You will receive a warm and friendly welcome from your host Gustavo, his family and the rest of the village. Although they are used to passing tourists who may make a scheduled stop to buy local hand crafts or tourists who pass through on their way to a forest trek, visitors who stay for any duration and interact with the village are still fairly uncommon and therefore novel. The children are especially curious and you will be surrounded by children of all ages from the moment you wake up the moment you go to sleep!
There is a purpose built guest house for volunteers and tourists which is situated by Gustavo´s family home. The guest house consists of 6 wooden bunk beds. Gustavo has foam mattresses, mosquito nets, pillows and bedding so unless you require anything specific you shouldn´t need to bring any bedding items with you.
All families in La Libertad are generally large and Gustavo´s family is no exception. At the time of writing Gustavo has seven children with five currently at home. The children at home range in age from 3 to 15 years of age and are all very friendly and curious about new arrivals to their home. The children come into the guest house on a daily basis to see you and look through your belongings out of sheer curiosity. Although they are well behaved and understand they need to leave the guest house when you do, it may be worth locking away in your bag any valuables or food items you don´t want to share as there is no door to the guest house. There is little privacy which can take some getting used to.
Other than immersing yourself in the life of the village (and all the surprises that it may throw up!) there are no facilities in the village for entertainment (apart from a television in the school that is on at night).
Climate and clothing
There are two main seasons in the Amazon. Dry season usually lasts from June to September where typically there is little or no rain. The rest of the months are considered rainy season, where rain fall can be at times extremely heavy. Visiting the village during the rainy season has the advantage of plentiful rain water for bathing, cooking and cleaning however it is more humid and with the rain comes lots of mud. The village is built upon clay, with very few paved areas. Therefore rubber boots (wellies) are absolutely vital and can be purchased in Leticia (we left our boots behind – sizes 42 and 37). A rain poncho is optional, as most villagers just take shelter while it rains and with such high humidity, using an umbrella may be more comfortable. At least three complete changes of light clothing, swim wear, sun hat, and flip flops would also be useful. With the high humidity it is very difficult to dry your clothes after washing and items can get moldy quite quickly, so care should be taken with all electrical equipment including cameras.
Villagers wash all their clothes in the river and surprisingly the white school uniforms remain remarkably white! Laundry soap and a small scrubbing brush may be useful. Alternatively there are laundry services in Leticia.
Spanish is spoken throughout the village and is the language used to teach in the local school. However some of the older generation only speak their ancestral language and either cannot speak Spanish or don´t have much confidence in speaking it. An ability to hold basic conversations in Spanish is important to enable communication during your stay. An English-Spanish dictionary, lots of patience and a sense of humor are all travel essentials!
Traveling to the Amazon requires a number of vaccinations. For up to date information it is best to consult the World Health Organization`s website before you travel, or visit your doctor. However as a general guide, primary courses or boosters of tetanus, hepatitis A, typhoid, rabies and yellow fever are advisable at the time of writing.
You cannot buy any health supplies in La Libertad itself so stocking up on health provisions is essential.
According to health websites there is a high risk of malaria in the Amazon region of Colombia, although the villagers report they have not experienced any such problems with malaria. There are however a lot of biting insects such as mosquitoes in the area. Taking a course of antimalarial tablets is a personal choice, but regardless, precautions should be taken against being bitten during both the day and night. Insect repellent is useful during the day and especially after dusk, when wearing long sleeves and long trousers would be advisable. Using permethrin spray on clothes and on mosquito netting is also useful. Mosquito netting for the bunk beds in the volunteer guest house is provided for you. Repellent can be purchased in Leticia or in large cities in Colombia. Sun block, bite relief cream and hand sanitizer are also worth bringing.
The lack of clean drinking water is one of the biggest challenges that the village faces and subsequently the first priority for the Amazon Pueblo project at present. During the rainy season, villagers drink rain water (collected in storage tanks) but storage capacity is limited and so during the dry months (June-September) water has to be collected from a river 1km from the village. This water is not clean and the villagers (often children) can become quite sick.
Given the shortage of water, especially during the dry months, it is vital that before arriving in La Libertad volunteers staying in the village carefully consider their water supply options, so not to further stress the water shortage.
The heat and humidity can be very oppressive and care is needed to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion. As a general guide previous volunteers were drinking on average 2-3 litres of drinking water plus 2-3 cups of tea per day.
A large 20 litre water container is available for volunteers which can be refilled with drinking water. 5 litre plastic sacks of clean drinking water can be purchased in in Leticia or the container itself can be easily refilled in Leticia for $2000 COP. (There is a water refill station on Calle 8 – but you will need to request Gustavo or his son to bring the empty container to Leticia – a new one costs ~18,000COP). This is probably the easiest and safest means of drinking water for volunteers until a water solution has been implemented in the village.
During the rainy season rainwater can be also be used for drinking, although it is recommended this water is boiled first (foreigners who have not built up any immunity can become quite sick – previous volunteers have become ill during their stay).
Other alternatives / back-ups include buying a portable filter system (which can either be bought in your home country or in outdoor shops in Bogota) or purification tablets.
Drinking water from the river should be avoided at all times.
Bathroom and bathing
A small toilet has been built next to the guesthouse for guest use. (A toilet block has been constructed near the school although villagers typically use the bathroom in the jungle area). River water should be collected and used for flushing the toilet. There is no running water, so volunteers should either bathe in the river (as the locals do) or bathe in the toilet block using a bucket of rain water during the rainy season when water is plentiful. (Note: given water shortages in the dry season this may not be available).
