We will never forget our time in the Amazon, and so many of the things that we’ve told you about already will stay in my mind forever, but we think that there are a few moments that were extra special. We wanted to write a blog of our top 5 ‘never-forget’ moments, but it was going to be REALLY long so in this post I’ll just tell you about two of them.
When I thought through all the incredible memories, I knew that some of the top ones would have to include the plants, trees, birds and insects of Colombia because the flora and fauna of the country are so staggering. But it has been hard to narrow this down to just 2 moments. I know it might be cheating but I’m also going to mention a few of the ‘runners up’ in each category!
1.Where the wild things are! Plants and trees.
We saw countless weird and wonderful plants during our time in the Amazon. It is impossible to write about them all so I’ll just tell you about a few of the highlights. Justine had told us that one of the things that her family was most looking forward to seeing was the gigantic lily pads in the rivers (Victoria Amazonica). They were not let down: round every bend, there they were in all their glory. Each leaf looked big enough to sit on and was about the size of a picnic blanket! We would often see birds that looked a bit like herons standing on the leaves and catching fish!
Another spectacular specimen was the ceiba tree. When we were staying in Peru our guide took us to see the biggest tree species in the whole of the Amazon rainforest! We were expecting it to be big but when we got there it was like we had shrunk. It was actually ridiculous how big it was. We stood in awe around the bottom and admired it from the ground. We also swung from some liana vines that were hanging from its branches.
There was also another tree that I can’t get out of my mind called the ‘matapalos’ or ‘stick killer’. It’s a very fitting name because this tree survives by wrapping itself around other trees and extracting all of the nutrients from the other tree until it dies!! Every now and then when we were walking in the forest we saw one wrapped around another tree. Even the plants are dangerous here!
And the final tree that was really memorable was one that was used by the people of the Amazon to communicate. When you hit a log against the tree trunk, the sound carried for miles and echoed round the jungle. We wondered if tribes had different rhythms and patterns that they used to send different messages.
But when I really thought about it, I felt clear about the most magical moment of our trip that was to do with the plant life, so I will tell you about it now.
We had just landed in Peru and everyone was buzzing because we had just had our first journey along the Amazon river. The first thing we saw was a large iguana, just as we stepped off the boat! It was then followed by a teeny frog perfectly camouflaged on a green leaf, and an amazing grasshopper that was known as the clown grasshopper for reasons that you can guess from the photo – it was a pretty good start to Peru.
Next we got into another boat to set off down a small channel of water that would lead us to the nature reserve where we were staying. We were suddenly surrounded by a forest in the water. Trees were around us everywhere, so tightly packed that you couldn’t see anything through them. It was really majestic and hard to describe in words. That’s when Petra said: ‘it reminds me of the trees from ‘where the wild things are’!’. We all agreed and continued to marvel at the alien world around us. This was hard to capture in a photo but it really was one of the most memorable moments of our whole trip. As we glided in our boat between a million fairytale trees emerging from the Amazon tributary, the magical feeling was added to by the sounds and glimpses of jungle animals, birds and insects scampering and flitting between the branches.
Number 2. Birds and Insects.
As well as seeing loads of amazing plants and trees we also saw plenty of spectacular birds and insects so now I have the impossible task of describing the top ‘never-forget’ moment from this category!
First, I will give you a few words about insects. You’ve already heard about some of our experiences with creepy-crawlies but there are a few more cool ones that shouldn’t be forgotten in the blog.
While we were on our way to the monkey sanctuary we were pretty excited when our guide pointed out the world’s biggest centipede. He explained that there are a few different kinds of giant centipede and the way to spot if it is poisonous or not is to check if it has any colours, or if it has only 1 leg to a section. You might be able to make out that this centipede has two legs per section and no colours, so we were quite safe to take a closer look!
But I think that my favourite insect incident was when we saw a baby tarantula eating a dragonfly! I know it sounds a bit weird and it left us wondering about how the spider managed to catch this flying insect. As we looked, we saw that the tarantula was biting the dragonfly’s head and watching us! We backed away slowly and carefully towards the boat so as not to disturb the spider and set off down river.
You might think that this was our winning moment but don’t forget that one of the things that is so special about Colombia is that the bird life is so rich that in the space of an hour you could have seen dozens of parakeets and parrots flying overhead, followed by a couple of eagles dusting their feathers, hummingbirds of every colour of the rainbow, and then lots of different species of heron flying over the surface of the water. Colombia’s bird life was so incredible that I could sit outside for hours watching the 1500 species that live in the Amazon come and go. So, we can’t finish this blog without considering our feathered friends.
Two birds who certainly deserve a mention are the Blue Gansa (for having the best hairstyle) and the incredible fishing skills of the myriad of herons.
But without a doubt the most unforgettable part of our trip involving birds was when we saw vultures hunting monkeys! When I put this down in writing it is hard to believe we really witnessed it. We were enjoying watching the view from our boat of a group of squirrel monkeys jumping from tree to tree to feed on berries, and occasionally missing their target and falling through the branches! Then suddenly, three vultures came along and started circling them. The monkeys immediately set off what sounded like a distress call to try and warn the other monkeys that there was danger. All the monkeys suddenly started swinging away in the same direction and trying not to be too near the top of the trees. Luckily none of the vultures managed to get any of the cute little squirrel monkeys and although it was a little bit frightening it was also something I will definitely never forget.
If you’re reading this, it could mean you’re subscribed to our blog, and maybe you’re thinking that we’re back in Colombia again! I wish that was true but actually we’re still in the UK and right now, during the pandemic, it’s hard to imagine when we’ll get to go back. We know that it has been nearly 3 years since our visit to the Amazon but we’ve realised that there are 3 blog posts that we started but never actually finished! The thing is that Brae and I wrote this page when we got back but then we needed Mum to find the photos and videos. Some of you may know that my mum started her teacher training just when we got back from Colombia and she had to work REALLY hard all year. Because she was working every night and every weekend she didn’t have time to sort out the photos so the blog got forgotten for all this time. While we’re self-isolating this week, we thought it would be a good thing to do to finish off the blog finally so that all of our Amazon experiences are captured.
Another reason why we really want to finish it is that Brae and I have both been reading the blog from our first Colombia trip recently. We were only 8 and 10 years old when we went there and I don’t think we really realised how unusual and special an experience we were having at the time. When we read the blog now I remember all the amazing things that we did that have slipped to the back of my mind. It has been great to refresh my memory about all these astonishing things I did. I would really love to remember these two trips for the rest of my life and this blog is a great way to record the things I have done and also share it with other people.
So, to remind you where we’d got to…
So far we’ve told you about amazing animals and creepy crawlies in the Amazon, and I suppose we were expecting both these things. But our Amazon trip also brought us a few surprises, which we want to tell you about too. Here are the top 5 bonus things that we weren’t expecting.
Number 1. Brazil and Peru.
At the bottom of the map of Colombia (Colombia is the orange part in the top picture below), you can see an extra strip of land that sticks out, heading even further south. At the southernmost point of this bit is the Amazon, and two other countries border the river here, very close together. They are Brazil and Peru.
The town of Leticia in Colombia, where we first saw the Amazon, merges into another town called Tabitanga, which is actually in Brazil. You might expect there to be border control where the two countries meet, but no – instead there is a small white pillar with Colombia written on one side of it and Brazil on the other. We even stood with one foot in each country! It was so strange because you could have passed the pillar without noticing it, but pretty soon you’d become aware that all of the signs are in Portuguese and all the prices are in Brazilian currency! We couldn’t read them (except my mum because she had learnt a lot of Portuguese).
