What it's Really Like to Trek the Amazon Rainforest
If you’re backpacking through South America, there are probably a few adventures on your travel hit list: hiking to the top of Machu Picchu, roadtripping through Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats and trekking through the Amazonian jungle. You’ll certainly earn your adventurer's gold badge for each, but nothing (seriously, NOTHING) will top a jungle tour through the world’s largest rainforest and the many surprises that lie within.
As you probably already know, the Amazon Rainforest is massive. So much so that you can book an Amazon trek in one of four (yes, you read that right - four!) countries: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia. I chose Colombia because Amazon treks there are still relatively new. And being a “go hard, or go home” kind of girl, I equated that to it being the most raw and rugged Amazon tour on the market. What I naively glossed over is the fact that this would also make it the most challenging. Enough that I'd even be inclined to quit my first night in.
You, on the other hand, are reading this very post, which means you're clearly a lot more sensible. You want a flavour of what you're actually signing yourself up to. So here is the full lowdown of my jungle trek through the Colombian Amazon - from the good to the bad to the ugly. Everything you need to know to book the Amazon experience that's right for you.
Choosing the Right Amazon Trek
As mentioned earlier, you can choose from a number countries for your Amazonian jungle adventure. So the first step is to decide where you want to go most. I’d recommend building your trek into a more complete travel itinerary in one specific country you’ve been dying to visit. Why not start your trip in the middle of the rainforest but finish it relaxing on white-sand beaches? Then, decide how long you think you'll last in the jungle (two nights? one week?) and under what type of living conditions. Either way, you'll be roughing it, but more developed tours somewhere like Brazil will offer slightly more luxe options. Once you’ve narrowed down to which country you'd like to visit and how many days you’re prepared to trek, it's time to find a reputable tour agency. Reputable is the key word here, because you'll literally be going into the wild and you’ll want a guide you can really trust.
I designed my trek into the Colombian portion of my South American travels and settled on a 4d / 3n tour with Selvaventura, an agency with solid reviews and an action-packed itinerary that offers everything from sleeping in jungle hammocks to befriending tarantulas to hanging out with local tribesmen.
Our Colombian Amazon trek – Our Full Itinerary
We arrived in Leticia (the Colombian hub for Amazonian treks) in the seriously steamy afternoon heat. The trip began by stripping our bags to the bare essentials: a change of clothes for when we inevitably got drenched, a few pairs of clean knickers, some basic toiletries and some handy jungle kit (i.e. a headlamp, a safety whistle and a sturdy rain jacket). We'd be carrying everything (including our hefty bottles of water) on our backs for the entire duration of the trip so we minimised as much as we could. Once packed, our expert tour guide Carlos, who grew up in the jungle, handed us a pair of wellies which would soon become our besties. After a refuel of rice and beans, it was straight into the bush for our first three-hour trek at sunset. But with so much foliage it gets dark extra early in the rainforest. So before we knew it we were relying on our trusty headlamps to prevent from sinking in anaconda-infested waters and making it to basecamp alive.
Legs shaking on arrival, Carlos helped us newbs set up camp, from collecting firewood for our evening meal to setting up our hammocks and overhead tarps to protect us from mosquito attacks (or any other jungle critters for that matter). This even included hanging our wellies off makeshift wooden poles to prevent spiders and snakes from crawling in overnight. I warn you now – DEET or no DEET – you will be eaten alive in the Amazon. Always wear long sleeves (just power through the heat and humidity), apply mosquito repellent regularly and remember that your very itchy experience will soon make for great dinner party conversation.
Over dinner, Carlos also regaled us with the legend of Madre Monte – a jungle spirit that captures human souls and keeps them in the rainforest – and offered tips on how to spot her should she visit us in the night. “You are never ever to get out of your hammock, even if I come and grab you in the middle of the night. It's probably just Madre Monte in disguise trying to lure you into the jungle.” He also warned us of jaguars who are attracted to the heat that emanates from camp. Thanks to Carlos' thoughtful preparations, I enjoyed a rather sleepless first night in the jungle.
