Out of Peru through the Jungle and a new Colombian adventure
Back in the normal traveling routine following Huayhuash and ready to get moving! With a flight out of Leticia Colombia, a city in the Amazon Jungle which sits on the border of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia in a week time was a bit limited. Before departing Huaraz, I made sure to have a few pieces of Boudin (Peruvian bread pudding which became one of my favorite Peruvian foods discovered in Lima), roasted chicken, Sierra Andina beers (I went to the brewery for a factory tour as well) and plenty of conversation with people curious about our Huayhuash adventure. Food was on my mind after the eight days spent climbing mountains and I didn't feel bad indulging. One other exciting event in Huaraz: I saw my first South American soccer match. Soccer is ingrained into the culture and is an easy way to start conversations with locals and travelers alike.
With a bit of nostalgia and the feeling of being wild in nature slowly drifting away I bought my bus ticket to Trujillo for the first stop on what was no doubt going to be a wild ride to get to the Amazon in a week. At 1030PM after the soccer match I boarded a Movil Tours bus and fell asleep quickly.
Journey to Colombia through the Amazon
Our journey to Colombia was planned to be a long one: overnight bus from Huaraz to Trujillo, overnight bus from Trujillo to Tarapoto, fast boat from Tarapoto to Iquitos, and fast boat from Iquitos to Leticia for our flight to Bogota with one day to spare! We had originally planned to take 3 day slow boats up the Amazon river, but a scheduled flight forced a change of plans.
Something happened that hadn't happened since I arrived in Peru. The overnight bus pulled in early to Trujillo. It figures it would arrive at 5am and early since I was in a deep sleep. Trujillo is a coastal city in Peru that didn't have the best reputation from fellow travelers. I didn't let it get me down and wanted to get the most out of being in the city for half a day. With heavy eyes I stepped off the bus and walked a couple Km from the bus station to the colonial center of town. The walk was pretty dismal with grey skies along wide polluted roads. I kept hope for Trujillo. With the hiking hunger still in full force, and being back in a coastal Peruvian city, ceviche and food were top items for the day’s activities.
Light poured out of a bakery into the grey outdoors where a line had built up. I spotted this and immediately crossed the six lane street to join in with the locals and get a slice of you guessed it: Boudin. This was a good one: sweet, thick, and served over a counter from a bakery with no name. With a base in our stomachs we continued on towards the plaza de Armas. After one more stop for Peruvian style coffee, a syrup of extra strong brew that is served with a side of water for your dilution, we made it to the Plaza. The Plaza was pretty with colored colonial buildings, statues, and plenty to offer. We chose another cafe, La llave, to pass the time and waited for the city to wake up. It was a great pick!
Following hours of picture editing and uploading we headed to the central market which may have been one of my favorite markets yet. At the entrance there were three stands roasting and grinding coffee where locals sat and sipped espresso. Coffee was not a highlight of Peruvian markets and this pleasant surprise allowed me to load up on cafe molida (ground coffee) for my multi-day transport through the jungle. The market had the exact lunch I was looking for: a classic multi-course meal of ceviche and an entrè of chicken and rice prepared and served at a counter with stools. The ceviche was great and I forgot how much I enjoyed it being in the mountains. It was fresh and served with a sweet potato. The chicken was great as well and fell off the bone. When I got to the rice I had a crazy idea and had the woman put another serving of ceviche on top. These indulgences couldn't last forever, but for now I was living it up.
We arrived at the bus station at 245PM for our 3PM bus to Tarapoto. We handed our tickets to the attendant and she quickly let us know that the bus was at the other station across town! We were burned and would never make it. We ran to the street, dove into the front and back seats of a cab with backpacks on and our cab driver took off. Weaving in and out of traffic, honking, shifting, he was doing everything possible to get us there. We ran into the station at 3:20 and lucky for us things were on the standard Peruvian schedule and the bus still hadn't left.
Always an adventure. A day in Trujillo check. The city beat expectations and we were going into the jungle.
The 13 hour overnight bus took 17 hours, and a familiar heat hit my face as I stepped off. I was back in the jungle. After a conversation with a station attendant we found out we actually had to go to Yurimaguas, a town 2 hours away by car, to catch a boat to the popular Peruvian jungle town of Iquitos. To stretch our legs we walked to where we could take a collectivo to Yurimaguas and shared the 4 door small sedan with an elderly couple who had come to town to get their medicine. The winding roads were pretty but after 17 hours on a bus proceeded by a 9 hour bus ride I was over being in vehicles.