We were really keen to have lunch in Brazil and we went to a kind of serve-yourself buffet of traditional food. It was a really nice lunch – a good taste of Brazilian food. It was fairly similar to Colombian food; LOTS of meat and river fish! After that we went shopping for Brazilian football tops and flip flops. The dock on the bank of the river was pretty too because all of the jetties and boat houses were on logs so they could float when the river rose. People were arriving in boats to bring things to sell in the market. You can see all the bunches of bananas in the picture. All in all, it was a good day in Brazil. I really hope we can go back to Brazil some time, and really get a chance to explore, because I think it must be an amazing country. Also, my auntie and my cousins are half Brazilian so maybe we will go there with them one day.
The other country that connects to Colombia is Peru. Nearly 100 years ago, Peru and Colombia were fighting over the land north of the Amazon river, to see if it would belong to Peru or Colombia. In a peace treaty in 1922, it was agreed that Colombia could have a thin strip of land leading down to Leticia (the town where we stayed) so Colombian people could get to the Amazon, but Peru got most of the other land. When you are in Leticia, Peru is just the other side of the Amazon river from Colombia. I say just across the river, but this is actually quite a long way because the Amazon is so wide. They call the Amazon the River Sea because in the wet season it is so wide that when you look across the river it is like looking out to sea! In some places in Brazil it is 10 miles wide or even wider!
When we were in the Amazon we wanted to stay a night in Peru. We travelled by boat to the place where we were going to stay and when we went into Peru, again there was no border control. We walked along a little jetty and onto Peruvian soil. The people just said ‘hola’ but they didn’t ask to see our passports. You can just see the Peruvian flag at the top of the slope. I found it quite weird seeing so many countries so close together because the UK is an island so it’s not like that. One of the other surprising things was when I realised that we were in the southern hemisphere. We weren’t far south of the equator – only just – but it was my first time and I hadn’t realised that we’d be going there so it felt like a unique experience. One of so many unique experiences that I was lucky enough to be having!
Number 2. Tom, Justine, Petra, Hector and Monopoly deal.
As you might know, when we went to the Amazon we went with another family: Justine, Tom, Petra and Hector. Justine used to work with my mum in London. Since then her family has moved to France so it is difficult to meet up with them. Even when they are in the UK it is tricky to meet up as they usually go to London and Cambridge, not Norfolk. If you think about that then it is a bit crazy that we can meet up in the Amazon rainforest but not near where we live! It was really good to have people we knew to explore with, especially people we got along so well with.
When they were in Heathrow airport on their way to Colombia, they bought a last minute purchase of the game Monopoly Deal. They bought it as a game to play when it was raining or in the evenings. It is basically a travel version of Monopoly and it turned out to be one of the best purchases of the trip! We played it after every mealtime and it was very addictive – once you had played it you couldn’t stop. It got very tense at the end and I wonder if you can tell from the photos who usually won!
We bought the game for ourselves when we got back to the UK and over the last few years, every time we play it I think about being in the Amazon.
Number 3: Making bags.
While we were hiking in the jungle we made water bottle bags using palm leaves and the inside of palm trunks. The leaves were very easy to get but the trunk was harder because you had to use a machete to cut off the outer layer of the trunk and then cut off long thick strips of the inside. The strips were so tough that me and Oren working together couldn’t break them. We carried the materials with us until we got to the place where we were stopping for lunch and then, with the help of our guide Alberto, Oren, Hector and I made some water bottle bags.
Alberto showed us how to weave the palm leaves in and out of each other while carefully holding the leaves we had already done so they didn’t get tangled up. Once we had woven one side of the palm leaf we tied it up and started on the other side. The hard bit came after that – plaiting the two sides of the leaf together. Once we had done that we used the strips of trunk. First we tied it to one end of the plait and then the other to make a shoulder strap.
Once we had done all those things our bags were ready and I was especially surprised about how strong they were. Two days later at the monkey reserve even the monkeys couldn’t break them when they tried hard to investigate what was inside and if the bags tasted nice! For the rest of our time in the Amazon, we always had our bags with us. Because it was so hot, and because you can’t drink water from the tap, they were very useful. Alberto told us that one way to make them last longer was to dip them in the Amazon river every few days, so we made sure we did this.
As we’re only finishing this blog post nearly three years later, I can tell you that the bags are still just as strong as ever, even though it’s tricky to dip them in the Amazon regularly now!
Not surprisingly, the local people use materials from the jungle to make lots of things. On one of our hikes, we passed a man making panels for his roof. You can see how quick and skilled he was (we did not make it look this easy when we made our bags!!).
Most of the places we stayed had roof panels similar to the one that this man was making. In this video you see an example, although the panels have changed from green to brown as they dried. Even when it poured with rain, the roofs were completely waterproof!
Number 4. Indigenous communities and Colombian laws.
As you may know the Amazon is mainly inhabited by lots of indigenous tribes. While we were there we visited several different styles of indigenous settlement. For example Alfonso’s Annaneko (which means ‘house’ in his indigenous language) was one huge hut where lots of families lived together (and he was the chief). The last video where you can see the roof panels made of leaves is in Alfonso’s Annaneko. The hut symbolised the body of a god.
This was completely different from the Mocagua community that we saw near the Maikuchiga monkey sanctuary. Their village felt quite a lot more modern, with separate houses for each family, all arranged on the bank of the Amazon. All of the houses there were painted with designs about the jungle and the myths and legends that they told. The other main difference between them was how organised they were. Mocagua was very organised – we saw a notice board in the middle of the village which told you the dates each month when everyone in the village would work together to tidy the whole settlement to make sure there was no rubbish, and plant flowers and fix things. Their whole village was so pretty, whereas life in the Annaneko seemed quite strange to me.
Another community that we saw was at the edge of Puerto Nariño, which is one of the biggest towns in the region. We visited the school there and it looked really nice. I wouldn’t mind going to that school.
As Puerto Nariño is quite big it actually has a few different tribes and was a lot more modern. It is an eco friendly town and we really loved it and were told that it had progressed a lot in the last few years. There were no cars in the whole town so you just arrived by boat and then went on foot. This was fine most of the time but we saw some people trying to move really huge heavy things off boat to their houses at the top of steep hills and this was tricky without a car! A lot of the settlements we visited felt like you might imagine a jungle community to be – completely different from anything we’d ever seen – but Puerto Nariño wasn’t so dissimilar to other places we’d been in Colombia. It had electricity and shops and cafes. We loved just walking around and watching daily life and I’d like to go back there one day.
In this clip you can see a bit of the town and the classrooms are in the hexagonal huts. At the end you can see their view of the Amazon from the cool tower at the top of the hill.
We found out that the Colombian government has agreed that all the indigenous communities can make their own laws and deal with law breakers in their own ways, instead of following the normal Colombian laws. The tribes are really different from each other and make different laws for their communities. Often their laws and punishments are quite normal, but we did find out about one punishment that surprised us. It was putting an angry bullet ant down a man’s pants while he was tied to a tree. The bullet ant gets its name because its bite feels like you have been shot. Funnily enough he didn’t do the crime again. I wonder why!
I think that indigenous communities are very interesting and that it is great that the government lets them rule themselves. It is very good that they are still thriving well in the jungle.
Number 5: Brazil Nuts
In our family we eat a lot of Brazil nuts and it seems strange that we never even wondered how they grew. So another cool thing that happened when we visited Alfonso’s Annaneko is that we found out where Brazil nuts really come from. They basically grow inside a shell that looks a bit like a coconut. Surprisingly, all the nuts fit perfectly together in the inside, without even a single air pocket.
