Visiting Leticia, Tabatinga and Santa Rosa, all at once
Santa Rosa (Peru), Leticia (Colombia) and Tabatinga (Brazil) are, in actuality, all pretty much the exact same town. Rolling into Santa Rosa on the boat from Iquitos, I was met with a lengthy line to meet the only immigration officer working. The elderly Colombian couple I split a water taxi with agreed to watch my bags while I queued, and even offered us fruit after the long wait. The queue actually took the exact right length of time, as once the taxi set off once more the sun was just setting. The river, awash with pink and gold, served as a near perfect mirror for the fading sky. We slid into Leticia as the sun finally fell.
The immigration office in Leticia was closed, as it tends to be a lot of the time. We were told it didn’t matter, that we could just wander down the next day and get a stamp. Given that the town is spread across 3 different countries, immigration laws aren’t too strictly enforced there. It’s pretty easy to unwittingly wander between Brazil and Colombia a couple of times a day. As I was travelling on to Manaus, I went to the police station in Tabatinga the next day to get my stamp. All very relaxed, as is reflective of life in this little border town.
The first friends I made in Leticia asked me why I was always running everywhere. Relatively fresh off the flight from London, I was still moving at a London pace. Walking in London is essentially the equivalent to sprinting here. You move slow, live slow, enjoy the journey. Local boys set up beach chairs at the side of the road, bring along their speakers, and blast salsa tunes in the street all day. The bars at night are dominated by salsa dancing too, though you’ll come to discover this is a pretty standard traits amongst South Americans, and Colombians in particular. Embrace it.
Your best bet is to stay in Leticia, regardless of where you’re planning on heading onwards to. There’s very little in Santa Rosa, Tabatinga is slightly more dangerous, and Leticia is the nicest part of town. I do have a number of friends that ran into danger staying here, and would advise that you don’t follow their lead and wander down unlit streets at night. Drunk. Alone. I’d say that’s actually my advice for the whole of South America. There’s plenty of hostel options, I stayed at Las Piranhitas, which I would recommend.
What should you do?
Although at its heart the town is a fairly sleepy one, there’s plenty of things you can do to pass time before your Amazon trip or your onward boat. There’s next to no wifi or signal in the entire town, so this is a good opportunity to shut off from the outside world for a little while.
1. Watch the birds
When arriving in Leticia, I was told that if you wander down to the park, Parque Santander, at about 5pm you’ll see a lot of birds. Though this didn’t sound too out of the norm, I figured I wasn’t busy doing much else. Expecting a small flock of parrots or the odd interesting condor, it was pretty overwhelming to see the actual migration that takes place here every day. There are thousands of birds. Thousands. We went from clear blue skies to one filled with black clouds, swarms and swarms of parakeets. It felt like we were there for hours, with birds flying everywhere around our heads. I got shit on 3 times, didn’t even care. It was intense, and one of my most memorable animal experiences in all of South America. The below video doesn’t even do justice to just how many birds were there. It was absolutely crazy.
2. Take a jungle tour
If you speak Spanish, this is, in my opinion, the best place to take a multi-day excursion into the jungle. Upon arriving here, I didn’t speak Spanish, and figured I didn’t want to have to hedge a bet at what the guide meant while giving us safety instructions. However, everyone I spoke to that did a tour here had the wildest stories. The only other gringo on my boat down the Amazon had based herself here for the tour, saying that she was the only one there. Essentially lucking out on a private guide through the jungle, she kayaked with pink dolphins through solitary mangroves, and hiked for hours never running into other humans. Another group of girls I met went and had monkeys sit on their shoulders while they hiked, seeing giant snakes and sloths and other critters along the route. I had a beer with their guide a few days after, who noted that he’d told them that ‘[they] shouldn’t take the monkeys, but [they] should let the monkeys take them’. The verb for ‘take’ in Colombia is actually the verb for ‘fuck’ in Mexico and in Argentina. Not a good one to mix up, for future reference. The girls were fairly alarmed at the state of their guide for a minute.
3. Rent a bike
A popular day out from Leticia involves renting a motorbike and taking on the jungle roads around the city. Based at the very southernmost point of Colombia, Leticia is deep into the Amazon jungle. Wild and brimming with life, you can find rare plants and rare birds here, that are found almost nowhere else in the world. I very my doubt it’s necessary to show a license in order to rent a bike, but I do always recommend caution with these kinds of activities. Maybe I’m just a pussy, but I didn’t really fancy it.
4. Take the boat
Other than those that flew in from Bogota for a jungle tour, tourists come here to take the onward cargo ship. Grab a collectivo and head down to the docks, where you can buy a fast or a slow boat on to Manaus. I chose to take the slow boat, 3 nights and 4 days, which cost around £50 ($65). I assume this was a pretty inflated gringo price, if your Spanish or Portuguese is better than mine was you can probably get yourself a ticket for less. Make sure you have a hammock and ropes, and plenty of water, and get ready for a slow ride through the rainforest.
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