Driving the Transamazônica

The TransAmazonian Highway, or Rodovia Transamazônica, is a 4000-km-long road connecting Northeast Brazil (from João Pessoa) to a village called Lábrea in the Amazonas. The original intent was to connect the road with Peru, farther west, but construction stopped for financial reasons.

Construction of the Transamazônica

Construction (1970s) meant hacking a track through untamed Amazon forest and until not too long ago long stretches became impassable during the rainy season – even today it remains a challenge as the laterite surface will turn into sticky mud. In the years to come the challenge of conquering this road will diminish and eventually disappear: the asphalting of the Transamazonian Highway has begun in earnest (current focus is around Altamira).

We will drive a large part of the Transamazônica, but in several phases. Here are the impressions of our first approx. 1500 kilometers from Humaitá (end of BR319, read about that adventure here) east to Santarém, driven during dry season.

Day 1 – the Price for Our Beef Consumption (230 kms, avg 40 kms/hour)

Ferry down the Rio Madeira

Ferry down the Rio Madeira

Land Cruiser on a ferry

Land Cruiser on a ferry

Road construction

Road construction

The journey starts with a ferry across the Rio Madeira, with a number of freshwater dolphins accompanying us. On the other side of the river we wait for all other vehicles to leave before us, and for the thick dust to settle. When I get down from the Land Cruiser I step into ankle-deep dust that is finer than powdered sugar, similar to tapioca. The first 50 kilometers take 1,5 hours, then the road improves and becomes a smooth surface. Easy driving.

The Floresta Nacional is being burned down, as are many other parts along either side of the Transamazônica. All for the benefit of large-scale cattle ranching, which is one of the most polluting industries in the world (more info, see this United Nations study). We see lots of burned down terrain but very few cows. Where there are fences, the burning is done to stimulate the growth of fresh grass. Large parts haven’t been fenced in yet, which indicates recently burned down forest.

Indian Reservation of Tenhari (or Teheri? not sure). We have to pay a toll of 15 reais. On the east side of the road we can buy handicrafts but are not allowed to take pictures. Same thing in the next indigenous village. We tell the vendor we can’t take macaw feathers with us in an airplane, it’s illegal. He doesn’t believe me. “All tourists buy them and it’s indigenous art!”

My dilemma with regards to these reservations and indigenous rights resurfaces, as it did during our earlier five-month trip through Mato Grosso in 2010. The indigenous people make money from a road they didn’t construct and don’t have to maintain. They don’t pay taxes either. Rights but no obligations. On the other hand, I’m aware that these rights can just be as easily taken away, of which the current Belo Monte Dam project (near Xingu Park, read about it here) is only a too confronting example.

We lunch alongside a river and go for a swim. It’s so hot that our bodies are overheated again before we are even dry. Dark clouds are gathering. Like everywhere else in Brazil, the upcoming elections dominate the scenery of villages: flags, billboards, stickered cars all over the place.

Enormous sawmills to cut all that Amazonian timber

Enormous sawmills to cut all that Amazonian timber

Legal or illegal timber?

Legal or illegal timber

Sawmill along the TransAmazonian Highway

Sawmill along the TransAmazonian Highway

In Santo Antonio de Matapi we visit a sawmill, which provides jobs for 17 men. Lots of logging in this area. Trucks loaded with thick trunks dominate the road. Information we get from locals on the subject is depressing:

“The area is stripped of all its trees.”
“Of all the sawmills you’ve passed thus far, only 2 are legal.”
“Of course you don’t see numbers on these trunks (which is the case with legal logging). These are just farmers clearing new land for their ranches who sell this wood illegally.”
“No, IBAMA doesn’t check any wood coming from fazendas.”

Late afternoon we’re hit by a rainstorm. Refreshing. We find a good spot to camp along a black-water stream that locals use for drinking water.

Day 2 – The Amazon is the modern Wild West (300 kms, avg 43 kms/hour)

Early morning the world is still quiet with just a couple of twittering birds. Macaws are flying over. A big kingfisher takes up his position on a branch above the black-water creek but then decides to move on. We leisurely get going and continue east, the morning sun blinding and warming us.

More wood trucks, more black soil that has recently been burned. Coen complains about smog bothering him. All day long we see destroyed forest. We drive in silence. What can you say when you witness such an annihilation. For what? Beef! An ever-growing industry that knows no limits. So much forest for so few cows. Like on the BR319, I contemplate becoming a vegetarian.

Are we in the Amazon?

Are we in the Amazon?

