The most interesting region in Pará is the area surrounding the city of Santarém, a languorous port town along the Rio Tapajós, whose neighboring village of Alter do Chão boasts Caribbean-worthy beaches. Here you’ll find large patches of unspoiled jungle as well as a typical caboclo villages where Amazonian river culture remains very much alive.
Alter do Chão
Around 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Santarém lies Alter do Chão, whose claim to fame is its gleaming pinup-worthy river beaches. Easily accessible from Santarém by bus, the beach fills up on weekends. If you want to stay awhile (and you will, since the laid-back vibe is infectious), there are several pousadas. The best time to come is during the dry season (June–Dec.) when the river recedes—by up to 10 meters (33 feet)—and leaves the beaches more exposed.
Information and Services in Alter de Chão
To date there are no ATMs in Alter de Chão, so make sure you bring plenty of cash from Santarém. For tourist information, check with Areia Branca Ecotours (Travessa Lago Verde, tel. 93/3527-1317) and Mãe Natureza (Praça Sete de Setembro, tel. 93/3527-1264).
Getting to Alter de Chão
Buses (45 minutes, R$2.50) to Alter do Chão leave every 30–60 minutes from Santarém’s Praça Tiradentes, stopping along Avenida Rui Barbosa and Avenida Barão Rio Branco in Santarém; service is more frequent on weekends. In Alter do Chão, get off and on at the stop in front of Pousada Tia Marilda. A taxi from Santarém or the airport will cost around R$80.
Beaches in Alter do Chão
The village of Alter do Chão is blessed with soft white-sand beaches bathed by the blue waters of the Rio Tapajós to the west and the green waters of Lago Verde to the east. The main river beach facing the town is actually a large sandbar. During the rainy season, it becomes an island that goes by the provocative alias of Ilha de Amor (Island of Love), and can be reached by canoe-taxi (R$2). Throughout the year, the Ilha’s rustic barracas, serving beer and fried fish, make it an utterly relaxing place to while away the day (although it can get pretty packed on weekends and holidays). You can also rent canoes and kayaks to explore the Lago Verde. By car or boat you can get to farther-flung but equally seductive beaches along the Tapajós such as Pindobal, Cabutuba, and Aramanai, all within 25 kilometers (16 miles) of town. One thing to watch out for is stingrays. Since they aren’t fond of waves, make sure you splash around a lot before making your way into unknown waters.
Sports and Recreation
Should you feel like venturing forth along the Rio Tapajós, there are countless destinations that you can explore by boat. Areia Branca Ecotours (Travessa Lago Verde, tel. 93/3527-1317) and Mãe Natureza (Praça Sete de Setembro, tel. 93/3527-1264) are two well-run ecotour outfits run by multilingual staff. Among their numerous offerings are boat tours, snorkeling, dolphin watching, and fishing excursions as well as forest hikes. They also offer multiday expeditions to secluded points up and down the river, including to the Floresta Nacional de Tapajós (FLONA), the Canal do Jarí, and Belterra. A full-day outing usually costs R$60–100 pp, based on group size. All-inclusive overnight trips range R$150–250, depending on the itinerary and accommodations. Both operators can also hook you up with houses for rent in Alter do Chão—an inexpensive option should you decide to stay for awhile.
Festivals and Events
If you’re around during the second week in September, don’t miss the Festa do Cairé. One of the most important traditional festivals in Pará, the festa dates back to the earliest contact between Jesuit missionaries and local Indians. Both indigenous and Catholic elements commingle in the ornate religious pageantry that, in true Brazilian style, is tempered with singing, dancing, and merrymaking.
Shopping in Alter do Chão
Araribá (Travessa Antônio A. Lobato, tel. 93/3527-1231) has a wonderful selection of high-quality and very reasonably priced artesanato by local Indians that includes colorful necklaces, wood carvings, and masks.
Floresta Nacional do Tapajós
One of the Amazon’s few national parks within easy reach of an urban center, the Floresta Nacional do Tapajós (FLONA) (www4.icmbio.gov.br/flona_tapajos) offers 30,000 hectares of unspoiled rain forest full of hiking trails. Although lacking the National Geographic–worthy wilderness of the rain forest farther upriver, the landscape is nonetheless impressive, particularly when you find yourself dwarfed by the gigantic sumaúna tree, which makes a baobab look like a bonsai. Aside from hiking through the forest, it’s easier and more pleasurable to explore its streams and flooded wetlands by canoe. Within the park’s boundaries are several very small river communities whose inhabitants still make a living from rubber tapping as well as fishing and cultivation of Brazil nuts and the creation of accessories out of vegetal leather. As part of developing ecotourism programs, it’s possible to stay overnight with a family (usually in a hammock). Tour operators in Santarém and Alter do Chão offer 2–5-day trips with the possibility of sleeping on boats or in tents as well as with locals.
