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Santarem, Brazil

January 17, 2008

 Lying 500 miles upriver, near the Amazon's confluence with the clear blue waters of the Rio Tapajos, Santarem has been a major river port since the glory days of the 19th century rubber boom. In the 1920's, Henry Ford carved the immense rubber plantations of Fordlandia and Belterra out of the nearby jungle. Santarem's prosperity survived the boom's eventual bust; the port lies at the heart of a region rich in natural resources, including timber and major deposits of bauxite and gold. Covering an area of 15,000 square miles, this bustling commercial center is the third largest city in the Brazilian Amazon with a population over 200,000.

Santarem possesses American roots; more than 100 Confederate soldiers and their families settled here after the Civil War. The Southerners prospered and were a major force in Santarem's development.

In 1958, an event occurred that changed the town into a city practically overnight: a rich and long vein of gold was discovered near Itaituba, a small town 60 miles up the Tapajos River from Santarem. Suddenly, the town became a supply post for the thousands of prospectors who flooded into the area by plane and river boat. The opening of a road to Cuiaba in 1969 linked the town for the first time to the rest of Brazil's highway network, and increased even more its importance as a regional supply center.

Today Santarem, founded in 1661, is the 3rd largest city on the Amazon, with a population of 265,000 people.

As recently as 1985, it was widely believed, including in Brazil, that an insignificant number of people live in the Amazon Basin. Actually, more than 2 million people, including Indians, prospectors, rubber tappers, river dwellers, nut gatherers and herb collectors live permanently in the region. They have names: the prospectors who flooded through Santarem (and still do) are garimpeiros, on their way to garimpeiros, the gold fields. Seiringueros are rubber tappers; ribeirinhos are river people, usually peasants; and caboclos are Amazon residents of mixed Indian/European blood, also usually peasants.

Our interest on this day was to travel 4 - 5 miles inland on one of the adjoining rivers to view how the areas looks and operates. On the day we arrived the sky opened up and it literally poured rain for a couple of hours before our selected departure time. We had to walk about 1/4 mile to meet our bus (boat) that would transport us with a couple of guides into the rainforest.

Along our journey to the interior we were narrated to by a very good guide with excellent English.

It was raining like a banshee while we made our way down the Amazon to the adjoining river that we would explore.

Nothing seemed to change as everything looked like everything else as we made our way into the interior. Then we came upon some unexpected sights.

We were expecting to go through a jungle like we imagined the African Queen went through. Instead we came upon some open ground with shacks, or homes, that people were living in. We didn't expect to see homes on our journey up the river.

Each home is built upon stilts. We were told that the stilts were above the high water level, but occasionally, the river would rise above this level and the natives would move further upland until the waters subsided.

In the occasion above, we came upon some natives that were fishing. They catch everything from armored catfish to piranhas to the famous pirarucu. The piranha is considered good eating in the Amazon. Surprisingly, the dreaded piranhas that inhabit the area feed exclusively on aquatic vegetables i.e. they are fruit eaters. The most highly regarded fish is the pirarucu, a fish that can reach 300 pounds. Dried, salted and shipped throughout the region, the pirarucu is the codfish of the Amazon.

Along the way we came upon higher classed boats that the natives use for travel and more extensive fishing.

As we approach the interior we are reminded that the Amazon has risen almost 10 feet to date. In the view to the upper right, it has formed a new "river" to a new point on the interior.

As we proceed further upstream, we encounter more homes.

Our surprise was to find a ranch with cattle. The black cattle are referred to as buffalo in their culture.

Although we did see a number of dogs, when we got home we both commented that we never saw a cat -- even within the cities.

The rainforest provides food without anyone's input. The tree on the upper left is one such plant. The fruits are long and narrow. No, we didn't eat any. One of the things one learns not to do is to eat something that one is accustomed to because of strange bacteria that might be on the plant.

