Deeper into the Peruvian Amazon we go – a speedboat whisks passengers from steamy Iquitos to the seedy tri-border where Santa Rosa (Peru), Leticia (Colombia), and Tabatinga (Brazil) converge…
Legend has it that this shady tri-border region doesn’t boast a great reputation and is a last frontier. Tales of slippery drug smuggling and unsavoury deals in contrabands and gems emerge. But, the promise of spotting exotic jungle animals and the pull of the jungle are too great to miss…
Port of Iquitos
Following an unbelievable 3-day rustic barge journey from Yurimaguas down the Amazon River, arriving in the muddy Port of Iquitos to continue the journey to the Tri-border is a relief.
The port and also Iquitos are crazy with constant badgering from loads of hustlers – although it’s not quite as bad as Cusco.
A few nights resting in intriguing Iquitos before it’s time for the next exciting adventure on a 10-plus-hour speed boat to the Tri-border. But first, a little on Iquitos…
Although this area was inhabited by indigenous people long before the Spaniards arrived in 1757, the 19th century saw the rubber industry flourish and decline.
The 20th century saw growth in exports of fish, agricultural crops, oil minerals, timber, crafts, beer, and carbonated drinks, with the 21st-century flourishing in ecological tourism.
Iquitos is perpetually re-inventing itself to survive, which is not surprising considering its isolated location and lack of a road to the city.
The heavy oppressive sky in Iquitos accentuates the jungle’s atmosphere.
Exotic birds come out in the town’s square at dusk – the squawking is deafening – yes, we really are in this deep in the Amazon jungle and one of the poorest regions in Peru.
Menus in town hint of Ayahuasca, which is traditionally used for medicinal purposes and administered by Shamans. Travellers believe that Ayahuasca is a hallucinogen and I believe there are tours, which gringos attend to test the theory.
Where to sleep
The great hostel Hospedaje Florentina is a haven from the humidity with super friendly staff and a good breakfast. No Wi-Fi provided.
Luckily, we’re able to store big backpacks here free whilst heading to the tri-border for a couple of nights.
Organising a speedboat to the Tri-border
Although you can take another slow rustic barge over several days from Iquitos to the tri-border, we’re opting for the faster boat (lanchas) this time as it’s supposed to take around 10 hours.
Stroll down to the port’s bank and it’s not long before you stumble upon the narrow speedboats. Purchase a ticket the day before you travel, just to be sure.
Deep into the Amazon’s Tri-border
Completely rammed with passengers and luggage, the only room left is the narrow aisle between seats.
The boat’s childlike seats are not engineered for gringos – I’m not a huge or tall person.
With our knees up around our ears and day packs between our legs, it’s at this point I’d like to ask where the term: “huge as an Amazonian” originates from to describe a very tall person? Amazonian locals are not tall – our seats today confirm this.
So uncomfortable is this journey that my legs cramp up and I have to try and wriggle in my seat to release the pressure.
Slowing down to stop occasionally, we can reposition ourselves briefly until the boat speeds up again.
Just like the slow barge to Iquitos, the scenery along the river is spectacular and village life is fascinating.
Some locals are the epitome of fashion…
This cutie wants to continually play Hide & Seek with me out of the speed boat’s window, so manage to snap his gorgeous face.
The Amazon is immense and to give you an idea, stretches 30-kilometres wide at it’s peak – daunting?
Whilst whizzing by the small villages along the muddy river, you can’t but help to reflect on the Amazon’s vastness.
When visualising the Amazon, think an unexplored and untouched massive river with thick impenetrable jungle creeping up on both banks.
Surprised to see so many villages scattered along the river albeit remote, but inhabited nonetheless.
Stopping occasionally to drop-off or pick-up passengers, inquisitive villagers often peer out of wherever they sit – waiting.
Of course you pass stretches of river with nothing but dense vegetation gracing all banks, but the jungle is alive with exotic fauna and flora as we learnt on our jungle trek in Bolivia.
Sporadic washing and dugout canoes dot the Amazon hinting of human life nearby.
Prior to arriving in Santa Rosa, we’re advised that movement between the 3 countries is easy enough, but you do need to be stamped in and out of each country if visiting all three.
Santa Rosa – Peru
Over 10 hours later, the speed machine finally arrives at the tiny island of Santa Rosa.
With directions to Immigration we catch a mototaxi, splitting the cost with a couple of Colombians, and set off with my partner hanging off the back as there isn’t any room inside.
Barely an outpost with a couple of dirt paths as roads and mostly thatched huts, this village is the gateway for exporting cheap produce such as onions, pasta, and potatoes to Leticia and Tabatinga.
Not much of a queue at Immigration today, a large friendly lady with baby greets you and stamps your passport out of Peru.
Back to the speedboat to cross the Amazon river into Colombia.
Leticia – Colombia
We need to check into Colombia so climb on the back of 2 young boys’ motorbikes and head to Immigration, which is at the airport only a couple of kilometres from town.
The airport’s immigration is a painless exercise and passports are stamped. Relieved to see the boys still waiting outside, we’re dropped back into town for the short walk to the hotel.
Leticia’s streets are buzzing. Alive with music and people milling around most of the night. A town that never sleeps.
Grand colonial buildings still grace the streets in Leticia, whilst Reggaeton music blares out of shops and passing boom boxes.
Not-so-discreet signs drive home the unsavoury deals that occur at this tri-border…
If you’re into buying gems at great prices, then Emerald-Leticia is the town for you.
I nearly bought an emerald at a very cheap price and now kicking myself that I passed this chance up.
A word of warning, you do have to know the difference between cut glass and the real thing. Wander the streets in Leticia and it’s not long until you bump into a gem fever street – it’s contagious.
Tabatinga – Brazil
The federal police and Brazilian army considers Tabatinga as “one of the main entry points of cocaine in Brazil” due to its proximity with Colombia and Peru.
Taking a taxi from Leticia into Tabatinga is a totally surreal experience in contrast to moving through sleepy Santa Rosa or vibrant Leticia.
You can be forgiven for mistaking the flimsy barrier denoting you crossed into Brazil, as just a temporary road block of some sort.
This is one town I don’t feel safe in – not sure what it is, but the seedy vibe is what hits you. Call it gut feel or whatever you like – it’s real and it’s in Tabatinga – for me anyway.
If you need stamping in or out of Brazil, then Immigration is in Tabatinga’s main avenue: Avenida da Amizade.
This tri-border frontier is such an interesting place. People, taxis, goods, and everything move in and out of the 3 countries freely, unrestricted, and with ease – no checking in or out – bizarre!
Leaving the Tri-border
After a couple of intriguing nights in Leticia and finally booking a flight from Iquitos to Tarapoto, it’s time to get back on the squashy speedboat to ply up the Amazon. We don’t have 3 to 4 days to spare on the slower rustic barge back to Iquitos.
A cruel 3 am start today as the speedboat travels up the river so slower, due to the strong current. This trip takes 12 awful uncomfortable hours in crammed conditions before reaching Iquitos, although what I see of the lush Amazonian scenery is amazing.
Happy to land in Iquitos once more for a short stay, even under an oppressive and sultry sky…
Super excited to be flying over the snakelike Amazon after spending days traversing its muddy expansive waters…