Archive for August, 2013

Pleasure a-plenty in Amazonia’s Alter do Chão: Lago Verde, Ilha do Amor and the gigantic samaúma trees in the Tapajós National Forest.

Brazil is big. Colossal. It’s actually larger than the continental USA. Yes… bigger than all the contiguous United States. It’s simply enormous. Amidst this bigness, nothing in Brazil has astounded me more than the immensity of the Amazon, the largest forest on our planet that comprises half of Brazil’s land mass.

My contact with the Amazon Basin has been mostly transitory. I’ve traveled a good portion of its expanse starting near the Bolivian border and arriving after 3½ days in Manaus, the central metropolis connected only to the rest of Brazil by boat or plane. I continued down the great Rio Amazonas for another few days until I reached the delta at Belém. In all, this 2,600 kilometer (1,615 mile) journey required nearly two weeks of travel.

Along the way I was constantly amazed by pretty much everything, from the vastness of the rivers which much of the time seem more like huge lakes, to the incongruity of the massive megalopolis of Manaus – an urban jungle trapped in the heart of Amazonia’s heady tropics.

Meeting of the Waters: Where the Rio Madeira joins the mighty Rio Amazonas.

Meeting of the Waters: Where the Rio Madeira joins the mighty Rio Amazonas.

So I was hardly surprised to find a picture-perfect oasis just outside of Santarém, the main port city between Manaus and Belém. It sits where the Rio Tapajós meets the Rio Amazonas and forms a huge lagoon. With a white-sand island, Ilha do Amor (Island of Love), with glistening waters and barracas (food stalls) serving fresh-grilled fish and icy caipirinhas. And the nearby Tapajós National Forest offers ample opportunities for walks in the jungle and visits to traditional rubber communities. Alter do Chão is a perfect place to break up the down river journey so I spent a few days there in blissful repose.

Alter do Chão Town

The town of Alter do Chão doesn’t have a lot going on so there’s little to be preoccupied with: one real hostel to perch the hammock and meet fellow travelers, one market on the main plaza, one café for morning coffee, and a couple of adjacent restaurants on the plaza that share tables – they even provide two bills if, say, you want to order drinks from one but food from the other. In a word, Alter do Chão is chill.

Lagoon and Island

The Amazon isn’t just an ordinary river that flows along a lonely route through the jungle to the sea. It’s jam-packed with tributaries, islands, inlets and lagoons which make for a fascinating riverscape with constantly changing features.

The eccentric waters of the "Amazon River" – a vast network of countless waterways – as seen from the GPS on my mobile phone.

The eccentric waters of the “Amazon River” – a vast network of countless waterways – as seen from the GPS on my mobile phone.

Lago Verde (Green Lake) is a perfect example of the Amazon’s varied features. With three attractive fingers penetrating the tropical forest, Lago Verde is home to plenty of birds and other wildlife – and its secluded beaches were just steps away from my hostel.

The real draw of Alter do Chão is Ilha do Amor, a splendid stretch of sand just a $1 rowboat ride from the town dock. Half the year it is mostly submerged by the rainy season’s bursting waters but in July the waters start to recede, revealing bright sands and Caribbean-hued waters. While the waters were still high during my visit, they were ebbing quickly… in just a couple days the beach was growing perceptibly larger.

Continue reading ‘Alter do Chão: An Amazonian Wonderland of Sand, Sunsets and Jungle Viagra’ »

In the natural playground of Bahia's Chapada Diamantina region

Heading inland from Brazil’s littoral, I happily landed in the former diamond-mining town of Lençois, so-named for the miners’ crude tent camps that resembled lençois (sheets) from afar. In the late 1800’s richness came to the area in spite of its relatively poor-quality gemstones. The cloudy diamonds were sold to the French who needed them to help dig the Panama Canal, the London Underground and other fin de siècle tunnel projects in Europe.

