The trees parted at the top of the ridge and Alter do Chão lay at our feet. The rainforest gently dropped to a lagoon crowned with a lush hill and spanned by twin back-to-back half-moon bays of snow-soft white sand. Wooden fishing boats bobbed on the horizon and the long sweep of Ponta do Cururu beach stretched into the water like white silk on ultramarine.
Inland, the wall of dark green trees ran unbroken by roads or cities for 2,500 kilometres. The floral scents of the forest mixed with the warm air wafting in from the bays, islands and beaches. This could have been the coast of Thailand, but I was actually on the banks of a Brazilian river – the Tapajós – a clearwater tributary of the Amazon set deep in lowland tropical forest.
Beach at Alter do Chão (Alex Robinson)
While most travellers access the forest from the Andes – through Peru or Ecuador – I’d chosen to visit a very different stretch, closer to the river’s mouth in Brazil, where vast waterways flowed as wide as small seas. On TV, the Amazon was always being wandered by sweaty, insect-baffled explorers with thick trousers tucked into their socks, but with new flights bringing this region within easy reach, I wanted to see an alternative side to this legendary river: balmy, beach-lined and bug-free.
My flight had brought me to Belém, the capital of Amazon-Brazil’s Pará state. From above, its cluster of jagged concrete spires appeared almost overrun by great swathes of forest, except where a huge chocolate-brown river dotted with tankers scythed through the green. Stepping off the plane, the air hit me immediately: aromatic, as warm as melting butter and energised by the hot, bright sunlight. “Welcome to the Amazon,” said my guide, Gelderson.
We drove through streets of handsome colonial houses lined with towering mango trees and flowering jacarandas, stopping to drop my bags at the hotel before walking down to the riverfront. Here, a glass-fronted restaurant complex had taken over an old quayside warehouse that was, in turn, watched over by an ancient Portuguese fort, its battlements punctured with rusted cannons.
“The Amazon is cities, too,” Gelderson insisted, and promised a crash course in Belém’s urban culture. “Let’s start with the food,” he smiled. The tacaca (prawn soup) that arrived was spiced with jambu leaves and tangy with tucupi, a sauce made from manioc juice and highly toxic if not prepared correctly. It tingled in the mouth like popping candy.
The tambaqui that followed was succulent like steak and had none of that muddy flavour you often get with river fish. I washed it down with sweet bacuri juice, made from an Amazon fruit unique to the forests around Belém.
After eating, we wandered incense-filled baroque churches, admired the Renaissance Italian paintings in the lavish rubber-boom-era Opera House and browsed street stalls where forest Amerindians sold bracelets woven with coloured seeds as hard as mountain pebbles. We made our way to the wrought-iron market hall of Ver-o-Peso, inspired by the Belle Époque architecture of Gustave Eiffel.
The rising city of Belém (Alex Robinson)
I stood and watched the men unloading baskets of blackcurrant-dark palm berries and tiger-striped catfish from double-decker wooden riverboats. Night arrived with the cracking of thunder. We drank ice-cold beer at the Ziggy hostel club late into the evening, until the 70-something Dona Onete arrived on stage in her wheelchair, a wicked ear-to-ear grin on her face and a band of exuberant musicians for company. Then no one could keep still.
“No meio do pitiú, eu fui cantar carimbó (Surrounded by the smell of river fish, I went to sing carimbó)…” she sang, as old men spun wasp-waisted teenagers around in skirt-flying swirls.
Her carimbó – a samba-like rhythm unique to northern Brazil, named after the drum that sets its tempo – beat long into the night. “Lá no Ver-o-Peso, urubu sobrevoando (Down at the Ver-o-Peso market as a vulture flew overhead).”
I woke late the following morning and the day seemed to pass in a haze of food, music and dance. But then it was time to leave the city and head into the wild. At the airport, Gelderson pressed a bottle of rum filled with jambu leaves into my hands. “You’ve had a taste of the urban Amazon,” he reminded me, as good as his word. “Remember what you’re missing and come back soon.”
The plane climbed and we followed the course of the great river, a glinting artery of reflected sunlight surrounded by endless green. A billion lush stems were broken only by the splashes of colour from solitary flowering trees, flecked rose-pink ibis and soaring black-and-white king vultures.
If Belém had been a city, Alter do Chão (half an hour’s drive from Santarém airport) was barely a hamlet. It also sat sleepily at the mouth of one of the Amazon’s greatest tributaries: the Tapajós. It was here that my guide, Arkus, who looked as fit and tanned as a Californian surfer, showed me round. It took less than five minutes to see the main plaza but an hour to climb to the outlook and soak in its beauty; the view across the river bays, beaches and islands was more than reward. I drifted to sleep that night serenaded by the music of singing cicadas and tree frogs, eager to dive into nature the following day.
In golden dawn light, we walked to the riverfront and stopped at a two-storey riverboat with a polished mahogany galley and swinging hammocks. Arkus introduced me to its captain, Taketomei, a fifty-something man, slim, toned and burnt a fierce nut-brown by the Amazon sun. His father was one of thousands of Japanese economic migrants to have come to the Brazilian Amazon between the First and Second World Wars to trade; there were still whole towns here, like Tomé-Açu, that were almost entirely Japanese, he told me.
Capybara (Alex Robinson)
Other passengers joined us onboard: a couple from São Paulo and a local carimbó dancer, Eliane, who had long black hair and fierce dark eyes set in an oval face. As we set out across the clear blue river, Eliane explained that she was a Bororó Amerindian.