We pulled up to the muddied port of Yurimaguas where barges and a line of shack restaurants sat. A group of boat salesman immediately surrounded the car and started shouting and grabbing for us to come their way. The shouting I could deal with; the grabbing not so much. We walked into a couple of the shacks looking for a cheap fast boat and found one. The boat wasn´t cheap by Peruvian terms, but it would get us to where we needed to be and left at 1130PM.
After buying our tickets, we headed back into Yurimaguas where an afternoon tropical rain storm immediately started. We hung out at a restaurant all afternoon, no name of course, but the owner let us make coffee in their kitchen to enjoy with our meals. The meals were normal menus, but the real treat would come later that evening when the famous jungle foods Juanes and hoja de pescado would make a comeback. The hours of the day crept by as we waited for our boat and the smell of wet earth crept into the restaurant. After our meals had sufficiently digested we went on an adventure to find banana leaf wrapped jungle food. Stop one was on the street where three women running grills under their own distinct tents yelled for us to come over. We chose the one farthest to the left as she had a distinct look that made me think she made a mean piece of fish. I was right and the fun just began with unwrapping the leaf containing the fish. Everything was done to perfection: juicy fish, patacon (fried green plantain), and rice. Not bad for an appetizer!
After the street stop we needed to find a place to pass the time until 1130 and stopped into another restaurant for Juanes (a rice ball with chicken and egg in the center wrapped in banana leaf). This place won the best Juane award for Peru. Once again no name, but if you find yourself in Yurimaguas Peru let me know and I can point you to the corner restaurant with no windows and bright lights.
The walk to the boat at night was a bit uncomfortable as we walked through dilapidated shacks in the mud and dogs came aggressively close. Once at the boat everything was calm, and we boarded the long double bench seat wooden speed boat. There was an incredibly bright LED in the cabin as we descended a small set of stairs and passed stacks of grain and luggage. The looks of astonishment on people’s faces brought a smile to mine as I could hear their thoughts on what two gringos were doing on this boat. We made our way to the back where there were open seats, and the stench of diesel was thick in the air. The sides of the boat were covered in rolled down plastic which acted like an oven keeping in both the heat and smells. The man in front of me asked if I was hot to which I replied of course and we rolled up the plastic siding and clipped into place.
As we were getting set to depart the sounds of the captain trying to crank the engine were followed by buckets of water being thrown out of the engine room...comforting. With one final tug the engines fired and we were off. The river glowed from the moon and the ride was calm with wind blowing the heat and smells from where they previously sat stale. I nodded off using my backpack as a pillow and slept like a baby rocked to comfort on the river.
I woke up to heat, sun and the sounds of people entering the boat. All through the day we would make stop after stop picking people up from small villages along the Amazon. About noon I was starting to get hungry, the food from the night before had worn off. Right as I was wondering where they kept the food that was included in the ticket we slowed down and began to pull into a village. Women in canoes swarmed the boat and came aboard selling all sorts of food! Chicken plates, whole fish, snacks, bags of stuff they had it all and were vigorously yelling and patrolling the aisles at the same time. I loved this and bought a bag of “stuff” and a chicken plate. The bag was a patacon and chicharron and the chicken was great for being imported to the boat by canoe. Of course once I finished the captain passed out lunches which I saved for later. The boat ride still had about four hours to go.
I passed out again and was woken up by Ryan yelling “Mitch dolphins!” Of all things dolphins arced out of the water on the side of the boat. New bit of information that dolphins and pink dolphins live in the Amazon River. To my surprise one of the first questions people have asked is whether there was a bathroom on the boat. The answer is of course there was. It was in the back, had a swinging wooden door that came up to my chest, and the toilet had great water pressure: it was a hole that led straight into the river. The boat ride came to an end when we pulled into Nauta where we would again need to take a collectivo to Iquitos.
The sun beat down hot as we walked the couple of Km to the collectivo station. We stopped for ice cream that melted by the time we reached the end of the block and I was thrilled to get to the non air conditioned van filled with 12 people. The road to Iquitos was paved and very nice passing through several jungle villages over the course of a couple hours.
Iquitos was not my favorite city. We arrived at night, the streets were filled with garbage, and I was happy we were planning on departing that evening on another boat to Leticia. For being a jungle city only accessible by boat or plane the city was bigger than expected and very dirty. After about a 45 minute walk to the Plaza de Armas we began to ask around and found out there were no more boats that evening, and there were no boats leaving the following day (Monday) either. This was a curveball and we were out of luck on two fronts: first we would have to stay in Iquitos a couple of days, and second we would miss our flight out of Leticia.
