Originally published in September 2012 / updated in August 2019
The reason to republish this blog post (with minor adjustments) on driving the Transamazônica is the current shock of people over the raging flames that are tearing down the Amazon Rainforest. Many people are rightfully enraged, however, the story isn’t new.
This story shows that the core of the problems started much earlier. The destruction of the Amazon Rainforest is not about just one mad president who got recently elected. Only the scale and speed of the Amazon deforestation have changed.
Yes, the president has given green light to this massive deforestation but do know why he does this: to make money. The Amazon’s destruction is a direct result of choices that we, as a society at large, make!
Don’t blame the Brazilians for wanting the same level of economic comfort that we have; instead see what you, as an individual, can do to stop this madness: stop eating animal products, for one. If enough people do this, we don’t need soya fields and cattle ranches, and the Amazon Rainforest can flourish again.
Having said that, I understand the disconnect you may feel between ‘your’ actions and the Amazon deforestation. As you will read, driving here made me contemplate becoming a vegetarian but I never felt the urge to do it immediately (‘complicated’).
It took another year before I took that step (and, to be honest, I did that for health reasons; environmental awareness came only later). I haven’t been outspoken about this on our blog, but the situation being what it is today, I feel I have to – Please stop (or at least minimize) eating animal products!
Not eating animal products is not the only solution, of course. At the bottom of the page I provide a link to an article that offers a list of contributions you can make to help save the Amazon Rainforest.
The Construction of the Transamazônica
The TransAmazonian Highway, or Rodovia Transamazônica, is a 4000-km-long road connecting Northeast Brazil (from João Pessoa) to the village of Lábrea in the state of Amazonas in northern Brazil. The original intent was to connect the Transamazônica with Peru, farther west, but the project stopped for financial reasons.
Constructing the Transamazônica started in the 1970s and meant hacking a track through untamed Amazon Rainforest. Until not too long ago long stretches became impassable during the rainy season, and also today it remains a challenge as the laterite surface will turn into sticky mud.
In the years to come, the challenge of driving this road will diminish and eventually disappear. The asphalting of the Transamazonian Highway had begun in earnest.
We drove a large part of the Transamazônica, in several phases. Here are the impressions of our first approx. 1500 kilometers from Humaitá (at the end of our BR319 adventure) east to Santarém, driven during the dry season.
Day 1 on the Transamazônica – The Price of our Beef Consumption
On Day 1 we drove:
- a total distance of: 230 kms
- an average of 40 kms/hour
We were already in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, but our Transamazônica journey started with a ferry across the Rio Madeira. Freshwater dolphins accompanied us all around the ferry. On the other side of the river we waited for all other vehicles to leave and for the thick dust to settle.
How thick it was, I only realized when I got down from the Land Cruiser and stepped into ankle-deep dust that was finer than powdered sugar, similar to tapioca. The first 50 kilometers of fishtailing through sifting sand or on washboarded road surface took 1,5 hours, after which the road improves and became a smooth surface. Easy driving!
The Floresta Nacional was being burned down, as were many other parts along either side of the Transamazônica. All this is for the benefit of large-scale cattle ranching, which is one of the most polluting industries in the world (for more info, read this extensive United Nations study).
The Transamazônica cut through burned down terrain where only a few cows were grazing. The soil is infertile – cows require massive amounts of grass surface in the Amazon. Where there were fences, the burning was done to stimulate the growth of fresh grass. Large parts hadn’t been fenced in yet, which indicated recently burned-down forest.
At the Indian Reservation of Tenhari (or Teheri? not sure) we paid a road toll of 15 reais. On the east side of the road they were selling handicrafts but we were not allowed to take pictures. The same situation occurred in the next indigenous village. We explained the vendor that we couldn’t take macaw feathers with us because it’s illegal. He didn’t believe us.
“All tourists buy them and it’s indigenous art!” he answered.
Our discussions about these reservations and indigenous rights resurfaced, as it had during our earlier, five-month trip through Mato Grosso (Western Brazil). The indigenous people made money from a road they didn’t construct and didn’t have to maintain. They didn’t pay taxes either.
“They have rights but no obligations,” many Brazilians argue.
However, these rights can just be as easily taken away, of which the Belo Monte Dam project (near Xingu Park, read about it here) is only a too confronting example.