Forest fire

Forest fire

I don’t know how they manage to control the fires, but they do. You never hear about fires getting out of hand, like in France or Australia. Maybe the forests simply aren’t dry enough in this humid climate. Plus, no doubt, it helps that wind is conspicuously absent in this climate. In Manaus I asked somebody why I didn’t see any sailboats on the Amazon. His answer had been simple, “There is no wind.” But what best shows the control they have over the fire is that there are houses in the middle of this scorched area, untouched by the orange flames.

More madness. In Apui we talk to the owner of a lanchonette. He explains all cattle have to be transported to Manaus because only there is a slaughterhouse. This can mean, depending on where the cattle ranch is, up to 1500 kilometers of cruel cattle transport, largely by boat. I ask why there isn’t a slaughterhouse in Apui. “Politics,” is the only too familiar answer to this question. “Here, in Brazil, everything is politics.”

Horse and wagon are a common sight on the Transamazônica

Horse and wagon are a common sight on the Transamazônica

Kids having fun

Kids having fun

Prefab houses

Prefab houses

Which fuse melted away this time?

Which fuse melted away this time?

The man offers us some sugarcane juice. I sit with him and his family while Coen fixes a small problem on the Land Cruiser. The man and his wife are from Mato Grosso. “We wanted some adventure and came here.” We’ll hear this more often in the days to come. The Amazon is Brazil’s Wild West. Here you can start afresh, with hopes for a better future. Many do, and they come from all over Brazil.

We camp along a river and go for a swim. We are taken aback by enormous fish jumping over the surface. I’m glad that this place was recommended to us by locals, otherwise I would fear the fish to be piranhas, which would be prohibitive to swimming! The water is so pleasantly cold and refreshing. Oh, are we ready for this! After a day of driving the Land Cruiser is covered in red dust. It takes me half an hour to clean most of it from the inside so we won’t be sleeping in all that dust. Quiet evening. Like yesterday a splendid frog concert and a black sky sprinkled with stars.

Day 3 – Battle with Critters (237 kms, avg 40 kms/hour)

Nights are quiet in terms of critters. No mosquitoes! No midgets. But as soon as daylight hits the horizon, midgets wake up and go on their warpath. Our skin is their prize. We pay with little bleeding holes in our skin that itch for days. Repellent doesn’t work.

Disaster for lunch. We think we hit a nice spot along a white-water river. As soon as we’ve taken all our stuff out of the Land Cruiser to cook along the waterfront the midgets attack us in full force, as do horseflies and a legion of other creatures. Every couple of minutes one of us jumps into the water, almost screaming, to literally cool down our bodies that are rapidly becoming inflamed. We eat a simple lunch; the midgets by contrast feast on a grand, five-star dinner.

More hills, more forest, more devastation. Roller coasting over the hills. Bridges continue to be in good condition. Smooth, unpaved road continues until at 5 we find a perfect camping spot along a beautiful black-water river that meanders through the forest. We’d love to stay but we know the midgets will drive us away.

Day 4 – Amazon’s National Park; a Pinhead (153 kms, avg 30 kms/hour)

Lots of forest today. Walls of green on either side of the road. More roller coasting up and down the Amazon. A fazenda every once in a while is reason for a clearing, allowing us to have grand views. Hill after forested hill, the colors fading into tinges of blue and grey. How much longer will they last?

Clear language for those who understand

Clear language for those who understand

Imagine how high the river can rise

Imagine how high the river can rise

Time for a new bridge?

Time for a new bridge?

We enter Amazonia National Park. A stretch of a mere 100 kilometers along a road that for about 2000 kilometers runs through the Amazon is protected in an attempt to prevent all forest along this road from being destroyed. The park is but a pinhead when you look on the map, somewhat ludicrous really. Looks more like laying a sense of guilt to rest than a serious attempt to preserve something substantial.

As we stop for lunch, we find a shady place along the Tapajós River and decide to call it a day. The place is filled with litter. We’re in the middle of Amazonian National Park, mind you! Still it’s nice enough to stay.

We are visited by a couple of men who work here. One owns the restaurant annex parking lot we’re staying at. Garimperos (mine workers) from the city drive down here, park their car and take a boat to their mine. This morning we stopped at a small airplane terminal from where four small planes fly back and forth to mines deep in the rainforest to supply the miners with food and fuel.

Another man owns a boat to supply miners. Not gold miners, but diamond miners, who work in the river. All illegal. “It was much much worse, all along the river bank here were houses of garimperos. Then the business was closed down but now it’s picking up again. The IBAMA guys have to make money too.”

Really, the remarks of all those Brazilians living along this Transamazônica are quite depressing!

Day 5 – We Call This Development? (70 kms to Itaituba)

The night is too hot for a good night’s sleep. No wind. Suffocating humidity and temperatures. This is summer in the Amazon. No fun. Same during the day. Suffocating hot.

