Around 700km west of Belém – but closer to 800 as the river flows – SANTARÉM is the first significant stop on the journey up the Amazon, a small city of around 130,000 people, which still makes it the fourth largest in the Brazilian Amazon. Agreeable and rather laid-back, it feels more like a large town than a city – a world away from the bustle of Belém and Manaus. Even though the area around it has lately been transformed by a soy-growing boom, and the docks are now dominated by a Cargill grain terminal, this hasn’t had much impact on the town’s languid feel. But don’t be deceived: there are plenty of things to do here, and Santarém, positioned right in the centre of a region still largely (and inexplicably) unvisited by tourists, is the perfect base for exploring some of the most beautiful river scenery the Amazon basin has to offer.
Santarém is located at the junction of the Tapajós river and the Amazon; the waters mix in front of the city and the contrast between the muddy waters of the Amazon and the deep blue and turquoise of the Tapajós is as spectacular as the much better known merging of the Rio Negro and the Amazon in front of Manaus. During the dry season (June–Nov) the Tapajós drops several metres, fringing the entire river system with stunning white-sand beaches. This is the time to visit Alter do Chão, Santarém’s beach resort and certainly the most beautiful the Amazon has to offer.