Andrew travels extensively, contributing articles to newspapers and online sites. Recent trips: Brazil, the Amazon, the Pantanal, Bulgaria.
Leticia and the Marasha Tour
Ever wondered what it's like to take a tour of the Amazon Rain Forest? Read on for advice, information and personal experiences of this, the planet's largest wooded wilderness.
Our trip began in Leticia, Colombia, a remote small town situated on the Amazon river. Its twin town of Tabatinga is in Brazil. The border is invisible, you simply cross from one to the other.
Surrounded by rainforest, Leticia is a bustling kind of frontier community and it's one of the best places from which to book an Amazon tour. You'll find several agencies in town, differing in price and quality, but we managed to secure two places on the Marasha tour via our hotel manager Alexandra.
Everything worked out beautifully for us and I recommend speaking to local people before you go - like Alexandra - who can guarantee you bona fide tour operators and guides. Some tourists do end up frustrated because they encounter rogue operators, so be especially careful before committing yourself.
Marasha Nature reserve is actually in Peru. If you look on the map you can see that three countries meet near Leticia, Colombia, Brazil and Peru, making this a very special spot.
This was our first-ever trip to Amazonas so we were definitely greenhorns. That didn't matter one bit because the tour guides were generally excellent, stopping when we needed a break, helping out if we got stuck and regularly asking if everything was ok.
The whole experience was a joy. I'd go back tomorrow if you'd let me but I suspect that this Amazon tour of Marasha is a one-off!!
Leticia has a small airport with regular flights to cities like Bogota in Colombia and Manaus in Brazil. You can also reach the town by taking a boat on the Amazon, upstream from Brazil or downstream from Peru. There are no roads from the outside world. I hope it stays like that for the foreseeable future.
There are several tour companies offering Amazon experiences, most based in Leticia. Here are four well-established names:
- The Amazon Bed & Breakfast
- Amazon Jungle Trips
- Amazon Leticia Tours
- Amazon Jungle
Marasha Tour is perfect for those who prefer a gentle introduction to the Amazon. You can, if you want to, pay a little extra and visit a native village deeper into the rainforest. Be prepared for it! You'll have to be physically fit, have plenty of mosquito repellent, and if you do decide to go deeper and further, make double sure your guide is a good one.
We were met by one of the guides on this wooden platform. There are several floating on huge logs in a channel off the main river. It all looks very primitive, only a gangplank system allows you access, but it's all quite safe!
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The tuki-tuki (little 3-wheeler taxi) dropped us off at the quayside in time to catch the motorboat. Despite the chaos as lots of different people went about their business—fishermen, traders, sellers, guides and local travelers—plus the odd tourist or two, we eventually settled into our seats ready for off.
The motorboat had 12 people in it plus a driver and assistant. After checking all was ok with the marine police we then headed at some speed across the great river towards the landing stage at Marasha in Peru.
I got a real sense of the width and power of the Amazon at this point. It flows slowly, currents constantly churning the surface. Because of the reddish soil of the land the water is a light brown colour but changes with the light. At times it seemed metallic blue, grey, and pink.
I must admit I was a bit apprehensive at first because the boat was like a bus, dropping people off at different points on the river. I was relieved when we were told that yes, Marasha was the first stop. And we were both happy to see that Walter our local guide was there to meet us as planned.
There are lots of different monkey species in the rainforest. Here are some of the more common ones:
As we walked further into the rainforest we could hear monkeys high in the canopy. Walter pointed them out to us as they headed off deeper into the green tops of trees. We saw shapes but couldn't properly identify them. They were making lots of noise, drowning out the constant calls of various birds.
He also told us that the swamp water on either side of the track was the perfect habitat for anaconda snakes, the biggest snake on the planet when fully grown. Walter said this as a matter of fact, in his native Spanish (thankfully there was a Colombian in our small group who could translate the bits we didn't understand).
He'd tackled anaconda before, they were harmless according to him. If we were very lucky we might spot one.
We passed massive ceiba trees stretching up and up. Their trunks have huge buttresses sliding down into the soil. If you knock on them they sound hollow, like a drum. We walked through mud, loads of warm soggy leaf mould out of which thin saplings grew. The future of the rainforest.
