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Articles Blog

Altar do Chao, Brazil

Karyn Planett

Early settlers carving out an existence along the Rio Tapajos believed their tiny fishing village resting at the base of a pair of small hills, one of which resembled a church altar. Over time, they gave order to their community with a grid of narrow streets lining the beachfront with its Plaza as its centerpiece. A productive rubber plantation once covered the landscape that today supports traditional Spanish-style churches, small cottages, and tiny shops. The backdrop is the tropical forest that seems a mere stroll away and the Lago Verde outlet. All this adds up to a popular weekend get-away for visitors as well as residents from Santarem, a short 33 kilometers away.

And Speaking of Santarem

Originally the home to Tapuicu Indians, the area was explored by a Captain Pedro Teixeira and his expeditionary force. It was, however, the Jesuit missionaries who placed the cornerstone of Christianity here in 1661. Ultimately, this growing community was named Santarem in honor of a Portuguese city of the same name. That was in 1758.

One century later, in 1867, a short two years after the end of America’s Civil War, some 110 Confederate soldiers fled to Santarem hoping to begin their lives anew. They brought with them their farming skills and attempted to settle the land. Few were able to make a viable go of it, the others either returned to the US having been granted free passage or succumbed to disease.

The need for rubber was tremendous and Santarem was home to prosperous plantations, which experienced a period of great prosperity followed by a momentous decline. Gold was the next great hope for economic greatness especially in the 1950s when one after another gold rush kept those enterprising men coming to seek their fortune. The lust for gold is still strong across this region. So, too, wealth from the harvesting of hard woods, and everything from jute to nuts. All this adds up to mean that Santarem remains an important economic pulse point for Brazil’s middle Amazon. Perhaps this is why some historians claim that Santarem was during the period prior to the arrival of European settlers one of the Americas’ largest population center. Seems hard to imagine yet that’s what many claim.

The Wedding Of The Waters

Few believe the press regarding the wedding of the waters until they witness this natural phenomenon for themselves. Curiously, the muddy waters of the Amazon River flow side-by-side with the Tapajos River’s clear, green water. Due to the unique characteristics of each, they maintain this separation for a few miles with a distinct line between them though they flow as a single river.

Not far from the busy waterfront, where cargo and produce and loaded onto and unloaded from afar, is a small museum called Centro Cultural Joao Fona, that features examples of Tapajos ceramics as well as documents dating back more than 100 years and artifacts thousands of years. It’s located in the old town hall, dating back to 1867 that also served as even the courthouse and the jail. Built during the rubber boom, this fine building is location on Praca Santarem and features a cool courtyard to retreat from the midday sun.

Further still is the Casa de Farinha where manioc was ground into flour long, long ago. Tapajoara burial urns date back 6,000 years and feature decorations including those depicting humans and animals.

A Walk In The Woods

Nature lovers are naturally drawn to the Santa Lucia Woods, a short 18-kilometer drive from Santarem. Expert guides point out there are approximately 400 native plants here including those with healing medicinal properties, Brazil nut trees and ironwood. Miles of trails lace through the woods, offering a look at the local flora and fauna. Found in the area are such favorites and macaws and parrots even tortoises and tapirs, the Amazon’s largest wild animal. It takes a keen eye and great fortune to actually see these animals in the wild. Remember, much of their habitat has been compromised by slash-and-burn agricultural practices so sightings are rare and wonderful.

On The Beach

On weekends, that’s where you find most Santrenos, the nice people of Santarem. Yes, they pack up the kidlets, the beach balls and the Frisbee and make for Alter do Chao. Fresh local fish are grilled on open fires served with rice and ripe tropical fruits. A tasty brazil-nut ice cream called castanha signals the capper to most family feasts. It’s just another sunny day in the Amazon.