Last March in Medellin, Colombia, I purchased a crystal necklace for my daughter from a street vendor. The craftsman, Impushima Mauricio was from an indigenous Amazonas tribe near Leticia, Colombia. He told me the crystal has healing power, that it is a channel of energy that transmutes the negative to the positive.
I became intrigued by the idea of the indigenous cultures passing down this knowledge of the healing power of gemstones and plants for thousands of years. It was why I researched and ultimately chose Leticia as one of my destinations for my recent return trip to Colombia.
Leticia is on the Amazon River, on the furthest southeast point in Colombia, bordered by both Brazil and Peru. Surrounded by jungle, the nearest connecting highway is 300 miles away. The only way to get to Leticia is by boat on the Amazon River or one of two daily 2 hour flights from Bogota.
Arriving in Medellin, Colombia last month, I was excited about the side trip to the Amazon. Even though I had to get an expensive $250 Yellow Fever vaccine, I knew this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. After a few days in Medellin, I was joined by my Colombian friends, Vane and Dina for a morning flight from Medellin to Bogota and then on to Leticia.
On my 2nd day in Leticia, I booked a tour to a nearby tribal village of Wayruru Maloca, where we would meet some of the indigenous Amazonas people. A taxi picked us up at the Hotel Madre Selva (Mother Jungle) and headed to our drop-off point 20 minutes away. We were met by my English-speaking guide, William, and two guides equipped with shiny machetes.
After being offered fresh pineapple, the 83-year-old wife of the village shaman greeted us. Supplied with a large bottle of water, we then headed down a narrow road to the entrance of the jungle path that would take us to the village. The water was much needed as the temperature was around 96 degrees with high humidity. The canopy of the jungle offered a little relief from the heat for what should have been an hour and a half trip.
Walking through the jungle can be exhausting, not only from the heat but the required concentration to watch where you step. One could easily break an ankle on a hidden root or vine, plus the remote possibility of stepping on a poisonous snake.
William described to me in English the different birds, butterflies, and plants as we traversed the trail. No snakes or monkeys were spotted.
Much of the jungle is underwater during the rainy season when the creeks that are fed from the Amazon would overflow. On parts of the trail, the ground was saturated requiring the placement of logs and boards to serve as a path, otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to navigate the muddy bog. I accidentally stepped off the path and my shoe sank half a foot into the wet ground.
The heat and the mental fatigue took their toll on me.
At one point, the trail ended at a rocky creek bed. A single log, 15 feet above the creek, was the only way to cross. I quickly refused to go further. Still feeling the effects of a head cold I caught a few weeks before my trip, I knew any attempt could be disastrous. One guide, Miguel, offered to lead me to another path where the creek crossing was less precarious. This would add 30 minutes to the journey.
As Vane and Dina continued with the other guides, Miguel, using his machete carved out a path through the jungle to the other slightly less dangerous creek crossings. One crossing was made with single 6×2 boards with a makeshift handrail on one side. Experiencing vertigo on the rickety bridge, it was scary as hell being 15 feet above the creek bed. Miguel reminded me to take it despacio (slowly) and breathe.
Exhausted, I quickly found a hammock to start my recovery with some concern about the return trip. I thought of the scenario of becoming a tribal member and staying here. After a bit of rest, they escorted us to the main tribal meeting area to meet the shaman of the tribe and his apprentice.
In Spanish, the apprentice explained many of the cultural and spiritual aspects of this tribe, traditions passed down verbally for thousands of years. The shaman would occasionally interject in his native language. William would translate into English for me.
He described the use of tobacco and coca leaves in daily ceremonial meetings. We were all given the chance to try a little granulated tobacco rubbed across our gums. Besides a little numbness, I felt no other effects.
After a half-hour, I asked the shaman questions. My guide, William, patiently translated. He declined to answer my question on what was the tribal origin story. Being it was a sacred tale, they rarely shared it with outsiders. When I asked how the pandemic affected the tribe, I was told shortly after it started the elders went deep into the jungle to make sense of it and to ask mother earth for the healing of the people of the world.
I asked the shaman to give me strength for my return trip. They reassured me that they were watching over us the whole time on our trek. Thanking the shaman and his apprentice as I left, I now felt with some relief that I would make it back.
For lunch, they served us delicious banana leaf-wrapped pirarucu fish from the Amazon River, fried plantains, rice, salad, and local juices made from exotic fruits. As we enjoyed our lunch, a beautiful scarlet macaw joined us. It was one of my favorite meals in Colombia.
After our meal, villagers showed us how to make a bracelet from the thin strands of the palm tree and dried Açaí berries. Advised of the bracelet’s protective power, I still have it on my wrist as I write.
They then took us to a nearby creek to either fish for piranha or go swimming. Trusting our guides, I didn’t ask the obvious question of the wisdom of mixing these two activities. I would later research that piranhas rarely attack and devour humans. Much like quicksand, the danger was overstated in the movies and TV. Swimming in the creek was refreshing, but the occasional nibble by a passing piranha startled me a few times.
It was cooler during our late afternoon trek back through the jungle, making it slightly easier. Plus, knowing the shaman was looking over me was reassuring. After a few hours, it was wonderful to see our taxi at the trailhead. I even ran the last 50 yards, joyful that this aging gringo survived the journey.
As we were about to leave in our taxi, the old woman from the village stopped us. She come over to my window and after a few words I did not understand; she presented to me two nails from the claw of a wild boar. It was the perfect ending to an incredible journey. In gratitude for sharing this experience with me, I shared one nail with my travel companions.
Back at the hotel, I enjoyed a long siesta; needed and well deserved.