Why Brazil and Why Alter do Chao?
For winter break during my second year of business school, I chose to go to Brazil. I picked Brazil for a few reasons:
- I could visit without a COVID test/quarantine
- The weather in December is perfect. This is summertime
- The country is so large that I would need at least the 2.5 weeks to do it justice. I do not know when my next long vacation will be.
- Thanks to IESE, I now have 70 people who could help plan my trip
- I had a credit on TAP Portugal, which has an insane number of flights to Brazil.
The cheapest flight to Brazil from Barcelona was to Belem in the far north for just 170 Euros. Because my flight was to the north, I decided to start my itinerary there. One of the highlights of northern Brazil is taking a ferry on the Amazon River. After some research, I learned that the best section of ferry is between Santarem (a town 500 kilometers inland) and Belem. I also learned that by taking the ferry downriver instead of upriver, you save a day. Therefore, I decided to start my trip by taking a domestic flight from Belem to Santarem and figuring out the ferry stuff once there.
December 21, 2020: Into the Amazon
After some rerouting from TAP, I ended up spending the night in Recife which pushed my entire schedule back. I flew from Belem to Santarem at 14:30, landing at 15:30.
When landing in Santarem, I saw the mighty Amazon River and the even wider Tapajos River. The rivers were so large that it looked like we were landing on an island in the middle of the Pacific. But no, we were in the very heart of the South American continent and the world’s largest jungle.
The undisputed highlight of the Santarem area is Alter do Chao, a small town that is rated one of the top beach towns in Brazil (yes, you heard that right). So once I arrived at the Santarem airport, I immediately took a 30-minute taxi ride through the jungle to reach the famed jungle beach town.
I checked into my pousada (guesthouse) 4 blocks from the town center. I booked a dorm for two nights, but ended up getting the entire room to myself. The owner said that was because I arrived on a Monday and that it will definitely fill up as the week progresses.
With just 2 hours of daylight left, I headed to the town’s main attraction: the beach or, more specifically, Ilha do Amor (Love Island). This white sand island of Ilha do Amor is separated from town by a 50 meter channel of waist-deep water. You can walk it or take one of the 70 boats waiting. Everyone else was walking so I did too. I dipped my feet into the water. Wow! Pool temperature! And a warm pool at that. It must be 30 degrees.
Once on the island I discovered loads of beach bars servicing shaded tables just at the water’s edge. I found a table and sat down. Normally I would feel uncomfortable going to the beach alone because of theft but here I could lay in the water and grab my things in seconds if need be.
Eventually a waiter came over to take my order. When deciding what to order, a couple at the next table saw me struggling with the Portuguese and gave me some suggestions in English. They also invited me to sit with them. I did.
Rafael and Maria are from near São Paulo and came up to Alter for the week. Normally they would be traveling overseas but due to COVID, Brazilians are banned by pretty much every other country and are instead traveling domestically. Alter do Chao has been on their list for quite some time. Actually, many Brazilians seem to know the town but very few have actually been. That said, every tourist in town was Brazilian.
We spent the remainder of the day chatting before walking back to town. They then invited me to come along with them on a day tour of the surrounding area tomorrow. They said it involved a lunch on the beach. I said I would have to check the ferry schedule and would then confirm.
Back at the pousada, I got a confirmation that a riverboat from Santarem to Belem was leaving on Friday morning the 25th. That would give me 2 full days in Alter and then one setup day in Santarem. I then texted my new friends to confirm.
For dinner I found an Amazonian street food stand. I got manicoba- pork stewed in a fermented Amazonian leaf. It reminded me of Indian food or carne adovada from New Mexico.
Day 2: Third Wheeling on the Coolest Day Trip
I woke up and headed to the tour, which left from my friends’ pousada outside of town.
The walk took about 45 minutes and involved a long dirt road through the jungle. Eventually I made it. Their posada was a true jungle lodge and even had a resident colony of monkeys!
We then walked further through the jungle to the beach and were met by a boat and our indigenous guide, Luis. Luis gave us a long overview of the day in Portuguese. Instead of translating, Maria simply said, “it’s going to be a fun day”.
We entered the boat and cruised slowly across the lake before pulling into an inlet and down a river.
We disembarked on a wide swatch of sandy land. The guide explained that during the rainy season, the water level will rise 6 meters (20 feet) and all this land will disappear.
We then walked over to a swimming hole. At the bottom of the water was clay. It is believed that the people here were the first in the Americas to develop pottery.
Continuing on, we walked barefoot through the jungle dodging all sorts of dangerous plants and animals such as gigantic bees, a grass that can cut you, and poisonous fruits. The ground was very squishy- the guide mentioned that we were not actually walking on land but instead accumulated biomass floating on water.
Eventually we reached another swimming hole. This one is full of sleeping electric fish. At night, they come out. When scared, they discharge electricity and can kill humans.
