In early October, Jeff and I travelled to the city of Macapá on the mouth of the Amazon River. It was a work trip for Jeff and a chance for me to explore a part of Brazil I had not visited before. The mouth of the Amazon is huge – more than 200 miles wide from north to south. The majority of water, more than 80 percent, flows along the northern bank of the river, past Macapá to the Atlantic Ocean. The rest flows through multiple braided channels, around low-lying forested islands and reaches the Atlantic a little further south. To give you an idea of scale, the biggest island, Marajó, centered in the mouth of the river, is bigger than Switzerland!
The mouth of the Amazon straddles the equator. This imaginary line divides the northern and southern hemispheres. It goes right through Macapá and you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere! Because Macapá is on the equator, there is no dawn or dusk. At 6 am and 6 pm, boom, the sun rises and the sun sets. When you come from a place where warm weather means that sunset is late in the evening, it is a surprise to see the sun set at 6 pm followed by immediate darkness!
Brazil is a very large country. It took most of the day and three different flights to reach Macapá from our home in upstate São Paulo. We walked out of the airport into the warm tropical night. The softness of equatorial air never fails to amaze me. Even on the hottest summer day in a temperate zone, the air never has the same soft, luscious feel as in the tropics.
After a short taxi ride we checked into our hotel – very modern and clean and right across the street from the big river. There were several open-air restaurants within walking distance of the hotel. We decided to try one. We were tired and the thought of some good food and a cold caipirinha – the classic Brazilian drink – ice, lime juice, sugar and cachaça (sugar cane alcohol) – was compelling! Caipirinhas are delicious and not too alcoholic. In the darkness I could see boats lined up where the banks of the river started. The sky was inky black – no sign of a single star and certainly no light pollution here.
Macapá should be famous for its Amazon River fish and pink freshwater shrimp. All along the river there are small restaurants with charming names – Recanto do Camarão Rosa; Vento do Norte; Cantina das Estrelas – the little corner of pink shrimps; wind of the north; canteen of the stars. They sound so much better in Portuguese – but maybe that’s because Portuguese is not my native language!
We walked along the river. At one restaurant, a woman was playing guitar and singing old Brazilian love songs – the clear winner. Our table was close to the dark river where the wind was fresh and cooling. With live music in the background, we sipped cold caipirinhas. We ordered mixed grill, a combination of calabresa (spicy sausage), file (beef), chicken, river fish, potatoes, rice and beans. Grilled to perfection and served on a hot iron griddle – we fell on it ravenously and enjoyed every bite.
We ate at many of these lovely riverfront restaurants during our visit to Macapá. Sometimes there were musicians singing traditional Brazilian songs, sometimes rock and roll. Sometimes the only music was the whistle of wind through the trees along the river. The prevailing wind is a wonderful blessing in this part of the world. Despite being on the equator, the wind keeps one from feeling too hot. And miraculously, perhaps unrelated, there are virtually no bugs. During our entire visit, I saw one lone mosquito.
The next day was Saturday and our only obligation was lunch with Jeff’s colleagues. In the morning we walked along the river to an old fort. Curiously, the tide was out and all the boats were sitting on the muddy river bottom. It is hard to imagine a river having a tide but here at the mouth of the Amazon, the tidal influence of the Atlantic Ocean is pronounced.
The fort, Fortaleza do São José, was built by, or at least for, the Portuguese in the 1760s – more than 250 years ago. Given the politics of that time, African slaves and native Indians did the actual building. Its high stonewalls and small round turrets sit on a promontory facing towards the river. How swampy and primitive the Amazon and Macapá must have been 250 years ago. What must it have been like to come across the Atlantic and into a river the size of the Amazon with no map and no idea what lay ahead.
Today the fort is for tourists and school field trips. From high above the courtyard, you can see the river slip far away to the horizon and enjoy the wind that cools this equatorial city. The water is brown – the brown of my morning café com leite – and surprisingly active. White caps blow across the surface, sending birds and plants whirling. Surrounding the fort is a big open park with trees in bloom and an air of faded grandeur.
Jeff’s colleagues picked us up for lunch. We drove up river to a small community along a white sandy beach. More open-air restaurants, built on wooden platforms, lined the riverbank. We entered the last restaurant in line, at the edge of a small tributary. On the opposite bank of the tributary, there was a cluster of small houses built on rickety looking stilts that emerged from dense swampy vegetation. I could see a raised wooden walkway threading through the forest, leading to the various structures and kids swinging on a rope out over the channel.
We had a traditional lunch called Caldeira De Peixe – a sort of everything in a single pot fish stew and a big plate of fresh grilled shrimp – camarão rosa – the freshwater shrimp from the lower Amazon. They are smaller than their larger saltwater siblings but just as good. We ate them with farofa, an essential Brazilian condiment made from toasted manioc flour and a spicy local sauce called tucupi! Peppery and hot but so tempting.
Perhaps you are wondering by now if our trip was all about the food. I have to say that the lower Amazon food is amazing and surprisingly healthy – fish and fruit dominate along with the ubiquitous rice and beans. However, between meals and Jeff’s meetings, we tried to stave off the effects of the wonderful food by working out (or sweating out) at a local gym and walking miles (or should I say kilometers?) along the river. But it is true that the Amazon cuisine is unique and delicious. Many of the fish, the freshwater shrimp and some of the more exotic tropical fruits including the current health food hero, Açaí are barely exported from the region.
After lunch we wandered upstream along the banks of the small tributary to see one of the boats Jeff and his colleagues planned to use for sampling the river. The floating houses and boats in the small settlement reminded me of something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. The walkways and houses were all elevated and painted bright colors – blues, yellows, red, purple, and green. The boats were equally picturesque. Along the edges kids swam and jumped in the water, washing themselves in the shallows and playing games together. Some of the houses were little bars, or small shops, selling everything from flour to meat to light bulbs. Electrical wires seemed to be strung every which way through the trees and vines and along the walkway. It was hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t get electrocuted but who knows?
All too soon it was time to leave Macapá to visit the Rio Tapajós. On our last night we toasted each other with one final caipirinha and a plate of grilled pink shrimp. We set our alarms for 5:30 am ready for more adventure.