There’s only one place in the world in which you can wake up to a dark roast Colombian coffee, cross the river and lunch on fresh Peruvian ceviche and then be in Brazil for a samba show in the evening—the Tres Fronteras region, centered on the Colombian town of Leticia.
This dynamic triple border also happens to be in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and right on the banks of the mightiest river in the world, meaning beyond the colorful cultural kaleidoscope of three of South America’s most fascinating countries, tons of epic outdoor adventures await intrepid explorers as well. In fact, with new low cost daily direct flights from Bogota, Colombia’s mountain high capital, Leticia may just be the best jumping off point for exploring the most bio-diverse ecosystem on earth possible.
Sporting a tree-filled main plaza where thousands of bright green parrots arrive en masse to roost every evening at dusk, darkening the sky like a living cloud, Leticia is magical from the get-go. Accommodations in town range from the stately Hotel Anaconda, which overlooks the bustling port area to El Hostel, where backpackers will find comrades and connections. Along the only road out of Leticia, the Carretera, visitors have the option of staying in jungle lodges like Omshanty, located across from a Huitoto indigenous community and a short walk from a nice swimming hole in the Tacana River.
Ocean Malandra is a freelance writer that divides his time between Northern California and South America. When not searching for lost hangover cures in the Amazon rainforest, he can usually be found in random cafes sucking up the wifi.
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1. Dine in Heaven
Frequently ranked among the top restaurants in not just Colombia but all of Latin America, El Cielo (Heaven) serves up Amazonian fusion cuisine that leaves diners begging for more. Basing her dishes around traditional indigenous recipes like Tucupi (ant salsa), chef Cielo Gomez offers everything from steak and potatoes with a jungle twist to stuffed mojojoy, a fat larvae worm that lives inside the agauje tree and is as succulent as butter when pan fried. Located right on Leticia's main drag, this is the must try restaurant in the area and a gastronomical experience that will not soon be forgotten.
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2. Visit Puerto Nariño
Completely car and pollution free, Puerto Nariño is an award-winning model ecological village located about an hour and a half upriver from Leticia. The verdant jungle town, with its pedestrian only streets, lookout tower with amazing views over the rain-forest and friendly Ticuna indigenous population, is also located right next to the Tarapoto Lakes, where pink dolphins frolic in tranquil waters to the delight of all that visit. For those looking to escape the madness of modern living for a bit, Puerto Nariño is as good as it gets.
Although tours go to Puerto Nariño from Leticia daily—you can book in advance and even arrange for an English-speaking guide through expat David Gonzalez of Amazon Xpress—it is also possible to visit the town independently on the local collective boat and stay a while. Several charming accommodation options are available including the Ayahuasca Paradise Hotel, which can also set up a psychedelic experience with a local shaman for you.
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3. Experience the Festa en Tabatinga
While Leticia does have a smattering of decent nightlife venues, including the impressively large salsa club Kalua right in the city center, the real party zone of the Tres Fronteras area is in Tabatinga, Brazil. Located right next to Leticia so you can simply walk across the border, Tabatinga is packed with nightclubs that pump out the vibrant sounds of samba and pagode just about every night of the week. The most famous of these is La Comara (pictured), which is located on a picture perfect lookout over the Amazon River. La Comara really draws the crowds on Sundays when live bands and dancing garotas entertain over gorgeous sunsets and deliciously strong caipirinhas.
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4. Get Lost in Amacayacu National Park
Home to jaguars, tapirs, monkeys and over 500 species of tropical birds, Amacayacu National Park is a natural wonderland that was created in 1975 by the Colombian government. It is possible to visit this 740,000-hectare slice of pristine rainforest independently by hiring a boat to San Martin, a village located within the park, and then securing a local guide. But for most it will be much easier to book an English speaking tour through Amazon Xpress. They can set you up with all inclusive accommodations at the Casa de Yoi jungle lodge deep within the park where activities like night hikes through patches of phosphorescent mushrooms and fishing trips on the Amacayacu River can be arranged.
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5. Relax With Some Colombian Joe at BarBacoas
Sitting out on the shaded sidewalk patio with a freshly brewed Colombian coffee and a buñuelo (kind of like a savory donut) is one of the most relaxing ways to spend some free time in Leticia. Cafes like BarBacoas, which has been around since the 1970s, are an integral part of Colombian culture and attract locals looking for conversation and new friends. In the back, BarBacoas houses a long pool hall and even a small chess room, and at night it's a great place to hang out with a cold beer and a bunch of buddies.
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6. Tour the Ethnographic Museum and Botanical Gardens
Learn all about the Huitoto, Yaguas, Ticuna and other local indigenous cultures at Leticia's own Ethnographic Museum. Ask for a personal tour from Hilario Ribero from the Yucuna tribe for a free (tips are appreciated) walk through the museum accompanied by insider explanations and information. Just outside of the small but well organized museum, a botanical garden that includes specimens of coca leaf (which cocaine is made from) is designed to introduce visitors to the most commonly used plants in this part of the Amazon.
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7. Cruise the Amazon on the Hippy Mobile
If floating down the largest river in the world laid back in a hammock with spliff smoldering in your hand sounds like the time of your life then check out the Hipimovil run by the fine folks at El Hostel. This three day journey makes its lazy way to Puerto Nariño, stopping at untouched beaches and rarely visited native communities like Loma Linda along the way. The packaged price includes lodging in riverside cabañas each night and all meals, many of them consisting of fresh fish that you catch yourself as you go, cooked in the boat's small on board kitchen.
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8. Feast on Ceviche in Santa Rosa
A quick five-minute boat ride across the Amazon River from Leticia lies the island village of Santa Rosa, Peru, where riverboat passengers en route to and from the jungle metropolis of Iquitos arrive and depart. Santa Rosa also is home to nice line up of waterfront Peruvian restaurants, all of them offering mouth-watering ceviche made from the prehistoric fish called pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater species of fish in the world—some reaching almost 10 feet in length.
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9. Cool Off at Kilometro 8
Weekends in Leticia find the entire town out on the Carretera eating fresh fish lunches at one of the many roadside restaurants and bathing in one of the various jungle rivers or lagoons. The most popular of these balnearios is located at kilometer 8, where locals have dammed up a small creek to create a natural swimming hole to be enjoyed by all. With music so loud even the palm trees seem to be swaying to it and beers so ice cold they go down in a matter of minutes, it is a festive scene that offers a good glimpse into the exuberant nature of local Amazon life.