move to the area to make their wealth. “Rubber Barons” as they were known, ran rubber plantations that not only threatened the ecosystem of the Amazon basin by clearing land to plant more rubber trees, but also had a significant negative affect on the local indigenous population. Many of these wealthy barons, made their money by more or less enslaving the local tribesmen and forcing them to work on the rubber farms. According to our local guide, some 75% of the local indigenous people in the areas directly surrounding Manaus, were wiped out during the 40 year rubber boom. There are many beautiful old buildings in Manaus however it is only once you learn of the city’s dark history that some of the beauty is washed away due to the many indigenous lives lost in order to make this city the wealthy and booming town it once was.
Of course as with any riverside city, there is plenty of local seafood and an exotic array of fresh fruits and vegetables, but none of that takes the tourists eyes off the main prize; the city’s close proximity and easy (sort of!) access to vast areas of uninhabited, wild jungle and beautiful rivers, lakes and wetlands.
We had decided to do a jungle tour for 4 or 5 days but due to a few of the recent World Cup matches being played in Manaus, there was a huge influx of scammers and unauthorized tour operators throughout the city. We visited three different tour operators and decided to stay an extra day in Manaus so we could discuss our options, talk to some other tourists and see which one sounded best for us.
At the last minute our hostel told us that we couldn’t stay the extra night we needed so at 8am in the morning we were back on the computer looking for somewhere to stay. I found a reasonably cheap room on the outskirts of the city so I booked it without too much thought, before we packed our things and left for our new accommodation. We were leaning towards one particular Amazon Tour company so we decided to stop in and see them on our way to our next hotel. After a short walk and at first a confusing yet overall very clear conversation, it turned out that the first time during this trip that I have rushed in and booked a hotel room without too much thought, it also happened to be a brothel…. Perfect.
As Wade sniggered and locked this story into his memory bank for future ammunition, I hung my head in shame wondering what we would do now that we had nowhere to go. And that’s when our potential tour guides came to the rescue. They had a group leaving for a 5-day jungle tour in two hours that we had previously turned down. However, lucky for us, it was much easier for the tour guides if we left with them then and there because it would mean they didn’t need to organize a private transfer out to the jungle for us tomorrow when they had a group leaving that day already. It was a win-win situation! Instead of sleeping in a brothel for the night, we had a (practically) free extra night in the wild Amazon jungle….. and we were leaving NOW!
From our very first moments in the jungle, the wild beauty of this incredible part of the world was everywhere. As we putted down the river on our way to our isolated, almost hidden lodge, the sun began to set over the wetlands and riverbanks surrounding us. The pink sky reflecting on the glassy water was simply breathtaking. It was right at that moment that I realized I was about to spend the next four days fulfilling a childhood dream and it was also at that moment that a select few of the most catchy and repetitive songs from “The Jungle Book” began playing in my head…… and didn’t stop for the next four days!
We barely had time to settle into our lodge before we were thrown into a small boat and sent out on the river with only one torch and the stars lighting up the river for a few hours of Caiman spotting. Caiman are the local freshwater alligators found in this region and depending on species can range in size from a small alligator to the largest predator in the Amazon! After seeing crocodiles in the top end of Australia, I assumed this would involve some spotlighting of eyes, some oohs and ahhhhs and then a smooth trip safely back to land. Hahaha. No Sarah... This is the Amazon. As we spotted a Caiman stealthily pressed up against the banks of the river, our guide paddled slowly towards it. We gradually edged closer and our guide, Joshua lay down on the front of the boat and waited patiently as the small canoe cruised towards this ancient reptile. In one swift movement there was a splash of water, a cry from a Spanish woman who thought we’d lost our guide and then before we knew what was happening, Joshua held his prize above his head.
"Oh no!" He cried. "It's only small!"