“We are a new tribe,” she told me, her fierce expression warming to a smile, “made up of the fragments of many nations who came together at Alter do Chão less than one hundred years ago.”
Taketomei’s mother was also an Amazon tribeswoman, I learned. His parents had fallen in love over a basket of traded vegetables, he said, and, as a boy, he had cruised all the rivers of the Amazon, from the Javari on the distant Peruvian border to the river mouth at Belém, selling groceries to caboclo peasants (indigenous people of mixed African or European descent) and Amerindian villagers.
It took us around an hour to cross the 15km-wide Tapajós. We saw river turtles and bubble-gum-pink dolphins as well as snowy-white egrets wading in the shallows, little fish in their beaks. Then we moored on a broad beach that stretched for kilometres along the river, backed by forest. “Time to swim,” said Eliane, now dressed in a bikini and sporting a sun hat and glasses. I hesitated. “What about piranhas?”
She and Arkus laughed gently. “Nothing will bite you here. There aren’t even mosquitoes on the Tapajós.” And they headed along the fluffy talcum-powder beach and splashed into the water.
We spent the afternoon walking trails in the national forest reserve, wandering past towering kapok trees, the roots of which looked like flying buttresses. Capuchin monkeys looked curiously down at us from the branches, and iridescent manakin birds – as small and fleet as a wren – flitted through the understorey. I saw how the local community tapped rubber from the forest, scoring the trees with a metal claw, allowing the sap to collect in a cup before moulding it into sheets and hanging it out to dry like T-shirts on a clothing-line.
Monkey in branches of a tree (Alex Robinson)
I spent the next few days exploring the wilds around the village.
I woke in the morning light to canoe through flooded forest, watching kingfishers dart and fishing eagles glide. I saw dolphins playing at sunset off the tip of the 2km-long Ponta do Cururu beach and, after dark, Arkus and I searched the trees with torches for sloths and night monkeys, their eyes as big and shiny as ten-pence pieces.
My last evening here was spent at a beach barbecue at one of the remote lagoons, a short boat-ride from Alter do Chão. As the sun set, a guitar and drums were pulled out and people danced the carimbó with hula hoops. Then Arkus built a fire on the sand with driftwood and cooked a freshly caught Surubim catfish on a mesh griddle. The succulent fish came with freshly squashed acai juice and pulpy, tart cupuaçu fruit. In the boat on the way back, it was as if we were floating on the Milky Way, the starry sky mirrored in the glassy Tapajós water.
I’d sampled Amazon culture and seen the mossie-free bar beaches, but now I yearned for the Amazon of TV mythology: insects and entangled vines, snakes and crocodiles. And what better way to get close to it than by staying in a floating jungle lodge, bobbing on a tributary just off the Amazon itself?
It took a few hours to get there – first flying to Manaus, and then taking a jeep and speedboat to Pedro Neto’s Amazon Eco Adventures lodge on the Urubu River. With Pedro pointing out a wealth of wildlife along the way, we spied metre-long macaws shrieking overhead, black-collared hawks roosting in the trees and a troop of howler monkeys delicately plucking leaves.
We arrived at dusk and I quickly slapped on the repellent, almost pleased to see mosquitoes. After a hearty supper of rice, beans and river fish, Pedro bustled me into a metal launch and we headed out in search of crocodiles and caiman. The riverbanks were bursting with life.
Tall tiger herons and tiny, delicate jacanas that looked like elongated moorhens stalked the mud, and the air was vibrant with the call of frogs and insects. Pedro shined a bright lamp and caught red eyes drifting across the water. We moved closer and found a caiman – as big as a man – frozen in the light. It disappeared under the murky surface with a rapid whip of its tail. Over the next few days, I saw boa constrictors, toucans and otters, capybara (sheep-sized guinea pigs) and piranhas, which we pulled gnashing from the river on fishing line baited with giblets. But Pedro saved the most spectacular sight of all for my last day.
The Negro meets the Amazon (Alex Robinson)
We took a scenic flight out of Manaus and headed over the Rio Negro – another of the Amazon’s tributaries – for Anavilhanas, the world’s largest archipelago of river islands. Below us, thousands of green streaks dotted its black water; then we circled back downstream to where the Negro met the Amazon in a swirl of tan and black waters. Divided by different water densities, the rivers flowed side by side, without mixing, to form one huge stream that snaked into the distance. Boats dotted the water and hundreds of tributaries trickled from the forest, stretching as far as I could see in every direction, to every horizon.
It was then that I realised I had barely dipped a toe in the Brazilian Amazon. I’d seen vibrant jungle cities, vast beach-fringed rivers, tributaries teeming with wildlife, sweeping archipelagos and the magnificent sight of two rivers flowing into one. It was more than I would have experienced had I visited on a typical excursion from one of the Andean countries, yet there was so much more to see. Brazil’s Amazon covers an area half as big as India again.
Over the horizon were country-sized wetlands and tabletop mountain ranges as large as Britain, savannahs, giant waterfalls and hundreds more rivers bigger than the greatest in Europe. Like the carimbó singer I’d seen on my first night in Belém, it had succeeded in pulling off that rarest of dramatic feats: it had left me wanting more.
In Belém, the author travelled with Gelderson Pinheiro’s Rumo Norte Expeditions, who also run trips throughout the Amazon. In Alter do Chão, guide Arkus Rodrigues is available for hiking and river trips (email@example.com, +55 93 991 494174; from £25pp). Amazon Eco Adventures run three-day trips on the Urubu River (contact company for pricing).
Main image: Beach at Alter do Chão (Alex Robinson)