Via Leticia-Tarapaca, Kilometro 11, Leticia, Amazonas
Overview: Leticia's remarkable Omshanty Hotel de Selva is one of the most interesting places for backpackers and adventurers in Colombia. The brainchild of Spanish biologist Kike Ares, it offers spectacular opportunities to see, hear, smell, and feel the jungle. It's located on 2 hectares of pura selva, and features a variety of interesting plants and wildlife on the property. Kike has been at this for nine years, and has developed a close relationship with the local indigenous communities. He has a great passion for showing his guests the best that the Amazon has to offer, and is a wealth of information about the local flora and fauna. Omshanty offers guests rustic but surprisingly comfortable cabins at affordable prices, and is a great homebase for setting out on longer mutli-day treks deep into the wilderness.
Neighborhood: Omshanty is located 20 minutes from downtown Leticia, next to a small indigenous Huitoto community that offers several small restaurants and bars, a shop where you can purchase hand-crafted artesanias, a football field, and a maloca, an indigenous community center. Close by you'll also find numerous ecological treks and paths, a swimming hole, a river lodge with restaurant/bar and ropewswings, a couple of more up-scale restaurants, several nature preserves, and a fantastic jungle zip-line, perched 35m above the jungle floor.
How to Get There: Getting to Omshanty couldn't be any easier or quicker, as there are no traffic jams to worry about, and frequent, reliable, and cheap public transportation. If you're arriving at Leticia's Alfredo Vasquez Cobo Airport, you can either take a taxi or a bus. If you want to take the bus, walk just 200m south of the airport (the only direction you can walk), and you will see a turn off to your right: this is the Via Leticia-Tarapaca, and just wait for the first bus going by, which will say "KM 11". Buses consistently pass from 6am to 6pm, and cost just $2.800. The trip takes about 20 minutes, and the bus's last stop is literally right at Omshanty's front door. Kike will most likely be waiting for you there.
Or, you can take a taxi, which should cost about $15.000 to $20.000 if you want to get there with a little more speed or comfort.
If you're arriving by boat from Manaus, Brazil or Iquitos, Peru, just make your way to downtown Leticia and ask for the Media Torta (the local concert venue) located on Carrera 10 between Calle 7 and Calle 8. There buses leave frequently for KM 11.
Or, you can rent a moto (small 115 or 125cc motorcycle) for just $25.000 a day in downtown Leticia. It's a great way to get to Omshanty, and have a lot of flexibility of mobility. Plus, there is space to park motos right inside Omshanty's front gate.
Management/Staff: Kike and his spouse Adelaida are cordial hosts who offer guests an opportunity to interact with the local indigenous community through guided nature walks, ceremonies, and gatherings. They are happy to set you up with boots (which can be much needed during the Amazon's heavy rains), or lend you a lantern, although it would be a good idea to bring your own.
Kike is working on growing medicinal plants on the property, and is only too happy to give guests a guided tour of all of the vegetation on the property. Whatever your dreams or desires for the jungle, Kike can make it happen. You name it and he's done it.
Rooms: There are five cabins available for guests, at reasonable prices, and there is great flexibility for couples and group travelers as well. The cabins are set relatively far apart on the extensive property and afford considerable privacy for couples. They are all connected by an elevated boardwalk, which is particularly convenient during the Amazon's heavy rains.
Shared Rooms: There is one cabin that is specially designated as a dormitory and costs just $15.000 a night.
Private Rooms: If you're looking for private accommodations, it's $35.000 per night for one person, or $55.000 for two, and on up for multiple people.
Amenities: The best part about the cabins at Omshanty is that while you are in the heart of the jungle, you are well-equipped with amenities like fully functioning kitchens and bathrooms and beds with mosquito nets so you can sleep in peace and tranquility. Each cabin is also equipped with a fan.
The bathrooms are spacious, with nice showers and sinks, and great plumbing.
The kitchens include a wide variety of dishes and cooking utensils, and there is a 4 rangetop gas stove in each cabin. There's also a refrigerator where you can store perishables. However, if you want to cook in Omshanty, remember that there are no supermarkets close by; just a couple of stores with very basic staples like rice, sugar, snacks, beer, soda, and water. So, it would be a good idea to swing by the supermarket in Leticia to load up on groceries.
There is no restaurant or bar service on the property, but right across the street you'll find food, beer, and good conversation.
