The second largest city in Pará, Santarém is a drowsy, yet quite interesting river port town. By boat, it is around 50 hours upstream from Belém. It makes a great stopping place if you’re riding up or down the Amazon between Belém and Manaus. Aside from offering a first-hand glimpse into Amazonian culture, the surrounding region boasts natural treasures of great beauty that can easily transform any “stopover” into a week’s stay. The most popular destination are the unexpectedly white-sand beaches of nearby Alter do Chão, which are famously (and not unjustly) hyped by the state tourist office as
the “Amazonian Caribbean.”
Although Santarém receives less rain than either Belém or Manaus, the surrounding countryside, much of it quite unspoiled, is a scenic mixture of wetlands and jungle. Take one of various trips up and down the Rio Tapajós (a tributary of the Amazon) or to the nearby Floresta Nacional do Tapajós, a national park, to get a taste of virgin rainforest.
Santarém is located at the confluence of the Rio Tapajós and the Rio Amazonas and the “meeting” of the blue-green waters of the Tapajós with the milky brown-colored Rio Amazonas is a sight that rivals the more celebrated merging of the Rio Negro with the Rio Solimões in Manaus. During the dry season (June–Dec.) the Tapajós recedes by several meters, exposing a seductive string of white-sand river beaches backed by lush green vegetation.
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 surrounding Santarém. In the cliffs surrounding the town of Monte Alegre, they left splendid 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 anything other vestiges encountered 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 suddenly 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 industry 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 do Sul.
In the early 1970s, the construction of the highway leading from Cuiabá to Santarém was expected to open up the area and bring great development to the area. At the time, such ambitions proved premature—by the ’80s, the jungle had once again reclaimed the asphalt, much of which has become impassable. 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
Santarém lies roughly halfway between Belém and Manaus. You can get here by plane (speedy and expensive) or boat (cheap and slow) from both cities. The state of the roads means that getting here by bus or car is out of the question.
By Air: Both national and (cheaper) regional carriers offer service to Santarém from Belém and Manaus. The small Aeroporto Maria José (Rodovia Fernando Guilhon, Praça Eduardo Gomes, tel. 93/3523-1990) is 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the center by bus or taxi.
By Boat: Boats going up and down the Amazon from Belém and Manaus arrive and depart daily from the busy Docas do Pará port, 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) west of the center of town. Marquês Pinto Navegação (Rua do Imperador 746, tel. 93/3523-2828) and Antônio Rocha (Rua 24 de Outubro 1047, tel. 93/3522-7947) are two companies that have boat service to both cities, but your best bet is to go to the docks and check out for yourself which boat is leaving and when. A trip to Belém usually takes 2–2.5 days while Manaus is usually 3–4 days. Sometimes you can even negotiate the price.
To visit smaller towns in the region such as Monte Alegre, head to the smaller port at Praça Tiradentes. Minibuses marked “Orla Fluvial” circulate at regular intervals between the Docas do Pará and the center of town, passing by the Praça Tiradentes port.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition