Into The Jungle: looking back on a year abroad

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The Amazon jungle: a mysterious, mystical and magical land home to one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, referred to as the ‘lungs of our planet.’ Increasingly politicised, it is also becoming a bloodbath for numerous indigenous communities.

My journey to the Amazon began last December – I was nearing the end of my semester in Colombia as part of my year abroad, and to leave the country without popping into the amazon seemed like a shame. And so, the journey started. I got together with a couple of friends, did some research to get a great (and inexpensive) tour guide (they will seldom let you wander into the jungle by yourself – understandably so, given how extensive it is), and off we went. We flew from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, to Leticia, the city at the southern tip of the country: the beginning of the Colombian jungle, and the beginning of our adventure.

It was exhilarating, I’d heard so much about the Amazon: an astounding rainforest, a world of mangroves with rich and dense vegetation, home to anacondas, manatees, pink dolphins, tarantulas, frogs, sloths, hundreds of different species of birds – an incredible variety of exotic flora and fauna. The unfamiliarity, the newness, the adventure; spending a week in the jungle was unbelievably exciting.

DAY 1:

When we arrived in Leticia, our guide picked us up from the airport. He brought us rubber boots to walk in (it was the rainy season in the rainforest and I can confirm it does rain, a lot). We started walking towards a maloca, a traditional indigenous house, the focal point of a community. This one was inhabited by the Huitoto Yucuna indigenous tribe. Open to anyone, it is a welcoming space which serves as a home, a school, and sometimes as a hospital to the community.

After we arrived, put our bags down, installed our hammocks for the night and met the chief of the tribe, we went for our first walk in the jungle, eager to get a glimpse of the unique wildlife. Machete in hand, we were ready to explore. Walking on untouched territory, an overwhelming feeling of anticipation and excitement rushed over me. There’s something about the unspoiled – for now – territory of the jungle, the greatness of it all, that makes it enchanting, humbling, and breath-taking. On our walk, we spotted monkeys up in the trees, snakes slithering away, frogs hopping around and birds flying about.

In the evening, we sat around with members of the indigenous community, including the chief of the tribe. We stayed up listening to stories from the jungle, stories of their tribe, their livelihoods, their plight, their experiences. As we listened, the chief passed around powdered coca leaves, mambe, which had been in the making all day. He told us this was what the people take ‘when working days are long; it keeps us awake and focused.’ It’s a cultural tradition of indigenous people in the Andean region to chew on powdered coca leaves – for the stimulus and vitality it provides. You keep it in your gums, gathering saliva until it is ready to masticate. With the tingling in your jaw you’ll start to feel the effects. Just as chief described it: you’ll feel awoken and focused. The mambe is usually coupled with tobacco, either blown up your nose in the form of powder (be careful to sniff it out and not inhale it, or else you’ll end up with a little tear streaming down your face) or ingested as tobacco paste, ambil, scooping it out with your pinkie finger.

DAY 2:

The next day, we packed up our bags and walked toward the Huitoto River, a tributary of the Amazon River. There, we got into a canoe which took us to the next maloca. Canoe rides are very common during the rainy season when the dirt roads are awash, so be prepared to enjoy plenty of them, and maybe some cheeky dips in the water (although it looks dirty it is actually clean, the dark colour simply derives from the mud). Try not to get carried away by the treacherous currents (don’t be fooled – it was terrifying).

At night we went for a stroll in the jungle. I find the evenings the most magical: walking in the darkness, our paths illuminated by our torches, indulging in the distinct Amazonian euphony. The rainforest truly comes alive (although sometimes a little too much – make sure to always bring a machete with you). The atmosphere is tranquil whilst also somewhat terrifying; the feeling of being completely immersed in the immensity and density around you. Our guide pointed out several snakes, frogs and tarantulas, but also beautiful flora which is only visible at night – think of those magical fluorescent mushrooms, muchshroom lamps, as seen in the Avatar film. Out of this world.

DAY 3:

On the third day, we continued our journey through the hot and humid jungle infested with ferocious mosquitoes. Crossing rivers with our rucksacks strapped to our backs, testing our balance hoping not to slip and fall into the depths of the waters. We were roaming a foreign land – a mysterious one. Eventually we made our way back to Leticia, where we took a boat to navigate the Amazon River; the largest river by volume in the world.  We steamed across the border to Brazil, arriving at the Ticuna Gamboa indigenous community. Their houses were built on stilts, to avoid flooding. We jumped into the water to freshen up, and spent the next couple of hours resting in our hammocks. Later, we left to fish piranhas using a glade stick with a simple hook baited with meat. On our way back, we trolled the river in search of the Amazon’s infamous pink dolphins.

Day 4 & 5:

Our final days in the jungle. We woke up early to catch the beautiful sunrise, had breakfast and climbed into a canoe again to reach a wildlife sanctuary. I was probably most excited about seeing the monkeys, although I was very keen on seeing the birds and the anaconda too. The monkeys were even cuter than I’d envisioned: climbing on us, eating on our heads and hanging off our arms from their tails. Others were calmer, simply enjoying being held and cuddled. The birds were beautifully colourful, and the anaconda was impressive, albeit terrifying. I couldn’t help but worry about it swallowing me whole as they placed it over my shoulders – it didn’t.

In the evening we returned to Leticia, said our goodbyes to our guide, and went to our hostel for a final night in the rainforest before flying home. Drained but with our hearts full, we boarded our flight the following morning. This trip did not disappoint, I thought to myself on the plane, it definitely was unforgettable.

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