This point in South America is unique. Some take the opportunity to have three meals in three countries, making a leisurely day of the whole affair. For others, it is spending some time relaxing in a bar. For those seeking a challenge, the hostel will give a discount off all the evening’s drinks if you can complete having two small beers (or a large beer or a cocktail) in three countries and discover two new facts about each country and return to the hostel within an hour.
The one-hour challenge is easily achievable with a bit of luck, as long as you don’t get side-tracked into thinking that it is easy and having another drink or loitering whilst you wait for the next boat or tuk tuk. And one other piece of information for the unwary who are trying the one-hour challenge: don’t rely on public clocks, as there is a one-hour time difference between Brazil and Colombia, so you have to remember to add or subtract an hour depending on where you are.
Our little group of six was formed of people who had met on the ferry or the hostel — Noodles, Gary, Keith, Karen and Susan — who were all happy to just relax in a few bars and have the national cocktail of each country. This was to be Pisco Sour in Peru, caipirinha or cachaças in Brazil and Aguardiente Antioqueno in Colombia.
We gathered in the reception of the hostel in the afternoon. Then we set out and we walked down one of the main shopping streets to the ferry port and negotiated with a boatman to take us to Peru and then to Brazil. The crossing was just a few hundred metres across a small stretch of river to Isla de Santa Maria in Peru. At the first bar that the river taxi took us to, they had green parrots flying free around the bar and a pair of large red, yellow and blue parrots that walked around the rafters above the bar space. There was also a very tame green parrot that would walk along the bar, the tables and the handrail overlooking the river.
If you got down low, with your shoulder level with the handrail, it would investigate climbing onto your shoulder, but it wasn’t very brave and backed off again onto the safety of the handrail. Parrots often use their beaks to support themselves as they walk about, and as women tend to have longer hair and therefore something with which they can steady themselves, they prefer people with long hair, typically girls rather than men.
One of Leticia’s specialties is casabe, a pizza-like dish with dough made from yuca rather than wheat flour that is topped with anything from cheese and chicken to seafood. Technically we were not in Leticia in Colombia but on Isla de Santa Maria in Peru, but they had some savoury dishes in a glass food warmer cabinet under some bright lights. They looked a little dried, but we tried some anyway.
Colombia’s best-known culinary dish is probably bandeja paisa, which originates in the Antioquia department and the Paisa region. Bandeja is Spanish for platter, and whilst some dishes are served on china, some restaurants serve it on a short section of a scooped-out wooden plank. It is a large meal and unless you are hungry it is best to order one between two.
There are many variations, but most offerings include red beans cooked with pork, white rice, spiced carne molida (ground meat, often beef mince), arepa, a small dough patty made from ground maize dough, fried egg, plantain (plátano maduro), chorizo, hogao sauce, a condiment made from tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro plus other ingredients, black pudding (morcilla), avocado and a drizzle of lemon.
In contrast, Peru’s most famous dishes include ceviche, typically a raw white fish but cured with lemon and spiced with chilli. But another well-known dish is cuy. This can be found just about everywhere in the Peruvian Andes. Its English name is guinea pig, but it has no connection to Guinea, which is in Africa, and is no relative of the pig. It is easy to keep and breed, eats anything, it is tolerant of altitude and cold and is a good source of protein; but luckily, to avoid upsetting the vegans and vegetarians, there were no cuy on offer.
After our tasting of casaba, we left the shade of the bar and the parrots to walk up the muddy road outside, just to actually be able to say that we had set foot on solid ground so that we could legitimately say that we had been in Peru, rather than just get off the boat and sit at the bar on the pier.
This island was very different to Leticia and Tabatinga. They were both prosperous, busy places with cars and motorbikes going back and forth, tarmac roads, concrete buildings and a buzz about the place and areas where it was just locals, sitting outside a bar in the shade overlooking sandy roads. This small island, part of Peru, was quiet, the dirt roads were empty, there were wooden buildings roofed with palm fronds, and altogether with a much more laid back, slow, and rural feel. Then it was back on to the boat for the slightly longer ride down-river to a bar next to the river in Tabatinga in Brazil.
We landed just a few hundred metres upstream from where our ferry had docked a few days before. In complete contrast to Santa Maria, it was noisy, busy and full of people. None of the bars looked very appealing and were much more functional to serve thirsty local dock workers than rustic and quaint. We walked up to the main road, which was not far from the police station where I had been the day before for some of the group to get stamped out of Brazil.
We tried a few nicer-looking bars than those down on the waterfront, but they didn’t sell caipirinhas or any cocktails, only beer. We walked along the road and back to the same bar where we had stopped the day before and had a couple of caipirinhas, before walking over the border and back to our hostel in Leticia. We weren’t racing to do it under an hour, but found that the target would have been easily achievable. We had done it in under three hours, without hurrying, taking our time and enjoying the trip, and had then walked home.