An arbitrary border, a line on paper through the forest, divides the state of Pará from the western Amazon. Encompassing the states of Amazonas, Rondônia, Acre and Roraima, the western Amazon is dominated by the big river and its tributaries even more than the east. This is a remote and poorly serviced region representing the heart of the world’s largest rainforest. The northern half of the forest is drained by two large rivers, the gigantic Rio Negro and its major affluent, the Rio Branco. Travelling north from Manaus the dense rainforest phases into the wooded savannas before the mysterious mountains of Roraima rise precipitously at the border with Venezuela and Guyana. To the south, the rarely visited Madeira, Purús and Juruá rivers, all huge and important in their own way, meander through the forests from the prime rubber region of Acre and the rampantly colonized state of Rondônia.
The hub of this area is undoubtedly Manaus, more or less at the junction of three great rivers – the Solimões/Amazonas, the Negro and the Madeira – which, between them, support the world’s greatest surviving forest. There are few other settlements of any real size. In the north, Boa Vista, capital of Roraima, lies on an overland route to Venezuela. South of the Rio Amazonas there’s Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia, and, further west, Rio Branco, the main town in the relatively unexplored rubber-growing state of Acre – where the now famous Chico Mendes lived and died, fighting for a sustainable future for the forest.
Travel is never easy or particularly comfortable in the western Amazon. From Manaus it’s possible to go by bus to Venezuela or Boa Vista, which is just twelve hours or so on the tarmacked BR-174 through the stunning tropical forest zone of the Waimiris tribe, with over fifty rickety wooden bridges en route. You can also head east to the Amazon river settlement of Itacoatiara; but the BR-317 road from the south bank close to Manaus down to Porto Velho requires four-wheel-drive vehicles, having been repossessed by the rains and vegetation for most of its length. From Porto Velho the Transamazônica continues into Acre and Rio Branco, from where a new route has been paved all the way to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, with road links on to Cusco and the Pacific coast beyond. Access is easy from here into Bolivia, too; and, from Porto Velho, the paved BR-364 offers fast roads south to Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, Brasília and the rest of Brazil.
The rivers are the traditional and still very much dominant means of travel. Entering from the east, the first places beyond Óbidos are the small ports of Parintins and Itacoatiara. The former is home to the internationally known Bio Bumbá festival every June and the latter has bus connections with Manaus if you’re really fed up with the boat, though the roads are often very hard-going in the rainy season (Dec–April). From Itacoatiara it’s a matter of hours till Manaus appears near the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers. It takes another five to eight days by boat to reach the Peruvian frontier, and even here the river is several kilometres wide and still big enough for ocean-going ships.