My second boat trip took me to Santarem. Some boats do the entire journey between Manaus and Belém, but it’s better to stop for some days in Santarem to break up this long journey.
Santarem is a medium-sized city. It has a couple of small museums, an airport and lots of trade. At night, I could notice a few Brazilian tourists having an ice cream while strolling along the waterfront. Their white skin doesn’t allow for confusion with locals. Santarem is also a good base to explore the jungle, in particular the Floresta Nacional de Tapajos.
What really attracts backpackers to this area is the nearby village of Alter do Chão, 33 km from Santarem, by the Tapajos river. Alter do Chão is nice, small, and has a square with views to the river. The white sand river beach is 500 metres from the square, so everything here is within walking distance. The small former fishing boats here now offer “paseios“, or excursions for visitors to nearby lakes or other attractions. However, it continues to be a very nice village with a laid-back feel, unspoilt by the growing development of tourism.
In the shore opposite the village lies Ilha do Amor, an island with white-sand beaches and, inland, places to get lost. It was the rainy season so beaches were somewhat reduced; however, the views were still pretty.
Alter do Chão has been a backpacker paradise for years. Quite isolated in the Amazon, it is a small, extremely laid-back town that features both beach and nature. The perfect place to spend some time. And many people stay here for quite a while. It seems that time doesn’t go by in Alter do Chão, one of those relaxed places where people don’t wear a watch. If you ask a traveller how long he’s been here, he keeps thinking and finally answers: “2 or 3 months, I believe…” and “it feels like I arrived just yesterday”.
Before falling into the slow pace of this little village, I remembered that my exams were approaching and I needed to get to São Paulo in time to take them. I got back to Santarem by bus and went to the port with the aim to buy a ticket for the next boat for Belem. I was informed that the next boat wouldn’t depart until Friday, so, oops! I was “forced” to stay 3 extra days in this beautiful town (how bad!! :-)).
The backpackers who get there are a different species from those you find in cities like Buenos Aires or Paris. Young people about 18-23 years old on a gap year skip this kind of places, on a rush towards the next highlight. Those who stay in places like this are usually older, value peace and quiet, nature and travelling at a slow pace; many of them have had -or still have- their hippy years.
Where do they stay? One of the most popular spots is Posada da Floresta. It’s a hostel with a very, very laid-back atmosphere. Each one sleeps in his or her own hammock and cooks his or her own food. Sleeping in hammocks, self-catering and with a slow lifestyle, just cooking and going to the beach, reading and not doing much else, one can spend quite a long spell on very little money. At the back of the hostel there is a small beach which was always empty, just a few steps away. This is one of the places where internet hasn’t arrived yet, so people actually meet and talk instead of being each one connected to home, surfing facebook or writing this blog :-). Internet has certainly transformed the experience of travelling. This place is so relaxed that when I left I was looking for a member of the staff for over half an hour, to pay for my hammock spot. I finally found them, in an out-of-the-way room, smoking a few joints. If I’d gone without paying, probably nobody would’ve noticed and they’d have been just as happy!
After Santarem, the third boat took me to Belém. From there, I went to Fortaleza and after that São Paulo, where I took two exams in a Spanish school. Switching from North to South in Brazil is like travelling to a different country. The South has nothing to do with the Amazon region. I won’t blog about these 3 places, so in the next post, we’ll travel to Rio for a very special festival: Carnival!!!