A bit more National Park and then all forest is gone. Are we still in the Amazon? Nah, can’t be. There’s hardly a tree to be seen. Only grass, deforested hills, burning lands. We’re approaching Itaituba, a big city. Horrible road surface that could use some maintenance. Of course the Land Cruiser pays: by the time we reach Itaituba, the exhaust has broken off.

More traffic, more smog, more dirt. Suburbs characterized by filth, chaos, lots of car and truck workshops. Downtown isn’t too enticing either. Nice waterfront though, but as it is typical for most cities in South America, they have the oddest sense of laying out parks and/or waterfronts: They provide benches all right. If lucky, but far from self-evident, they plant trees. But why are so few banks ever placed underneath those trees?

The Ferry leaves at 4pm. Fuel trucks have to take separate ferries.

Be creative and build your own vehicle

Be creative and build your own vehicle

Fuel truck to supply mines in the Amazon

Fuel truck to supply mines in the Amazon

Legal or illegal wood?

Legal or illegal wood?

No wind. Just dust. Red, thick dust that clogs everything. In the middle of a large empty plot stands a petrol station. The name is hand-painted: Auto Posto Samuel do Oleo. A truck driver is refueling his fuel truck, but also canisters and jerry cans that he has loaded on top of his truck.

It’s a scorching, blistering place where you don’t want to be. But it’s 4.30 and there will most likely not be another petrol station farther down the road. There are showers though, which is good.

Milk Sheik, anyone?

Milk Sheik, anyone?

Means of transport for singles, couples, and families

Means of transport for singles, couples, and families

Plane to supply mines in the Amazon's interior

Plane to supply mines in the Amazon’s interior

I get my towel, shampoo and soap and jump over mud pools to reach the bathrooms. No light in the two toilets cum showers. I pick one. Doors can’t be locked. Walls were once green plaster and blue tiles but are now covered in red dust and the tiles show remnants of soap. The toilet has no seat, no lid, there is no toilet paper, the dustbin has no plastic bag. Miracle, there is a place to hang my clothes and towel. Water is dripping from the tap. This doesn’t mean a thing and before I undress I check the shower. It works. I’m grateful.

I wash my hair with white shampoo. When I rinse, the soap turns red. Same with body soap. Everything that touches my body turns red. The water doesn’t run down the sewer, I suspect the drain has never been cleaned from hairs. I can’t see to check: It’s dark because there’s no light. Maybe that’s just as well. Water runs under the door, into the hallway, into the street.

The water level comes higher than the soles of my flip-flops. Don’t think about it. I wish the water were colder. Have you ever wished for your shower to be colder than it is? Nevertheless, the water is refreshing. Getting rid of that layer of red is too. When I hear somebody enter I shout to make my presence known and hope this is respected by the visitor. It is.

We pray for rain. We get three drops and are thankful. The sky darkens but it’s no more than a windstorm until much later in the evening when the rumbling of thunder becomes more serious. Clouds, please explode!

Day 6 – To Paradise (140 kms Transamazônica + another 217 kms to Santarém)

Good breakfast at the petrol station with cafezinho and pão de queso. We go next door to a tornearia to weld the radiator that has broken off. Coen experiments some more with the air pressure in the new tires, which we bought in Manaus (read about it here). There they said it should be 70 psi but that didn’t feel good at all. Little by little he is bringing it down. They’re at 40 psi now.

Boring drive. Everything is cultivated here with farms and villages. The road north to Santarém is under construction. Stretches of tarmac are heaven, heaven, heaven! But they alternate with the most horrible sandy, bumpy stretches you can imagine. Lots of road construction going on all over the place. Driving is utterly exhausting and no fun at all. Lots of thick concrete, humongous bridges are under construction as well. It’s an excruciating day of driving.

The Amazonian National Park

The Amazonian National Park

We take a turn to Belterra, continue another 6 kilometers and see an ocean in front of us. Wait, this is the Amazon. There’s no ocean here. Can’t be. Are we hallucinating? Yes and no. We’re staring at an enormous expanse of water all right, but not the ocean.

This is the Tapajós River! We can’t see the other side. A local tells us the river is 4 kilometers wide here. It takes three hours by boat to cross. It’s an incredible sight and feeling. There is a white beach, water without land on the other side – like any beach scenery along the coast. Yet the water is sweet, the air has no salty feel.

We have landed in paradise!

Thanks Milena, your T-shirts fit our adventure! 4Explorers

Fascinated by Coen’s images of the Transamazônica? Check out our Transamazônica Calendar which features the Transamazônica’s most intriguing and beautiful photos.

Interested in life on the Transamazônica, where large-scale cattle drives still exist, check out this story, in which we meet 9 cowboys and 1376 cows.


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