Up bright and early (I’m not sure anyone but Carlos had a wink of sleep), we prepared a delightful homemade breakfast of eggs, sausages and toast over the campfire. I inhaled a few cups of coffee, mustered up the courage to bathe in the nearby river and readied myself for another day of intense trekking through mud and over makeshift bridges. Off we went, making a few stops along the way to admire neon-blue butterflies and pineapples growing in the wild, slap mosquitos off our faces and greet our new tarantula friends. We chased howler monkeys, bumped into the biggest frog in the world (considered a local delicacy) and tasted a milky sap dripping from an ancient tree. A few sweaty hours later, we stopped for a break at a malacca, the traditional rounded homes of Amazonian tribesmen, where we enjoyed a lazy lunch and a fireside chat with one of the local leaders. He shared a few eery legends, which were rather longwinded and, frankly, quite sexist. We also sampled a strange homegrown herb, a mint-green powder which we (rather foolishly?) snorted in the hopes of cleaning out our sinuses and clearing our minds, as the locals believe.
Then it was off to camp for the night - a treehouse deep in the jungle. On the way, I came to fully understand why it's called the rainforest as we got drenched in fresh afternoon showers. We arrived wet and hangry, but recovered ever-so-slightly with a hammock power nap and our first real shower in what felt like ages despite it being a little more than a day. Then, it was back to the jungle, where we canopied our way up to our treehouse. There, on hard wooden mats under the stars, we enjoyed our favourite evening, listening to classic Latin tunes and having a laugh with our guides late into the night.
Up again at sunrise, we made our way down from the trees and headed towards water. We hopped on a boat which took us along the very beating heart of the jungle - the Amazon River. Our two-hour journey was enough to feel the true power and expanse of the world's second largest waterway. And before we knew it, we'd passed into Brazil (there’s an open border crossing at this Amazonian edge of Peru, Colombia and Brazil) where we’d be spending the day on the water. But not before oddly setting up camp at a Brazilian family home. It's common for locals to rent out their homes to Amazon tour agencies to earn additional income. This is great for local families, but unfortunately for us, it made for a very uncomfortable stay because the homeowners made us feel really unwelcome.
Luckily, we spent most of the afternoon on the water anyway. First we kayaked alongside pink dolphins (these spectacular animals are native to the Amazon) and then went piranha fishing with some sticks and a bit of string. My friend and I both proudly caught a piranha each, which I ate (and quite enjoyed!) for breakfast the following morning. And as the sun started to set, we strapped on our headlamps and waited for the caiman to surface. Once pitch dark, and with bats brushing against our hair, we went “hunting” for caiman. With Carlos as our fearless leader, we moved quietly along the river using our lights to spot their red eyes so we could catch and hold them in a few photos. I found the whole experience rather uncomfortable, but especially because it felt like we were frightening the baby caiman, so I was happy when we finally called it quits.
Finally, our last early wake-up call! We had a quick breakfast and then it was back on the boat headed to Leticia. We arrived at the Selvaventura offices a few hours later. I practically kissed the ground when I took off my wellies and walked on pavement again. I took a long ice-cold shower, slipped into deliciously clean clothes and prepared myself for our flight back to civilisation.
But The Real Question Is - Would You Trek Through the Amazon Again?
100%. Though I wish I’d mentally prepared myself ahead of some of the trek's tougher challenges, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. There are few places on the planet that offer such a raw and real connection to nature. Call me cheesy, but literally as soon as I’d set my first foot in the jungle I was reminded of my very tiny spot on this glorious planet. And I felt so lucky to be fully immersed in the wild. It was a humbling experience, and a grand reminder of the many comforts I know and love, and probably too oft take for granted.
So it's a resounding YES. Though now I’ve done it the hard way, I’d probably opt for a few more luxuries next time round. Because although the experience certainly earned me my title as a true adventurer, it also forced me to recognise that I’m really a "flashpacker" who likes her home comforts no matter where she is in the world.
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