When mining ended a few decades ago and the Chapada Diamantina National Park was established, Lençois turned to tourism. Crumbling colonial homes and buildings were renovated, cobblestone streets and plazas spiffed up, tour operators opened shop. The result is a delicate balance of between reserved locals who still follow caipira (i.e. rural) traditions and eco-tourists who flock to the town in search of the great outdoors.

Scenes of picturesque Lençois town. Colorful and colonial, it’s a great place to be based while exploring the surrounding Chapada Diamantina national park.

Lençois is perfectly suited for independent travelers. With good accommodation, a steady stream of backpackers for companionship, and excellent dining at the many outdoor eateries – it’s touristy yet low key. I found Lençois to be the perfect place to spend a few days hiking and taking in its many outstanding features.

Trek to Cachoeira da Fumaça

Eager to stretch my legs after many days lounging on the beach, I booked a hike to Brazil’s highest waterfall, Cachoiera da Fumaça (Smokestack Waterfall), through one of the tour agencies. Three chatty Brazilians from São Paulo were my companions as we climbed the windswept canyon in Vale do Capão (they later posted this about our day – big ups to my fellow travel bloggers!)

Cachoeira da Fumaça is unusual in that the waterfall does not reach its base. Rather the water is blown back over the top and evaporates – giving it the appearance of a smoking chimney. This is due to the 420 meter (1400 feet) drop, strong upwinds from the canyon, and the small river which feeds the waterfall.

It’s a wonderful spectacle and hard to give it justice in words so I’ve created the short video below.

Continue reading ‘Finding Diamonds in the Rough of Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina National Park’ »

The Brazilian bus where I served a 26-hour sentence

Twenty-six hours with little sleep on a cramped bus – most of it beside a crying, fidgety child sitting on his pregnant mother’s lap. I’m hungry and weary of cheese sandwiches – the only vegetarian option at rest stops. I forgot to unpack my healthy snacks which are buried in the storage below. I’m under the weather – sneezing and congested and low-energy – from the cold snap that hovered over the region for a few days.

I feel alone in this less-trodden corner of Brazil and miss my companions on the backpacker-friendly coast. I left Cuiabá disappointed by the cost-prohibitive Pantanal wildlife (3-day tours are nearly $800 USD) and the bureaucratic hurdles at Chapada de Guimarães national park that made it very difficult to enjoy.

So I feel the last few days have been a bust. Things just haven’t quite worked out.

Bus break in Brazil

Travel is full of shitty moments like this. Like most things in life – a job, a relationship, a hobby – there’s no shortage of let downs. And when on your own it can feel worse, there’s no one to turn to amid indifferent surroundings.

With the battery dying on my mobile phone, I opened my calendar and counted the days remaining in Brazil. Almost home… I tell myself. What a relief!

As if by chance Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Almost Home” plays in my random mix:

I’m not running
I’m not hiding
I’m not reaching
I’m just resting in the arms of the great wide open
It’s gonna pull my soul in
And I’m almost home

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Almost home… is momentarily forgetting the thousand tiny details that travel demands, knowing things soon will be logistically easier. It’s thinking of those I love and miss. It’s setting an anchor by filling my mind with familiar things.

Almost home… is remembering that I choose this life. Being away has allowed me to let go of the demands and dull routines of home. Knowing home is around the corner helps me to accept the here and now.

Almost home… is not being homesick. It’s part of the journey, a destination too. It’s appreciating the home I carry inside that lets me find comfort in new places and with new faces.

Almost home… is a great place to be. It means I’m out there. Travel is a permanent part of my life and home is what connects all the trips, it’s the pause in the middle between adventures.

Almost home… is time to start dreaming about my next travel destination!

Sometimes I’m not happy, things aren’t wonderful and my surroundings don’t delight. Tomorrow will be a new day. I’m just resting in the arms of the great wide open.
And I’m almost home.

Brazilian sunrise as seen from a bus window