On my last day in Cartagena I was out having breakfast with my friend Elo in a square splashed with warm Caribbean colour. We were sitting in the sweltering shade outside a cafe, and had just finished our food when a young American man came and sat at the table beside us with a sigh.
I ignored the sigh of this man, because I was in a very peaceful mood. Sadly, the man wanted us to notice him – so much so that, when we ignored him, he turned in his seat to face us.
“How long have you been in Cartagena for?” he asked.
I told him four days.
“Leave,” said the American man. “It sucks here.”
I held very much the opposite opinion, so I said: “Why?”
“I got fuckin’ robbed. I’ve been here two weeks, then two days ago I go out partying, and I meet these two Colombian chicks, man, and they’re all over me. I go with them and their friends and we have drinks and dance all night, and then I wake up totally naked, all my stuff is gone.”
I was quite annoyed at this man for interrupting our happy breakfast with this dark and fearful story. I can’t help but absorb people’s opinions on things, even those of strangers. I suddenly felt very annoyed and protective of the lovely glowing view I had of the city. I didn’t want my memories tarnished.
The glum American ordered himself two cans of beer (it was 10am) and sat drinking and staring around him darkly. A souvenir man drifted by and attempted to show off a small wooden figurine. The American said something hateful in Spanish and waved him away.
I looked at Elo, confused and concerned. We finished our coffees and left the cafe, and back at the hostel I couldn’t get the man’s story out of my head.
“You think it’s really that dangerous here? I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Elo calmed me down by reminding me that these sorts of things don’t usually happen to people who haven’t been in some way foolish. There is always danger in Latin America, everywhere – but you can minimise the risk of bad things happening by keeping your wits about you and following the backpacker rules: don’t go out alone at night, don’t get so fucked up you lose your senses, don’t carry anything you can’t afford to lose, don’t get yourself lost outside the tourist areas of the city. And, I suppose, don’t trust random locals who meet you in a bar and buy you drinks and take you back to their place with all your worldly belongings on your person.
We decided the American was a moron, and Elo told me I should think no more about it. Still, his story stayed with me for a few days. In Latin America, you never know what’s around the next corner.
Despite the strange American in the cafe, Cartagena was very good, and by the time I left the city I was all warm and jovial. Optimism had returned. I was enjoying travelling again. And when travel treats you well, and the sun shines and people smile at you, you feel as if you could keep going forever. In the evening took an Uber to the airport. I had a long way to go.
I flew to Bogota, arriving at midnight. I like Bogota airport. It’s big and clean and it feels like a spaceship, and you can see green mountains beyond the windows. The airport was empty and silent save for a few cleaning staff, and I found a bench beside a plug socket and lay on my backpack for a pillow. I slept jankily, and woke up at 7am when the airport grew busy again. I bought a coffee, then boarded my flight to Leticia.
Leticia is a city in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. It’s the most southern point in Colombia: the country is shaped more or less like a diamond, except for the top where it goes a bit wonky, and the south, where it continues on downwards to a very thin point. A very big portion of southern Colombia is covered by the Amazon Rainforest – constituting about a third of the whole country, by the look of the map – and Leticia sits right in the heart of the jungle, on the river.
I’d been trying to avoid flying on my Latin American odyssey, however there’s no other way of getting to Leticia. You can travel down from Peru on a riverboat, or up from Manaus in Brazil, but there are no roads at all. So I flew. And I was glad I flew, because as our plane came in to land, I was treated to a sight I thought I’d never, ever see: an ocean of green beneath me, completely flat, unchanging to the horizon except for a brown, looping river. The Amazon.
We landed in tropical humidity and yellow sunshine, and outside the airport was a small pot-bellied man holding a sign with my name. It’s been years since anybody has been waiting for me outside an airport, so it was quite nice to have company. His name was Thomas, and he was the guide for the tour I’d booked for the coming days.
Thomas had a motorcycle waiting outside the airport. I don’t love riding on the back of motorcycles with all my worldly belongings on my back and no helmet, but Thomas was very relaxed and I didn’t want to look like a silly English fanny by fretting over something I knew I’d end up doing regardless. So I climbed aboard behind him and we sped off.
