Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Brazilian Tourist Blog – Part 4, Santarém and the Amazon River

The Santarém Cathedral as seen from the riverfront
We arrived in the Amazon in the middle of the afternoon.  As we approached the airport, we could see the huge milky brown channel of the Amazon River flowing below us, bordered by a the seemingly endless canopy of the rainforest.  We had left Belo Horizonte before sunrise but it is a long way to Santarém.  When we walked down the stairs from our airplane, a wave of equatorial humidity and heat hit us.  It was hot in Minas Gerais but it is even hotter in the Amazon jungle.  Santarém is an old (founded by Portuguese explorers in 1661) port city located just south of the equator at the confluence of the clear water Rio Tapajós and the silt laden Rio Amazonas.  Prior to Portuguese colonization, the Tapajós Indians, a successful and sophisticated agricultural tribe had inhabited the beautiful area for centuries.  My husband Jeff had already arrived and he picked us up at the airport.  We checked into our hotel and immediately put on swimsuits and jumped into the hotel’s large pool.  Jeff fell asleep on the chaise while I did my laps – I tried to sprint every other lap in the warm water to at least imagine I was getting some exercise.  After the hikes around Inhotim and the long trip from the south I was tired too.  I don’t think my sprints amounted to much more than a leg stretch but it felt great to swim.

The Asa Dourado II at its dock in Santarém
After our tours of Brazilian art and history, we were ready for the Amazon – the river and the jungle.  Soon after our arrival, we spent a bright sunny Sunday aboard an Amazon riverboat, the Asa Dourado II.  We arranged for a full day river excursion with a local company BigTreeAdventures, http://www.bigtreeadventuretours.com

ZIB welcomes us
I highly recommend this company to anyone traveling in the Santarém area.  They are experienced professionals who specialize in unique Amazon eco-adventures.  The folks at BigTreeAdventures are very knowledgeable and their trips are exceptional.  More importantly they are creative and just plain fun to be with.  BigTreeAdventures is an offshoot of a lumber company, Zero Impact Brazil (more about this company in my next blog).  We contacted them following a recommendation in Lonely Planet.  It turned out to be a great lead – in addition to the river excursion we spent a second day with them exploring the rainforest and the history of the region.  Our first meeting with our tour guide was great.  Karim, a pencil-thin, twenty-something Russian arrived at our hotel on our first morning.  He wanted to make sure everything was arranged to our satisfaction.  But he did not look like a forest ecologist at all – he looked like a Russian intellectual.  It turns out he might be both.  Karim moved to Santarém four years ago from Russia.  He was en route to French Guiana but like lots of travelers never got to the place he’d originally intended.  Instead, he took a side trip to Santarém, met his boss, Rick, an American expat who has lived in Santarém almost twenty-five years and stayed put.  Now Karim knows more about the rainforest and the history of Santarém than most people who were born there.  As one of his friends, a fellow who works for the Santarém Bureau of Tourism told us – “I hired a Russian guy (Karim) to explain the history of rubber farming in the Amazon to a group of Brazilian teachers and students who were visiting.  Why would I hire a Russian?  He knows more than anyone else.”  Karim speaks five or six languages, including flawless English and French.  He eats books as far as I can make out.  He never stops talking and it is not clear he ever sleeps.  He is a wonderful host.

We didn’t meet his boss Rick, the owner of the company until a couple of days later when we visited his sawmill and forest.  I will describe our river trip first in this blog and our forest adventure in the next blog.

Hand washing station on the Asa Dourado II
The Asa Dourado II is a traditional flat-bottomed Amazon riverboat with a partially covered upper deck and a full kitchen, a bathroom and other accommodations below.  The wheelhouse in front is enclosed allowing the boat to be driven safely regardless of the weather.  There isn’t a drought in the Amazon!  2014 saw the highest discharge (total amount of water flowing in the river) on record.  We left the dock in downtown Santarém late morning and motored west towards the Tapajós.  Along the waterfront we passed a huge warehouse and loading dock belonging to Cargill, the multinational agribusiness.  The facility is used to store and ship soy and corn – two crops that are increasingly covering land around Santarém that used to be rainforest.  

Cargill Facility in Santarém
Karim told us that when Cargill built the facility, it displaced the best and most heavily used public beach in town.  Unfortunately it is not only the rainforest that is lost when large-scale agriculture expands.  Soon we left the port behind and, after a pre-lunch snack of iscas de peixe, small pieces of fresh fried fish, we arrived at a remote white sandy beach.  The captain drove the boat up onto the sand, anchored it with an iron rod and rope, and set up a portable grill.  He gave me a big grin as he took the fresh tambaqui out of garlic, lime juice and herb marinade and placed it on the hot coals.  He definitely knew what he was doing. 
Sunday afternoon on the Tapajós River

While the fish grilled, Jeff and I walked down the beach, stretched our limbs with a few Yoga exercises (very important to remember to stretch when you are over sixty) and went for a relaxing swim in the soft water.  We passed other folks relaxing in the water on Sunday afternoon.  We got back just in time for lunch.  
The captain brings fresh grilled tambaqui on board!

After lunch we left the beach and drove to the confluence of the Tapajós and the Amazon – the Encontro das Águas or Meeting of the Waters.  There, fingers of café com leite-colored water and clear deep blue water intertwine, mixing together in endless eddies as they flow downstream together.  As we drew near the Amazon, Karim interviewed each of us, asking what our hopes about being on the biggest river in the world were.  I answered that my hope was to see a pink dolphin.  As if on cue, a large bright pink dolphin rose out of the waves in front of the boat.  The captain slowed and we all watched in awe as a school of dolphins swam playfully in and out of the mixing of the opaque brown and clear waters.  Karim joked that he had the botos on retainer – as much fresh fish as they wanted!

A small side channel or paraná on the Amazon River - our afternoon fishing spot
Later that afternoon we had a chance to go fishing ourselves – in a paraná (a small side channel to the main stem).  There as we deployed our fishing lines, we watched a herd of cows swim across the water.  Who knew cows could swim?  My brother-in-law caught a red-bellied piranha but I caught nothing – just a few bites. 

Setting nets along the river
Along the banks we saw small farms and fishermen’s houses, white egrets and a host of other pretty colored birds, swooping down from the trees and diving to catch fish in their long beaks.  We saw families and fishermen traveling in small boats, setting nets or bringing supplies back from town.  On the way back to the docks we munched freshly fried banana chips and drank strong sweet coffee out of little blue glass cups.  

All the while Karim regaled us with stories about the culture, the history, the politics and the ecology of the greater Santarém region.  As we disembarked and thanked our gracious captain, the cook and crew, Karim promised us an equally good adventure the next day in the forest.

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