We were surprised to see cattle standing in water grazing. For them it is normal. We never thought of seeing chickens at one of the homes but after a while it became a common sight.

It is interesting how sharp the eyes were of our guide. Even though we stopped and pulled alongside the tree adjoining the river, it was a strain and it took a while to spot the iguana sitting in its branches.

The above is a cattle and horse ranch. As we approached the ranch going upstream the workers were corralling the cattle and horses. As we returned downstream all of the animals had been herded somewhere else. The photo on the right is of someone cooking.


As we traveled upstream we came upon a lady fishing. Surprisingly, this is the only "overweight" person that we saw for the whole week. I guess genes do play a part with weight.


Everything on the Amazon and adjoining rivers travel by water. The above shows loading/unloading pens for animals to new pasture grounds.

Our guide told us that only one week earlier the field on the upper right photo was a dry pasture. At this point he told us that piranha were fruit eaters and not meat eaters as the movies portray. However, when the waters recede thousands are trapped in pools of water of fields similar to that on the upper right. The natives have learned that this is when one does not venture into the water of these pools as their food supply has been expended and anything is fair game -- including anything that ventures in the water.

We saw many hawks. Lynn was fortunate to capture one in flight.

Brahma cattle are abundant in the area.

Again, the native know how to find things that we would pass by. In the photo on the left is the animal we spent almost 5 to 10 minutes finding in the tree. In the right photo the telephoto picks out a three toed sloth.

The upper left photo is that of a school bus. The government pay each family a fee for sending their kid to school. The bus picks the children up in the morning and returns them to their homes in the afternoon. We were surprised at how shallow the canoes were. Note that they are true dugout canoes.

Fruit is abundant along the river and within the forest. Note the bright yellow fruits in the middle of the left photo. The telephoto on the right is a closer view of them as we pass along. When traveling up or down the river one must be fast with the photography and the boat doesn't stop except for something really unexpected. What is unexpected for us is common for them.

We stopped for about a half hour and were allowed to fish for black piranha. Most were of the size shown. As we left a sister boat was showing off one that was the size of a dinner plate.

More fruit along the way. Can you spot the fruit in the left photo and compare it with the close-up on the right.


As we leave the river we pass a more communal village. Some of the canoes were outfitted with outboard motors. Note that the shafts are long and extend to the rear. This allows them to be used in very shallow water.

What appears to be a ship wreak on the right is in reality their form of lifestyle. Nothing is rushed. The boats on the right were in need of repair the year before. Thus, the owner tied the boats off during the season when the river level was falling and they became "earthbound." In this state they could easily be repaired. Now that they are repaired, and the water rises and refloats them, they can be put to use again.

The above are some scenes of the edge of town as we return.

No, the above isn't that of a church. It is their shopping center.

The tall building in the background is a new high-rise building that is being built in the city. It has been under construction for over two years. They hope to complete it late this year or next.

The above is a view of some of the "high rent" districts of the city.

Again, the edge of the upper class.

Note the height of the dock on the upper left photo. It is built at the height of the upper level of the water when the Amazon reaches its peak. The photo on the upper right is a typical water taxi that the resident use to travel up and down the river.

The above is a fueling station for river traffic. If one wants gasoline they go to the gas station on the right. If they need propane for their stoves, they go to the station on the left.

There are only two churches in the city.

We approach the dock where our ship awaits our return.

Water taxis and transport boats wait for their passengers to board. In the Amazon mattresses aren't used due to mildew and are uncomfortably hot. The residents use hammocks instead. Thus, when traveling passengers take their hammock to sleep or travel in. We were told it works great for parents with kids as it is difficult for kids to get out of the hammock and thus safer for them.

While this is their mode of prime travel, we prefer the comfort of our ship. Incidentally, below the bridge (it has 12 forward facing windows) on the photo above is our cabin. There are four cabins. Ours is the second from the left. This is the first time we had a forward facing cabin.

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