This small Caiman was around 1m long and had enough sharp teeth to put any bandsaw I've ever seen to shame! While Joshua was right, this Caiman was definitely on the smaller end of the “Giant Killer Predator” scale, I personally would not be wrangling one from the dark water in the middle of the night! My new hero passed the Caiman around to each of us explaining various facts before smoothly placing it back in the water and watching this future killer swim calmly away.
That first night of action was only just the beginning; little did we realise that each day was set to be more incredible and fascinating than the last.
5am came and my alarm sounded throughout the lodge. I’m not normally much of a morning person but when an Amazonian sunrise is the reward for an early wake up, I practically jumped out of bed with enthusiasm. There is something special about watching the sunrise and seeing the light of a new day bringing life and energy to nature. So, as we sat silently in our small canoe watching the sky change colours right before our eyes, and listening to the squawking sounds of hundreds of awakening birds, I made a mental promise to wake up more often for sunrise, although this one would be hard to beat.
With the sun high above our heads, we went exploring around the river in our small canoe spotting wildlife. We saw a number of varieties of monkeys, iguanas and more birdlife than I can even begin to recall the names of. And as if that wasn’t enough, as we sat watching a flock of Cormorants take flight from a dead tree, someone spotted a pink dolphin breach the water behind our boat. This was one of those moments where we didn’t even reach for the camera. No photo would do the moment justice but more importantly we just wanted to forget everything for a minute and just enjoy this incredible sight.
It was definitely the sort of early morning that is worth the bags under my eyes and coffee stains on my otherwise clean clothes.
After a few hours of wildlife spotting, we returned to the lodge for a delicious breakfast before once again lathering ourselves in a variety of insect repelling sprays, potions and ointments and jumping back into our boat as we headed off for a jungle trek.
The knowledge and skills of indigenous tribes the world over, never ceases to amaze me. In one three hour trek through the Amazon jungle, we used the ancient skills and knowledge of the local indigenous people to find and do the following:
The trek was more beautiful, educational and fascinating than I ever could have expected. What’s more is that while learning all of this and even being allowed to play with a machete once or twice, we were also lucky enough to stumble upon a variety of monkeys, coax a tarantula from its dark hole beneath a tree and saw enough insects, bugs and butterflies to keep even my creepy crawly fascination satisfied!
Now Wade and I both love our fishing, but even more so love the never ending competition to catch the most, the biggest or just simply the best fish. So when the option of Piranha fishing was thrown at us, we both jumped at the opportunity before going on to publicly slander one another’s previous fishing attempts to anyone who would listen!
Well, let’s just say that during our 2 hour Piranha fishing expedition, our unrelenting thirst for dominance did not waver. In fact it only increased to the point where Wade almost capsized our boat in Piranha infested waters by trying to cast his line in the same spot as mine in an effort to steal my fish! But that wasn’t the only excitement.
Wade was hit in the head by a flying piranha when an overzealous Spanish woman reefed it from the river with unmatched vigour, and I got a meat covered fish hook almost a centimeter deep into my toe but nothing changed the end result.
Wade = 3. Sarah = 4. Enough said.
It was during the great Amazonian Fishing Challenge of 2014 that at one point, we looked above us and noticed that the sky had suddenly turned a particularly ominous shade of grey. Our guide gave us the option of returning to the lodge to wait out the storm or trying to find a safe place to weather it, but within a minute, nature had decided for us. Heavy raindrops began pelting down on us and the sky was no longer visible, as all we could see were flashes of lightening through the thick wall of water. It was a few seconds after one such lightening strike that our guide decided to mention that only a few years ago a group of fishermen were killed when their boat was struck by lightening. Not a great story to tell 5 tourists in a boat… tied to a tree…. In the middle of a lake…. During a lightening storm!