There are no waste management facilities in the village. Most families compost food waste and use it in the fields but there is no collective means of disposing of human waste or of plastics, aluminium or old clothes etc. Waste is typically disposed of by dumping in either the river or forest area (this will also be a focus a future Amazon Pueblo project).
Despite the poor waste facilities, it is vital that volunteers being in the village do not contribute to further environmental degradation through irresponsible waste disposal.
Volunteers should consider waste disposal when purchasing supplies for their stay, and attempt to minimise the amount of packaging etc that is brought to the village. Food waste can be composted, and some wastes can be burnt on the wood stoves; however, any residual wastes should be collected taken back to Leticia when you return. (It is suggested that this also includes waste toilet paper).
Food and cooking
Leticia has a number of well stocked supermarkets, but you may want to purchase more specialised food items in Bogota (in Leticia the choice is more limited and items are generally more expensive there). Basic foods which you may want to consider taking include: fresh fruit, vegetables oatmeal or cereal, rice, beans, pasta, coffee or tea, salt, cooking oil, tomato sauce, dry meat, pancake mix and fresh eggs.
The market by the boat dock is a cheaper option if shopping with Gustavo or one of his sons, but it is likely that foreigners on their own will be overcharged. You can bargain hard or go to the supermarket which is slightly more expensive but the prices are fixed.
Some fresh fruit, plantain, yucca or fish can be bought at times in La Libertad but it depends on season and availability and shouldn´t be relied upon.
Volunteers are able to cook in Gustavo´s family kitchen. Their main means of cooking source is a wood fire. You are able to cook at any time of day as long as the family aren´t cooking. Firewood is a finite resource so you need to be mindful of that when cooking. It gets dark at around 6.15pm which is when the mosquitos come out in force, so you may find it more comfortable to eat your main meal at lunch time or have finished cooking by then.
All food should be stored hanging up in either plastic bags or zip lock bags. During the rainy season dishes can be washed using rain water, or in the river as the family does.
As you would expect, the sounds of the jungle are everywhere, especially at night and first thing in the morning. Most families keep chickens, dogs and more exotic pets such as snakes, parrots, sloths and kinkajous. You may be woken by roosters each morning, so having a pair of ear plugs might come in useful.
Snakes are common place in the forest and river but less common in the village, unless they are kept as pets. Many of the snakes are poisonous with some being deadly. The most toxic require treatment within 24 hours or death may occur. Gustavo has a snake bite kit that may remove some of the toxin, allowing a better chance of recovery. Anti-venom is found in a neighbouring village about a half-hour slow boat ride from La Libertad. With care and instruction from the villagers all snakes can be avoided. There are also poisonous spiders, but these are less toxic.
Unless you have a Colombian cell phone, it is very difficult to make contact with anyone outside of La Libertad. There is no main telephone line and mobile reception is very limited. Currently there are computers in the school, but there is no available signal for internet connection. There are many internet cafes in Leticia and places to make international phone calls. Emergency calls can be received or made on Gustavo´s cell phone.
Useful things to bring
· Small pocket knife
· Lighter and candle
· Books or playing cards to keep you entertained in the evening
· Soap for washing clothes, plates and yourself
· Toilet roll
· Insect repellent, permethrin clothing treatment, after bite cream, medical kit
· Water, fruit, vegetables and dry food
· Teaching materials if required
What to leave behind
Any expensive clothes or clothes you really care about, as things get really muddy, can deteriorate while washing in the river or go mouldy due to the damp conditions. Also don´t take any unnecessary electronic equipment because of the humidity. A machete may be useful if you take any forest walks although it is always recommended that you walk with a guide such as Gustavo who will carry one.
Although the culture of La Libertad and the Yagua community will be very different from your home, you will find that if you approach the people you meet with common courtesy you will be warmly welcomed. Especially during the first weeks in the village you should consider yourself a guest of the village and act accordingly. The “usted” for is recommended for addressing adults.
You may find it takes the villagers a little while to open up and talk to you in Spanish. You may also experience people being very keen to be helpful and do not want to disappoint you. This however may be to the point where they tell you what you want to hear rather than what is realistic, such as “we will definitely be able to see jaguars and dolphins” or give directions when they do not know where something is or say something is possible even when it is not. This is not a malicious act in any way, just a cultural difference, where they are trying to avoid confrontation or disappointing someone. Just be mindful of this when asking questions!
A couple of further points on Colombian culture:
· “Don’t give papaya. If someone gives you papaya, take it.”, is a saying in Colombia. I believe it is one of the cultural problems in Colombia. Basically it means, “Don’t let people take advantage of you!”, but it also means, “Take advantage of someone when given the opportunity.” You should be wary of this during your time in Colombia. Please read the info at the following link to understand more of this. http://poorbuthappy.com/colombia/post/give-papaya/
· “Why are Colombians Poor?” video. I saw this video while researching Colombia’s business and natural resources. It brings up some interesting points. The Colombians that I have talked with about the video agree with its main points. ¿POR QUÉ LOS COLOMBIANOS SOMOS POBRES? Video Completo, the video is in Spanish. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzuLYV8PLhw
The volunteering projects you are involved with will dictate when and how much free time you will have. You may want to make a weekly trip to Leticia to stock up on food and water and reconnect with the outside world. You can also visit Puerto Nariño, upstream from La Libertad.
You may want to ask if Gustavo or another guide in the village can you take you on a walk of the forest/jungle area. The guides are very proficient in traditional medicines, plant uses and spotting animals. There is an eight hour round trip walk to visit a waterfall, or numerous shorter walks are available (it is possible to walk back to the highway north or Leticia over 2-3 days).