As a source of life and livelihoods, the Rio Tapajós has a long history that dates back to the earliest civilizations in the Americas. Archaeological evidence reveals the presence of prehistoric Indian groups who fished along the riverbanks and planted corn in the fertile hills around Santarém. In the cliffs surrounding the town of Monte Alegre, they left paintings in caves and on rocks that date back 12,000 years. Other excavations have unearthed shards of pottery that have proved far older than most other vestiges of indigenous people in the Americas.
Indian culture was still thriving when the first Europeans arrived at the beginning of the 16th century. Santarém itself was founded in the 1660s as a Jesuit missionary outpost. Tapajós Indians that weren’t converted to Christianity were subsequently enslaved, slaughtered, driven into the jungle, or wiped out by infectious diseases. Apart from trade involving spices such as pepper, cloves, and vanilla, the little town remained an isolated jungle outpost until well into the 19th century, when it exploded into a prosperous trading center as a result of the Amazonian rubber boom. Ironically, it was in Santarém that the seeds were sown for Amazon rubber’s dramatic demise. The culprit was an Englishman by the name of Henry Wickham, who moved here in 1874 and soon after began smuggling precious rubber seeds back to London’s Kew Gardens. From England, saplings were sent to plantations in the British colonies of Ceylon and Malaysia. By the end of the century, the Asian plantations were producing rubber in greater quantities, and far more cheaply, than those in the middle of the Brazilian jungle. As a result, the once-thriving Amazonian rubber boom went bust.
Today, rubber still contributes to the local economy, along with timber, minerals, jute, fish, and Brazil nuts. However, in recent years, the greatest impact on Santarém and the surrounding region has been the introduction of soybean cultivation and processing. While the lucrative crop has brought new wealth to the area, it has also led to the rampant clearing of swaths of forest stretching all the way south to Mato Grosso. In the early 1970s, the construction of the highway leading from Cuiabá to Santarém was expected to bring great development to the area. At the time, such ambitions proved premature—by the 1980s the jungle had once again reclaimed the asphalt, portion of which are impassable, especially when it rains. However, spurred on by the soybean boom, the federal government is committed to reopening this crucial route, which could spell major changes for Santarém in years to come.
Getting To Santarém and Getting Around
Santarém lies roughly halfway between Belém and Manaus. You can get here by plane (speedy and expensive) or boat (slower—and only cheaper if you sleep in a hammock) from both cities. The precariousness of the roads means that getting here by bus or by car is out of the question.
Although you can get around town easily on foot, if you find the heat is making you lazy, you can easily hail a taxi or moto-taxi.
Other Area Information
Sights in Santarém
Santarém itself has few actual attractions. The town’s main museum is the Centro Cultural João Fona (Praça Barão de Santarém, tel. 93/3523-2434, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun.–Fri., free). Housed in a handsome canary yellow 19th-century mansion, the small but interesting collection provides an insightful look at Santarém’s history and culture. Apart from some beautiful pieces of Tapajoara pottery dating back 5,000 years, there are recent examples of indigenous art as well as paintings that portray the town and river during colonial times. Otherwise, the most compelling thing you can do in Santarém is simply to wander around soaking up the atmosphere of an Amazonian port town. The constant bustle of boats coming and going and passengers boarding and disembarking is quite a fascinating spectacle.
For a pleasant stroll along the river, start at the Praça Matriz, site of the town’s oldest church, the 18th-century Igreja Matriz da Nossa Senhora da Conceição. From here, head west along the main waterfront drag, Avenida Tapajós, toward the gigantic eyesore that houses U.S.-based Cargill’s soybean processing plant. Along the way, stop to check out the action and produce at the Mercado Municipal, where you’ll see a dazzling array of fish as well as a local delicacy, the very tiny local shrimp called aviu. For an excellent view of the meeting of the Rio Tapajós and the Rio Amazonas, which run together side by side for several kilometers, climb the hill that rises up from the waterfront to the Mirante do Tapajós.