Indigenous rights is a complicated topic that often leads to heated debates in Brazil. Many feel the Amazon belongs to all and not just to the indigenous people. The indigenous people, however, are chased away (or murdered) so Brazilian colonizers (as they are called here) can take their homes, their place of heritage, and flatten it all to make way for cattle ranches, soya fields, or mines.
Whatever the argument is, two things are clear:
- There is no equal treatment and the indigenous people are on the losing side of it.
- The indigenous people are the saviors of the Amazon Forest. Without them, everything would have been gone a long time ago.
We had lunch alongside a river and went for a swim. It was so bloody hot that our bodies got overheated before they had even dried! Dark clouds were gathering though. Were we in for a rainstorm and some fishtailing through mud?
Like everywhere else in Brazil, the upcoming elections dominated the scenery of villages. People waving flags and holding billboards, and stickered cars were all over the place.
In Santo Antonio de Matapi we stopped at a sawmill (among the many we saw) and asked if we could visit it. No problem, they said and we learned that the sawmill provided jobs for 17 men.
They agreed that there was lots of logging in this part of the Amazon Rainforest. Trucks loaded with thick trunks dominated the road. The information we got from locals on the subject was depressing:
“The area is stripped of all its trees.”
“Of all the sawmills you’ve passed thus far, only 2 are legal.”
“Of course you don’t see numbers on these trunks (which is the case with legal logging). These are just farmers clearing new land for their ranches who sell this wood illegally.”
“No, IBAMA doesn’t check any wood coming from fazendas.” (fazenda = ranch)
Late afternoon the heavens opened and gave us a welcoming rainstorm. So refreshing! We found a good spot to camp along a black-water stream that locals used for drinking water.
Our Recommended Recovery Gear
Day 2 on the Transamazônica – The Amazon Rainforest is Brazil’s Modern Wild West
On Day 2 we drove:
- a total distance of: 300 kms
- an average of 43 kms/hour
Early morning the world was quiet with just a couple of twittering birds. Macaws were flying over. A big kingfisher took up its position on a branch above the black-water creek but then decided to move on. We leisurely got going and continued east, the morning sun blinding and warming us.
More wood trucks, more black soil that had recently been burned down. All day long we were surrounded by destroyed forest. We followed the Transamazônica in silence.
What can you say when you witness such an annihilation. For what? Beef! An ever-growing industry that knows no limits. So much forest for so few cows.
Like on the BR319, I contemplated becoming a vegetarian.
I had no clue know how they managed to control the fires, but they did. We never heard about fires getting out of hand, like in France or Australia. Maybe the forests weren’t dry enough in this humid climate? Plus, no doubt, it helped that wind was conspicuously absent in this part of the world.
In Manaus I had asked somebody why I didn’t see any sailboats on the Amazon River. His answer had been simple, “There is no wind.”
But what best showed the control they had over fires was that there stood houses in the middle of this scorched area. They remained untouched by the orange flames.
In Apui we talked to the owner of a lanchonette. He explained that all cattle had to be transported to Manaus because only in Manaus was a slaughterhouse. This could mean that, depending on where the cattle ranch was situated, up to 1500 kilometers of cruel cattle transport, largely by boat. I asked why there wasn’t a slaughterhouse in Apui.
“Politics,” he answered, which was the only too familiar an answer to such a question.
“Here, in Brazil, everything is politics.”
(Much farther east we came across a traditional cattle drive, a dying profession; read about it here).
The man offered us sugarcane juice. I sat with him and his family while Coen fixed a minor problem on the Land Cruiser. The man and his wife were from Mato Grosso.
“We wanted some adventure and came here.”
We would hear this more often in the days that followed. The Amazon is Brazil’s Wild West. Here you could start fresh, with hopes for a better future. Many did, and they came from all over Brazil.
We camped along a river and went for a swim. We were taken aback by enormously sized fish jumping across the surface. I was glad that this place had recommended to us by locals otherwise I would have feared the fish to be piranhas.
The water was cold and so refreshing – again. Oh, yes, we were we ready for this! After a day of driving the Land Cruiser was covered in red dust. It took me half an hour to clean most of it from the inside so we wouldn’t be sleeping in all that dust.
A quiet evening followed. Like the day before, we sat amidst a splendid frog concert under a black sky sprinkled with stars.