Justine really wanted to buy one like this because she thought they would make good presents, but we were told that we wouldn’t be able to find one like it to buy, because when they are shipped off to other countries no-one wants to pay for the extra weight so they take them out of the shell before they go anywhere. I guess not everyone has a giant machete lying around to open them either! All through our time in Colombia we saw fruits and nuts growing around us in ways that we never expected. It’s like the time we saw pineapples growing in little bushes and also when we realised that the coconut grew inside a huge green case. You can read about these things in some of our earliest blog posts. (Pineapple, Coconut).
There were so many beautiful, magical and wonderful things in the Amazon, but we wouldn’t be giving you a true impression if we only told you about these things. The Amazon is also filled with creepy, scary and disgusting things too! Here are the top 5 moments that definitely made us feel out of our comfort zone.
Number 1:Night walking
One of the most memorable parts of our trip, for wonderful as well as weird and worrying reasons, was our night walk. On our first night in the Amazon, we were in our room listening to the jungle chorus starting up as darkness fell, and our guide came to escort us to dinner. This might sound a bit over the top, but the only way to get to where we were going to eat was to trek through the wilderness. Ahhhh! This offered us the unique opportunity of walking through the Amazon jungle, at night!
From the very first step, we were surprised about how much night time activity there was, but apparently 70% of animals in the rainforest are nocturnal. Our guide set out in the front and as we walked behind him, adrenaline was rushing through us, our hearts beating at what felt like 1000 beats per minute. Soon, he pointed out several stunning frogs and giant stick insects (like the ones our friend Harvey has as pets). It was a great start to our walk, but it was only going to get better. Later on, we saw lots of small spiders and one thing called the scorpion-spider. With a name like that you would never want to meet it in a dark jungle, but it turned out that it was harmless! Suddenly the guide stopped and pointed to a spider a lot bigger than my hand. It looked like something out of a horror film, and to make things worse it was poisonous! It was pretty scary watching my Mum lean in so close to take photos of deadly creatures. We steered clear of that one!
Spotting insects that you had only ever seen in books and on TV was nerve wracking because you had no idea what was likely to kill you. Or perhaps we’d see something we recognised, but it would be 20 times as big as at the version we knew at home! We also wondered if at any moment, we’d meet the night wasps again.
During the day, we’d seen them arranged in incredible formation in their nest, with one look out perched on top while the other slept. We had been relieved that they had been sleeping, but suddenly I remembered that night was their time. The sense of nervous anticipation will definitely stick in my mind.
Later on Brae spotted a snake too. It was small and cute, and it was perched on top of a leaf so it looked like it was posing for a photo, but apparently it was poisonous too. Literally everything is dangerous here! The scariest part of the snake encounter was that the guide had walked past it. We all had torches and as Brae scanned the undergrowth, his torchlight fell on the snake, so he pointed it out to the guide. He told us that it was in attack position and advised us to walk right off the path in order to go round it. Basically, if Brae hadn’t spotted it I bet that one of us would have walked into the leaf it was sitting on (which was right by the path) and it would have bitten us!
Suddenly we came to a stop and we were told to turn off our torches. It was like being in a pool full of ink, you couldn’t see your hand even if it was pressed up against your face. I felt very sorry for the French people we had heard about who recently got lost in the jungle for 2 nights! Being there in the total darkness was pretty scary for us at first but in that stillness we could really appreciate the sounds of the jungle. We heard booming echoes and screeching. We thought it was monkeys until the guide said casually, ‘oh that’s a frog’. We weren’t expecting that! We did hear monkeys too, and countless insects, but perhaps the strangest noise of all was the spooky sound of the witch frog cackling in the dark! With each moment we were realising how far away we were from everything that we considered normal and how lucky we were to be having these experiences. Then, our guide held up something glowing to me. It was a leaf, and there was a fungus on the leaf that glowed in the dark! It was magical seeing all those tiny lights appear around us on the forest floor as our eyes finally adjusted to the dark.
On the way back we split into two groups and our group spotted tarantulas -and not one, but five! They were lurking behind a rotting log, in the nooks and crannies. They were really impressive and I was thrilled to have seen them. I have seen so many pictures of tarantulas that it was insane seeing them for myself.
So after all that, was dinner worth it? Well, I certainly enjoyed my half a piranha! All in all the night walk was an incredibly unique and wonderful experience and it was one of my Dad’s top 3 moments of our whole trip.
Number 2: Canopy
During our Amazon trip, we had the opportunity to journey through the jungle canopy. Before deciding to take on this challenge, we had thought it over quite a bit, because my Dad is scared of heights, so it was definitely out of his comfort zone. To get this completely different perspective on the jungle, we first had to haul ourselves 38m up a rope to the top of a tree. We had harnesses and braces that held us in place and stopped us sliding back down when we were climbing, but it was incredibly hard work on your arms. We were absolutely exhausted when we reached the top so we were pleased to rest and admire the view from a platform before starting our journey from treetop to treetop, by zip wire!
To tackle the first zip wire, which carried you through the air, high above the jungle floor, we first had to swing our legs off the platform while the guide strapped us in. Then you had to stand on a thin branch and jump off! It was extra scary because whenever someone went on the wire, the whole tree shook (including the platform). The next wire was much longer and it took you down 21m to the next tree, and it was over 100m long. It was so fun but also frightening going down that one because you felt like you were going to hit a tree at any moment. We got into a chat with one of the helpers before waking along a wobbly, rickety bridge that was held together with bike tyres! That was the worst bit in my opinion because the bridge sagged and swayed under your weight. We then proceeded to slide/fall down a rope to the ground. Brae and I went first and, as you went one at a time, we weren’t exactly sure how our Dad was getting on behind us. We thought he would find it a lot scarier than us and he did. He found it especially scary when we were hanging our legs off the side of the platform and standing on that log. In the end, we felt very impressed that he completed the whole course, until he said that the guide had told him that once you started there was absolutely no way back!
Number 3: Jungle houses
When we were in the Amazon we slept in places that were very different to what we’re used to at home. For example, on just our second night, our guide announced that we would hike through the jungle for a whole day, then travel by river, then hike some more and eventually arrive at a large indigenous hut in the middle of the jungle and that is where we would sleep. Well, first I should tell you that the night hike we did was in something that the guide called secondary jungle. This means that at some point in the past, the jungle in that area had been cut down and what we could see now had regrown. It still looked like wild, huge jungle, but apparently the trees weren’t as old and it was full of fast-growing plants and trees. The place we were going to stay on our second night was going to be in primary jungle – jungle that has never ever been disturbed – so it felt even more like the real thing. Primary jungle is generally where the jaguars are.
After an amazing day of hiking, we reached our ‘maloka’ house, in the middle of nowhere with no other huts to be seen. Our guide had built the house himself and it was really beautiful. We arrived just as it was getting dark and so soon we were surrounded by candle light. There weren’t enough beds for us all so me, Oren and our friend Hector slept in hammocks surrounded by a mosquito net. At first I wasn’t sure about sleeping in the hammock because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get to sleep, but actually I had a wonderful night’s sleep. The hammocks were hung in the middle of the room and to get inside you had to undo the zip at the bottom and climb inside the net, and then get round into the hammock before reaching down to do up the zip at the bottom.
The beds weren’t the only different thing about this stay. Also on this night our shower and loo was outside the ‘maloka’ on a pentagonal platform. It had no walls so there was no hiding if a indigenous person or monkey came wandering in the other direction! This felt quite strange as I stood there in the shower but it was actually really cool too. It was the best view I’ve ever had from a shower!
