Our roving correspondent Mark Boultwood met the intrepid Craig Zapatka on a boat trip down the Amazon River near the Colombian tri-border town of Leticia.
UC: Craig, tell us a bit about yourself
CZ: Well, I’m an American citizen but I was raised internationally so travel has always been a huge passion in my life. Without a doubt, living outside of the States broadened my horizons and led me to work in tourism. I work in North America as a tour manager leading large group tours for young travellers across USA and Canada. Before that I volunteered in Ecuador and Peru teaching English to students. My time in Peru led me to manage a Peruvian/American fusion restaurant for 6 months then I moved on to work as a tour guide throughout southern South America.
UC: So what brings you down to Colombia and how long are you staying?
CZ: After extensive exploration in South America and much of Central America I was looking to check both Colombia and the Amazon off my bucket list. I found cheap flights from the United States down to Bogota and further into the Colombian Amazon region to Leticia. I’ve been travelling in Colombia for 2 weeks and I’ve got a week to go.
UC: It seems you are well travelled. How has your experience been in the Colombian Amazon Basin?
CZ: Where do I begin? My trip has been full of adventure! My gateway to the Amazon was the southern town of Leticia, which is located on the Amazon River, a tri-border crossing with Brazil and Peru. My initial thoughts were to head north up the Amazon by boat to the unique Amazonas village of Puerto Nariño, where they have no roads or other traffic apart from river transport – which is a great change of pace from the big city of Bogota. From here I was put in contact with indigenous tribesmen who offered to take me deep into the jungle to experience survival in the Amazon rainforest for a few days.
UC: What modes of transport have you been using on your trip so far?
CZ: Throughout my journey I think I must have utilised nearly every method of transport man has accomplished! From airplane, car, bus, tuk-tuk, all the way down to renting a motorcycle or paddling a long boat through the narrow and overgrown branches of the river in the Amazonas. The most exciting part on the boat had to be when I used a machete to chop a shortcut through the overgrown forest as I ventured deeper into the jungle.
UC: That sounds very adventurous! What has been the highlight of your jungle adventure so far?
CZ: Like anyone heading to the Amazon I wanted to see lots of animals and colourful birds, yet the highlight was experiencing my guides navigating through intricate flooded jungle tributaries and getting a first hand look at how to live on just the essentials. My guide was incredibly resourceful and within minutes of finding a place to camp he had cleared the area with his machete, built a sheltered campground complete with hammocks and mosquito nets and lit a fire before the afternoon rainforest downpour. If I was there alone I think I’d still be trying to set up my hammock! Every moment in the Amazon felt like an adventure but my final day going downriver with the tribesmen strikes my memory as the most resounding. I really enjoyed being so close to the water and looking for wildlife at the sides of the river and up in the trees. My trip ended with a delicious home-cooked meal with fish and salty patacones, a few beers and a comfortable bed.
UC: Did you enjoy sleeping out in the Amazon rainforest?
CZ: Yes it was such a novel experience. Sleeping in hammocks is such an underrated escape. This was only furthered by the nocturnal sounds of the jungle; the frogs, crickets, distant monkeys and every once in a while…the loud roar of my guide snoring! All in all a great experience, but it cannot go without mention the infestation of mosquitos. Luckily I was protected by repellent and a mosquito net so I didn’t get bitten too much! It wasn’t all hammocks for me though. I was fortunate enough to spend a night in an unbelievable tree house, suspended 12 metres above the rainforest floor.
UC: Did you see any wildlife?
CZ: Yeah, I did see a lot while I was there but perhaps not to the extent of my initial expectations due to my trip falling during the wet season when the forest floor was flooded by about five metres of water. I’ve watched so many wildlife documentaries that I always imagined I might bump into a jaguar! Starting small I saw some beautifully coloured venomous frogs, pink toed tarantulas, some playful squirrel monkeys and a lot of other monkey species way up in the canopy. The most overwhelming sight for me was seeing the pink dolphins in Lake Tarapoto. It was such a one-off experience because these animals are usually very difficult to spot but I was lucky enough to see them play very close to the boat.
UC: You mentioned Colombia’s capital city, Bogota. What did you think of it?
CZ: Bogota was the first part of my journey and a completely different experience from the jungle. I spent much of my time, as it seems all tourists do, in the Candelaria neighbourhood. What motivated me to spend some time in Bogota was to retrace the steps of Simon Bolivar whom I’m reading about at the moment. I found Bogota to be a city steeped in history. I passed most of my time there by visiting the countless museums Bogota has to offer. The most impressive and my personal favourite was the Gold Museum where many of the exhibits peaked my interest. Another characteristic of the city worth mentioning is Bogota’s stellar street art scene. I enjoyed wandering around and losing myself in the colonial maze of La Candelaria. For me, the change of pace between the small Amazon towns and Bogota was night and day.
UC: Do you plan on coming back at all to explore more of the country and if so where?
CZ: Yes! I’m extremely confident I will return to Colombia in the near future. The country being so vibrant, the delicious food and the happy go lucky nature of the Colombian people. My next stop in Colombia is without a doubt Santa Marta and making the trek to Ciudad Perdida then some relaxation on the Caribbean coastline.
UC: Thanks for talking to us and enjoy the rest of your adventure in Colombia!
The Uncover Colombia Team