The Amazon rainforest is the world’s green lung, a beautiful but actually quite fragile region where strange and exotic birds and animals share their forest home with hunter-gatherer jungle tribes, and where you can leave the motorized, industrialized world behind and disappear off into the jungle, or just take a boat ride up the world’s mightiest river, check out the wildlife and meet the indigenous people. Way off the beaten track, this is our guide to this remote and exotic region.

Highlights

  • Spot pink dolphins, search for caiman and fish for piranhas at Zacambú Lagoon 
  • Visit three countries in one day as you  ferry between Colombia, Peru and Brazil
  • Learn about traditional methods of hunting, fishing, farming, and cooking during a visit to an indigenous community 
  • Sample exotic jungle fruits, tasty giant river fish, forest critters and other treats that you won’t find anywhere else

Overview

Leticia, a friendly and laid-back town, is your gateway to the Amazon. From here you can access to the Peruvian jungle, just across the big river, which is flooded for three months of the year. You can also visit Colombia’s own section of jungle, which never gets completely flooded, giving it a quite distinct ecosystem.

Within easy reach of Leticia are places where you can zip through the tree-tops, check out the local birdlife or go kayaking on rivers or lagoons. Back in town, you can sample the local cuisine, including tasty river fish and even, if you fancy, jungle grubs stuffed with mincemeat. Just two hours upriver, the eco-village of Puerto Nariño makes a great day-trip. 

The vast Amazon rainforest covers over two million square miles, including a quarter of Colombia’s land area. You’ll almost certainly arrive and leave by plane (there are no road connections to the rest of Colombia) although it is possible to reach it by boat as well. Leticia sits right on the border where Colombia meets Brazil and Peru. As long as you don’t go any further afield, you can pass freely between the border towns of all three countries without having to worry about visas or passport stamps.

Visit the eco-conscious community of Puerto Nariño

The community of Puerto Nariño.

A unique trip involves a two-hour journey upriver from Leticia to the eco-community of Puerto Nariño. While it can be done on a day trip, you can easily stay longer in this beautiful little village. Motorized vehicles are banned here and the town has a successful and ambitious recycling program. You can visit the fascinating local museum and learn about the eco-projects run by the town.

Wildlife viewing is another popular activity here; dolphins and manatees can be spotted in the water. Tarapoto Lake, 2 km north of Puerto Nariño, is home to several dolphins although they can also be seen in the river where there is no current (local guides know the best spots). 

Hike through the jungle to reach Zacambú Lagoon

Cloud reflections on the Javari River.

The most popular trip into the rainforest involves a three-day jaunt down to the Zacambú Lagoon, which is on the Javari River, on the Peruvian side of the Amazon. Depending on your preference – and on the water levels – you can pop across the Amazon by boat and take a five-hour hike through the forest to get to the lagoon, or you can go all the way by boat.

Once you've reached the lagoon, you can have a refreshing swim, spot some of the Amazon’s famous pink dolphins, fish for piranhas and eat them for supper, and go caiman-spotting with a flashlight in the evening. Camping in the forest is an option, and you can even take a boat ride through flooded areas. In the wet season (March to May), boats may be the only way to get around. 

Go ziplining and wildlife watching in nature reserves near The Kilometers

Treehouse in the Colombian Amazon. 

In Leticia, travel up a road called “The Kilometers”, which leads to no less than three little reserves, where activities include forest walks, zip-lining through the canopy, hanging out in a tree house, or following educational trails to learn about the forest, its people and its wildlife. You can stay in an eco-lodge here and go on night walks in the forest. Local birdlife you can spot includes toucans and macaws. There are also indigenous communities along the road, and places to stop for a bite or a swim, although you should be aware that not all sections of the road are safe to wander on your own, so always take local advice first.

See the local flora and fauna from a boat

Head out on a small boat to explore the river around Leticia. 