Walter was pointing things out as we progressed—this tree bark is used as a medicine, these leaves help with wounds, and this tree is over 500 years old. He was very quick to spot creatures, showing us tiny frogs, caterpillars and millipedes.
There were leaf cutter ants crossing our path. A long line of jiggly bits of light green leaf was on the move! Over dead logs, slushy soil, up the trunk of a small tree - the leaf cutter ants were working hard, taking their spoil way up into the trees. Fantastic.
The Lake at Marasha
An hour later we reached the lake and the wooden lodge built next to it. We were hot and sweaty by now and a cold drink of lemonade was very welcome. Walter showed us our room for the night complete with bed and mosquito net, shower and toilet. It was going to be a comfortable stay—only a couple of small geckos to share our room with!
In the afternoon we went out with Walter in a small wooden boat to explore the magnificent lake. Yes, there were caiman around—alligators, and yes, the water was full of piranha fish and other bigger specimens. But none of us were overly concerned, we were all just so happy to be out in the rainforest, on a lake of pure unpolluted water.
Walter was giving us updates on birds, their calls, and on aspects of the lake and the Amazon in general. It was obvious from his expression and knowledge that he had a deep feeling for this place. He was totally at home here. In fact, he was asked if he'd ever been away from the lake and he said no, not really. Leticia was the only town he ever visited. And even that place was too much for him.
Marasha Tour - Facts and Figures
- Cost for 2 people: 517,500 Colombian Pesos (COP) approx 267$ or 163£
- Morning Taxi - Hotel to Boat
- Boat to Marasha
- Walk through rainforest, arrive lunch
- Trip in rowboat around lake
- Supper - locally caught fish, rice, Peruvian dishes
- Caiman search at night on lake
- Accommodation in wooden lodge 1 night
- Early morning explore of lake
- Fishing for piranha and other fish.
- Walk back through rainforest
- Transport back to hotel
Everything we did was overseen by Walter the local guide. I guess you can't have people wandering off by themselves in such a place. At the lodge, there were support staff and others around which was reassuring.
- From around 6 pm a generator was used to provide electricity for lights and chargers and the like.
- Mosquito nets were provided in each room.
- Have plenty of insect repellent with you.
These capybaras lived close to the lodge. We saw them each day. They're very docile animals and love to swim around in rivers and lakes looking for food to eat. At night they retreat to their homes which is good sense when there are caiman and anaconda living in your neighbourhood.
With beautiful expressions, they're like a cross between a dog, a tailless beaver and a coypu. Sorry if I've insulted you, biggest rodent in the world!
Giant water lily - Victoria amazonica
This amazing plant thrives only in certain parts of South America and particularly enjoys the Amazon river basin. The lake at Marasha had its fair share. They bring a cool, peaceful aura to the water as well as being handy platforms for butterflies and insects. Certain waterbirds use them as stepping stones.
The Victoria amazonica has a remarkable lifestyle, producing one white flower at a time which opens on the first evening to attract insects. At this point in time, the flower is female and gives off a sweet, fruity scent.
Round Up of Amazon Marasha Tour
For me this was an experience of a lifetime. Every aspect of the tour held excitement and interest, from the initial taxi ride to the 5 am meeting with a large trapped caiman. Don't worry, it was caught in a fisherman's net and was released by our guide, Walter.
In between, I caught piranha, held a giant millipede, knocked on a ceiba tree, watched wild monkeys caper through the canopy, ate fresh fish, listened to a choir of tiny frogs, talked to a capybara, had breakfast with a toucan, heard the muchilero bird, saw a multitude of stars at midnight......the list goes on.
And the tour was an excellent value when you consider we had a night's stay and all the food we needed. If you're ever in Leticia you'll want to get into the rainforest proper no doubt. This tour offers you that chance without you taking too much risk, without you having to empty your wallet.
I still can't quite believe it was me walking through that Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon - Your Kind of Holiday?
All images by chef-de-jour unless stated otherwise.
© 2014 Andrew Spacey