Politically divided between the states of Pará and Amapá, the eastern Amazon is essentially a vast area of forest and savanna plains centred on the final seven hundred miles or so of the giant river’s course. Belém, an Atlantic port near the mouth of the estuary which has undergone something of an urban renaissance in recent years, is the elegant capital of Pará and a worthwhile place to spend some time. The city overlooks the river and the vast Ilha do Marajó, a marshy island in the estuary given over mainly to cattle farming, but with a couple of good beaches.
Pará has always been a relatively productive region. Very little of the wealth, however, ever reached beyond a small elite, and falling prices of local commodities on the world markets have periodically produced severe hardship. Today, the state is booming once again, largely thanks to vast mining and hydroelectric projects in the south and west of the state. The landscape of southern Pará, below Marabá and the Tocantins-Araguaia rivers, is savanna rather than forest. Over the last twenty years some of the most controversial developments in the Amazon have been taking place here.
Amapá, a small state on the northern bank of the Amazon opposite Belém, is a fascinating place in its own right. A poor and little-visited area, it nevertheless offers the opportunity of an adventurous overland route to French Guiana and on into Suriname, Guyana and Venezuela – or even back to Europe via a regular Air France flight between Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, and Paris.
Apart from Belém and the area around it, the most interesting section of the eastern Amazon is the western part of Pará state, where the regional centre is Santarém and the neighbouring beach village of Alter do Chão is one of the most beautiful spots in the Amazon. Connections in the region are pretty straightforward, in that you have very few choices. The main throughway between Belém and Manaus is still the Amazon, with stops at Monte Alegre, set amidst a stunning landscape of floodplains and flat-topped mesas housing some of South America’s most important archeological sites; Santarém, at the junction of the Amazon with the most beautiful of its tributaries, the turquoise Tapajós river; and the less enticing Óbidos. There are good highways south from Belém towards Brasília (the BR-010) and east into the state of Maranhão (the BR-316). Across the river on the north bank of the Amazon there is just one road from Macapá, the capital of Amapá state, towards the border with French Guiana. It is only asphalted for the first third of its length and is often impassable in the rainy season. The BR-010 crosses the powerful Rio Tocantins near Estreito (in Maranhão) close to the start of the Transamazônica highway. If you’re coming from the south, connections with westbound buses and other traffic are best made at Araguaina (in Tocantins) where there’s a small rodoviária and several hotels. The first stop on the Transamazônica within Pará is Marabá, some 460km (12hr) by bus from Belém. Continuing from here, the Transamazônica reaches Altamira, on the navigable Rio Xingu, a small, relatively new city over 300km west of Marabá. With a population that’s grown from 15,000 in 1970 to over 130,000 today, Altamira is at the centre of an area of rapidly vanishing jungle. Beyond here the Transamazônica becomes impassable. The Transamazônica highway and southern Pará are, it must be said, among the least attractive and most desperate places to visit in Brazil. The poverty and sheer ugliness of the region after four decades of deforestation are the best counter-arguments to the common Brazilian claim that clearing the forest is necessary for development. Pigs will fly before development comes to southern Pará on this evidence.