Off the Beaten Track: My Amazon Story

  • Juan Paredes Goicochea
  • 26 November 2012

If took me longer than I wished, but in 2010 I finally visited one of the most amazing spots on earth – the mighty Amazon.

I am a Colombian traveller with a responsible mindset. Over the last decade, I have been lucky to visit some of the most amazing places on earth. The kinds of places that inspired me to develop unique local travel experiences that truly make a difference.

Children in San Juan de Soco, Colombia

In the heart of the Amazon, the children of San Juan de Soco, Colombia, could not be more welcoming. Photo courtesy of More Local

At a young age, my quest for the unknown led me far away from my home in Colombia. My curiosity was sparked by the exotic and unusual (never mind the unlikely) and my fixation with everything foreign soon determined my way of life. It was only after fuelling my passion abroad that I returned home to explore everything foreign (but local) too. And now I am here to share my story with you, hoping to inspire some and encourage others.

My Inspiration

The Amazon is one of those ‘must go’ places that ordinary people dream of and seasoned travellers brag about having visited. It is the ideal escape if you are looking for something exotic, adventurous, contrasting and genuine. It is also just right for nature lovers and ecotourism enthusiasts, and superlative for anyone interested in the science of life and the human aspect of travel.

My first trip to the Amazon was truly inspiring and overwhelming! I was instantly seduced by the immensity of nature, epitomised by the grand Amazon River, which zigzags through the contrasting nations of Colombia, Peru and Brazil in what is known as Las Tres Fronteras (The Three Borders). In that area, I soon discovered the vast array of local markets in Leticia (Colombia) and Tabatinga (Brazil) offering exotic tropical fruits such as copoazu (Amazonian white cocoa) and açaí (Brazilian berry), as well as yuca (manioc) products like farinha (dehydrated powder), casabe (flat bread) and tucupi (spicy sauce).

But that was just the beginning! The more I explored the Amazon River and its tributaries, the more indigenous communities, unique wildlife, exotic produce and real adventure I found!

My Local Friends

My close connection with the Amazon all started with Cayetano ‘El Abuelo’ (the Grandfather) and his wife ‘Marielita,’ who taught me all about their Huitoto and Makuna customs and traditions. They introduced me to mambe (coca leaf mixed with ash from the Yarumo tree), ambil (a mixture of coca leaf and tobacco) and rapé (tobacco powder) in the most incredible setting possible – their maloka (indigenous hut). A magical night on a hammock sealed this local travel experience, providing insight into how a local indigenous family strives to preserve culture and tradition.

Deck of a house overlooking the Amazon of Peru

A little piece of paradise, the home of Jorge, a Peruvian legend, is strategically located in the Amazon between a river and a pristine lake. Photo courtesy of More Local

Then I met Jorge, a Peruvian legend who lives in a little piece of paradise. His house is strategically located between a river and a pristine lake. Every winter his football pitch disappears when both river and lake meet, but both winter and summer are equally charming: in summer he gets white sandy beaches formed along the Yavary River, and in winter Jorge improvises adventurous ‘shortcut’ routes through thick, flooded forest.

Strong and tough but also very gentle, Jorge is an Amazonian farmer native to the mountains of Peru. He came to the Amazon following his heart and has not left ever since. Nothing beats going fishing with him in the early morning or Cayman-spotting late at night. Staying with Jorge offered me great insight into what it takes to survive in the middle of a tropical rainforest.

Back on the Colombian side, I was lucky to discover an inspiring indigenous community from the Ticuna ethnic group. The community of San Juan de Soco is located three hours from Leticia. It is a small community of approximately 250 people. Like in most indigenous communities, the people live in basic wooden houses and struggle with issues such as lack of sanitation, limited electricity, non-potable water and limited phone coverage.

Most families survive on small-scale agriculture in the form of chagras (subsistence farming through plot rotation) and fishing. The community has a small but pretty primary school for 80 children, which lacks adequate resources. The same can be said about the football/basketball ground and sports equipment in general.

Interacting with the community was really special. I went out canoeing and walking through thick rainforest with the men, played football with the children and cooked local food with the women. The people from San Juan de Soco provided me with the ideal opportunity to enjoy an open cultural exchange. After sharing so much with them, I felt inclined to continue contributing in any way I could.

Child with an animal in San Juan de Soco, Colombia

The indigenous community from the Ticuna ethnic group lives in the small community of San Juan de Soco, in the Amazon of Colombia. Photo courtesy of More Local

On the way back from the community I passed the Tarapoto Lakes – a series of dark-water lakes abundant in wildlife. An afternoon of piranha fishing, pink-dolphin spotting and swimming provided the perfect setting for my final day.

My Initiative

Once back in Bogota, I reflected on what I considered to have been a great trip. I was convinced that this trip, if planned well, could become a key promotional tool to encourage responsible tourism in the Amazon. But I could not do it on my own, and so the search for the right team of travel professionals began.

With a new team, and under the name More Local (now no longer active), I aimed to promote a local, responsible and sustainable approach to travel in the Amazon, which included not only Colombia but also neighbouring Peru and Brazil. I decided to concentrate on three key areas of travel: community-based tourism, ecotourism and responsible travel. In order to do so, we took into consideration three important aspects of travel: authentic local experiences, nature-based activities and sustainable practices. All of this was aligned with what we consider to be a basic yet meaningful travel philosophy – “it is all about the people.”

It took us plenty more trips, people and places to make it happen, but the organization is sadly no longer in operation.

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Juan Paredes Goicochea

Juan Paredes Goicochea is the founder of More Local, a tour operator that promotes local, responsible and sustainable travel in the Amazon of Colombia, Peru and Brazil. He is also a co-founder of LARGE Minority, master organisers of the Lanka Challenge and Cambo Challenge tuk-tuk adventures in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, respectively. Juan was also an assistant logistics manager for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Juan Paredes Goicochea
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Brazil, Colombia, ecotours, forests & jungles, indigenous culture, local knowledge, personal experience, Peru, South America, traveller tale, whl.travel,

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