With no options we booked a room at Mad Micks Bunkhouse, and went out for dinner. Because everything has to be brought to Iquitos by boat or plane things were very expensive in Peruvian terms. The owner of Mad Micks, Diego, came off like a nice guy and let us know there were no boats and he would take us to his friend´s in the morning to book a fast boat.
After a good night's rest with multiple fans turned on full blast, we had a few items on the day's agenda: figure out our boat to Leticia and see if Avianca could do anything about our missed flight. We walked into the non air conditioned Avianca office where a single woman sat behind a desk and had a line of 8 people waiting to see her. I was of course enthusiastic at this prospect, got a place in line, and went to buy a smoothie across the street. The banana smoothie was great and an hour and fifteen minutes later it was our turn. To my surprise things were incredibly smooth and we paid a change fee of about $40 and extended our flight to Friday so we could spend more time in Leticia.
Item one on the day went smoothly. How about Diego and his “friend” with the fast boat? We walked into an office with Diego and were quoted 200 soles, more than our flights, and a boat leaving the following day at midnight. We bid both the travel agent and Diego adieu, walked down the street, and found a company called Amazonas that ran a couple of ferries a day with the next one leaving the following morning at 5am. For 80 soles we bought our ticket and were ecstatic with the end result.
With the musts done for the day and a boat out at 5am it was time for some fun. We headed to the central market for lunch and had a piece of grilled fish with a side of maduro, rice, and chorizo. I ran into a lot of people who complained about the food in Peru. I loved it. Following lunch we hopped in a motor taxi and went to the must see manatee rescue center about 30 minutes outside of town. The center was a partnership with the Dallas aquarium of all places and was a fun little side trip. We spent more time in motor taxis to and from the center than at the center, but it was worth the trip.
Back at the hostel I needed to get some exercise and headed for a run down the Iquitos boardwalk. I had not seen this side of the city and it was very pretty with colonial buildings, military outposts, restaurants, and river views. I ran south to an area called the Bellen commercial area. This was an outdoor market that stretched blocks in every direction where you could buy everything imaginable. I found myself on a block filled with jungle remedies and shrunken heads and felt like I was in a Harry Potter novel.
Dinner tonight being our final night in Peru and Iquitos would of course be street food, and ate half a chicken for about 15 soles. As we walked down the boardwalk we passed an abandoned ship covered in graffiti on the banks of the river and a rainbow came out. This was a bright spot in a city I couldn't wait to get out of.
The alarm went off at 3am, I grabbed my full packs, and headed out to the ferry dock. We hopped in a moto taxi, stood in line at the ferry for about an hour and boarded. The ferry was way nicer than the speed boat with air conditioning, bathrooms, and a snack bar. We arrived to the Peruvian border near Leticia in about 12 hours, stepped off the boat and ignored the mototaxis trying to get us to pay for a ride to the customs office. Before leaving Peru we had to make sure to get an exit stamp. We walked through mud roads along the Amazon and I laughed to Ryan that it was always an adventure!
Sweating, border stamp obtained, and a couple of months of memories made from Peru it was time to make some new ones in Colombia. We hopped on a long boat and the captain swung the engine around to back out, put on a spotlight to light the water in front of us, and we headed across the Amazon and boarder into Leticia.
Bienvienidos a Colombia
We walked through town at night towards our Hostel: Amazon Tropical Jungle. The hostel was on a quiet street just outside of the busy part of town on 12 hectares (about 25 acres) of land. We were two of three people staying in the newly renovated immaculate hostel. I truly felt like I was on a jungle retreat while being a 5 minute walk out of town. The owner Mauricio gave us some pointers on town, a warning about crossing into Brazil, and we headed out for our first Colombian meal, pollo asado. Our first meal was a half juicy chicken with yuka and salad for 10,000 pesos. It took a few days to get used to the conversions but it is about 3,000 pesos to the dollar. Our meal was great and Colombia and I were off to a good start.