Another odd sleeping place was on our first night when we slept in a tree house. This was not what might come to mind when I say ‘tree house’ as it really was a house in a tree. It had four beds, a bathroom and a balcony. Our first impression was: wow! It was a very nice place to stay as you could look out of the window and see the jungle below you! The balcony was home to a small colony of bats who slept in the roof. As I got in bed to go to sleep that night I said to my dad “I have Oren on my right and bats on my left!”. You may think that the bats were about 10 metres away but they were actually under a foot from my face. I could hear them squeaking to each other as I went to sleep.
As well as the bats we had been warned that there was a small mouse living in the treehouse too, but that we shouldn’t worry about it. That night my Mum went to the toilet and suddenly a loud scream echoed through the cabin. We all called her name to see what was up but she still didn’t answer straight away. Eventually she came back into the room looking a bit white and said that our treehouse guest wasn’t a small mouse, it was a huge rat, or some other jungle rodent! I told her off for not answering when we were saying her name – anything could have happened to her – not just a rat-sighting. Later on we had visits from a massive cricket and a lizard . It was cool seeing them flitting about. It was a wild cabin!
You have probably guessed that even though these sleeping experiences were definitely out of our comfort zone, we thought they were pretty awesome in the end. The thing that I found most amazing about sleeping in the jungle was having the sounds of the jungle around me as I dropped off. However it was a little bit worrying because there was not much stopping a tarantula or a venomous snake getting into our huts!
While we were staying in Puerto Nariño we were just having breakfast when our guide came in holding a writhing humungous maggot. It was absolutely revolting and when he said ‘this is lunch!’, I almost threw up. It was even worse when he said, I know someone who will eat it, follow me. Outside we met an indigenous man who proceeded to eat this creature alive! It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen, or at least the top five! I can hardly write this without feeling sick. What he did was rip its head off and then suck its gooey yellow insides from inside it. I had to walk off quietly and take some deep breaths after that. To make it worse, Justine offered 50 pounds to anyone who tried it and so did my dad! Hector was considering a teeny taste but I said it was worth all the money in the world and more! As you can imagine no-one felt hungry after that!
Even though we didn’t try the grub we did try to think about how different cultures have different traditional dishes and people from other countries might find them disgusting. People from Puerto Nariño might find some of our traditional dishes horrid too. Even though I try to keep an open mind about tasting new things it was on a whole new level of gross for me. I’m not a complete disgrace though, in Bogotá they sold fried big bottomed ants and I tried a bit of that. I just hated the fact that the maggot was alive. To be honest it was quite a disgusting experience in total.
Number 5: Indigenous chief
In the Amazon region, most people are indigenous and they call the places they live communities, instead of town and cities. Each community has their own way of life and traditions and, as Oren mentioned in the last post, they can decide their own rules and laws. We have been lucky enough to travel so much around Colombia, and we think that some of the Amazon communities we visited were among the nicest places we saw anywhere in the country. We especially loved Mocagua (where the monkey sanctuary was) and the communities in Puerto Nariño (we will tell you more about that in the next blog). They seemed to have a lovely way of life and you felt like if you lived there you would probably be very happy. But, we did spend time in one indigenous community that made us feel a bit out of our comfort zone and this wasn’t a place that we thought we’d want to live. I am going to tell you about this one.
On our second day in the Amazon we went on a long walk through the jungle and stopped for a rest when we reached an indigenous house. We were going to have lunch there and we were about to walk in when we were told we had to go round the other side and enter through another door. It was explained to us that these indigenous people believe that the house is like a body and so you must enter through the mouth and then go out through the rear!
The hut was a large oval shape with just mud for a floor. There was a wooden table and benches, some hammocks and an open fire. So it was quite basic but it was very pretty and surprisingly cool considering how hot the jungle was outside. In the corner there was a big pot which we thought might be our lunch. We looked in and there was a sloth’s head being cooked in it! It still had all its hair still on, it was absolutely disgusting. This was a real shock as we had spent all morning hoping to see a sloth sleeping on a branch of a tree. We definitely didn’t want to see one in a pot! Thankfully our guide told us that it was not for us, and he said that the chief did not hunt sloths to eat but this sloth had died accidentally when a tree was cut down so they were cooking it so that it wasn’t wasted. I was happy to learn that they didn’t hunt sloths but I was still quite upset about the head in the pot!
To escape this cooking we quickly got into our swimming costumes and headed down to a small tributary of the Amazon river. Because it is so humid in the Amazon, going in the water felt like being brought back to life because of how refreshing it was. However, it was a bit worrying because even though caiman, anaconda and piranha usually don’t go in that area there was nothing to stop them doing so! After we had had a swim, the chief asked us to help move a canoe, and we were quite surprised when we found the boat about four foot under water!
Lifting it was actually fun but it was really tiring work because the canoe was VERY heavy and we were up to our chests in water and there was a very powerful current! In the end, one person stood in shallow water so they could be really stable and then we joined hands to make a chain, with each person getting deeper and deeper and nearer the canoe, and then we all heaved, pulling against each other so that we didn’t fall over. We nearly gave up a few times but finally we succeeded in getting it near the surface and then we bailed all the water out. Then me, Oren and our friends Hector, Petra and Tom all got in the boat and went across the river to test it. It was extremely wobbly and kept letting water in the sides so in the end we all jumped out into the deep river.
When we got back to the hut we had lunch and we were served catfish and piranha, not sloth. This tasted fantastic, and instead of a table cloth and plates we had a colossal banana leaf covering the table to eat our food off.
After lunch, the chief wanted to show us one of his community’s traditions and he asked us to help him make a powder from the coca leaf. I know that the coca leaf is used to make something that Colombia is very famous for but this is not the same. The indigenous people use coca to keep them alert and active, a bit like coffee. Coca leaves are also used across the country and in other countries like Peru to make tea to help with altitude sickness and for general health, and the indigenous people used it like this for a long time before the other way of using it was invented.
So, we helped the chief. First you pick the mature leaves, leaving the youngest ones on the plant. Once you have picked the leaves you roast them over an open fire being careful not to burn them. You grind the roasted leaves into dust by using a large stick. Then you add ash from a special tree and mix the two together.To take the mixture, you place some of the powder under your tongue. Some of our group tried it and the chief had loads. Apparently it is like putting a load of ash in your mouth and it made speaking very difficult.
It was then time for one of the scariest parts of our trip! It was time to make the next part of our journey, by boat. The chief led us to the river and told us to get in a boat. He said he’d got a new canoe for us but the one he pointed to looked very familiar! Yes, the one we had raised from the bottom of the river! Yes, the one that we had tested that let in loads of water! But we didn’t know what other choice we had so 10 of us clambered into the small and extremely unstable canoe. Once we were all in it, the rim of the boat was barely above the water line. The next half an hour felt like ten hours as the boat continually let bucket loads of water over the side and, if that wasn’t bad enough, there were holes in the boat that let even more water in.
I think the chief picked up on our nervousness, so he sang us a song to cheer us up. This was a nice idea, but his swaying in time to the song just made more water enter, and so the trip was even more terrifying! Three of us were constantly bailing water out and my mum was petrified that we were going to lose her camera to the water with all our photos of the trip. We somehow managed not to sink and arrived at our destination only slightly soaked. We then said goodbye to the chief. As I watched everyone else receiving a very sweaty hug from the half naked chief I slunk off and hid behind Oren. Thanks to my Dad who pointed me out, and made sure I wasn’t forgotten and got my special squish!
Last time we were in Colombia, one thing we really desperately wanted to do was go to the Amazon rainforest, but because we were at school there just wasn’t time. It was about the only disappointing thing about our 3-month experience. So, as soon as we started talking about returning to Colombia this year, the first thing that popped into my head was ‘AMAZON’!
