Unable to reach Guyana and continue west to Manaus, we retraced our steps to re-enter Brazil at Oiapoque. We then charged back along the rollercoaster road to Macapá.
We were not going to make it to Manaus, but Rachel wasn't about to give up on our Amazon adventure. Always with her head in a Travel Guide and excited for all things industrial, Rachel suggested heading to Santarem and on to the town of Fordlândia, the site of a failed venture by Henry Ford, who wanted his own rubber production - more on this later.
We found passage for ourselves and the van and off we set on a ferry along the Amazon to Santarem. The journey took about 40 hours. Along with other passengers, we found space on the open decks to string up our hammocks. The scenery along the route was fantastic. We made a few stops at small communities along the way and our boat took various narrow side tributaries.
Santarem sits at the confluence of the Amazon and Rio Tapajós. At the point of convergence you can see the line where the clear waters of the Tapajós meets the murky Amazon. The buildings along the banks of this small city are colourful. There are lines of ferries, fishing boats and tourist craft. Having disembarked, we did a quick tour, then set off to Alter do Chão to stay with a well know guide, Gil Serique, who had a property on the waterfront. Gil was on a tour and instructions were to make ourselves at home. The view was stunning. The property faces a long sand-spit separating Lago Verde from Rio Tapajós. After a swim to Ilha do Amor (the sand-spit) and a quick look around, we settled in for the night.
The next day was our introduction to Gil. I have met some characters in my time - character wise, Gil was on a different planet... Apart from his medium pitched randomly placed roar, 'Aieeeee', he had a liking for Caipirinha. He taught Rachel how to mix this cocktail and it has since become a favourite. And boy, did he have some stories to tell! Generally involving himself or his family as the subjects - prostitution, brothels, drugs, robbery, addiction, murder and a little mayhem. At least one of the tales included pretty much all of these subjects. I do not wish to make Gil sound bad - he was/is an open book and great, great company. Also, he was only present at some of the events.
Leaving the van at Gil’s place, we took a fast (6 hour) ferry to Fordlândia, on the Tapajós. The ferry approached the jetty, then turned away picking up speed. We jumped up, making the crew aware we need to disembark and the boat turned back.
The first building on the waterfront, a 1930’s warehouse, tells you this is Fordlândia. It is one of many buildings left as a reminder of Henry Ford's failed rubber venture.
As part of the venture, some 7,000 acres of natural rainforest was cleared to make way for the rubber plantation and new town intended to feed the Dearborn Factory in Michigan. Manual labour and fire were used to undertake this task, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The toll on the jungle was high, the toll on human life equally so: wounds; infection; snake bites; and the mosquitos took their toll.
Nevertheless, the place was extraordinary and a reminder of a by-gone age. We visited the school, manager and workers’ houses, saw the baseball and basketball courts and the sports club, all stuck in a time warp. The highlights were the hilltop cemetery, the factory buildings and the water tower. Why did Ford go there and why did the rubber venture fail? It’s an interesting history and worth a look online, or try finding a copy of Greg Grandin’s Forlandia – well worth a read.
Heading back to Santarem, once again on the fast ferry, we saw a huge forest fire. It looked as if it was close to Alter do Chão, where we were staying. We have no idea whether it was a deliberate fire but news of land clearance in vast areas of Brazil is very current news. Later, from Alter do Chão, we saw this fire at slightly closer range - it was pretty big and dismaying.
Our next adventure was on the river with Gil. From Santarem, we had a small boat for an overnight trip on the Amazon floodplain. Gil was the guide, with his cousin as guide and cook. It was a fantastic little trip - monkeys, birds and sloths, and sleeping in hammocks on the open deck.
Back from our boat trip, it was time to leave Alter do Chão. We headed off via Beltera, Ford’s second foray into rubber production when Fordlândia failed. The houses, including a house built 'just in case Henry Ford ever visited' (he never did), and company buildings left over from that period were well worth the visit. Ford (the company) has long since left this area but its stamp remains.
Next, we visited the beautiful Tapajós National Forest, where local guides supervise the walks in the forest. We walked amongst the big Sumauma trees, saw the rubber trees scarred by the years of rubber tapping, climbed a research tower 45m up to see the forest canopy and Rachel had a Tarzan swing. We slept overnight in hammocks, although Rachel was a bit nervous. The grandma of our guide had mentioned to us, before we left, how beautiful the forest was and how full it was of Onças (Jaguars)....and there we were, pre-wrapped in hammocks.
From the park, we then started the long drive to the coast to Lençois Maranhenses. The evidence of deforestation was stark. A few trees, including the beautiful and tall Brazil Nut, are protected and therefore seeing them standing alone, a reminder that this too was all once rainforest, was somwhat depressing.
Somewhere on route along these many miles of dirt road, the brakes got a bit stiff...no solid. We basically had no stopping power. The vacuum pump had packed in. We had a 300+ kilometre road trip to reach Marabá, where a VW mechanic might be able to help.
Arriving in Marabá, we called in at the Volkswagen garage. The VW Transporter doesn't exist in Brazil, so that means shipping parts (again), which the garage was happy to fit.
We found a wonderful place to stay nearby on AirBnB. Pedro and Salete have a small-holding outside Marabá and they were Stars. They fed us home-made cheese, home-made açai, home-cooked breakfast, lunch and supper, they really looked after us and our van. Pedro’s first act of kindness, after he’d given us a coconut each to drink, was to wash a van covered in Pará dust!
Our next Star is a known one, Toby Peters, in Teesside, who all too often has gone the extra mile to get van parts to us. New Vacuum Pump - 2/3 days delivery to Brasília or 15 days to Marabá. Both better than 60 days, if ordered by the garage. We decided the best option was a hire car and road trip to Brasiília, a mere 3,000 kilometre round trip. Sounds simple... Brazil likes speed cameras and speed bumps, so it's a slog at times.
Day 2 into our trip to Brasília and the package, due to arrive on the Friday, by DHL, had been lost for 24 hours by FedEx crossing the UK, meaning it would be delayed until the Monday. This meant another weekend spent in Brasília - our 3rd visit to the city.
Jumping ahead to the Monday, we collected the package, taking two days to get back to Marabá. The garage were excellent, the pump was fitted on the Wednesday and it was time to thank Pedro and Salete for their amazing hospitality.
We set of for the coast, looking for those sand dunes, the Lençois Maranhenses.