I had looked out over Rio de Janeiro standing next to the statue of Cristo Redentor, I had snorkeled, kitesurfed and strolled the palm-lined beaches of northeast Brazil, ambled through colonial towns like Salvador da Bahia and admired modern architecture in Brasília. These places and activities were all highlights of Brazil and I felt I had seen quite a bit of the country. However, when I looked on the map, I realized there was a vastness I hadn’t explored at all, part of it being the Amazon.
Explore the Amazon
There are different ways of exploring the Amazon, for example by taking a boat from Belém to Manaus over the Amazon River or visiting some indigenous communities around Manaus.
There is a third way: driving down the Transamazônica. Since my partner and I are traveling in an antique Land Cruiser, that option easily won out over taking a boat. Having said that, you don’t need a car of your own to drive down this 2,500 miles east-west road that connects the Atlantic Ocean with an insignificant town called Lábrea (southwest of Manaus). You can rent a car in any of the bigger cities, or simply take the bus. Along the road you will find basic places to eat and sleep, but note that distances are long, so make sure you bring enough drinking water and snacks.
The Transamazônica was one of the first roads built to open up the Amazon to the rest Brazil, in the 1970s. It is still largely unpaved, although asphalting is underway between Santarém and the infamous Belo Monte Dam project. Go in the dry season (July – Oct), which may be incredibly dusty, but which is preferable to traveling here in the rainy season when red dust transforms into slick mud and stretches may become impassible.
In this article I will focus on the 625-mile stretch from Lábrea to Santarém, which took us 5 days to drive. A warning: this is not the place to see endless untouched rainforest – most of it has been cut for Brazil’s booming business of cattle ranching. The upside: stumbling upon a cattle drive with a handful of cowboys driving 1,000 – 1,5000 cows for weeks or months on end from a cattle ranch to a slaughterhouse, which is quite a sight.
As deforestation continues, you will find sawmills along the way. We stopped near the Floresta Nacional Humaitá and asked permission to visit one of mills, which was no problem. Workers were happy to explain what they were doing, how much they were producing and to demonstrate their machinery. The visit will give you an impression of the scale of Brazil’s (hard)wood industry. A lot of deforestation is legal, part of it is not – the latter is visible in e.g. trucks driving without license plates.
The Transamazônica passes Indigenous Territories, like T.I. Nove de Janeiro and T.I. Tenharim Marmelos. Here you will be stopped to either be asked for a fee or to take a look at their handicrafts. Although we didn’t do so on this particular stretch, you could ask for permission to see their village and maybe stay there. Our experience elsewhere in Brazil is that if you are prepared to spend some money, indigenous people generally are happy to receive you.
Please take note of what you buy: birds and other species are killed to make some of the handicrafts and apart from the fact that you (hopefully) don’t want to contribute to that kind of business, realize that when it concerns handicrafts made of endangered species, you can’t bring the stuff into your own country anyway.
National Park da Amazônia
The Transamazônica traverses the Amazon National Park, which is one of the most beautiful stretches on the route. It consists of dryland forest and is a good place for birdwatching enthusiasts as there are close to 400 bird species in the park. Other animals you may spot are black jaguars, pumas, and tapirs. There are two rustic lodgings and a couple of trails. You may have to register first at the IBAMA office in Itaituba, which is a good place to find reliable guides.
The Museum of Ford Motor Company – Fordlãndia and Belterra
In Belterra, Henry Ford laid out his rubber plantations to safeguard an unlimited supply of rubber for the Ford Motor Company’s tires. He planted a total of 1,5 million rubber trees in Fordlândia, his first project, alone. This, as well as a second project, failed for different reasons. You will see former residences, still inhabited today, and some of the company offices. There is a terrain with rubber trees and a small museum with photos and memorabilia. Ask for a guide to show you around and tell you the history of this place; it’s fascinating.
Alter do Chão – a River Bath or A Festa do Sairé
After so many kilometers of dust, you are ready for a bath! Although officially the stretch from Rurópolis to Santarém and Alter do Chão is not part of the Transamazônica, these towns are logical places to end your journey and relax for couple of days. Alter do Chão is a laid-back town situated along the Tapajós River with white sand beaches. This is thé place to soak off that dust and to enjoy a couple of caipirinhas (cocktails based on sugar cane liquor, sugar and lemon).
If you happen to be here in September: A Festa do Sairé takes place around the 15th, which is one of the best events in Brazil with all night long dancing and a music spectacle downtown.
It may be a pain to get to the Transamazônica and it most definitely isn’t a journey for comfort and luxury seekers, but this is one of Brazil’s off the beaten tracks well worth exploring. Have fun!
bio: Karin-Marijke Vis and her partner Coen Wubbels, photographer, have been overlanding in Asia and South America since 2003, and have been awarded the Overlanders of the Year Award 2013. They work as a freelance duo. Their work has been published in 4WD/car monthlies as well as in travel magazines. Follow them on landcruisingadventure.com, notesonslowtravel.com and instagram/photocoen
Well, I did it! Just barely, but I managed to “conquer” around 60 kilometers (37 miles) on one of the most challenging treks I’ve ever done. Four days and three nights of difficult uphill, painful downhill, sunburns, rain, aching muscles, and freezing nights in a tent was rewarded with some of the most beautiful scenery that ends with a visit to Machu Picchu. If you like a good challenge, llamas, starry skies, snowcapped mountains, sleeping in tents, and good food, then this is a trip for you.