I woke up early to the calls of parrots and walked out into the jungle oasis of the hostel. Breakfast was included with the room and I was ready to begin trying new foods. The eggs were cooked “perico style” which is essentially onions and tomatoes. If this hostel and the food were an indication of Colombia as a whole I will be staying a while. With a couple of days to explore Leticia which is a small town we planned a lot of relaxing. First orders of business were visiting the immigration office to get a Colombian entry stamp, and getting a local SIM card. The office was at the airport a few Km away so we did what we do best: hit the streets walking. Along the way the increased military presence over Peru was very apparent and substantial. Being on the boarder of three countries the military presence could be expected. Mangos, plantains, and a lot of the same Peruvian fruits lined the markets and streets.
With no problems at the Immigration office, we came up with idea to cross the Brazilian border to go to a buffet style Brazilian Steak House we were recommended. A few more Km walking across the frontera (border) and a fresh squeezed street lemonade with salt later we cruised into Tabatinga and the restaurant Bella Epoca. The hostess came over and started speaking Portuguese and my brain exploded as I had been trying to learn Spanish for the last few months. I answered in Spanish and she switched to Spanish and let us know the prices were by weight. With that knowledge I dug in. Like a kid in a candy shop I filled my plate with beans, vegetables, potato salad, maduro (sweet plantains and one of my favorites), and most importantly meat from a man standing in the corner in front of a roaster with several hunks on a cutting board. A meal fit for a king for a backpacker on a budget.
After the sweet, salty, and rich plate I had concocted we began our walk back and stopped for a beer on the recommendation from Mauricio. The local Brazilian beer was pilsner style called Itaipava. While drinking my beer I struck up a conversation with the man running the store who happened to be Cuban. We had a great talk and he gave us a fair warning as well to leave Tabitinga before 3PM. We heeded to the warnings which were loud and clear and left Brazil.
Leticia was a great city and while there we were able to watch the Colombia-Paraguay World Cup qualifier game on a giant LCD screen mounted on a truck. After a few days of good meals (especially seafood) and relaxation we made it to our flight to Bogota. Being on an airplane instead of a bus was a strange feeling and the flight went quickly.
It was drizzling and the sun was just setting when we touched down in Bogota. The city was hustling and bustling and we hopped into a cab for what felt like a long ride, probably half an hour, to the Candelaria neighborhood. Bogota is a massive city, but like all cities there were safe and dangerous neighborhoods. Candelaria was one that everyone seemed to talk about as being young, hip, close to some universities, and filled with culture. It would all turn out to be true. Masaya hostel was amazingly clean with multiple social areas and large rooms. It was nicer than any hostel I had previously stayed in. The humidity of the jungle had come with me and all of my belongings were slightly damp. I tossed my bag in the corner and we headed out for a Friday night on the town!
The streets were filled with hip and alternative looking young people gathered in squares playing music and socializing. The cobblestone streets and colonial buildings fit the scene well, and we wandered through finding a place to have a bite to eat. The restaurant, had an indoor space which we briskly walked through to a set of black stairs which led down to an outdoor courtyard where groups were drinking chicha and having platters of meat. We followed suit with a couple of Bogota Beer Company beers and a mixed plate. The beers were fair, but the plate had a bunch of variety including a new one for me, blood sausage. Here to try everything I took a bite, and although not my favorite, it was good and had a good contrast to the arepa and other cuts on the plate.
After a few more beers, we began to wander again and found the Bogota Beer Company store front, sat for one, and decided to go back near the hostel where people were gathered playing music. Along the way we passed a street filled with Colombian fast food: empanadas, fried chicken, arepa sandwiches, and huge slices of pizza. I took a mental note of the location for future visits. Night one in the books in Colombia's capital spelled for a good future.
We woke up Saturday ready to explore. First things first, I dropped off everything at a laundromat, and was on my way to find breakfast when an incredible sweet smell pouring out of a bakery made me hit the brakes and immediately turn to look inside. The bakery two blocks from the hostel would become my go to every morning for buying eggs to cook, but today I tried a tamale for breakfast that everyone in the bakery was eating. Wrapped in a banana leaf, it was similar to a juane except it didn't have rice. The main ingredient was corn masa and an egg and chicken were in the middle. It was salty, fun to eat, and filling!
Full of food I had read about a walking tour called the heroes tour which talked about all the Colombian heroes of modern history combined with Colombus era history. The tour was more of a sitting lecture and we left after 1.5 of the 4 hour tour to go on our own walking tour. We explored the city’s street art, different neighborhood feels, and ended at the Paloquemado market. This was a great market with everything you would expect and endless rows of counter top restaurants. It was different than Peruvian markets and smelled of cleaning solution in most places rather than rotting flesh. After spotting our favorite looking older woman selling food at a counter, we had a great menu and headed back to the hostel.