Photo: One of the most incredible storm clouds I've ever seen brewing overhead while we sit patiently in our
canoe in the middle of the river
Within a matter of ten minutes, the storm had passed and the Amazon burst back into life. We took off in our boat once again, this time into a new area of the river. It was like something out of a fairytale as we moved slowly and silently through the water, the only noises coming from the soft paddling of our captain and the sounds of nature all around us. This swamp-like area was a magnificent maze of trees, vines and branches, all hovering just above our heads as we moved slowly through the water. Our guide hadn’t exactly told us what we were looking for in this area and we were all beginning to wonder when we heard a huge splash. We looked around for a fallen tree or a man overboard as the splash had suggested but no, this is the Amazon and the sound was in fact a frightened Iguana who had somehow heard us and decided to bail from his tree branch high above our heads and plunge into the water below. The first time was a surprise and had us all excitedly searching the water for the skydiving iguana but after 10 or so iguanas followed suit in the next hour, we decided they were just showing off and turned out attention elsewhere. We were all sitting in silence scanning the jungle around us and looking for anything that moved but funnily enough, what our guide was actually looking for was something that barely moves at all. We pulled up to a tree and all instinctively followed the gaze of our guide high into a tree above us. Leaves… tick. Branches… tick. Iguanas…. Nope. What the hell was he looking at?? The captain of our canoe tied us off to the tree and ever so swiftly began to climb the tree. What was he doing? Finally, someone broke the silence and asked what we’d all been thinking… “What is he doing?” was the question. One word, “Sloth” was the answer.
Wade and I turned to each other at neck breaking pace with identical childish grins sprawled across our faces. One of the most intriguing and bizarre animals of the Amazon was right above us! I’ve seen plenty of pictures of sloths and heard even more (usually untrue) facts over the years but I’d never actually seen one in real life.
As our local captain continued climbing the tree, I wondered what exactly his plan was once close to it. Was it true that they only moved 1 metre a day? Is it true that they can claw out a humans eyes? Is it true that a baby sloth sounds just like a human baby?
Well, before long a few of these questions were answered. Our captain began his decent from the tree ever so carefully, as in his arms, clinging tightly to his chest was none other than a sloth! I think I almost cut off blood supply to Wade’s leg as I gripped it and whispered “I think we’re actually about to see a sloth!”. But oh no Sarah, once again you underestimated the Amazon. We weren’t just going to see it, we were going to hold it!
Our captain carefully stepped back onto the canoe, and we all sat in amazed silence, trying not to rock the boat while at the same time craning our necks to see the creature in his arms.
The sloth was so much more incredibly awesome than I had ever imagined. Oh who am I kidding, I had never even imagined I would see a sloth let alone hold one! The innocent looking creature with a smile painted across it’s face sat silently, moving only it’s deep blue grey eyes to scan the environment every now and then. Of course as always in these life changing moments, our camera decided to play up, but the one photo we did manage to get displays our emotions at that moment perfectly. I can’t guarantee that Wade and I will look this excited, emotional and proud the day we hold our first born child!
With each new day, came more wonderful and exciting adventures but our next adventure, while exciting in theory was actually causing more anxiety and uneasiness amongst our group than anything. Wade and I were both rather naively pumped while also trying to steer clear of the negativity and uncertainly of some other group members. This afternoon and tonight was our overnight trek into the jungle where we would set up camp, cook our dinner and sleep in the wild Amazon. When we first researched these tours, we found one that was a four day ‘Survivor’ style tour where the entire four days are spent in the jungle learning survival skills and only living off what you forage or hunt. I thought that sounded incredible when I first read about it. Within 5 minutes of actually setting foot in our camp for the night, I wanted to chicken out and head back to our now luxurious-looking jungle lodge! For those of you that know us well, you’d know Wade and I are not exactly new to the idea of camping or sleeping outdoors, but this was a whole new world for both of us.
Our group of 8 – six innocent, naïve, young tourists and two incredibly hardy, knowledgeable local guides – took a boat to a previously unexplored section of jungle before pulling into a reed covered bank where there was no clear path and barely even any sunlight reaching the ground through the thick trees. We had all packed a small bag with a change of clothes and any essentials for the night and the guide had provided the rest. Two young Aussie guys on our tour clearly had no idea what they were in for as they had both purchased matching satin ladies blouses, one with a cheetah pattern and the other with a more giraffe style to it as their ‘jungle attire’ for the night. It wasn’t long before they stopped being the jokers and became the joke as the humidity in the jungle was unbearable in normal clothes let alone a satin blouse made for a lady half your size!
