Apr 2008

Amazonas 101

Colombia is one of the most magnificent countries I have been so far. If you know a tiny bit of its history with all the bloody civil wars which have been almost continuously tormenting the country since the 40s, it is more than astonishing to find that the people themselves are very open and friendly. The lush green on the countryside and the amazing beaches on the coasts, mixed with some really high mountain peaks allow for a variety you will not find in many other countries. Finally, as it is next to the equator, the climate is almost all year round the same: warm and mostly sunny (well, Bogotá is at 2,600 ASL, so bring a warm jacket for the capital...).

The current president, Uribe, is sending military forces everywhere in the country to protect the civilians and tourists from attacks from guerilla and paramilitary groups. Although you might not agree that this is the best solution to the problem, you have to admit that he so far is probably the most successful president in terms of restoring relative security - at the great price of sacrificing the peoples personal freedom, obviously; Colombia probably never has been as safe in the past few decades as it is now - and it has by far less hostage-takings per year as most uninformed people would make you believe (by now, something below 600 per year). In my travels, I never felt more unsafe than in any place in Europe - at least if you learn to ignore that at every second corner you see a small group of military personnel or police.

Both major cities I visited, Bogotá and Cartagena, are really nice cities - although the crazy traffic and taxi drivers in Bogotá can make you feel a little ill to you stomach... Especially Cartagena is really worth the visit, the old town being built in a style slightly similar to the houses in Extremadura (Spain) - and not without reason probably, as most Conquistadores came from this region of Spain. Yet, the bright colors and plenty of flowers and green give the town a very unique and lovely look. Last but not least, Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast and therefore you have plenty of wonderful beaches to choose to spend your day. On a general advice: usually, you take boats to get to those beaches, which leave from the town center. Insist, really, to be taken there by a tiny private boat (not more than 20 or so passengers) and do not take one of the big ships: it cuts your beach stay in half, you are dumped at a super-touristic aquarium nobody seemed interested in anyway, and spend the boat time with hundreds of Colombian families (including everything from grandmother to great-grand child). Not that it was my worst experience ever, but there are more fun ways to waste your time...

The major part of our travels - with my [now (*kiss*)] girlfriend Mayte and two of her friends from Portugal and Spain, Xana and Ivan - we spent in the Amazons. It is hard to describe the experience of visiting the jungle, but if you have been to a real desert, on top of high mountains or glaciers, or other really strange places, you know what I am talking about. The biodiversity is so amazing you will never be able to go back to a zoo or botanic garden without a knowing smile on your face. I have no idea how many different plants I saw - including the Victoria amazonica, the largest lotus in the world - but when one of our guides was telling us about which plant heals what while in the jungle, I got the impression of walking though a pharmacy... The animal life is just as amazing: alligators, snakes, birds in all varieties and kinds, spiders, sloths, insects of all sizes, piranhas (we even caught our own - but as far as I can tell, it took us more chicken meat to catch them than they yielded...), even dolphins (which get a pink tint when they hunt because of their circulation - a really unique view) - plus another few dozen or so I have missed to list here.

Moving around the jungle might seem tough and dangerous at first - and I make a bet it is, if you try to move cross-country straight through the jungle for days. We were not intending to do that - we were moving along the Amazonas river only - and always had at least a hut to sleep in, with beds and mosquito nets in the most "extreme" cases. Most of the time we spent in villages and towns (Leticia -> Puerto Nariño [a little jewel in the Colombian Amazons and a must visit] -> Leticia/Tabatinga -> and Manaus) in hotels, where you do not even need to use mosquito nets. The greatest danger is you doing something stupid on your own. The interested might want an advice on what to bring, so I'd suggest to pack:

  • lots of insect repellent (we used Relec extra fuerte, about 1 bottle [100 mL each] per person and week),
  • a light rain protection (if it rains really heavy - which it does more or less every morning - just forget protection... this is more against the wind and on boats),
  • some long-sleeves and long pants (protection against sun and/or while hiking in the jungle),
  • decent (!) hiking shoes,
  • very strong sun protection (factor 40 or more - I used 60!),
  • a towel (no, this is no Hitchhikers Guide joke :-) - preferentially, one of those micro-towels to save space and weight),
  • a flashlight,
  • a small first aid kit with antibiotics against diarrhea, pills to dampen fever and Malaria effects (Ibuprofen 600, Malaron - just in case - I strongly advise against taking those Malaria pills on the trip as prevention if you do not go jungle-trekking for many days! The side effects are rather ugly, and actually the pills only reduce the effects of Malaria, they do not really help prevent it.),
  • Suero (salt & electrolytes) powder, and a lots of it! This protects you from dehydrating and diarrhea; My friends all laughed at me for drinking a liter of it a day (it tastes rather ugly), but I was the only of our group to not have to spend a day on the pot in the end...
  • a very light (I used silk) sleeping bag, and
  • something to pass time (books, card games, etc. - hey, it's Colombia, no need to be in a hurry).

On a final shout-out: many thanks to my amazing travel companions (aka "los pendejos/tottos"...) and some very special ones to the most gorgeous girl in the world that I am more than just happy to have become close with during this trip: You provided me with one of the most exciting trips I ever have made in my life!