Belterra and Fordlândia
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Amazon’s rubber industry had long been overtaken by Asian plantations. In the 1920s, however, American automobile magnate Henry Ford got a bee in his bonnet that Santarém was the ideal place to build a plantation that would supply rubber for his Model T’s tires. Ford purchased a vast tract of land 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Santarém and then began shipping all the materials necessary for the construction of a rubber plantation town in the middle of the rain forest. The spitting image of a quintessential Midwestern town circa 1925, Fordlândia possessed cute little row houses with front gardens, a hospital, a school, a church, and even a cinema (aside from the rubber-processing plant). Unfortunately, poor soil conditions, fungi that attacked the rubber trees, and the outbreak of diseases such as malaria doomed the project. Never one to give up, in 1934 Ford purchased another tract of land only 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Santarém on the eastern bank of the Tapajós, called Belterra, where he installed yet another Made-in-America community.
Although Belterra fared somewhat better than Fordlândia, the outbreak of World War II hampered transportation of supplies and equipment, and the introduction of synthetic rubber knocked the bottom out of natural rubber prices. By the end of the war, Ford had had enough. Having squandered over US$25 million, he gratefully sold both areas to the Brazilian government for US$200,000. Today, both of these utopian cities are eerily intact (Fordlândia’s rubber plant is still in operation), their retro Americana jarringly out of place in the midst of the Amazon jungle.
Getting to Belterra and Fordlândia
Fordlândia is quite far from Santarém—an 8–10-hour boat ride south along the Rio Tapajós. However, Belterra can easily be visited in a day trip as part of a tour. For more information, contact tour operators in in Santarém and Alter de Chão.
The small riverside town of Monte Alegre is one of the more fascinating detours you can make in this part of the Amazon. Perched on the northern bank of the Rio Amazonas, 120 kilometers (75 miles) downstream from Santarém, Monte Alegre is spread out on a steep hillside. From the loftier heights, you’re treated to mesmerizing panoramic views of the river weaving through a landscape of undulating green wetlands and freshwater lagoons that stretches as far as the eye can see. At sunset, the vision is bewitching—not only is the entire scene bathed in luminous colors, but the skies are filled with the silhouettes of egrets, storks, and herons who come to settle down for the night in trees close to the town.
Getting to Monte Alegre
It’s fairly easy to get to Monte Alegre by boat (5–6 hours, around R$40) from Santarém. There are daily departures from the Praça Tiradentes docks by boat and the occasional motorized launch (3 hours). Departing from the Docas, larger boats going from Belém to Santarém also stop here. You can also contact tour operators in Santarém and Alter do Chão, some of which organize excursions to Monte Alegre.
Aside from boat trips up and down the river, only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from town is the Estância das Águas Sulfurosas. These Jacuzzi-like sulfur hot springs are said to cure whatever ails you. You can get to them easily by taxi. For cooler waters, head to the idyllic Cachoeira do Paraíso, a waterfall that’s also close by.
Monte Alegre’s main draw, however, is the prehistoric rock and cave paintings hidden in the surrounding hills. Rendered in disarmingly bright oranges and scarlet pigments, the expressive forms range from abstract designs to human and animal figures. Even more striking are the handprints tattooed onto the sandstone. They are so palpably human that seeing them will send a couple of shivers down your spine. The paintings were initially discovered in the 1850s by Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist and archrival of Charles Darwin, and then were completely forgotten until the 1980s when American archaeologist Anna Roosevelt (great-granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt) rediscovered the area. Subsequent excavations unearthed prehistoric tools that, like the paintings, were shown to date back over 12,000 years—making Monte Alegre one of the oldest sites of prehistoric civilization in the Americas. To see the paintings, you’ll need a guide and 4WD transportation. The town expert of the paintings, Nelsi Sadeck (Rua do Jaquara 320, tel. 93/3533-1286, email@example.com), offers guided visits to the caverns that usually take a whole day and cost around R$200. He can also organize boat trips up and down the river. Also check with ecotour operators in Santarém and Alter do Chão, which offer excursions to Monte Alegre.
Accommodations and Food in Monte Alegre
Although Monte Alegre receives few tourists, there are a few basic but quite adequate pousadas. Those in the Cidade Alta have the benefit of incredible views. Try the Pousada Panorama II (Praça Engenheiro Fernando Guilhon 500, tel. 93/3533-1716, R$80 d), a comfortable if not especially attractive hotel at the top of the hill, which is one of the better hotels in town. The same owners operate the simpler Panorama I (Travessa Oriental 100, tel. 93/3533-1716, R$80 d). Accommodations are in four simple, tidy bungalows. The restaurant, with a great view, is considered one of the best for home-cooked fish dishes.