We trekked to our campsite and were relieved to find that our guide Lucivado had actually been keeping a few small details to himself all this time. For starters we didn’t have to kill our dinner (phew!) and secondly, there was actually a low, thatched roof hut already built for us to hang our hammocks in! This was a relief as we had all assumed we would be hanging our hammocks in the open which was not a welcome thought considering it rained most nights. The hut was only just big enough for our 8 hammocks and barely tall enough for the men to stand up under. Half of the group hung our hammocks while the other half gathered firewood.
Lucivado had a machete and I was drooling at the thought of chopping some wood with this razor sharp tool before showing off my finely tuned fire making skills! Again, I had forgotten one minor detail. We were not in the dry Australian outback. We were in the wet, rain-every-day, Amazon jungle. After an hour of collecting wet wood, I think we went through three lighters before caving in and asking the pro’s for help! Again their ingenuity and general skills in this harsh environment never ceased to amaze us, and before long we had a brilliant fire all set up with two roast chickens and a huge pot of rice cooking over the open flame.
I thought Lucivado was joking when he said our next job was to find plates and cutlery. He had brought the food from the lodge, why couldn’t he have brought plates and cutlery too! Within minutes he had identified a young palm tree and a tall bamboo-looking tree and cut from each only what we needed for the group. The palm leaves were folded and secured with a small twig to form a plate and the bamboo-like bark was used to carve rough ‘jungle’ spoons. While most of the group chewed the fat around the fire, I insisted on Lucivado teaching me how to carve the spoons and then spent the next half hour quizzing the group on whether a particular spoon was Lucivado’s or mine. Nine times out of ten, they could pick it… Damn!
It was around this time, as the sun had set and we were all sweating in the evening humidity that rather than the hard work being done and us relaxing for the night, the hard part had only just started.
As most people would assume, the Amazon has its fair share of deadly creatures big and small. There are the obvious ones like the Black Caiman, Black and Spotted Jaguars, plenty of snakes and spiders but then there are also the less obvious such as the Poison Dart Frog, Electric Eels (yes they are real and can actually cause a heart attack in a human due to their 600V shock!) and of course the famous parasitic Candiru or Urethra Fish as it is colloquially known. All of these creatures DO exist in the Amazon and all are deadly and frightening in one way or another. During our night in the jungle, it was more or less guaranteed that we would be surrounded by all of these (with the exception of jaguars as they are extremely rare and difficult to spot). But if you ask me, I’d take a day in a cage with any of these before I would ever face another swarm of Amazonian mosquitos! My blood has been taste tested by mosquitos in a variety of countries by now, however the mosquitos in the Amazon are quite simply unlike anything I've ever seen before. They are ferocious, unrelenting and I am sure they have undergone military training. I swear at one point I even saw one bypassing traditional blood sucking methods and trying to hook me up directly to an IV drip! The day we left for this tour our guides told us to avoid black clothes and bring plenty of thick materials to best avoid the mosquitos. Almost every item of clothing between us is black and we only have a pair of thick pants each. If preparation is key…. We were screwed from the start!
Every ten seconds someone would feel the need to top up their dose of DEET by coating their clothes, skin and any other nearby surface in insect repellant. However the scent of the repellant was clearly causing more distress to our fellow humans than it was to the mosquitos as they buzzed around us incessantly. The constant buzz of mosquitos near ones ears caused conversations to constantly be interrupted by a Tourette’s-like expletive or slap to the face. The mosquitos were biting through clothing thick and thin to the point where regardless of the heat, I took to wearing my thick winter raincoat/snow jacket purely because I didn’t think they would get through it…. But they did.