The evening started with a bit of wandering around Candelaria. As we passed what looked like a bookstore and restaurant, the sounds of drums, electric guitar and rap poured through a second story window. I led the way in and up the stairs where a group of people were jamming out and passing the microphone around the room for all to sing over a beat provided by a six instrument band. Everyone was great and it was one of the cooler accidental finds I´ve had in a city. The session ended about 10PM and we headed to another neighborhood which we heard was posh and fun to go out: Chapinero. Live music, a salsa bar with a fun french woman from the hostel, and the two big touristy neighborhoods in Bogota left me with a full appreciation for the safe neighborhoods in Bogota.
Villa De Leyva
On a whim after a night out we decided to take a trip a few hours north to a pueblo called Villa De Leyva known for being a Bogota escape. Three and half hours by bus, the town is famous for its white colonial buildings and red terracotta roofs. We stayed at a hostel called Beija Flor which was run by a couple who were travelers themselves and very inviting. The cobblestone streets were not the most comfortable to walk on, but the city was beautiful. To get a full appreciation we hiked up to a white jesus overlooking the city for sunset. The clouds sat low this evening, but the uniformity of all the buildings and countryside in the distance put me into a place of tranquility.
Being in a vacation town during the week meant that Villa de Leyva was quiet. After the hustle and bustle of Bogota, we planned for a wild day of cafe crawls. Villa de Leyva was charming and filled with bakeries and cafes. Following caffeine consumption and finishing a book I went for a run around town and found an outdoor workout area next to a bunch of kids playing catch with an American football of all things. Colombia was playing Peru this evening to qualify for the world cup, and although I have started to enjoy soccer it was fun throwing a football around. We headed to a second floor bar to watch the soccer game with the entire hostel and it was a ton of fun with everyone dressed in their yellow Colombia jerseys. In case anyone is curious, Colombia tied Peru and qualified for the world cup.
For our final day in Villa de Leyva, we rented bicycles and did a 50 Km bike ride through the countryside to a small town called Raquiran. Along the ride we passed through farms of tomatoes, olives, and grapes for wine. About midway to Raquiran we stopped for an empanada and espresso being toasted, ground, and brewed on a street cart. With plenty of energy we continued on and about 20 minutes outside of town a new adventure began. As my legs burned and went up hill I peddled hard and the bike chain broke. With no real options we walked back to where we had gotten an espresso to find a bike or motorcycle shop. With no luck at first I decided a lunch break would help me think. In addition to coffee the town, named Sutamarchan, had tons of restaurants with grills serving up mixed meat platters. We decided on Piqueteadero Robertico and shared a plate filled with chicken, beef, yuka, potatoes, and the local special sausage. Having a massive lunch to clear my head and recharge on a long ride was the perfect fix. In addition to the hunger fix, we found a bike shop, repaired the chain and continued on to Raquiran where we rode up a mountain in search of a waterfall. We failed to find the waterfall, but the town was charming and known for pottery.
The ride back was rougher than the ride out, and we pulled into Villa de Leyva as the sun set. One final night of hanging out on the massive plaza de armas with the hostel members was a great way to put a cap on Villa de Leyva.
Our friend, Manny, flew into Bogota and after meeting him there for a night we rented a car and headed south to a musical festival South West of Bogota in Desierto Tatacoa. Although it is a desert, it is more of a tropical desert and has lots of trees. Known for nature adventures and stargazing we would only get a brief preview of what the desert had to offer. The 4.5 hour drive down was uneventful other than the stop for a roadside snack at a restaurant that had half a pig hanging in the front. I took this a sign that the food would be good.
The music festival was a collection of people from all over Colombia camping in the remote area for one reason, to party. The festival went from 2PM Saturday to 7AM Sunday. I wouldn´t make it the whole show, but it was everything you would expect an electronic festival in Colombia to be. After what seemed like days of beautiful people, music, dancing, camping, and a lot of partying we hit the road back to Bogota.
(Photo Credit Manny Rosas)
We made one pit stop on the ride back at a famous roadside restaurant named La Vaca que Rie. Known for a plate called Bandeja Paisa I was considering turning vegetarian after the meal. It was delicious, but a Bandeja Paisa or country plate is a plate that has rice, beans, chicharron, sausage, steak, maduro, and a sunny side egg on top.
After two months of travelling with friends it was time to embark on a solo adventure.