For breakfast, try the fish soup, likely to be served up with an entire bocachico, a famous local and abundant river fish. For lunch and dinner, you are most likely look at a choice between fish, chicken, or beef, served up with rice, patacones (fried banana slices), salad, and yuca.
For juices try araza, copoazu, or lulo amazonico, three delicious varieties of fruit that you'll only find in the selva.
Kike offers a wide variety of ecotourism and treks, including night walks, with the help of local guides Esteban and Panero. Within minutes of setting of on your trek, you'll be sure to be photographing frighteningly large tarantulas, exotic butterflies, and rare plants.
One thing you won't find here is internet or television, but why would you want those in the middle of the jungle? There is fairly reliable service from Claro, Colombia's largest cell phone provider, although Movistar and Tigo are spotty. Kike hilariously turned the DirecTV satellite dish into a lily pond.
There's also a barbecue pit, where you can grill up your food. Kike often offers up guests a delicious fish fry as well
Conclusion: This is a wonderful place to have an authentic and different experience with ecotourism and indigenous communities. And the best part is that you'll find the Huitoto and Tikuna communities in the area are, for the most part, very welcoming and hospitable to visitors, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Kike.
If you are planning a trip to Leticia, make sure to include a stay at Omshanty. Your camera will thank you, and you'll come away with some incredible experiences and lasting friendships.
I'm often asked by Colombians and Americans why I chose to live in Colombia. Here are the top ten reasons.
1. The People
If I were asked which country had the best food, I would probably say France or Italy. For dance, I would say Argentina. But when it comes to the people, I would say Colombia without any doubt or hesitation. Colombians are the friendliest people you will find in the world. Whether you're exploring a teeming metropolis like Bogota or Medellin, or out in a rural village in Huila or Meta, you'll find Colombians to be warm and hospitable.
2. The Geographic and Biodiversity
Colombia is often cited as being the most biodiverse country in the world, and it's little wonder with its abundant rainfall, location right on the equator, and varied terrain. Whatever you're looking for by way of ecotourism, climate, or landscape, you can find it in Colombia.
From the three Andean cordilleras (mountain ranges), that run through the country North to South, to the Amazonian jungles of Leticia; from the lush forests and swift rivers of Santander to the desert of Tatacoa; from the eastern plains stretching out endlessly to Venezuela to the lovely beaches of the Caribbean Coast; and from the quaint Pacific villages of Valle and Choco to the wild untamed terrain of La Guajira, there is something for everyone in Colombia.
3. The Quality of Life
I am not going to suggest that Colombia is a perfect paradise on earth, because it's not. It still has many problems, especially with transportation and infrastructure, the economy, and safety and security. But it's improving on all these fronts, and, in general, you'll find that the quality of life you can have in Colombia is superior to what you'd get for your money in Europe or the United States.
With just $1,000 a month, you can live in a nice apartment, take taxis everywhere, go out to eat several times a week, enjoy occasional bottle service, and shop in nice super markets. For $1,500 a month, you can enjoy an upper middle class lifestyle, live in a luxury high rise, own a car, go to the nicest restaurants and clubs every weekend, and enjoy a monthly getaway.
Wait, you ask. Stability? In Colombia? Colombia, despite its woes, has had a relatively stable economic and political history in the twentieth century. It has only been ruled by a dictatorship one time, from 1953 to 1957 by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. It is one of the world's oldest democracies, and is making a valiant effort against corruption.
Additionally, it has never defaulted on its debt, experienced hyperinflation, or had a banking collapse. It has a free market economy, an excellent climate for investment, and a close relationship with the United States and the EU.
Contrast this with neighoring Venezuela and Ecuador, and you can quickly see why Colombia's stability is an attractive point.
Whether you're headed to a high-end nightclub like Andres de Carne de Res in Bogota, or to a family party in Soacha, you almost can't NOT have a good time in Colombia.
So brush up on your dance moves, and be prepared for a late night. Because while most entertainment spots close by law at 3am, Colombians always find a way to keep the party going, whether it's heading to an after hours club, a house party, or splitting a media of aguardiente in a park.
6. The Music
I am a music snob. I hate 90% of the music out there, and think that the golden age of music was 1970s British progressive rock (ie. Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Camel, Gentle Giant, ELP). And I still don't think that Colombian music and Latin music in general has the breadth, depth, or sophistication of English language music.