Finally our delicious fire roasted chickens were ready. I have never eaten such deliciously moist, tender chicken in my life. I barely even tasted the variety of bugs that had taken their last breath as they flew towards the fire only to end up as the ‘special crispy spices’ on our delicious chicken.
With full stomachs from our jungle dinner, we sat around the fire listening to stories by Lucivado our English speaking guide and “The Capi-tan” our Portuguese speaking co-guide who regardless of the fact that we didn’t understand his stories, had us all captivated by his husky voice and vivid facial expressions.
Before long, everyone became far too frustrated by the mosquitos to continue sitting in the sticky night air so we all retreated to our mosquito-covered hammocks under the seemingly protective thatched roof hut. Dilemmas abounded as soon as we reached our hammocks. How does one get under their mosquito net without mosquitos getting in? Does one remove their shoes before or after getting into their hammock because the mosquitos were biting through socks? It’s too hot for clothes but if there is even one mosquito in your hammock you’ll be eaten alive by the morning… what to do, what to do! And finally, someone asked the question “Lucivado…. How much weight do you think this hut can hold??”.
Everyone laughed as we swayed side to side in our hammocks, 3 hung on the first beam, 3 on the middle and 2 on the last. Lucivado didn't answer our question, and slowly the laughter died off as we all closed our eyes and attempted sleep.
I think it was around 2 hours before someone whispered “Is anyone awake?”.
Five eager voices replied “Yes!”. Other than the guides, no one was sleeping and all were being kept awake by mosquitos one way or another. Wade had a small swarm inside his mosquito net and somehow I was being bitten through both my hammock AND mosquito net.
I remember checking my phone around 2am and then drifting into a light sleep for around 20 minutes before being suddenly woken. CRACK!
We all heard it. Our thatched roof shelter had just made a clear and loud cracking sound from one end…. Luckily not ours! Lucivado, our trusty guide offered simple advice “Don’t move and go back to sleep”. This would have helped only no one had moved in the first place and none of us other than himself and the Capi-tan had actually been asleep anyway!
It was about an hour before the next concerning CRACK and then another 1-2 minutes before the entire beam broke in half and a section of our shelter came crashing down, taking three innocent people and their hammocks to the ground with it! Those of us who hadn’t fallen broke into a fit of laughter! The funniest part was that the guys now lying on the slightly damp, insect covered floor of the jungle, in their hammocks all refused to get out of them simply for fear of the mosquitos. Eventually Lucivado convinced them to get up and them proceeded to do something that made us all question his previous displays of intelligence and limitless jungle knowledge. With the help of those who had fallen to the ground, Lucivado tied their hammocks onto the same two beams to which our hammocks were attached. I don’t know if it was sleep deprivation or the early signs of malaria setting in, but we all giggled and muttered that this probably wasn’t a good idea, before all three relocated tourists, jumped into their hammocks and again attempted sleep.
This time, the suspense was not nearly as drawn out as the first time. CRACK! Everyone broke into a fit of laughter (except for one English girl who was becoming increasingly perturbed by the whole scenario). Obviously, the movement of human bodies in an uncontrollable fit of laughter didn’t help our situation and this time there were multiple large cracking sounds before we all plummeted to the ground in a pile of thick wooden beams, thatched roof and human bodies. In hindsight it was lucky no one was injured but at the time, Wade and I just found the whole thing hilarious!
We begged Lucivado to let us stay lying on the ground in our hammocks, surrounded by the remains of our hut until the sun came up and would hopefully take some of the mosquitos away with it. We were supposed to stick around for the morning, cooking breakfast on the fire and then doing some more jungle trekking but then he offered for us to quickly pack up camp and head straight back to the lodge instead. Someone checked the time and realized that if we left now, we could drop all of our things back at the lodge before heading back out for a sunrise over the river. Everyone except Wade and I opted for a shower and bed, so Wade, myself, Lucivado and the Portuguese speaking Capi-tan headed out for a romantic Amazonian sunrise to reflect on our Jungle experience. Once again, it was stunning and as we sat on the calm morning water, deliriously tired and scratching every centimeter of our mosquito bite covered bodies, we simply enjoyed the moment and had a good laugh at the hilarity of the previous night. I was now convinced that no one would ever be able to tell us that we had a “typical” Amazon experience!
