A large, partially deforested region in the southwest corner of the Brazilian Amazon, the state of Rondônia (named after the famous explorer, Indian “pacifier” and telegraph-network pioneer Marechal Cândido Rondon) has a reputation for unbridled colonization and very rapid “development”. The state was only created in 1981, having evolved from an unknown and almost entirely unsettled zone (then the Territory of Guaporé) over the previous thirty years. The first phase of its environmental destruction began in the 1980s when roads and tracks, radiating like fine bones from the spinal highway BR-364, began to dissect almost the entire state, bringing in their wake hundreds of thousands of settlers and many large companies who have moved in to gobble up the rainforest. Poor landless groups are a common sight – some the surviving representatives of once-proud Indian tribes – living under plastic sheets at the side of the road.
The state is not exactly one of Brazil’s major tourist attractions, but it is an interesting area in its own right, and offers a few stopping-off places between more obvious destinations. Porto Velho, the main city of the region, is an important rainforest market-town and pit-stop between Cuiabá and the frontier state of Acre. Rondônia also offers border crossings to Bolivia, river trips to Manaus and access to overland routes into Peru.
Given that it is such a recently settled region, the system of road transport is surprisingly good, and combines well with the major rivers – Madeira, Mamoré and Guaporé. The main focus of human movement these days is the BR-364, which cuts the state more or less in half and, from east to west, connects a handful of rapidly growing nodal towns: Vilhena, Pimenta Bueno, Ji-Paraná, Ouro Preto, Jaru, Ariquemes and Jamari. Ji-Paraná is the largest, having grown from a tiny roadside trading settlement to a significant sky-scraping town of 108,000 people in the last forty-odd years.
The capital of Rondônia state, PORTO VELHO overlooks the Amazon’s longest tributary, the mighty Rio Madeira. In the 1980s, settlers arrived in enormous numbers in search of land, jobs and, more specifically, the mineral wealth of the area: gold and casserite (a form of tin). As in most regions, the gold boom has bottomed out and the empty gold-buying stores are signs of the rapid decline. Seen from a distance across the river, Porto Velho looks rather more impressive than it does at close quarters, though even more than Ji-Paraná, its newest buildings are reaching for the sky and the younger generation ensures that their weekend partying helps bring a modern Brazilian vibe through music to the city. The two bell-towers and Moorish dome of the cathedral stand out strikingly above the rooftops, while alongside the river three phallic water-towers sit like waiting rockets beside a complex of military buildings. A little further downstream the modern port and the shiny cylindrical tanks of a petrochemical complex dominate the riverbank.
In the town itself, the main street – Avenida Sete de Setembro – boasts most of the shops and has a distinctive market atmosphere about it, with music stores blaring, traders shouting and stallholders chattering on about their predominantly cheap plastic goods. Every other lamppost seems to have a loudspeaker attached to it. The city has a more relaxed ambience down on the far side of the old railway sheds, where you’ll find outdoor bars and cafés spread along the riverfront.
Although it’s a lively town, Porto Velho doesn’t have much in the way of a developed tourist scene beyond its main attraction, the wonderful Madeira–Mamoré Museu Ferroviário and the neighbouring Museu Geologico. The railway museum is jam-packed with fascinating period exhibits, from photographs of important railway officials and operatives from the past, to station furniture, equipment and mechanical devices – including an entire and quite spectacular locomotive, built in Philadelphia in 1878. For railway buffs, there’s also plenty of equipment and other locomotives to see around the old railway terminal adjacent to the museum. The Madeira–Mamoré (or Mad Maria) Railway was planned to provide a route for Bolivian rubber to the Atlantic and therefore the markets of Europe and the eastern US, but due to a series of setbacks during its forty-year construction it was only completed in 1912 – just in time to see the price of rubber plummet and the market dry up. The line was closed in 1960, and in 1972 many of the tracks were ripped up to help build a road along the same difficult route. There is also an artesanato and souvenir shop in the old railway ticket-office building.
The other museum in town, the Museu Estadual de Rondônia, on Sete de Setembro, has an ever-changing collection of historic photographs which often shows early explorers and pioneers travelling up uncharted rivers. It also has rooms with ethnographic artefacts gathered from indigenous tribes of the region, a paleontological display and a large exhibition of locally discovered crystals, fossils and minerals. One of the best things to do while you’re here is to take a short trip on a floating bar. They set out at intervals during the day – there’s almost always a 5pm sundowner tour and more frequent sailings at weekends – and for a few reís and the price of a beer or two you can spend a pleasant couple of hours travelling up and down the Madeira, sharing the two-storey floating bar with predominantly local groups. The atmosphere is invariably lively, and there’s often impromptu music.