To be fair, any fear that might have been induced by careening around a foreign land on a motorcycle was swiftly negated by the euphoria of the rush of warm wind on my face, palm leaves flitting overhead, and hand painted signs whizzing past on the roadside. We turned off a bumpy road into the city: broad, sun-drenched streets, rickety wooden homes daubed in pleasant colours, jungle trees casting shade on the burning pavement. Thomas dropped me outside my hostel, which looked like an old explorer’s home. There were spears on the wall and fishing nets, maps of the jungle, and shelves heavy with strange wooden trinkets. I was happy. I’m always happy when things get a little bit Indiana Jones.
After checking in and finalising details with Thomas for the next morning – the start of the tour – I decided to take a walk. Leticia, located as it is on that thin little southern-creeping tendril of Colombia, directly borders both Brazil and Peru. Peru is just a hop across the Amazon by lancha, a little motorboat, and Brazil is – well, you can just walk across town.
I was enamoured with the idea of walking to Brazil, so I set off with a vague direction in my head. I didn’t know what I’d do there particularly – maybe just go to a supermarket for the novelty. Before leaving, I was happy for the opportunity to say the silliest thing I’d said in a long time:
“I’m just popping to Brazil, does anyone need anything from the shop?”
I made the duel mistake of not eating anything for breakfast and not wearing suncream (I do this with disconcerting regularity), so what should have been an easy stroll became a nauseous, shaky-legged death-slog across the city.
It was a mile or so to Brazil, and I had to stop on the way to drink a Gatorade so I wouldn’t pass out. There was a nice sign on the way that read ‘Brazil ^ Peru > Colombia <’, which I enjoyed very much and took a photograph of. I was expecting some sort of symbolic border to Brazil – maybe a little fence, or a man asleep in a hut with a flag on it. But there was nothing. I walked over a roundabout, and then I was in Brazil: I knew because the flags outside the shops changed, and prices were suddenly in reals.
There is no border patrol because there’s no point: you can only get in or out of the area by plane, so I guess the logic is that you’ve already had your documents checked, and if you try and fly out you’ll have them checked again. The Brazilian side of the town is called Tabatinga, and it’s much more dangerous than the Colombian side, for some reason. The hostel receptionist told me I could walk freely around Leticia at night, but absolutely not Tabatina. It seemed odd to me that thieves and murderers would halt at an imagery border.
I walked about 200 metres into Tabatinga, took some photos of the Brazilian flags, and bought some cigarettes from a shop with four drunk people outside (2pm, everyone in Latin America is drunk, always). They let me pesos and asked a few questions in Spanish about where I was from. The area felt a bit sketchy, so I decided that I’d seen enough of Brazil for the time being and walked back.
On the way back to the hostel (dehydrated, hallucinating, hateful), I passed a familiar face: Yoan, the funny French guy I’d spent Christmas with in Medellin.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I laughed as we came to a stop.
It was good to have a friend, and we arranged to meet that evening for dinner. I rested an hour or two in the hostel, then wandered out to meet him after dark. Even though my hostel told me it was safe after dark, it’s hard to get the ‘NEVER GO OUT ALONE AT NIGHT’ credo out of your head. I passed some angry dogs, some drunk men, and some soldiers with guns, but nobody harassed me. All good.
Yoan and I met at a Peruvian restaurant in the town centre, and he told me about his own adventure into the Amazon jungle two days before. Creepy crawlies, dolphins, wild animals, the lot. I told him I’d been to Brazil. He laughed.
“You haven’t been to Brazil.”
“Yes I have.”
“You went for half an hour and came back. That doesn’t count as visiting the country.”
“We’ve been in this restaurant for half an hour. If somebody asks you tomorrow if you’ve been, will you say no?”
He smiled at me.
“A good point.”
Back at the hostel, I went to sit outside and smoke by the dirty swimming pool before bed. An English guy in a football shirt came and sat beside me and asked for one. I didn’t much want to talk, but I didn’t want to be rude. He seemed funny at first, and I began to think he was actually alright despite his insistence on wearing a Man City shirt in the heart of the Amazon. Then he started telling me stories about girls he’d shagged in various hostels, in great detail, and I suddenly felt very weary and made my excuses to go to bed. Travel flings happen, sure, but you don’t have to talk about people as if they’re pieces of meat. I dunno. Bad vibes.
Anyway, I hit the hay early – because the next morning I’d be up early and heading across the river for three days in the jungle.