Our last days in the Amazon were spent doing some more wildlife spotting and visiting a local indigenous family to see their way of life. The local family was lovely and welcomed us into their house with a variety of interesting bits and pieces already on display in anticipation of our arrival. Wade was gob smacked by the sheer size and weight of the Black Caiman skull they had and I thought the Anaconda skin was the coolest part of our visit…. Until they brought out an actual Boa Constrictor they had caught the previous week! The Boa had been stomped on by a local farmer’s cattle and had a significant kink in its… tail? It was so great to see the respect that the locals have for the wildlife that they live amongst as they showed us the enclosure where they were keeping the Boa until it recovers from its injury.
We also saw the traditional methods for making one of the main foods in their diet, farofa. Farofa is a dry, crunchy, carbohydrate made from the Manioc plant. Finally we tasted some natural Açai berries straight off the tree (VERY average!) and then jumped back into our boat and headed off wildlife spotting once again.
We began by motoring into a new section of river that slowly became more and more narrow. Pretty quickly, we found ourselves surrounded by thick reeds that looked as if they could comfortably hold the weight of a person without sinking. Lucivado eventually instructed the Capi-tan to cut the motor and he began cutting branches off nearby trees to form long handled forks. He passed these forks around the boat before telling us that we were actually stuck in the reeds and our only way out (seeing we now couldn’t use the motor for fear of damaging it!) was to all stand up and on the count of three, use our forks to slowly push the boat forward through the reeds. This may sound simple but believe me, it wasn’t! With over 500kg worth of people in our boat, each push moved us around 1 metre. I can only describe this experience like standing in a boat with 8 other people and using hockey sticks to try and move yourselves across a football field…. Stupid! Before long, we actually looked like we were in a worse spot than previously.
After 15 hot, sweaty and muscle burning minutes, we eventually eased our boat out the other side. We all laughed and high fived as Lucivado and the Capi-tan looked on with bewildered glances. This was just another day in the Amazon for them!
As our time in the jungle neared the end, we were relieved at the thought of a warm shower and an hour without slapping mosquitos but also sad in the knowledge that our time in the wild Amazon jungle was almost over. Of course, the jungle is full of surprises and our last one was the icing on the cake. As we motored back towards our jungle lodge to collect our bags, a huge Black Caiman sat silently in the water ahead of us. We circled it twice and watched in awe at the sheer size of this creature as it just went on with its day knowing that we were in no way a threat to the largest predator in the Amazon basin.
I simply cannot express enough how wildly beautiful and interesting this part of the world is. It exceeded every expectation I had and in the end it defeated me. I loved our time in the Amazon, but it was also brutal. By the last day of our Amazon adventure, I would not have spent an extra night at the jungle lodge for love nor money! It was hard work and tiring in so many ways and our bodies had the scratches, bruises and bites to prove it. But within a day of leaving, I missed it and pined to go back. This is a part of the world that should never be underestimated or taken for granted and we both feel so lucky to have spent time in the Amazon with such a wonderful, skilled and knowledgeable group of guides.
As we returned to Manaus, it was not only a nostalgic moment for leaving such an incredible, wild environment, but suddenly for Wade and I it hit us that this also meant the end of our time in Brazil. After 54 wonderful days in Brazil, it was time to move on. We flew out in the middle of the night and watched the lights below us disappear as we headed to our next destination…. Cartagena, Colombia!
* As always, plenty more photos from the Amazon can be seen on our Photo Albums page. Please check them out and leave a message below if you have any comments, advice or suggestions on how to improve our blog.
THANKS FOR READING!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.