Day 3 on the Transamazônica – A Battle with Critters
On Day 3 we drove:
- a total distance of: 237 kms
- an average of 40 kms/hour
Nights were quiet in terms of critters. No mosquitoes! No midgets. But as soon as daylight hit the horizon, midgets woke up and went on their warpath. Our skin was their prize. We paid with little bleeding holes in our skin that itched for days. Repellent didn’t work.
Lunch was a massive disaster. We thought to have hit a nice spot along a white-water river. As soon as we had taken all stuff out of the Land Cruiser to cook along the waterfront, the midgets attacked us in full force. Horseflies and a legion of other creatures joined the feast.
Every couple of minutes one of us jumped into the water, almost screaming, to literally cool down our bodies that were rapidly becoming inflamed. We ate a simple lunch; the midgets, on the other hand, feasted on a grand, five-star dinner.
More hills, more forest, more devastation. Roller coasting over the hills. Bridges continued to be in good condition. A smooth, unpaved road continued until at 5 pm we stopped and found a perfect camping spot along a beautiful black-water river that meandered through the forest.
We loved to stay for a day but we knew the midgets would drive us away.
Day 4 on the Transamazônica – Amazon’s National Park, a Pinhead amidst the Deforestation
On Day 4 we drove:
- a total distance of: 153 kms
- an average of 30 kms/hour
Lots of forest this day, with walls of green on either side of the road rising high in the sky. More roller coasting up and down the Amazon.
Every once in a while, a fazenda is the reason for a clearing, allowing us to have views into the distance. Hill after forested hill, the colors fading into tinges of blue and grey. How much longer will they last?
We entered the Amazonia National Park. It was a stretch of a mere 100 kilometers along the 2000-kilometer-long Transamazônica. It was an attempt to prevent all forest along this road from being destroyed.
The Amazonia National Park is but a pinhead. When you look at a map, it looks ludicrous, really. Having this national park feels more like laying a sense of guilt to rest than a serious attempt to preserve something substantial.
As we stopped for lunch, we found a shady place along the Tapajós River and decided to call it a day. The place, however, was filled with litter – we were in the middle of Amazonian National Park! Still, it was nice enough to stay. No massive bug attacks.
We were visited by a couple of men who work here. One owned the nearby restaurant. Garimperos (mine workers) from the city drive down here, park their car and take a boat to their mine.
Earlier this morning we had stopped at a small airplane terminal from where four small planes fly back and forth to the mines deep in the rainforest to supply the miners with food and fuel.
“It was much, much worse. All along the river bank were houses of garimperos. Then the business was closed down, but now it’s picking up again. The IBAMA guys have to make money too.”
Seriously, the remarks of all those Brazilians living along this Transamazônica are so depressing!
Day 5 on the Transamazônica – Urbanisation in the Amazon Rainforest
On Day 5 we drove:
- a total distance of: 70 kms
- an average of 30 kms/hour
The night was too hot for a good night’s sleep. No wind. Suffocating humidity and temperatures. This is summer in the Amazon. No fun. Same during the day. Suffocatingly hot.
We drove past a bit more of the Amazonian National Park and then all forest was gone. Were we still in the Amazon Rainforest? Nah, that couldn’t be true. There was hardly a tree to be seen. Only grass, deforested hills, burning lands.
We were approaching Itaituba, a big city right on the Transamazônica. The driving was over a horrible road surface that could use some serious maintenance. Of course, the Land Cruiser paid its price for driving here. By the time we reached Itaituba, the exhaust had broken off.
More traffic, more smog, more dirt. Suburbs characterized by filth, chaos, lots of car and truck workshops. Downtown wasn’t too enticing either.
Itaituba did have a nice waterfront. As is typical for most cities in South America, local governments have the oddest sense of laying out parks and waterfronts. They provide benches all right. If lucky, but far from self-evident, they plant trees.
But why oh why, in this scorching climate, are so few banks ever placed underneath those trees?
The ferry across the next river left at 4 pm. Fuel trucks had to take separate ferries.
No wind. Just dust. Red, thick dust that clogged everything. In the middle of a large empty plot stood a gas station. The name was hand-painted: Auto Posto Samuel do Oleo.
A truck driver was refueling his fuel truck, as well as canisters and jerry cans that he had loaded on top of his truck.
It was a scorching, blistering place where you didn’t want to be. But it was 4.30 and it wasn’t likely for there to be another gas station farther down the Transamazônica. So we stayed for the night.
The gas stations had showers though, which were good. I got my towel, shampoo, and soap and jumped over mud pools to reach the bathrooms.