After three action-packed weeks in Colombia, it was hard to believe that we still had one more humungous adventure waiting for us. Our final week in Colombia would be spent in the southern region of Amazonas. As our plane touched down in the town of Leticia, we felt so overwhelmed that we were here at last. It felt surreal after reading so many stories set in the Amazon, and watching David Attenborough talking about the unique plant and animal species that live here. We felt like the luckiest boys in the world, and we weren’t disappointed. During our week in the Amazon, every day was jammed full of moments when we found ourselves open-mouthed with wonder.
It was impossible to know where to start when we sat down to write this blog so in the end we’re going to write some top 5s. Here is part 1: Top 5 animal encounters.
Number 1: Maikuchiga monkey reserve
In my opinion, visiting this monkey reserve was one of the best parts of the entire trip. Before we went to the Amazon, we had heard all about a place near Leticia called Monkey Island. Tourists can go there and when you arrive hundreds of monkeys climb all over you! You know how much I love monkeys, and the thought of getting so close to them was really tempting. But also we read that these monkeys might not have been treated that well, and they couldn’t escape from the island, so we decided we didn’t want to go there and support it. My Mum knew that was a hard decision for me so she continued to research and in the end she found out about a sanctuary further down the Amazon river that takes in injured monkeys and then releases them back into the wild. She tried for months to see if we could arrange to visit it to find out about the work they do and finally, a few days before our trip, the plans came together!
The sanctuary is run by the indigenous community of Mocagua, who are mostly Tikuna. When our boat arrived there (in the Amazon you get everywhere by boat, as there are hardly any roads), we were met by a guide who showed us the way through the jungle to reach the sanctuary. As we neared the small wooden building deep in the jungle where they do their work, we straight away looked up and saw a beautiful woolly monkey climbing in the branches above us. I love woolly monkeys especially because they look so graceful and intelligent, as well as being soooo cute and fluffy.
But the more we learned about the woolly monkey during the hours we spent at the sanctuary, the more I grew to love them! Although they had 4 different species of monkey there, the woolly monkey (which they refer to as ‘churuco’) is the main focus of the conservation work at the sanctuary. This is for several reasons. First, because woolly monkeys are particularly likely to be hunted for food because they provide a bigger meal than other monkeys. 😢 The indigenous communities have their own laws, and not the laws of the Colombian government, so even though the land where they live is a national park, they have the right to hunt animals to feed themselves. But because the woolly monkey was becoming an endangered species the local people decided themselves that they wanted to do their best to protect them. This means that in 2003-4 this community made their own law against hunting endangered monkeys, especially the woolly monkey. Thankfully this law has been stuck to and it is great to see that everyone in the community is respecting the wildlife. People who used to hunt monkeys now work at the sanctuary and they teach other people the importance of saving the woolly monkey. This has made them become known as ‘the community that protects its fauna’ and it is hoped that other communities will follow their example. Another reason that the sanctuary decided to protect the woolly monkeys that this species eats fruits whole and when they go through their stomachs the seeds are still intact. When they excrete them the seeds then grow into new trees which is great for the forest. A woolly monkey troop is much, much better than any reforestation programme.
One of the things the people told us was that their ultimate goal is to have no monkeys at the reserve! It seemed a bit confusing until they explained it. The monkeys that they take care of have either been injured or have been kept as pets by humans after being taken from their families in the jungle when they were babies. Also, if the police find a monkey being kept as a pet then they take it to the sanctuary to be looked after. It was really upsetting to think that only a few years ago they had 65 monkeys there because so many were kept as pets.😡 Now there are only 7, so it is so great to think that so many monkeys have been released back into the wild.
Before they are released, the monkeys are taken care of and taught to survive on a diet of things that they will be able to find for themselves in the jungle, rather than human food. While they are first in the sanctuary, they are still allowed human contact and one of the things I found most amazing is that the monkeys came and hugged you and used you as a climbing frame. As well as the woolly monkey, there was a noctural monkey, some squirrel monkeys and a capuchin monkey. It was an amazing experience for everyone, but especially for me to get so close to these magical creatures. One of the monkeys even went inside my t-shirt; then it wriggled around, trying to find an exit. I loved every second of it! I learned so much that afternoon, talking to the people who worked there, and I didn’t want to leave. I found out that they sometimes let volunteers work there for a few months so you can guess what I am planning now!
Number 2: Dolphins!
As you can imagine, when we came out of the monkey reserve all the kids were grinning from ear to ear thinking about the cute little monkeys. When we got to our boat we were just waiting to get on when Tom said ‘all we need to see now is some dolphins and then this day will be truly perfect’. Suddenly, one second later, Justine shouted “DOLPHINS, LOOK OVER THERE!”. It was such an incredible and hilarious moment. We waited a few more moments and then up popped two beautiful, little, grey river dolphins. We watched them for a few moments before the boat set off and the dolphins swam alongside.
Seeing the grey dolphins really did make the day perfect but to make our Amazon adventure complete, I still really wanted to see the pink river dolphin. This is one of my favourite animals and you can only see it in the Amazon. Our guide Nicolas said that we could try to see some pink dolphins in Lake Tarapoto. So, the next day we went there and the whole place was full of dolphins! Grey dolphins were popping up here, there and everywhere, including babies and groups. Suddenly, I saw a pink dolphin break the surface of the water about 20 meters to the left of the boat. It was then that I really noticed the difference between the two species. For example, the pink dolphin is much bigger but its dorsal fin is a lot shorter. They grey dolphin comes much higher out of the water than the pink ones, who just swim level with the surface for a while so we could see them clearly but the photos didn’t really come out. Also, the pink dolphin can move its head very flexibly so that means they can go in and out of tree roots to hunt fish that are hiding in there.
The dolphins are hunted by jaguars, caiman and anacondas but luckily they are not hunted by humans. This is because the indigenous people believe that dolphins are mythical creatures that swim in the water during the day and at night they can turn into humans, come out of the water, party all night and then take beautiful women back into the water to live with them as dolphins! I’m not sure I believe in this myth but if it helps the dolphins to be protected from human hunters then I think it’s a good thing.
Number 3: Leaf cutter ants
While we were in Colombia last time, we really enjoyed watching trails of leaf cutter ants weaving through the jungle, and this time was the same. This time though we found out many more facts about these ants. For example, they don’t actually eat the leaves that they collect, as we had assumed. In fact, they collect the pieces of leaf and then take them underground and leave them until they grow fungus. It is the fungus on the leaves that feeds their young. We had already noticed that they sometimes carry the leaves for hundreds of metres, but I have now learned that each piece of leaf can be 20 times their own body weight, which I think is incredible!
We were becoming quite used to seeing and admiring these ants, but one surprising thing that we observed near the banks of the Amazon river is that the ant colonies were building their nests in the tops of trees, instead of underground. This is because they know that the nests might get flooded on the forest floor by the Amazon river in times of lots of rain. I could watch the ant motorways along logs and the forest floor for hours. Take a look at one that we saw:
Number 4: The turtle and the butterfly
One night, we stayed in a beautiful nature reserve, and my Mum found a bench by the side of the lake where she could sit and watch the wildlife. There were dragonflies, herons and fish jumping out of the water. After a while, she noticed some turtles, sitting in the sun on branches sticking out of the water. As she watched, she saw a butterfly gently land on the turtle’s head. At first she thought it was just by chance but the turtle seemed to shake it off a few times and each time it just came back and landed on the turtle’s nose! Eventually, the turtle got so annoyed it jumped into the water and the butterfly flew off to find another turtle. My Mum thought this was a strange and wonderful moment and when she came back to meet us for lunch she told us about it. Everyone else agreed that this was a mysterious encounter, except Oren who didn’t find it mysterious. Oren reads LOTS of nature books and he immediately said that he’d read about turtles and butterflies before and that the butterfly was drinking the salt in the turtle’s tears! Since we’ve got back to England we have looked it up and realised that he was right. Butterflies, like many other animals, need the mineral sodium in their body to survive and that is why this particular type of butterfly finds it in the salt of turtle tears.
