The Colombian Amazon: The Good the Bad and the Ugly
More and more people are becoming interested in visiting the largest rainforest on the planet. I am of course referring to the Amazon. Measuring approximately 5 500 000 square kilometres it boasts the highest biodiversity in the world. One of the entry points into this vast expanse is through the Colombian city of Leticia. Leticia has become one of the primary destinations for international tourists visiting the country. However despite more and more people visiting the region the type of experience tourists encounter is very inconsistent with many leaving very dissatisfied. There are ways to ensure you have an enjoyable visit to this natural wonder. By knowing what is worthwhile, what to avoid and in general what to expect you will live this unique adventure to its fullest.
So as not to scare everyone off from the get go let’s begin with what is good.
The biodiversity: The amazon has an incredible amount of birds (1300), mammals (430), reptiles (380) amphibians (430), fish (3000), insects (??? >1 000 000) and plants (40 000). Despite the fact that the many of these are experts at staying hidden you are guaranteed to see something.
The natural beauty: Independently the rivers and the forest are both beautiful. Together, at times they make for a stunning landscape. This combination of water and vegetation also lends itself to some of the most amazing sunsets you will ever see. Also, although from above it may appear as a homogeneous mass of green, the forest is varied with each particular forest type revealing its own particular beauty.
The isolation: This may not appeal to everyone but to some the sense of being a million miles away from the rest of the world is appealing. Once you manage to get away from populated and trafficked areas of the forest the feeling of peace and serenity is amazing. It is almost magical sitting under a sky filled with stars with only the symphony of night sounds to be heard. It may be difficult to experience this as few tour operators take visitors that deep into the forest but if you truly want to experience the real Amazon it is a must.
The negatives as in most or probably all areas have nothing to do with the physical location but rather how it is managed and the people that live and work there. Here in the Amazon it is no different.
Poor infrastructure: Despite tourism making up most of the local economy there is very little money that has been invested into infrastructure. Rampant corruption has meant that the large sums of money that are available for public projects disappear. This shows in the pot holed streets the basic airport, the very visitor unfriendly port and virtual lack of quality tourist information.
The same poor options offered everywhere: For some strange reason almost everyone will try and sell you the same few experiences. For the most part these experiences are not worthwhile. The standard tours offered to most visitors include Monkey Island, the native community of Macedonia, the National Park Amacayacu and Lake Tarapoto, Lake Tarapoto being the only spot I can truly recommend.
At monkey you are guaranteed you will see monkeys however the problem is that the one species you will see is not native to the Island and only survive there because people feed them. Originally it was an American who brought both the monkeys and the natives to the island and as it was then it still is not an ecologically friendly site to visit. The community of Macedonia suffers from a lack of authenticity. The natives many times try to sell the idea that they still dress in grass skirts and wander around half naked all the time while the reality is that many have huge sound systems in their homes and some even have Direct TV. The National Park is likely one of the greatest disappointments. Tourism within the Park is handled by a private company and they only offer a 500 meter wooden pathway with the only interesting sight being a large ceiba tree. It is relatively expensive and only shows a very superficial look at the true natural beauty hidden within the park. In general it is a little difficult to find sights that authentically show the Amazon as most operators prefer to sell what has always been sold and many great alternatives are ignored.
There is definitely an ugly side and hopefully most won’t see or at least not notices it. I am referring to the total indifference towards conservation and the environment in general. For whatever reason the culture in and around Leticia is very exploitative. By this I mean any resource that can be used is taken advantage of regardless of sustainability. This has been seen with logging with hunting and with fishing. Tourists may notice this while they walk through the forest, in many areas it’s quite difficult to see animals yet in all the communities and some hotels and tourist attractions you see them tied up or on display. Here is where tourists can help take action for change.
Become a true ecotourist, think about what impact each attraction may have on the local ecosystem and on the environment and don’t support those that are having a negative one.
I don’t want to end on such a preachy or negative note and as my good section was fairly short I will mention a few more things in the Amazon’s favour. The Amazon is simply a natural marvel, the amount of life that surrounds you at all times the power and size of the river and the majesty of the forest are things that you will not soon forget.
Regardless of the intensity of the tour that you choose you can’t help feel like you are on an adventure in one of the earth’s great wildernesses. There is something about the Amazon that makes you feel like you have left the rest of the world behind. The sense of exploration and discovery is impossible to ignore.
I have been told that I am not a good salesman, but I hope in the end I have not undersold this fantastic tourist destination. My intention is to give an honest overview of this region, including both the positive and the negative but with the wish that your interest will be piqued and you will come and experience an amazing adventure.