Boating through the Amazon
TUMBLING waves rocked our small wooden boat. I clung on, struck by surf spray and fear, while Jose, our skipper, just smiled at me, knowingly. I was coursing across the Tapajós River, as wild and as wide as the sea, a tributary of the clay-brown Amazon where I’d been entranced by slinking pink dolphins.
I’d begun my journey in Alter do Chão, a busy, bohemian town on the banks of the Tapajós. At night, I danced like an uptight novice to Carimbó, Amazonian folk music, pulsating from bars and car stereos. By day, I lolled on milk-white beaches. Teardrop-clear, the Tapajós is so rich in quartz that dazzling beaches have formed along its bank like a string of pearls. In 2009, The Guardian’s Brazil correspondent named this his favourite beach.
A handful of South Americans and Europeans arrived in Alter and never left, opening cafes and restaurants in the square (try Mae Natureza for potent cocktails and live music at the weekends).
But I wanted an adventure beyond the town and so signed up for a trip with AMZ Projects, an organisation run by Adhara Luz, which specialises in sustainable tourism, offering tailor-made tours to remote spots using boats and hostels run by riverside communities.
Like many areas of the Amazon, it is beset with environmental concerns and controversies. A recent Greenpeace report warned that a series of hydroelectric dams are planned along the Tapajós and its tributaries, which will result in mass deforestation, flooding and water contamination, destroying fish, flora and fauna habitats. Protests from locals and indigenous groups resulted in a victory this month: The license for the São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dam, the largest planned in the Amazon, was cancelled. But the battle to save the rivers continues.
I left Alter with two other guests, a Brazil-based couple from the US, armed with a three-day AMZ itinerary. There was no guide to accompany us, but every element of our transport and accommodation was pre-arranged. We crossed the Tapajós by boat to the smaller Arapiuns channel.
At dusk, we arrived in the Atodi community and hung our hammocks in the hostel – really just an enclosed sleeping area. It’s designed to keep mosquitoes out but didn’t prevent a tarantula coming in. In the adjoining restaurant, we ate huge portions of rice, beans and fish.
Tourists first arrived at Atodi in 2008, through Projeto Saúde e Alegria (Project Health and Happiness). This NGO was formed 30 years ago by Adhara Luz’s parents. By boat, the organisation brought medical assistance and health education to riverside villages and provided vital clean water and sanitation systems. Development projects, from artisanal crafts promotion to smallscale tourism, came later, helping to boost rural economies.
Just over 200 people live in the village of rattan-roof houses and run smallholdings predominantly growing mandioca (manioc). The root vegetable is dried and ground into farinha (flour), a staple of the Amazonian diet.
In the morning, we hiked along a rainforest trail, guided by Atodi member, Nilson Martins. We stopped alongside towering Brazil nut trees and tasted sap from the amapá tree. “Secondary forest like this was once farmland,” Nilson explained. “It takes 20 years to grow back again.” Arriving at a natural pool by a stream, we jumped in. Nilson grabbed handfuls of clay from the banks and we smothered our bodies in, hoping its reputed healing properties would work on us.
Nilson believes that the benefits of hosting tourists go beyond the financial. It has helped the community begin an important exchange with outsiders. “Young people have gained confidence in interacting with strangers,” he said. “They’re more aware of the wider world now.”
We spent the rest of our time on the beach beneath the hostel, before taking a boat back across river, stopping on route at Praia Ponta Grande. I walked the length of this empty and truly otherworldly sandbar beach, tracking the lone footprints of cranes.
Anã community stands in Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, an area of protected land between the two rivers. We were met by the buzz of 21 students from Saint Mary’s College, California, who had arrived via a Saúde e Alegria exchange program, helping to improve the hostel facilities.
We took rowing boats across the lake to see the tucunaré river fish farm, which has increased the food supply and helped reduce malnutrition. Reginalva Alves Godinho is one of 15 women from Anã who is central to running NGO supported projects to aid self-sufficiency. “The men joined in once they saw the projects take off,” she said.
Under the shade of a mango tree, I tasted citric-sweet honey from Ivai’s Godinho’s stinglessbee farm. He carefully showed us how to extract the liquid from the delicate honeycombs. When we left Anã there were hugs all round. “Now you know the way!” Reginalva called after us in Portuguese – she was asking us to return one day.
Returning to Alter do Chão, we travelled south, two-and-ahalf hours by car to the Floresta Nacional do Tapajós (entry is free to the forest with a guide). We trekked to find the 1000-year-old samaúma. One of the region’s largest endemic trees, this venerable specimen was a towering, awe-inspiring vision of life force and power. That evening, we ate dinner at a small restaurant on the beach, run by the Jamaraquá villagers. My final Amazonian sunset is forever etched on my memory. It burnt amber, setting the sky and water ablaze.