Number 5: CAIMAN!!
When we were at this same reserve, we stayed in rooms on stilts at the edge of the lake. We were told that lots of caiman lived in the lake and they could be up to 9 metres long. Think about that. We did, and when we could really imagine what 9 metres looks like we were pretty alarmed! At the edge of the water there was a platform with a sign telling you to wash your boots (people always wear wellies when walking in the jungle as it is very muddy and also the wellies protect you from the snakes). Below the sign for ‘boot wash’ there was another sign saying ‘beware caiman’! I didn’t really feel like washing my boots when I saw that and I definitely didn’t plan to go swimming.
Luckily though we soon discovered that there was an area in the lake where they had made a kind of safe swimming area. That afternoon, we were going for a swim when our guide shouted to us come and look at something. We ran over and there it was: gliding through the water with no effort at all. And it was coming towards us! We were led to a platform where we could watch safely and our guide explained that the caiman had been coming out in the day for a few weeks now (caiman usually hunt at night) and that they had been feeding it. It showed signs that it had been injured in a fight and it had a bend at the top of its tail, but it still swam effortlessly. The caiman swam round towards the live fish that our guide was dangling from a rod just a few feet away from me. As we saw it cut through the water towards us I was filled with awe of how graceful it was, and how enormous! As it reached us, it lunged at the fish and seeing a 4 metre caiman leaping out of the water is an amazing sight.
At last the day arrived when we would hike to reach the Caño Cristales river. Seeing the water was one of my favourite parts of our trip to Colombia, with shades of pink, green, blue, yellow and more. I really enjoyed looking at the river, as well as swimming in it, because it was so beautiful. The thing that I found really amazing was how clear the water was. If you were wearing goggles it was as clear as swimming in air, and even if you weren’t wearing goggles it was clearer than wearing goggles in a swimming pool!
One thing that made our day extra special was that we were allowed to go in a group of just the 5 of us, with our own guide (called Jose), and we didn’t see anyone else in the national park for the whole day, apart from right at the end! There are strict rules about how many people can enter the park each day and it’s really well organised. Each group is given a different route and a different start time. We did a 14km walk with 4 awesome swimming spots, lots of wildlife and the prettiest views you can imagine! We were chosen to do the longest walk in the park because before you go to Caño Cristales you have to fill in a form about how healthy you are, and then they will chose a walk appropriate for your group’s average health and fitness. We had to say that both me and Oren are very active 7 days a week and that brought our average fitness level up loads!
Because we were on the longest walk, we had to get up really early and catch the first boat to take us to the entrance of the national park. Just as we were setting off, a dog jumped on board with us! We were then told that the dog always goes to the pier and waits for the first group of the day and then it goes with them into the park.
When we got to the entrance, the soldiers searched our bags and my Mum had her lipsyl confiscated! To explain why, I’d better tell you where the colours in the water come from. There are some plants which don’t grow anywhere else in the world, and they only grow for a few months each year in the Serranía de la Macarena National Park. The plants grow underwater and this is what gives the water some of its amazing colours (as well as other plants, deep pools, reflections and sand).
Because the plants are so unique they are trying really hard to protect them. That means you can’t always swim where the plants are, and if you’re going to swim you can’t wear any sun cream, or insect repellent or any other soaps or creams in case it goes in the water and damages the plants. For this reason, my Mum didn’t mind about her lipsyl and so we boarded our jeep to start a 40-minute journey to the start of our hike. After the first few minutes bumping over roads eroded by water, we noticed that the dog was running along behind. We tried to ask our driver to stop and give him a lift, but they said the dog did the run every day too and would be fine. And sure enough it ran after the jeep for the whole way!
As we finally set off walking, we were surprised by the unique landscape and flowers and how different the insects were. First we saw white flowers everywhere. It was another special plant that could survive the fires that happen there. You can see the burnt stems in the photo but it just starts growing again. At one point an insect landed on us and Jose was really amazed as it was something he had never seen before. It was like a cross between a bee and a butterfly. He took photos to show some university students who are studying the nature in the park. When you remember that this place was completely unexplored for a long time, we really thought that maybe we discovered a new species!! We also saw some grasses that we thought Nonna and Jesse would like.
We were lucky because it was cloudy in the morning which meant it wasn’t as hot as usual, but even so it was extremely hot. After we had been walking for about half an hour we came across our first glimpse of the river and it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Before we went to Caño Cristales we were not sure if it really was going to be as amazing as everyone said but when we got there it was even more amazing and beautiful.
To get to all the places that we wanted to go, we had to jump over rocks and wade through the water. We also passed giant waterfalls and holes in the rock that had been made by the water. Some of them were like perfectly round, super deep swimming pools, and we even climbed through a hole to see another waterfall.
The first swimming spot was quite shallow apart from a large circular hole that was up to my neck. But the reason I liked that spot was because there was a waterfall that you could sit under and it was really nice and refreshing.
The 2nd swimming spot was also really cool because it had loads of awesome places to jump into a really deep pool. This one was in the shade which was a very big relief. We also had lunch there which was wrapped in a banana leaf that we had brought in our backpacks. It was a very nice packed lunch, with chicken, rice and some kind of delicious sauce.
My favourite swimming spot was the 3rd one. In the middle it was 8 meters deep and it was really fun diving down and picking up sand from the bottom. Over a wide area it was at least 3 metres deep so it got quite tiring because we were swimming there for about an hour, but luckily there were lots of stones to stand up on.
We spent the whole day hiking and it was perfect. We walked a bit and then just as I was getting hot and tired we’d turn a corner and come to a different branch of the river and a new place to swim. We were so glad that the next day we were told we could go and explore another part of the river called Cristalitos, because we didn’t want our experience to end. Cristalitos is a river like Caño Cristales but smaller, and our guide Jose knew a way to get there because he had part of the Cristalitos river on his own farm, which I found really amazing! So, first we got to see around Jose’s farm and he was growing lots of things like pineapples, coca, yuca and guanabana. He was also doing some conservation work to protect the turtles from the main river and we got to see lots of babies. When we reached Cristalitos river it was just as beautiful as Caño Cristales and we we had a lovely swim.
Too soon it was time to leave to catch our flight back to Bogotá. Our stay in Caño Cristales was definitely in my top three things of the whole trip.
We would recommend Colombia to anyone, because they would have an amazing time there and have incredible experiences. But what makes Colombia extra special for us is that we have a Colombian friend called Diana. And what makes that even more special is that all of her family are really, really welcoming and kind. They all live in Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, which is why we used this as a base for our trips and spent quite a lot of time there.
When we first arrived in Bogotá and rang the bell of their flat, Diana, her husband Ernesto and her brother Luis Fernando were all there to welcome us and we really felt like this was our Colombian family. Diana’s flat had the most amazing view in the world out of the window and we saw humming birds in her garden!
Diana’s family also took us to stay the weekend at her mum’s old house and it had a pool right next door and we swam in the pool all the days that we were there. The first time we went into the pool I was surprised that I way out of my depth because all the other pools I had been in in Colombia haven’t even been up to my neck. Later on, everyone was in the pool hitting the ball to each other in the air, and I could still do it but it was harder for me because I was treading water the whole time when everyone else could just stand up .
