The municipality of Santarém, which is slightly bigger than Belgium, has just 32km of asphalted road. A good two-thirds of this is accounted for by the road that leads from Santarém to its beach resort of ALTER DO CHÃO, and you can’t fault their transport priorities. Alter do Chão is a beautiful bay in the Rio Tapajós overlooked by two easily climbable hills, one the shape of a church altar, giving the place its name. From July to November the bay is fringed by white sand beaches, which combine with the deep blue of the Tapajós to give it a Mediterranean look. In the dry season a sandbank in the middle of the bay is accessible either by wading or by canoe, and simple stalls provide the fried fish and chilled beer essential to the full enjoyment of the scene. During the week you’ll almost have the place to yourself, unless you’re unlucky enough to coincide with one of the periodic invasions by hundreds of elderly tourists from a cruise ship docked at Santarém. Weekends see the tranquillity shattered, as santarenhos head out en masse for the beach – be careful if you’re heading back to Santarém on a weekend afternoon as many drivers on the road will be drunk. If the beach is too crowded, get a canoe to drop you on the other side of the bay at the entrance to the path leading up to the higher conical hill. It’s a half-hour walk through the forest and finally up above it to the top to a breathtaking view of the meeting of the Tapajós, Amazon and Arapiuns rivers.
In recent years Alter do Chão has become something of a cult destination on the alternative travel circuit. A couple of tour operators geared to this market have opened up: Vento em Popa (t 93/3527-1379, e [email protected]) on the main square, Praça 7 de Setembro, and Mãe Natureza Ecoturismo (t 93/3527-1264, e [email protected] or e [email protected]). They both do reasonably priced forest treks, fishing expeditions and boat trips, with a day costing around R$50 per person. They will also handle renting a house in Alter do Chão, the most economic form of accommodation if you fancy staying a week or two – which many people do, once they see the place.
Halfway along the Alter do Chão road is a signposted turn-off to Ponto das Pedras, some 15km along a good-quality dirt road that is easily passable in the dry season and less so in the rains (though still manageable with an ordinary car). This is another of the stunning river beaches in which the Tapajós specializes, with a row of bars and simple restaurants. Depending on what time of year you get there, the rocks that give the beach its name can be either walked or swum out to. There is one basic pousada here but no bus services; it’s only a practical option by car.