Alter do Chao

The small community of Alter do Chao lies on the bank of the River Tapajos and is around twenty mile upstream of Santarem. Until the 18th century the village was inhabited mostly by the Boraris people who lived principally by fishing, today the 1298 citizens still depend on fishing, but have added handicrafts and tourism to their livelihood. The name Alter do Chao translates to ‘Altar of the Earth’, relating to the flat topped hill, supposedly like a church altar, which provides a back drop to the island.

The Magellan arrived at 7am, it was a beautifully sunny morning, a blue sky scattered with little white puffy clouds. It promised to be another very hot day. We could see the small village settlement a short tender ride away, surrounded by stretches of pure white beach, with colourful little craft bobbing and glinting offshore.

When the tenders had been safely winched down to river level, unhooked and made ready to take passengers, the exodus began at 7.30am. We decided not to join the early lemmings, but to have a leisurely breakfast then join the queue. However, today most people seemed to prefer a longer lay-in (the clocks went forward one hour overnight), at 9am we eventually made our way down to deck 3 boarding just the 4th tender to depart.

On arrival at the tiny pier, as in Boca da Valeria we quickly negotiated with one of the speed boat drivers moored up on the adjoining beach, on a price to take us to ‘Lago Verde’, a picturesque lagoon whose waters turn from blue to green during the day and the beach that ‘The Guardian’ described as ‘the most beautiful freshwater beach in the world‘, comparing it as the Brazilian Caribbean.


Concerningly, after being issued with life-jackets we sped off into the small bay, rapidly passing the ‘ most beautiful freshwater beach in the world’ and turned into a large lagoon that didn’t seem to be changing in colour, much, certainly not green. Skirting the shore line we eventually eased off the power and entered a mystical world of submerged trees, our guide called it the ‘Magical Forest’, I had to agree it was a good description. As we went deeper into this weird, surrealistic forest we came across a small narrow passage way of clear water that took us past a few local fishermen huts, seemingly vacant, but they could have been sleeping as it seems that most fishermen on the Amazon, do their work at night with lights.

We saw birds of many sizes and colours, a tortoise sitting on a floating log (so said our guide), but I think more likely a turtle and we heard monkeys chattering in the tree canopy projecting from the water. With the engine cut, we glided to a stop, the silence, as was our surroundings, very unnerving! Were they really monkeys? Or, were they ghosts of monkeys? And, where were the huge anacondas that our guide told us that inhabited this place? There are an awful lot of submerged and twisted branches, giving more than a reasonable impression of being able to leap out of the water and strike. I was pleased when the motor again kicked in and we continued our weaving motion again between tree trunk and tangled knots of root wood.

Eventually breaking free of this spooky ‘fairy tale’ world we again entered the lagoon, it was still exactly the same colour. Arcing round into another lagoon we again followed the course of the bank, spotting more colourful birds flitting about in the vegetation, with names that our guide pronounced with ease, but we could not.

We eventually ran out of forest and then cut back across the lagoons and entered the bay once more, with motor on full throttle we headed for the ‘ most beautiful freshwater beach in the world’. Slowing down we turned towards the shoreline and beached the prow of our craft on its gorgeously white sand. We stopped here for just 10 minutes or so, though I think our driver and guide would have preferred longer, unfortunately for them their latest clients were not in the least interested in sunbathing and after warnings about needlefish, swimming was not going to happen. Our guides’ early tale of his unfortunate brother and an encounter with a needlefish that wriggled into his penis, resulting in being rushed into hospital for surgery only last week, put paid to any thought of entering this water. We satisfied our selves with photos and consideration of whether ‘The Guardian’ was correct in its description. Compared to many saltwater beaches we have had the good fortune to visit, then no, it doesn’t compare to the best, but it does score highly. It has white sand, plenty of shade from trees and man-made structures. Places to sample cold drinks and food and there are water sport activities available. The surrounding scenery is unique and quite pretty. So, in conclusion the newspaper article is most probably correct concerning freshwater and sandy beaches.

We completed our speedboat ride back at the small pier, paid the guide and headed into the village to sample its delights. Many more cruisers had by now arrived, the majority seemed to be investigating the dozen or so ‘trinket’ stalls conveniently arrayed around the toilet block next to the pier (great selling point!)

The centre of the village was just a ten minute stroll away, but after the cooling wind tunnel effect of a speedboat ride, the heat of sun on tarmac and concrete was quite oppressive and I started to sweat profusely long before we found the shade of a tree and convenient bench.

After a quick circuit of the shops we took the steps down onto the beach promenade and found another tree with a bench. From there we had a perfect view of the ‘most beautiful freshwater beach in the world’. What was I thinking of? From the outside, looking in, it was now obvious that this beach is definitely the ‘most beautiful freshwater beach in the world’, it just turned out to be a matter of perspective! From the village, the strip of heavenly sand can only by reached by small blue and white rowing boats, and there were plenty on offer at $5 a return trip. Many from the Magellan were making the short five minute journey.

Cooled and partly refreshed we headed up the concrete promenade until it degenerated into a wooden walkway, then a scrubby little path winding under trees until we were halted by mangrove. Retracing our steps we  continued to follow the now blistering beach back to the pier, photographing a couple of Iguanas and some pretty yellow breasted birds on the way.

We were hot, sweating, nearing exhaustion and in need of cold drinks and aircon, so we caught the next tender boat back to the ship.

Iced drinks quaffed, cold shower endured and more calories taken on board for the afternoon’s excursion we headed back to Alter do Chao. Again we found ourselves in the village square and again Sue haunted the shops for ‘something or other’, while I sought the sanctuary of tree and bench.

As before we moved down along the concreted beach walkway, stopping at every opportunity to rest and natter to fellow passengers. Finding out what they had photographed, playing a game of who had snapped the more exotic species. No one could top my domestic cat up a tree, which at a squint was definitely a puma!!

Eventually arriving back at the toilet block stalls, Sue began negotiations for a small parrot statue. To her surprise, earlier that morning she had recognised the stall holder as being the one that she had bought the piranhas from in Santarem, he had wanted too much for the bird at $75 (I had only given her $20). On our first return to the ship she had tried again and he had relented to $60. Her next attempt after lunch reduced it further to $40 and she finally got success and he admitted defeat as we were about to depart the village for the last time.

The ship raised anchor at 7pm and headed down stream. We now have two river days on board.

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