However, poke around, and you'll find some fabulous Colombian artists. My very first month in Colombia, I fell in love, both with a special someone, and with two songs that I think are great representations of what's happening in Colombian music today:
The first is "Te Amo y Te Amo" by vallenato singer Pipe Pelaez. Listen to the soaring accordion melodies and the song's inspirational message:
The second is Colombian rock: a song by two twin sisters from Bogota called Las Marti. The song is called "Sucio Perro":
7. The Food
OK, as I have freely confessed in my article about the best Colombian foods, the cuisine here does not typically delight upon first try, especially when you've got culinary marvels like Peru, Mexico, and Argentina to compete with.
But bite into some carne llanera (literally means meat from the plains) in Meta, try some lechona (rice and bean-stuffed pig) in Tolima, or some ajiaco (Colombia's national soup) in Bogota, or the bandeja paisa in Medellin. There is some great food here!
Or, nurse your hangover with a delicious caldo de costilla (spare rib and potato soup). And for $2 or $3 you can get a great almuerzo ejecutivo (executive lunch) anywhere in the country. These always start with a soup, and then typically include rice, beans or lentils, salad, and the choice of beef/chicken/pork/fish.
Additionally, Colombia has one of the widest varieties of fruit cultivation in the world, with many fruits that you can't find anywhere in the United States, including the granadilla, mora, guanabana, tomate de arbol, lulu, and mangostino.
8. The History
On your first day in Bogota, head to the Museo Nacional, and take the grand tour. Colombia's history is as rich and varied as its people. Walk around the fort of Old Cartagena, stroll past the Casa de Narino, Supreme Court, and Congress in the Plaza de Bolivar, see the Puente de Boyaca where Bolivar and Santander routed the Spaniards once and for all, or take in the spectacular architecture of Popayan in Southwestern Colombia.
Colombia has done a great job of making its history accessible and affordable to everyone, Colombians and foreigners alike. It's rare that you'll find a museum that costs more than a few dollars to enter (even if foreigners do pay a little more), and its colonial architecture is stunning and well-preserved, particularly in a place like Villa de Leyva.
9. The Transportation
OK. By saying that I like Colombia's transportation, I don't mean spending an hour and a half in stop and go traffic getting from one end of Bogota to the other in a colectivo. Colombia still has major issues to address with its transportation and infrastructure.
However, spend a few weeks in Colombia, and you'll quickly find that whether it's by taxi, bus, plane, or boat, transporation in Colombia is relatively cheap and efficient. In general, intercity buses cost between $2 and $4 an hour. Taxis are quite cheap indeed, roughly a quarter of the cost of what you'd pay in the United States. And domestic airfare prices have plummeted: now you can get great deals on flights between Colombia's major cities; often as cheap as $50.000 to $80.000 one way.
Even car rentals, which were once phenomenally expensive, are now pretty cheap. You only need an American driver's license, and you can find rentals as cheap as $100.000 (or $50) a day!
10. The Hope for the Future
Colombia is a country with many scars and wounds, many of which are still healing. But there is great hope for peace and prosperity: "Prosperidad para Todos" as the government campaign says.
Talk to Colombians and you will hear many different opinions about poltics, the economy, the peace process, the free trade agreement, etc. It's a good idea to hear a wide variety of opinions.
One thing you often hear about in Colombia is the extreme division of wealth, and it's true. As measured by the Gini index, Colombia is the eighth most unequal country in the world in terms of family income. But I strongly feel that the situation is getting better. There is a vibrant middle-class in Colombia. There is an enormous university-educated population. There is a tremendous desire and will to overcome the substantial problems of the past, both on a national and personal level. You see this when you see students from humble backgrounds fighting for access to education and getting university degrees. You see this in the towering skyscrapers that are springing up like mushrooms around Bogota and Medellin. You see it in the faces of the Colombian people, who rise with sun, and start their day at six o'clock in the morning, when the sun rises every single day in Colombia.
So, in conclusion, I hope you've enjoyed hearing about why I choose to live (at least half the year) in Colombia. And again, as I am constantly emphasizing on Colombia Backpacking, VisitColombia.net, VisitColombiaNow.com, and OurColombia.com, do yourself a favor and just go! It will be the experience of a lifetime!