Back at the boat, we headed across the lake to an empty beach. We pulled ashore. Luis set up hammocks in the shade. Then he made lunch.
We had an indigenous-style lunch with fish, pumpkin with garlic, potatoes and vinaigrette (similar to pico de gallo). The food was delicious and quite different from anything I have ever eaten.
We then swam in the lake and enjoyed a perfect afternoon.
Around 15:30 we set off again. I guessed we were going back to Alter but instead we went deep into a swamp. The path got so narrow that our guide had to use a wooden paddle.
When the path got even too narrow for the boat, we continued on foot wading in the knee-waist deep water. After 10 minutes of wading, we walked barefoot into the jungle. We passed by an indigenous village where we could hear a father teaching his son how to play a flute. We also learned how the locals make roofs out of palm leaves.
We ended our walk in a shallow pool. Here was a fallen tree where multiple trees were growing out of the trunk! We also learned about the anaconda- the world’s longest snake which lives in this area. One 6-meter (20 ft) anaconda ate my guide’s dog last month. 2 days ago, an 8-meter anaconda was found in Santarem. I can’t imagine running into such an enormous snake in the wild. If you do see one, my advice is to get on land- they are fast swimmers but slow crawlers.
Finally, we sailed back to town just as the sun was setting. It was a long day but truly fantastic.
Back in town, I tried two more Amazon foods: tacaca and acai.
Tacaca is a soup made from jambu (a leaf that makes your mouth tingle) and tucupi (a yellow sauce from the cassava) and whole shrimp served in a bowl made from a local gourd.
The other food is acai, a berry from the Amazon. In the Amazon, the berry served in the form of a soupy paste and chilled with ice. The paste has little flavor but can be served with sugar or tapioca. The berry paste is extremely healthy and is used by weightlifters all over Brazil.
Acai is incredibly popular in the rest of Brazil and the world too. However, the acai eaten elsewhere is quite different. Instead, the berry is frozen, turned into a sweet sorbet, and topped with sweet toppings such as fruit, peanut butter, or candy. Acai outside of Brazil is marketed as a healthy product, but after eating the real thing, I am not so sure due to all the added sugars.
December 22, 2020: Into the FLONA
Today I signed up for a rainforest tour from my hostel. A guide picked me up at 8:30 and we walked to a beach on the River Tapajós. There I got into a speedboat. In addition to the driver there were 3 other people: a guy in the Brazilian army, his girlfriend Jessica and their church friend also named Jessica. The second Jessica spoke very basic English.
The speedboat ride took us down the enormous river. It was at least 20 kilometers wide- so wide it was difficult to see across. It was hard to imagine that this is a river…in the middle of the jungle.
15 minutes in, we pulled over to a beach and picked up two more passengers. The guy was wearing designer camouflage pants and a Louis Vuitton bag- a most interesting outfit for a day in the rainforest.
After an hour of boating, we disembarked onto a deserted beach and then walked into the town of Jamaraqua. This is an indigenous village and they instituted a strong community tourism program. If you visit the town, you have to hire a local guide to take you around. Our local guide took us on a 9 kilometer walk through the jungle. The jungle here is designated as a FLONA or National Forest. It is primary forest and has never been logged.
As we walked, the guide told us about the plants and animals. Something I noticed were the insane number of ant and termite nests. It turns out that 30% of the biomass in the jungle is ants.
In general, the canopy here wasn’t very high but there were a few tall trees. These tall trees were mostly rubber trees. It turns out that this stretch of forest was where Henry Ford unsuccessfully tried to start a rubber plantation for his cars. The main base of operations, called Fordlandia, is about 50 kilometers south and can be visited from Alter as an overnight trip.
As we pressed further into the forest, we got to see more tall trees. The climax of the hike was a greak kapok tree (samauma in Portuguese). It is so big that 25 people with arms stretched couldn’t reach around it.
The hike ended in a tiny indigenous village not that much unlike those I saw in Laos. There, a family made lunch for us. It was quite similar to the lunch yesterday: fish, pico de gallo, rice and beans. We also got some exotic fruit juices like acerola.
We walked to a nearby lagoon where the guide took us for a canoe ride. The lily pads looked otherworldly in the perfectly clear water. The ride took about 45 minutes and was absolutely magical.
Then we went to the beach and got picked up by our speedboat. They took us to yet another beach. This one also had a swimming hole behind it. Here we watched the sunset in all its glory before heading back to Alter.
This was my final night in Alter do Chao before heading to Santarem.
All I can say is that this town is absolutely magical. The beach, town, and nearby excursions were all perfect. I cannot imagine a better place to start my adventure in Brazil.
I am convinced that foreigners are not here because they don’t realize that Para (the state with Alter do Chao) is “the Amazon” because the state next door is called Amazonas.
One word of caution regarding timing. Apparently from the end of January until September, the water levels are much higher and the beach is smaller if not nonexistent. Therefore, I would only recommend visiting between September and January.