Kayaking is becoming an increasingly popular activity. Hotels by the riverside in Puerto Nariño rent out kayaks to try out on the river, and tour operators in Leticia offer kayaking on the Tacana River as part of their packages. You can also go kayaking at Tanimboca reserve, located along the Los Kilometros road.

From Puerto Nariño, you can take a boat ride on Lake Tarapoto, where you can glide you through the lake’s giant Victoria Regia water lilies. These are the largest lily species in the world, with leaves up to six feet wide, neatly turned up at the edges. Swimming is also possible on the lake. 

Go on a birdwatching tour 

Blue and yellow macaw are commonly spotted around Leticia. 

Ornithological activities include birdwatching walks organized by local hotels and tour operators. Over 400 bird species have been recorded at the Amacayacu National Park near Puerto Nariño, and although the park is officially closed, visitors are allowed to enter with guides from local indigenous villages. It's also possible to stay at a lodge in Los Kilometros which is visited by over forty different species of local birds. Even in town, Leticia’s main square hosts an impressive gathering of squawking parrots each evening around dusk as they fly in to roost in its trees.

Learn ancient traditions practiced by indigenous communities

A unique way to experience the Amazon is to visit a local indigenous community, where you can stay with a local family and learn about traditional hunting, fishing, farming and cooking techniques (and even participate yourself). Several Indigenous peoples have villages near to Leticia and are happy to receive visitors by arrangement with local tour operators.

The Matis people, a remote hunter-gatherer tribe, allow visits by outsiders provided their lifestyle and culture are respected. A visit to their community requires a trek of several days into the jungle.

Tuck into some local delicacies

Stuffed plantain, known as canoas, are a popular treat in the Amazon. 

Leticia's restaurant culture is limited, but a couple of places offer treats that you won't find elsewhere. At Tierras Amazónicas, Leticia's best restaurant, they specialize in Amazonian river fish, with several varieties available. The most popular river fish is pirarucú, a large and meaty fish, of which you'll probably be served a juicy steak.

Pirarucú should not generally be eaten during its breeding season (November through March) when fishing it is banned to conserve stocks, but Tierras Amazónicas claim to source theirs from a sustainable reserve in Brazil. Whichever fish you choose, they'll serve it several ways, including in mango sauce, or steamed in a banana leaf. They also serve several tasty juices, made from Amazon fruits such as copoazú, borojó or kamu-kamu, which you're unlikely to find elsewhere.

If you're in search of something still more exotic, you don't have far to go: just around the corner from Tierras Amazónicas, the innovative El Cielo restaurant serves up some serious jungle treats. Appetizers served here include canoas, made of plantain stuffed with prawns, or canajois, which are jungle grubs stuffed with minced beef, El Cielo's signature dish is casabe, which is a base of local cassava-bread, topped with a choice of meat, fish or vegetables to make something like an Amazonian pizza.

Visit three countries in one day

lunch at the Brisas del Amazonas restaurant
Lunch at the Brisas del Amazonas restaurant in Santa Rosa.

Because of its location on the three-way border between Colombia, Brazil and Peru, Leticia gives you access to the best of three worlds. A very popular little jaunt is just across the river to Santa Rosa in Peru. Take a ferry to the other side and stroll through Santa Rosa to the Brisas del Amazonas restaurant, where you can tuck into that Peruvian specialty, ceviche, consisting of raw fish marinated in lime juice. In this case, of course, the fish is from the river rather than the sea. If you're lucky, the local macaws will come and say hello while you're eating.

After your Peruvian lunch, instead of taking a boat back to Colombia, you can instead take one over to Tabatinga in Brazil. Don't miss a chance to visit The Comara Show Club, where you can try a caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail, made from crushed limes, sugar and ice with a hefty dose of cachaça (cane spirit). On Sunday's the bar puts on a show, and lots of people turn up to watch, or just hang out next to the bar watching the sunset and drinking caipirinhas at one of the various stalls.