In the evening, we played poker and suddenly Diana pointed under the table and the look of horror on Luis Fernando’s face as he jumped up and grabbed a flip flop made me sure that it was something bad. I looked and I saw a scorpion under the table! Then SPLAT – Luis Fernando crushed it under his shoe.
One of the best things about seeing Diana is that we just do normal family fun like playing games and cooking. Diana always teaches us a new recipe and this time we made a Spanish dish called paella. It’s basically a lot of rice with vegetables, sea food and meat. In fact, food is always a big part of the time we spend together and the whole family makes sure we get to try the best Colombian food. On our way back from Diana’s mums house we had lunch at a ribs place that Diana’s other brother Ivan wanted us to try and he was right because it was the best ribs I’ve ever had!!!
In Colombia, breakfasts are very different because in England you might have cereal, toast or pancakes but in Colombia you eat a big meal. It could be arepas, cheese, eggs, sweet rolls, envueltos, tamales, meat, left over dinner from the night before (we had paella and pizza for breakfast in Bogotá!), patacones, empanadas etc. It’s going to be hard getting used to a small bowl of sugar-free cereal again!
Another example of their kindness is that Diana’s husband Ernesto saw me and Oren watching football on TV one day and the next night he took us to see Santa Fe (their local team) play a game at the stadium nearby. I’ve only ever seen Norwich City play before so this was so exciting and it was one of my favourite things we did. Even though the stadium wasn’t even half full, it was probably a lot louder than most games in England because the fans were so supportive, shouting and blowing horns and there were two huge bands playing instruments. It was especially cool because Santa Fe won 1-0!
On our last day in Colombia we went on a bike tour around Bogotá. We rode bikes around the city for 5 hours seeing things that Colombia is famous for. For example, we went to a chocolate shop and a place they roasted coffee. We also tried these things called fat bottomed ants and they tasted a bit like salty popcorn but they have a really grim aftertaste. Best of all was the Paloquemao fruit market where we tried loads of fruit, like zapote, mango, lulo, tomate del arbol, maracuyá, dragon fruit, guanabana, mangostinos and feijoa etc. I have eaten so much unusual fruit while I’ve been in Colombia. I think you could try a new fruit every day for a month or more! I’m going to miss all the fruit juices and fruit ice cream flavours.
We also parked our bikes for a while to play Colombia’s national sport ‘tejo’, which is where you throw metal disks at explosives! We played it last time but this time we played it in a bigger place and the disks were a lot heavier, plus the explosions were much, much louder because it was inside and there was a lot more gunpowder.
Last of all, we got to see some of Bogotá’s graffiti. Diana is a lawyer and it was so cool to find out that she had been involved in making the law that stopped graffiti being illegal. Some of it is really amazing.
I really liked the bike tour and afterwards Diana took us to a restaurant that she really liked and the food was one of the best meals I’ve had on the trip so it was a great way to end a brilliant day. We are really going to miss everyone.
Caño Cristales is the name of an amazing multi-coloured river in a jungle region nearly 300km south of Bogotá. It is in an area called La Macarena, like the dance.
On this trip to Colombia, we were lucky enough to organise some amazing mini holidays within our big holiday, and this was one trip that we’d decided to go on that we were so excited about. Caño Cristales is known as the most beautiful river in the world, but it has only quite recently become a tourist location. It is really hard to get there as you can’t get there by road, as it’s in an area of jungle that goes on for hundreds of miles. Also, there used to be a lot of fighting nearby between the government and the FARC guerrillas and it wasn’t safe for tourists. Then when they were trying to negotiate peace in 1998 it became part of a huge area (over 42,000 square kilometers) that was called the demilitarized zone, and wasn’t controlled by the government any more. The FARC held control of it and it was an area where they grew lots of coca, and people didn’t go there.
Diana, our friend, has travelled a lot around Colombia but even she hadn’t been to Caño Cristales, so we were so happy she decided to come with us. You need to visit the national park with a local guide and we had been told by some people that maybe the guides used to be in the FARC or they used to work picking coca for them. But we also found out that tourism had brought new opportunities for the people to work there doing something legal instead of what they did before, and that now tourism was safe. Although we didn’t really know exactly what to expect, we had decided that we really wanted to go and it was worth it.
The person who organised our flight had told us to meet at the main airport in Bogatá at 5am. Diana phoned to confirm the day before and it turned out that we had been told to go to the wrong airport! :oIt was very lucky that she checked. In fact, we were leaving from a military airbase and Diana was as surprised as us. She said that no-one ever went there and it was very unusual.
We took our bags to be weighed but it wasn’t only the bags that ended up on the scales. We had to be weighed too! I don’t know what they would have done if a really heavy person came! We had to wait quite a long time because our airplane was so small that it couldn’t fly in the rain and it was raining in La Macarena. When we finally got on the plane, it was teeny tiny; it only had about 15 seats!
After the flight arrived at the airport (I say airport, but it was actually a field with a tiny building in it!) we were reminded of the heat in Colombia. Bogotá is quite cool, especially at night, as it is so high in the Andes mountains, but the jungle of la Macarena was boiling. First, we went to our hotel and we had half an hour to organise ourselves before our guide, Jefferson, arrived. I went to tell him that we were almost ready but suddenly I went all dizzy and when I opened my eyes I was on the floor with a pain in my hip, elbow and head. I was quite surprised when I found out that I had properly fainted! Jefferson said it might have been because I had woken up early and had not eaten much breakfast. This was excellent news as now I can make the most of this excuse. If my parents ever don’t feed me enough I can tell them I might faint!
On our first day there, we were not allowed in the National Park to see the river so instead we set off in a tuk-tuk along a dusty path and we tipped and swerved to avoid puddles.We finally arrived at a beautiful farm where we would spend the day, but first of all everyone’s priority was to feed me! Part of the meal was meat from the cows on the farm and it was nice but it was so incredibly tough and chewy that it made my teeth hurt for the next few days! I still ate it though because I didn’t want to faint again, did I?😉
After lunch, we set off down a track to explore the farm – it was sweltering hot and there were brown mounds of earth in the cattle field, like tall, pointy mole hills. I wondered what they were and it turned out that they were termite nests. As I was admiring the nests I hardly noticed that we had arrived at some trees at the edge of the field and after a few more steps, we found ourselves in a tropical jungle! It was so unexpected as it didn’t look like a jungle from the outside. Inside, Jefferson pointed out plants and told us about them, like the walking palm for example. The roots are all above the earth and as it grows new roots the whole tree can slowly, slowly move across the ground! Just then Jefferson looked up and we followed his eyes. My breath was taken away yet again as, yes it was, it was monkeys! They were just hanging around and jumping around the treetops. I was so astonished to see them just a few footsteps away from the cow’s field; it was amazing! Even though I have now been lucky enough to see monkeys in the wild quite a few times, I will still treasure this memory forever.
I was still feeling amazing as we emerged from the jungle onto the boiling cattle ranch again. Then I looked ahead and saw a train of horses galloping towards us. Our ride had arrived! As we strode along the track I admired the varied landscape; all around us there were different views. The flat-topped mountains of the serranía beneath an endless sky, forests and jungle stretching out and grassy rolling hills reaching to the horizon. It was magical. We rode our horses up a hill and just took it all in before returning to the stables. On the way back, you could tell that the horses were eager, as it was hard to control them as they galloped along the home stretch. I say all of our horses were eager, but my Mum’s horse had ground to a halt early in the walk so our guide just tied her horse to his one! The same happened to my Dad’s horse later on and it was funny to watch them getting pulled along, while Brae and I galloped ahead! We charged rapidly through a lake, getting ourself soaked all up our legs. I could tell that my horse was happy to be at the stable again – maybe he wanted to get the heavy load off his back!