No light in the two toilets-cum-showers. I picked one. Doors couldn’t be locked. Walls were once plastered and painted green with blue tiles. Now they were covered in red dust and the tiles showed remnants of soap. The toilet had no seat, no lid, there was no toilet paper, the dustbin had no plastic bag.
Miracle: there was a place to hang my clothes and towel. Water was dripping from the tap. This didn’t mean a thing and before I undressed I checked the shower. It worked. I felt grateful.
I washed my hair with white shampoo. When I rinsed, the soap turned red. Same with body soap. Everything that touched my body turned red, as it had over the past couple of days.
The water didn’t run down the sewer and I suspected the drain to have never been cleaned from hairs. I couldn’t see to check; it was dark inside because there were no lights. Maybe that was just as well.
Water ran under the door, into the hallway, into the street.
The water level raised higher than the soles of my flip-flops. I stopped thinking about it. I wished the water were colder. Have you ever wished for your shower to be colder than it is?
Nevertheless, the water was refreshing. Getting rid of that layer of red was too. When I heard somebody enter I shouted to make my presence known and hoped this was respected by the visitor. It was.
We prayed for rain. We got three drops and were thankful. The sky darkened but it was no more than a windstorm until much later in the evening when the rumbling of thunder became more serious.
Clouds, please, explode!
Day 6 on the Transamazônica – From Hell to Paradise
On Day 6 we drove:
- a total distance of: 140 kms of Transamazônica
- and an additional 217 kms to the Tapajos River
- an average of 40 kms/hour
We enjoyed a good breakfast at the gas station with cafezinho and pão de queso. We went next door to a tornearia to weld the radiator that had broken off.
Coen experimented some more with the air pressure in the new car tires we had bought in Manaus. There, people had said that the car-tire pressure should be 70 psi but that didn’t feel good at all. Little by little he was bringing the pressure down. They were at 40 psi now.
The last stretch on the Transamazônica was boring. Everything around us had been cultivated with farms and villages. The road north to Santarém was under construction.
However, the stretches of tarmac here were heaven, heaven, heaven!
Oh, the contradiction of it all! Being horrified by the destruction of the Amazon Forest to make way for development yet crying with delight with the first stretch of smooth asphalt after 2,000 kilometers of dirt road!
The asphalt alternated with the most horrible sandy, bumpy stretches you can imagine. Road construction was going on all over the place. Lots of thick concrete, humongous bridges were being constructed as well.
Driving was utterly insane and exhausting. What an excruciating day of driving.
Read More: The Magic-number Car Tires for Overlanding
We took a turn to Belterra, continued another six kilometers and looked at an ocean stretching in front of us. Wait, this was the Amazon, right? There’s no ocean here. There couldn’t be. Were we hallucinating?
We were staring at an enormous expanse of water all right, but not the ocean.
This was the Tapajós River. We couldn’t see the other side of it. A local told us that the river was four kilometers wide here. It took three hours by boat to cross. It was an incredible sight.
Along the water lined a white beach, just like any beach scenery along the coast. Yet the water was sweet, the air had no salty feel.
We had landed in paradise!
Meanwhile the Amazon Rainforest is Burning Down – What Can you Do to Help?
When we had this wonderful road trip in 2012, signs that things weren’t going well, were for all to see. However, nobody could have predicted that the Amazon Rainforest would be deforested in such a speed as it is today.
To get back to my original point in the introduction: What can you do?
- Stop (or minimize) eating animal products is one – Here’s a recent article on the subject by Independent and another article by Vice.
- There are many other useful actions you can take – Here’s a useful list; do check out the links mentioned in the text to get involved.
What do you do to help the Amazon Rainforest? Feel free to share with us in the comment section below.
Guidebooks on Brazil and the Amazon Region
A note on the guidebooks:
- The Unibanco Brazil Guidebook and Amazon Guidebook are almost out of print. Unfortunately, because they were the best guidebooks we had in Brazil, all written by local authors. I hope they will produce a new edition of their entire series. Do see if you can find them.
- We have long been a fan of Insight Guides with their photo-rich guidebooks that entice you to go and travel.
- In our experience, Bradt Guides has the best in-depth information on any region. We didn’t know this Amazon Highlights Guidebook during our journey but would certainly pick it if we were to return
Check out: The Tire-in-a-Mile T-shirt Collection
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