Chapter 8 Rio Tapajós
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In this chapter:

  1. Introduction to Tapajos
  2. Exploring the Tapajos region
  3. Getting there and away

Introduction to Tapajos

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The beautiful Tapajos river is the fifth largest tributary in the Amazon, running for some 1,200 miles through Para state to the border with Amazonas.

The river, with its scenic towns and clear waters, is often referred to as ‘the Jewel of the Amazon’, and with good reason. Less exploited by mass tourism than the Rio Negro, it’s one of the most beautiful areas of the jungle and is home to some of the best beaches.

Visitors can see the three different types of Amazon waterways and ecosystems in relatively close proximity to one another: the black waters of the Arapiuns river, the murky waters of the Amazon river and the rare clear-blue waters of the Tapajos river.

The white sand beaches that emerge here in dry season are unlike any others in Brazil, and are as quiet and pristine as Rio’s beaches are packed and hectic.

The blue-green waters are too acidic to attract mosquitoes, making this region a popular choice for families visiting the Brazilian Amazon, while the abundant flora and fauna are a draw for nature lovers and birdwatchers.

Another high point is the meeting of the waters, visible from the pier at Santarem, where the blue Tapajos meets the brown Amazon, and the two run side by side for miles without mixing. Keep an eye out for the river dolphins here.

One of the most-visited places in Tapajos is the lakeside town of Alter do Chão, a popular backpacker hangout known as the ‘Amazonian Caribbean’ thanks to the clear, mosquito-free waters and the pristine white sand beaches that appear during the July-September dry season.

Tourist infrastructure in the town itself is largely geared up for backpackers and weekend visitors from Santarem. Although it’s a relatively low-scale, budget scene, the beaches nearby are the finest in the entire Amazon. As there are no high end accommodations, luxury travelers tend to find that a good yacht cruise is by far the best way to escape the crowds and explore the region’s true beauty.

Private yacht tours will also take in the ‘meeting of the waters,’ and other land and river-based activities such as piranha fishing, kayaking and nature walks can be easily arranged for those on yacht cruises. Jumping from the deck of the boat into the crystal clear waters is one not-to-be-missed experience, a guaranteed hit for kids.

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Exploring the Tapajos region

Although it has a scattering of small towns and beach resorts, the Tapajos region’s greatest attraction by far is its pristine natural setting and the scarcely-believable beauty of the sandbanks and beaches encircling tropical islands and archipelagos.

The area is popular with backpackers, but those traveling by private yacht will easily be able to escape the crowds, slipping away from the busy tributaries to find their own ‘personal’ beaches for the day.

Some of the best strands in the jungle can be found along the region’s Arapiuns river, also notable for its riverside communities, while opportunities for piranha fishing abound in the yellow waters of the Amazon tributaries.

When bathing in the crystal waters gets old (hint: it won’t) you can always spice things up with a hike into the forest itself, or kayaking through the jungle creeks.

You can also see the Amazon’s three distinct colors of water within a short distance of one another, and take in a meeting of the waters that sees far fewer tourists than the meeting of the Negro and Solimoes rivers outside Manaus (px).

You can comfortably spend up to a week exploring the Tapajos region without getting bored, but do give yourself sufficient time – beauty and diversity of the place cannot be truly appreciated on a whistle-stop visit.

Although less accessible than the Rio Negro the Tapajos can still be comfortably explored, and the absence of mosquitoes, the incredible beaches and opportunities for jungle excursions make itineraries here a favourite for families, couples and those wanting to see the Amazon far away from the tourist trail.

Most trips start and end in Santarém – a slow-moving city at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers, whose breezily laidback ‘fishing village’ feel is a stark contrast to the commercial rush and constant crush of traffic in Manaus and Belem.

While some travelers may choose to unwind at the simple restaurants here and take trips into the surrounding forest, there are more compelling sights to be found elsewhere, and one night’s stay is usually sufficient.

Most travelers spend around six days on the waters around the city, with land excursions into the jungle and to visit indigenous communities. Ziplining through jungle canopy, horseback riding, guided nature walks, and recreational fishing are all optional extras on most Tapajos tours.

From here it’s an impossibly beautiful cruise along clear blue waters – a rarity in the Amazon – of the Rio Tapajos to the national forest.

A popular stop is the village of Alter do Chão, which famously has some of the best river beaches in the Amazon during the dry season, and is a favorite for backpackers and young travelers. Lodgings here are simple, so most luxury travelers make their base on a private yacht. Those on private yachts may well choose to bypass the crowds here in favor of more remote, serene lodgings, and it’s best avoided at weekends when it becomes a raucous playground for Santarem locals escaping the city.

The emerald green lake at the heart of Alter do Chão is a key part of its appeal, and many itineraries will also make time for trekking up to the Piroca hills for panoramic views over the jungle.

Smaller vessels will be able to follow the Arapiuns River from here – the virgin beaches are isolated enough that most visitors will have them all to themselves – and cultural visits can be made to the riverside communities.

Most journeys will also take in trips along the yellow waters of Amazon tributaries – rich in flora and fauna, and with ample piranha-fishing opportunities – before heading back to Santarém.

Private yacht charters in Tapajos

For a truly unique experience, those with the budget might consider chartering a private yacht to visit the Tapajos region. By sleeping onboard and setting your own agenda it’s possible to visit pristine areas that travellers based in Alter do Chão will not reach.

As you go further up the Arapiuns River during the dry season (px) you’ll encounter stunningly beautiful beaches with not another soul in sight – perfect for docking your yacht, stringing up some hammocks on the beach and watching the sunset.

The Arapiuns region also has some interesting communities, including the Anã who are running notable initiatives for the sustainable development of the region including a fish farming project and even a tourism project, where visitors can spend a few nights in the ‘hotel’ of the community – a communal room to hang hammocks, with good clean bathrooms and excellent food.

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Getting there and away

More remote than the Rio Negro, much of the charm of the Tapajos region lies in the feeling of glorious isolation and of slipping away from the tourist crowds.

The main point of entry is the city of Santarém, whose airport is served by the main Brazilian airlines, flying from the larger Amazon cities of Manaus and Belém. The flight time from either city is around one hour. The airport is around 15 kilometers from the city center, and taxis are readily available. However, there are few compelling sights and no high-end lodgings in the city.

There are also regular flights from the Brazilian capital Brasilia, which provides quicker connections to Rio, Sao Paulo and other major destinations. There are regular boat departures to Santarém from Manaus and Belém, but with a travel time of around two days, you’ll want to be sure you have secured comfortable berths. Again, a private yacht charter with a well-regarded operator is the best way to ensure not only your own comfort and security, but also to allow for excursions into the areas that commercial vessels can’t reach.

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