One of the things that was amazing about the farm was that they had a special friend there. It was a small green parrot. The people on the farm had raised it from a chick and it had decided to stay with them. Brae first spotted it perched on the shoulder of one of the chefs, like a pirate. It then flew over to us and started investigating our watches with its tiny beak, as if it was trying to steal them! One of the best things it did was a backflip off Brae’s watch! After it had got bored it discovered the fun of licking condensation off bottles and was amused by that through our whole lunch. When we returned from our horse riding it flew over to us and landed on my head. I was so happy and everyone took photos but then I felt something warm and slimy sliding down my back. I wasn’t happy then, as you can see by these photos.
Overall, it was an incredible day and I loved every bit of it (except fainting!). It was a great start to our Caño Cristales adventure. But, after all that you still haven’t seen the beautiful river yet! Now you know how we felt with the suspense building. Would it be as stunning as we imagined? Find out in Caño Cristales, part 2!
To get to Paso del mango, you can not go all the way by car, so we got there by motorbike. We took a taxi to a police station at the foot of a mountain, then we ordered four motorbikes and set off up the mountain.
We had no helmets and our huge backpacks were balanced precariously on the front of the bike as we set off up the road for the half hour long journey. When I say road it was actually a dirty track and it was extremely bumpy and rocky like a cliff. I was just getting used to all the bumps when my driver took our his phone and started playing candy crush!!! I know someone driving up a steep dirt track one handed with a mobile phone in one hand sounds crazy but he really did play it! I think my mum and dad were pleased that they didn’t know about this until I got there safely. On the way back my driver’s phone rung and he answered it, stuck it in his helmet and started talking to the person on the phone, Oren’s driver was listening to music inside his helmet on the way there as well occasionally getting it out to switch songs. I found out that it was not unusual for motorbike drivers to go on their phones while they were driving, in fact they did it most of the time! They must have great skill, although as my driver made the sign of a cross after we arrived maybe my driver was also relieved we made it!
In Colombia motorbike taxi drivers don’t drive on the left, they drive on the right, apart from when some of them drive on the left of course, or in the middle sometimes!!! Pretty much whenever they feel like driving on the left or in the middle they drive there.
We were very surprised by this driving but we also noticed the skill of the drivers: weaving in and out of the rocks at speed up hills and down them! It’s not only on motorbikes that you get driving like that. Some taxi drivers on the coast are nearly as reckless as the motorbike drivers. They go fast and change lanes into the smallest gap. Another thing that we noticed is the amount of beeping that goes on. You have to listen carefully to distinguish between the get out of my way beep, the hurry up the light is about to go green beep, the beep for do you want a taxi and a general beep for the fun of it. There are so many horns going off you can’t even tell whether it is your taxi driver beeping or being beeped at! In a traffic jam it is the worst though.
The other thing that we’d forgotten about was the ‘how many people can you get in a car’ game. When there is a big group of people and you are wondering how many cars or taxis you will need to get to your destination, I can tell you that no matter how many of you there are, the answer will always be one! It is strange how much of a surprise these things can be when you are used to things being a certain way.
On the first day of our stay in Paso del Mango we went to a local cacao farm to have a tour. When we arrived we sat down for a few minutes while we waited for the woman who owned the farm and we were given a bit of chocolate . The tour was already off to a good start! It was very dark but it was really nice. We had seen cacao growing last time we were in Colombia but we didn’t know how they turned it into chocolate so I was really looking forward to finding out how to do it.
We were greeted by a woman who started to show us around the plantation of cacao trees. She said that they were planted 15 years ago and that was when they started making chocolate on the farm. Most of the cacao in Colombia is grown in the centre of the country where it is hot and there is lots of rain, especially around Santander. The people on the farm were able to grow it on the hot coast because, as the farm was on a mountain, there was enough rain to grow a successful crop.
As we were walking through the trees we noticed lots of pods in all different colours: red, orange, yellow, green and purple. Our guide said that inside these pods were the cacao beans that made chocolate, and the colour of the pod depended on how ripe it was and the type of tree. She said that there were 2 types of tree: original and mixed. There were two types of original trees; one with yellow pods for when it was ripe and green when it wasn’t. The other original tree had orange and red for ripe pods and purple for unripe ones. The mixed trees included both types, so they had all five colours on the tree, but they were cultivated differently and made more pods. These trees looked like a rainbow and it was amazing to see that the pods grew straight out of the tree trunk. I really don’t think there is any other crop that looks anything like cacao, and we were already fascinated.
Our guide chopped one of the pods off and cut it open with her machete. Inside we were extremely surprised to see white seeds instead of brown. She said that we couldn’t eat the seeds but we could eat the soft coating around the outside. We all took a bit and it was so sweet. It tasted like a tropical fruit that had been grown only to eat on its own, not to make chocolate. It was so delicious that we had to have more until we’d eaten nearly half the pod. Beneath the white coating there was a pale brown seed that looked a bit like an almond and that was the bit that was made into chocolate. When the seeds had been removed from the pod, they were put in a bag to ferment and then put out in the sun to dry. Finally, they were spread out on a platform to dry. The platform had a sliding roof over it so the people on the farm could shut the roof when it rained. It was really important that the seeds didn’t get wet at any point in the process.
At this point we moved inside the finca, where we were shown how the beans were cooked or fired until they started to look a bit more like chocolate. The next step was breaking off the skin around the bean and we were put to work doing that. You were allowed to try the inner part but it was very bitter. When all the skins had been thrown into the compost we put the remaining part of the seed into a mill or grinder where you had to turn a handle to make a kind of chocolate paste. This is when it turns from cacao to chocolate. Finally, you added sugar and they also added cinnamon which was a family secret, shhh 🤫 ! At this point, we were given some of the chocolate and we were told to make a shape out of it. I made an empanada, Brae made a smily face, Dad made a snowman and Mum made a seal. We were then allowed to eat them, which I was very happy about.
The whole process was so eye-opening and we were all completely amazed and felt that we had learnt a lot about chocolate production. We were struck by how much knowledge was needed to make chocolate and we never expected it to be grown in that way. It really was an amazing day, made even better by the incredible location of the finca, and the beautiful walk through the jungle to get there!
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more interesting, our guide put some of the paste aside and mixed it with hot water to create a smooth paste which she put on our faces – a chocolate face mask! While we were letting the mask have its effect we had some delicious hot chocolate and got some homemade chocolate and orange brownie. I think you will realise by now that this was my kind of tour, and it was another day in Colombia that I will never forget!
Over the last three days we stayed in a place called Paso del Mango, near Minca. It means ‘the place of the mango’ or ‘mango way’. For a while we didn’t know why it was called Paso del Mango, but it soon became clear! On our first day, we set off on a path beside the river to visit a nearby farm where they grow ‘cacao’ to make chocolate, and after about 5 minutes walking the floor became a carpet of mangoes!
You might remember that when we lived here before, as we walked to school we occasionally used to step over a mango or two that had fallen from a tree, but this was on a whole other level! I’ve never seen so many mangoes in my life, the smell was overwhelming and it was impossible to count them.
As we looked up at the enormous, beautiful trees laden with fruit, at first it
was really cool, but after a while I was just busy trying to find a bit of path where I could put my feet without squashing ten mangoes at once. Lots of things about Colombia have been unexpected, new experiences. For example, I never thought mangoes would be the cause of me arriving late for our tour of the chocolate farm.
Maybe you won’t be surprised that when we were in Paso del Mango we ate and drank a lot of mangoes: mango juice, mango salad, even pasta with chicken and mango. And the chickens in the chocolate farm ate mangoes from the floor for their snack.