The trek started out with a steady incline at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, so the air was thin to start with. The terrain changed from dirt to rock and back again pretty much the entire way. Horses would occasionally run by unmanned, local families would walk past carrying supplies, and sometimes a different tour group would pass us (or at least me). There were birds, flowers, wild animals, and sunshine all along the trail. The people in our group (11 of us) were from Denmark, France, America, and Ireland, and they were all lovely.
In my previous post I mentioned that I felt a bit unprepared, and I have to admit that I questioned my ability to get through the whole trek on day one, when I got hit with altitude sickness. I was worried that it would be an issue for me, and almost wonder if I talked myself into experiencing it subconsciously. After walking uphill for a few hours in the direct sunlight, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t take in enough air, felt dizzy and panicky, and needed to sit down. Fortunately, our guide Primo had his “magic potion” with him, which is some mix of herbs that are supposed to help open up your lungs to take in a bit more oxygen. After resting for a few minutes and breathing in the mixture, I was able to get going again, slowly at first, but I made it through the rest of the ascent with no issues. Sadly, since I had a little trouble the first day, I decided to take a horse for two hours at the beginning of the second day, which is exactly what I had hoped wouldn’t happen. I’m not a big fan of riding animals because I find it terrifying. Especially up windy mountains, through rivers, and down rocky terrain. However, I managed to survive, and on day two we made it to the highest point, which was 15,000 feet above sea level. I give approximate numbers for things like distance and altitude because even the guides seemed unsure at times of the exact numbers.
The company we chose was Cuscoperuviajes and our guide was great. He put up with our constant slowness due to picture-taking, outfit rearranging, and water breaks. The tour included horses to carry up to 6 kilos per person and cooks that ran ahead of the group to prepare the meals and set up camp. It was almost freezing at night, and we were so tired from hiking at least 12 miles every day that I could barely make it through dinner without passing out. However, being up so high on a clear night allowed us a view of the brightest star-filled sky I’ve probably ever seen.
In the end, I felt that I was prepared enough as far as gear went. We packed for pretty much every temperature, had great shoes and socks, plenty of first aid stuff, bug spray and sunscreen, snacks, raingear, and camera equipment. I definitely recommend plenty of pairs of socks and warm layers for sleeping. Also, you are provided with a thin sleeping mat but no pillow, so I was glad I remembered my travel pillow. I packed extra snacks but was surprised at my lack of hunger while trekking. I wasn’t in my absolute best physical shape, but it only slowed me down, I still finished.
At the end of the third day, we were taken to the hot springs, which were beautiful and very much needed. The rest of the group stayed on for a 4th day that allowed for activities like ziplining, but me and my two friends took a bus and train to a hostel in Aguas Calientes. We were determined to go out for drinks to celebrate surviving the three tough days, but of course wound up being tired and went to bed early to rest before our big day at Machu Picchu. We were pleased that it wasn’t as crowded there as we had feared, and we were free to roam around one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, frolicking with the llama population.
I definitely recommend this trek, and visiting Peru in general. Cusco and Aguas Calientes were both really neat cities that you have to pass through to get to Machu Picchu. Overall we spent two weeks, and we didn’t see nearly enough of Peru. If anyone has any questions about the trek or getting around I’d be happy to help, you can reach me here or on my website. Thanks for reading, more photos below!
I am writing from my sleeping bag in the Lima airport, getting ready to go to “bed” for the night on the food court floor. Today starts my two week trip to Peru, and I have an early flight to Cusco in the morning. In some ways I feel prepared (for instance right now I have a sleeping bag, ear plugs, and eye mask, while I see other struggling to sleep/fight sleep at food court tables), but in most ways I feel very unprepared for this trip. It was a spontaneous decision that myself and two girlfriends made just a few months ago, after finding ourselves on the same continent for the first time in over a year. Why not fly halfway around the world and hike Machu Picchu? I think a good bit of planning could have happened if we had really put our minds to it, but instead this will be an account of travel “winging it.”
It seems that the more I travel, the less I prepare. This is good in some ways, but of course could result in some major inconveniences. When I first left for a round-the-world trip in March of 2012, all I could think about for months in advance was plan, plan, planning. I even committed to the decision to save money and leave everything behind a full year in advance. Today, I find myself running to my flight as they are paging my name, only vaguely knowing the name of the hotel I am staying, not knowing the exchange rate for the country I’m visiting, etc.
This picture is a good representation of my current attention to detail in planning. Not at the top of my game, and maybe not completely recommended, but also not completely detrimental to a trip. Sometimes you just have to jump in without a plan.
Thanks to some internet research we came to the conclusion that a few basic tasks were necessary prior to arriving in Peru: booking a specific trek with a tour company due to limited availability, booking some basic internal flights before the price jumped, and knowing where to find the llamas (apparently they are quite bountiful). Some trips to our favorite outdoor clothing stores fitted us with sturdy boots, warm gloves, and plenty of layers for the high altitude weather. We used the company Cuscoperuviajes for our Salkantay trek. They were a bit cheaper than a lot of the other companies out there, and the reviews we saw were positive.
