Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Santarem, Gateway to the Tapajos Region by "Vanessa"

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Santarem seen by a bird eye

Santarem lies at the confluence of two great rivers: the blue-green Tapajos and the muddy Amazon. The beauty of this place so inspired American poet laureate, Elizabeth Bishop, that she wrote a wonderful poem called "Santarem", which really captures the hours riverboat town sense of this place. And contrary to megacities Manaus and Belem, Santarem continues with it'hours s small town charm.

The Tapajos region is an Amazon crossroads: two rivers, four major eco-regions and many fascinating story lines meet here

Imagine long gone civilizations which left rockpaintings on the cliffs of Monte Alegre (5 hs by boat). Or the Tapajos Indians, who made elaborate pottery out of clay and river sponges and enriched the Amazon soil with black earth (biochar).

When the Portuguese settled, Santarem soon became a major Amazon trading post for goods from the heart of Brazil and the upper Amazon. The 19th century saw both a major revolt (Cabanagem) sweep the region and the arrival of scientists. Henry Bates (batesian mimicry and “Naturalist on the River Amazons”) roomed with bio-geographer Alfred Wallace and botanist Richard Spruce. All were inspired by the natural and cultural diversity of the Amazon.

And did you know that there was a Confederate colony here? Not very successful, but the descendants still live here and are part of the history. Henry Wickham (“The Thief at the End of the World”), who toiled here for several years and managed to smuggle out 70.000 rubber seeds to Kew Gardens, was a neighbour to the colony. And fifty years later confederate descendants were involved with Henry Ford’s quixotic effort to introduce the Aamerican dream in the form of model rubber plantations and model American towns (Fordlandia and Belterra).

A crop that did catch on is soy. And the region is a great place to understand the conflicting forces and demands on the Amazon. A Cargill terminal sits at the end of the harbour, the first hydro dam in the Amazon is about 2 hrs away on the Curau-una river and cruise ships routinely stop. On the other hand, the Tapajos region is one of the key sites for studying climate change (LBA - Large Scale Biosphere Atmosphere experiment) and local communities show you how to live sustainably of river and forest resources.

The Tapajos National Forest can show you the grandeur of the rainforest as a cathedral of tall trees full of wildlife. You can get up into the LBA canopy tower, walk some amazing trails or relax at the B&B of the local communities along the beachfront.

The Tapajos beaches are amazing. They appear during the second half of the year and they rival the best in the world. On the other bank of the Tapajos is the Arapiuns extractive reserve, where many of the communities are working with Saude&Alegria in implementing sustainable and healthy lifestyles. They are also welcoming tourists to experience riverfront life. Imagine eating a fish barbecue (“piracaia”) on a deserted beach. Or learning how they work with stingless bees to produce a tasty honey and produce their own fishfood for their local fishfarms. See how they make great handicraft out of local fibers and seeds. Or just listen to their great stories. Visit the Saude&Alegria site to learn more.

Of course the postcard beach of the Tapajos is at Alter do Chão, a fun beach village and home to the Saire festival, which celebrates the rivalry of the grey and pink dolphins. And you can see the real ones in many places as well. The nicest and best hotel in Alter is called BeloAlter, but there are also good hostels for those on a budget.

Talking about wildlife. If you want a closer look after you have seen them in the canopy or scuttling away in the undergrowth, go to the Zootrip. Not a zoo, but an animal rescue center for the regional fauna. A bit sad to learn how animals get there (birds of prey get shot, sloths get run over, macaws and monkeys get caught for the illegal pet trade), but nice to see them recovering in a nature reserve, where you also do some rappel.

If you want to know more about the local flora, go to Bosque Santa Lucia, which is close by. Good nature trails and interpretation. They have an informative English website on both the flora and the region (just google). By the way, to get here you pass by where Henry Wickham used to live.

The Lago Maica and the Jari Channel (on the Amazon) are also great places to see wildlife and enjoy the scenery.

And all these places are within a few from Santarem, so can be done on day or half-day tours if you have little time. I personally would stay longer, though.
Taxi boats in front of Santarem

Home area seen from the river

1 comment:

chris vanhamme said...

Wonderful city, wonderful people, I pack and go asap. All has been said uphere, what´ld I say ?