The prime, unspoiled plot of land known as Parque Nacional Natural Amacayacu covers some 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres). It has its southern border on the banks of the Amazon between the Río Amacayacu (“River of Hammocks”) and the Río Matamata and extends northward to the Río Cotuhe. It was declared a national park in 1975. The park is characterized by undulating hills, swamps, and an intricate network of streams. The highest point in the park reaches 200 meters (650 feet) above sea level. It is estimated that in the park there are more than 5,000 plant species, 150 mammal species (including pink dolphins, tapirs, jaguars, manatees, nutrias, and numerous primates), 500 species of birds, about 100 species of fish, and the list goes on. Resident animals such as squirrel monkeys, sloths, wild boars, and jaguars are hard to spot in the park, and in the jungle in general.
Each year much of the park is flooded during the rainy months of April and May. In 2012 it was a particularly wet wet season, resulting in extensive damage to park structures. The park has since been closed to tourism, although the Ticuna settlement of San Martín can be visited.
If you are traveling by boat up the spectacular and serpentine Amacayacu (this can apply to any jungle cruise you take in the region), insist that the captain completely cut the engine at least once or twice during the journey, so that you can enjoy the incredible sounds of the jungle. When you float along in silence, hearing nothing but the calls of distant monkeys, shrieks of birds, or the constant hum of legions of frogs and insects, it is a magical experience. It makes you think, that, despite the tsunami of evidence to the contrary, just maybe we can, for the first time in the history of humanity, turn things around and save this remarkable ecosystem. Boat drivers are usually in a hurry, so you’ll have to ask them something like: “Podemos parar aquí sin motor un minutico por favor?” (“Would it be possible to stop here without the motor for a moment, please?”).
Deep within the Parque Amacayacu, a dedicated team of animal lovers is rehabilitating monkeys that have been rescued from poor conditions in captivity. Fundación Maikuchiga (Leoncio Sánchez, cell tel. 313/397-1981) is a group that rescues and cares for dozens of primates, like woolly monkeys, red howlers, and brown capuchins, who have been injured, orphaned, or rescued from poor conditions in captivity in the Colombian Amazon. Dr. Sara Bennett is the “mother of the monkeys” and runs the show here. She has been in Colombia for many years, originally arriving to conduct research on Amazonian trees. One of her greatest accomplishments has been in convincing local tribes to no longer hunt woolly monkeys, in order to protect their survival. Her aim is to promote the protection and awareness of these species, and generally to promote conservation efforts. You can visit the foundation to get to know their work, and they are always in need of financial support. Maikuchiga can be reached on foot from San Martín during dry months.
San Martín de Amacayacu
Up the Río Amacayacu, within the PNN Amacayacu, is the Ticuna community of San Martín. The community has organized itself to receive tourists and offers walks, canoe rides, and other activities. Friendly and knowledgeable community elder Victor Ángel Pereira (cell tel. 310/769-7305) will receive you and get you organized. Entrance to the community costs COP$5,000, and this is an interesting day-trip excursion from either Leticia or Puerto Nariño. There is a handicrafts store where local girls sell beautiful handwoven mochilas (handbags), bark scrolls from the yanchama tree on which scenes of jungle animals are painted using all natural dyes, and jewelry. You can also do a homestay with a local family for only about COP$10,000 per night in a hammock.
The Casa de Gregorio (cell tel. 310/279-8147, firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lodge run by a Ticuna-Dutch couple, Heike and José Gregorio. She arrived in San Martín as a doctoral student in agriculture sciences at the Universidad Nacional in 2004, and he is a Ticuna community leader. Through their Small World Foundation, they work to improve the lives of the residents of this indigenous community, by installing toilets, starting a kindergarten, and purchasing rainwater tanks.
A stay at the Casa de Gregorio provides visitors with a unique opportunity to discover the jungle and get to know Ticuna culture. A new, deluxe cabin was finished in 2013, and that costs COP$120,000 for a double in a luxurious king bed. There are two other simple double rooms and a small cabin, with a total capacity of 10. Lodging for two costs COP$80,000, and there are additional costs for meals, the community entry fee of COP$5,000, and for guides. Although it is possible to come for a day trip, this is not a recommended option. To get a taste of village life, it’s best to not rush things and stay at least three or four days. To get there, you can take a boat for about 1.5 hours from Leticia for COP$24,000. These depart at 8am, 10am, and 2pm. Ask to be dropped off at Bocana Amacayacu (not the Parque Amacayacu). The return trip costs COP$29,000. You will need to arrange with Casa de Gregorio transportation from Bocana Amacayacu to San Martín. That costs COP$30,000. You can also take a pequepeque canoe from Puerto Nariño or walk from there to San Martín. You can also walk from Puerto Nariño in tours organized by various hotels and agencies there. That expedition (you’ll need a guide; ask Heike) takes three hours.