And the plan is to meet in Cusco.
I have a unique situation where I absolutely completely loathe flying, every single time. Unfortunately it doesn’t get better with experience. I also get anxiety and motion sickness on fast moving buses, and the thought of altitude sickness stresses me out. It’s not easy to want to travel so often but to be so scared of your means to do so. Sometimes you find yourself thrown into a situation by no one other than yourself, only to love and hate it at the same time. You might find yourself on a plane to get to the one place you’ve always wanted to go, only to wish you could call the whole thing off to escape the sudden onset of rough turbulence at 35,000 feet in the air. Climbing a mountain for four days to get to a World Heritage Site sounds like a great idea until you realize you aren’t really in shape for it and that you may suffer from altitude sickness and will be forced to ride on a disgruntled donkey along the edge of a cliff for hours on end. Travel has a way of pulling out the very best and worst of you, the most adventurous and the most fearful parts. But, you do it because you get something more out of it. You learn to depend on yourself in ways that you never thought you were capable. You have a new appreciation for where you are from, or maybe you find that you belong somewhere else. You meet people that inspire you to embrace life and adventure that you would have otherwise never met. Travel is one of the most enriching things you can do for yourself, and hopefully the people around you.
So all that said, here I am, waiting for an early flight, pushing all the anxiety I have to the bottom of my thoughts, and thinking about the positives. The photos I will take, the physical challenges I will overcome, and the new foods I will try. I’m thankful for my equally spontaneous friends and the chance to go see a new country and culture. Assuming I make it out alive, I’ll be back with an update on how it all went.
Has anyone else been to Cusco or hiked the Salkantay? Any advice on what not to miss or important things to pack would be welcomed!
I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.
You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!
As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.
At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)
Cost/day (for a family of five):
Strangest thing we’ve seen lately:
Before his wish to die, but well after 40 degree fever and horrifying nightmares, the kindly villagers performed ritual healing ceremonies on my husband Kobi. They picked two of this leaf, four of that one, this root, that berry and cooked them over a banana-leaf-sealed open-fired vat. Then, with ritual prayer chanting, candles, and incense burning, he was stuffed under a dozen thick blankets to breath the steam, drank a cup o it, and bathed in the waters. Their love and earnest determination to cure him were touching. Two days later, he was hospitalized.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Visiting the Huaca del Sol ruins near Trujillo was fascinating and is a great reminder that there is a lot more to Peru than just Inca ruins. Indeed, the Huaca del Sol is around 1500 years old and well predates the Inca ruins which are, relatively, brand new. The Huaca del Sol has some incredible murals. This guy was probably the most fascinating image we captured while we toured around.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
If I could have seen myself, it would have been me as I climbed over a fense into a field with a bunch of cows to go around a pack of angry dogs that were on our hiking trail and scared the stuffing out of me when they started to chase me off their path.
I know the cows thought I looked funny trying to quietly sneak through their pasture since they made a fuss and blew my cover and attracted the pack’s attention. Darn cows!
Cost: $20 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?
In and around Huaraz it’s common to see elderly Quechua woman ambling along paths, bent backed, hauling heavy loads in carrying cloths called K’eperina. Garbed in colourful attire, bowler hats perched upon their heads, they doggedly trek along steep, high altitude slopes that would have fit twenty-somethings huffing and puffing. One of these woman I remember particularly well, because she looked positively ancient. She hopped into a colectivo van I was taking into Huaraz, plopped her K’eperina down and took a seat. She was a tiny desiccated figure, with dark leathery skin and an expressive face full of crevices like the surrounding glacier ridden landscape. When she croaked in the local Quechua dialect she revealed a few crooked, yellowed and lonely teeth. Despite the heat she was heavily bundled in traditional attire and I couldn’t help but make the ghastly comparison with one of the wrapped Incan mummies I had seen recently in a museum in Lima. But alive she was, and after she got out of the the van she hoisted her goods over her shoulders and started shuffling determinedly onward to her destination.
Cost/day: $100 to $150 – There aren’t many cheap ways to see the Galapagos
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
The Galapagos islands are full of some fascinating and beautiful animals. The most striking part of any trip to the Galapagos however, is how absolutely unafraid the animals are of humans. We walked around the islands as blue footed boobies and frigate birds swirled around us and nested in trees no more than a handful of feet from our reach. As we walked about, they did whatever it was they felt like doing while we snapped photos and peered into their daily lives.
In one particular moment, we were sitting no more than four feet away from a blue footed booby as it was trying to feed its young when all of a sudden a frigate bird swooped in to try and snatch the food being exchanged. I felt the rush of the air from the giant bird’s wings as it swooped down on the boobies. The adult booby fought it off and for the next 10 minutes we watched as it alternated from feeding to fending off attacks from above, all while being completely uninterested in the dozen or so humans standing about watching. It was an amazing feeling to watch a day in the life of these birds without seemingly having any impact on their behaviour.