We’ve already visited our fair share of rainforests on this trip, notably tropical rainforests in Borneo and Indonesia, with Sub Tropical and Temperate Rainforests in Australia and New Zealand. (see Borneo, briefly … , Here be Dragons, More tales from Sulawesi, Tasmanian Devils and other Tales, Land of the Long White Cloud … cntd.).
But here is different.
The Amazon Basin
The Amazon basin is immense – it constitutes half of all the tropical rainforest on earth. It contains the greatest biodiversity of plant species in the world and is home to more than 2.5 million species of insects and thousands of species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
It’s a truly global ecology, with around 27 million tones of sand from the Sahara desert, carried by winds and dropped on the Amazon each year. This replaces the phosphates taken out of the soil by the staggering amount of plant growth and the rainforest would be unsustainable without it.
So we knew there was no way we could ‘explore the Amazon’, but we did come across some astonishing and unexpected landscapes and environments in our journey 3,000 km north and west from Recife.
Alter do Chão
A pal in Rio had recommend Alter do Chão in the Amazon basin, on the banks of the Rio Tapajós. It was a good base for exploration.
Having said that we had trouble finding the accommodation we had booked. It was way out of town and up a dirt track that the taxi driver couldn’t even attempt to drive up. Luckily, and before it got dark, we found an alternative, a Pousada – Coraçāo Verde in town just a two minute walk from the town square. Friendly and helpful people. We signed up for a boat trip early the next day to the Canal do Jari – up the Tapajós and on to the Amazon river itself.
By happy chance the other people from the Pousada who signed up to the trip were two independent, English-speaking, young women travellers, Eloise and Ambra. They both had very different travel experiences and were great company, plus Eloise was fluent in Portuguese and Ambra very capable in Portunhol – the combination of Spanish and Portuguese.
The waves picked up as we entered the seemingly boundless Amazon river. Silt and sandbanks are places where trees and humans seem to cling on, with other land points distant on the horizon.
We stopped at a point on the riverbank where a local biologist/guide took the four of us walking through the forest. Her knowledge and sharp eyesight ensured we saw plants, fruits, butterflies, monkeys, birds and sloths.
The sloths were wonderful …
In the gloom and shadow of the rainforest we saw much more than I could photograph adequately or identify; any ‘birders’ out there, feel free to comment!
On our way back down the river we were lucky enough to come across a pod of pink freshwater dolphins. The boat stopped and for about fifteen minutes they swam in the river around us.
Outside of the dense forest, around the giant lillypads, the birdlife was easier to spot.
The following day Anne and I spent the afternoon on the local beach, not something we expected to find in the Amazon. But the sandbar just a quick rowboat trip from Alter do Chão is thought by many to be one of Brazil’s best.
Certainly swimming in the cool freshwater waves and sitting on the soft white sand was pretty idyllic, as was the sunset.
I went on another boat trip the following day with Ambra, this time to the Floresta National do Tapajós. It’s a 9km hike from primary to secondary forest and our guide showed us some of the rainforests unique plants. We also spotted what he called a honey monkey and a female tarantula with her egg.
Throughout our walk there was a beautiful, evocative soundtrack of bird calls echoing through the treetops.
After the climb up through the rainforest it was wonderful to be able to swim in a cool clear river.
We had lunch at the local village before heading back under threatening skies.
Barreirinhas and Lençois Maranhenses
The journey to Barreirinhas from Alter do Chão was not easy. The lovely people at our hostel Caraçáo Verde dropped us off at the airport for a night flight to Belem. Arriving at 1.30am, but with a twelve hour stopover, we checked in to a hotel for some sleep, then took another flight to Santarem and finally a four hour minibus ride to Barreirinhas, where we pulled up to our Pousada late at night and pretty worn out.
While Barreirinhas is not a spectacular town it had some nice restaurants and bars and an efficient taxi service in the main square that meant we could negotiate the dark unmade roads back to our hotel at night. In any event, we were there to visit Lençois Maranhenses National Park. It was a stunning other-worldly experience.
Four wheel drive trucks take you along a maze of rivers and sand tracks to the national park itself.
The landscape is surreal, it’s wonder is magnified by the feeling of walking barefoot through the purest, softest fine white sand I’ve ever encountered. Lençois Maranhenses translates as the ‘bedsheets of Maranhão’ and that’s a perfect simile for this undulating white terrain. As you walk this silent landscape you can find yourself sinking up to your knees in soft sand, causing mini avalanches that, like your footprints soon disappear in the constant breeze off the sea.
The sand, carried down through the tributaries of the Amazon basin, is picked up by winds and blown inland, forming stunning pure white dunes. When rain falls, it collects amongst the dunes as there is impermeable rock beneath and creates vivid blue lagoons that are great to swim in. By the end of September most of these temporary lagoons have evaporated.
As the day progressed the sun cast shadows and the sand colour grew warmer.
The final trip from Barreirinhas was by boat to Caburé, down the Rio Preguiça. This journey felt more like the stereotypical boat through the Amazon, with rainforest and mangroves up to the waters edge, and scarlet ibis in the trees.
Soon, as we approached the Atlantic Coast, sandunes began to appear once more.
We stopped at the village of Farol Preguiças to see the lighthouse and it’s views of the river, Atíns and the Atlantic.
At one spot on the riverbank there were monkeys amongst the palms, although I don’t know what species.
And now we are in Canoa Qebrada. To get here from Barreirinhas meant a five hour bus ride to São Luís (in the opposite direction), where we stopped for a couple of nights, then a flight from there to Fortaleza, followed by a two hour cab ride to here. The overland distance is only 1,300km, but the logistics of travel in this part of Brazil are complex, disjointed and expensive. Often on-line booking grinds to a halt if you haven’t got a Brazilian tax ID (!) and flights depart in the middle of the night. These factors, plus our lack of Portuguese and an almost universal absence of English mean even simple things become a challenge. With the exception of our lovely pals in Alter do Chão, we have not come across any European/English-speaking travellers or tourists. Yet we have seen some amazing, breathtaking sights that have made this part of our adventure more than worthwhile.
We’re having a brief rest for a few days here and then we’re heading East and South again. The next post will be the final part of our journey through Brazil.