Sports and Recreation in Santarém
Flaking out on beaches, boating down the river past traditional caboclo communities, exploring thick forests—there are plenty of ways to enjoy Santarém’s natural attributes. For information about the surrounding area, check in with an American expat named Steven Alexander, who has lived in Santarém with his wife since 1979. A passionate defender of the Amazon’s rich biosphere and an equally fervent critic of politicians and businesses bent on destroying it, Alexander offers guided visits to his own private nature reserve, Bosque Santa Lúcia (email@example.com, R$75 for 2, advance reservations required), a patch of rain forest 15 kilometers (9 miles) from town where you can hike amid 400 species of native trees (including Brazil nut and guaraná), birds, and monkeys. He can also put you in touch with guides to take you to farther-flung attractions. Santarém Tur (Rua Adriano Pimentel 44, tel. 93/3522-4847) and GreenTur (Av. Cuiabá 649 B, tel. 93/3253-2423) both offer trips by boat to natural attractions in the area.
Two popular trips close to town are to the Meeting of the Waters (3 hours) and to the Lago do Maicá (6 hours), where you can go piranha fishing. Expect to pay around R$150 pp with a group of four for a six-hour trip. Another good source and terrific guide is local resident and self-taught naturalist Gil Serique (Rua Adriano Pimentel 80, tel. 93/8803-7430), who not only speaks English but knows the Tapajós and its tributaries like the back of his hands. He offers customized tours to various destinations, including FLONA.
Shopping in Santarém
Santarém is a great place to pick up well-made local and indigenous artesanato. Loja Muiraquitã (Rua Senador Lameira Bittencourt 131, tel. 93/3522-7164) has a diverse array of intriguing objects ranging from wood carvings to musical instruments. Not to be missed are the wonderfully original clothing and accessories made by Dica Frazão (Rua Floriano Peixoto 281, tel. 93/3522-1026) out of her home, which doubles as an atelier and museum. In her 80s, Dica is a local legend, a stylist whose remarkable items, made out of natural fibers such as buriti palm, canarana straw, and tree bark and accessorized with colorful seeds and feathers, are notable for their refined tailoring that can easily be called Amazon chic.
Accommodations in Santarém
Occupying a pretty pale-blue house built in 1910, the family-run Brisa Hotel (Rua Senador Lameira Bittencourt 5, tel. 93/3522-1018, firstname.lastname@example.org, R$60–80 d) is one of a series of historic houses on Santarém’s oldest street. High-ceilinged guest rooms are very plain but clean, and a friendly atmosphere reigns. Facing the Mercado Modelo, the Hotel Rio Dourado (Rua Floriano Peixoto 799, tel. 93/3522-4021, email@example.com, R$90–150 d) is a cheery, modern place jazzed up with lots of tropically hued decorative accents. The colorful air-conditioned guest rooms—with white tile or hardwood floors—are quite comfortable, although some of the furniture is sort of cheap looking. Internet access is available.
Food in Santarém
O Mascote (Praça do Pescador 10, tel. 93/3523-2844, 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.–midnight daily, R$15–25) combines a scenic waterfront location with reasonably priced and expertly prepared local dishes. At lunch, you can stuff yourself on an all-you-can-eat buffet, while dinner features specialties such as tucunaré in shrimp sauce and caldeirada de peixe, a stew featuring the daily catch. At night, O Mascote is a popular gathering spot, particularly on weekends, when live music is performed. Surprisingly, one of Santarém’s best-loved restaurants doesn’t serve fish at all. The specialty at Mutunuy 2 (Travessa Muriano Meira, 1680‑B, tel. 93/3522-7909, R$10–15) is buttery, charcoal-roasted chicken served with rice, manioc flour, and potato salad. It’s simple but lip-smackingly delicious.
Information and Services in Santarém
Santarém’s tourist office, Santur (Rua Floriano Peixoto 777, tel. 93/3523-2434, 8 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Fri.), has information about the town and surrounding area. You can also visit www.santarem.pa.gov.br, which has good information in Portuguese. Also check with Santarém Tur (Rua Adriano Pimentel 44, tel. 93/3522-4847) and GreenTur (Av. Cuiabá 649 B, tel. 93/3253-2423), both of which also sell plane tickets to Belém and Manaus. For money matters, on Avenida Rui Barbosa you’ll find a Banco do Brasil as well as an HSBC and a Bradesco, all with ATMs that accept international cards.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.