Pretty far off the beaten track, the small riverside town of Monte Alegre is one of the most fascinating detours you can make in this part of the Amazon. Perched on the northern bank of the Rio Amazonas, 120 kilometers (75 miles) downstream from Santarém, Monte Alegre is spread out upon a steep hillside. From the loftier heights, you’re treated to mesmerizing panoramic views of the river weaving through a landscape of undulating green wetlands and freshwater lagoons, which stretches as far as the eye can see.
At sunset, the vision is quite magnificent—not only is the entire scene bathed in luminous colors, but the skies are filled with the silhouettes of egrets, storks, and herons who come to settle down for the night in trees close to the town.
In Monte Alegre, natural attractions certainly aren’t lacking. Aside from boat trips up and down the river, only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from town is the Estância das Águas Sulfurosas. These Jacuzzi-like sulfur hot springs are said to cure whatever ails you. You can get to them easily by taxi. For cooler waters, head to the idyllic Cachoeira do Paraíso, a waterfall that’s also close by.
However, Monte Alegre’s most fascinating attraction is the wealth of prehistoric rock and cave paintings hidden in the surrounding hills. Rendered in disarmingly bright oranges and scarlet pigments, the forms range from abstract figures to human and animal representations that are very expressive. Even more striking are the hand-prints tattooed onto the stone. They are so palpably human that seeing them will send a couple of shivers down your spine.
The paintings were initially discovered in the 1850s, by Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist and archrival of Charles Darwin, and then were completely forgotten until the 1980s when American archaeologist Anna Roosevelt (great-granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt) rediscovered the area. Subsequent excavations unearthed prehistoric tools, which like the paintings, were shown to date back over 12,000 years—making Monte Alegre the oldest site of prehistoric civilization in the Americas.
To see the paintings, you’ll need a guide and four-wheel-drive transportation. The town expert of the paintings, Nelsi Sadeck (Rua do Jaquara 320, tel. 93/3533-1430), offers guided visits to the caverns that usually take a whole day and cost around R$200. He can also organize boat trips up and down the river. Also check with ecotour operators in Santarém and Alter do Chão, which offer excursions to Monte Alegre.
Accommodations and Food
Although Monte Alegre receives few tourists, there are a few basic, but quite adequate pousadas. Those in the Cidade Alta have the benefit of incredible views. Try the Pousada Panorama II (Praça Engenheiro Fernando Guilhon 500, tel. 93/3533-1716, R$75 d), a comfortable if not especially attractive hotel at the top of the hill, which is one of the better hotels in town.
The same owners operate the simpler Panorama I (Travessa Oriental 100, tel. 93/3533-1716, R$75 d). Accommodations are in four simple, tidy bungalows. The restaurant, with a great view, is considered one of the best for home-cooked fish dishes.
Getting to Monte Alegre
It’s easy to get to Monte Alegre by boat (a 5–6-hour journey) from Santarém. There are daily departures from the Praça Tiradentes docks. Moreover, many larger boats going from Belém to Santarém also stop here.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition