Brazil’s Worst Highway: the BR319 Through the Amazon

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The Tarantula Road in Rondônia (read about it here) was a good introduction in driving through the Amazon, but when we tell Brazilians we are going to drive the BR319 their eyes open wide and they look at us with respect. “You’re sure you want to do that?” they ask. “That road is washed away.”

The BR319 is the 800-km-long road between Porto Velho (Mato Grosso) and Manaus (Amazonas). It was one of the first roads through the Amazon Forest, built by Brazil’s military regime in the 1970s. As was the goal for the better-known Transamazônica (read about our journey here), constructed around that same period to connect Brazil’s Northeast with the Amazon, the BR319 was built to open up the Amazon region for the rest of Brazil so it could be explored economically.

Opening up the Amazon along the BR319

However, since the engineers were as yet unfamiliar with the terrain – or had not properly studied it, you could argue – the road and especially the bridges were badly constructed. Lack of drainage quickly crumbled the thin layer of asphalt and annual floods have continuously washed away the rickety bridges. The road fell into disuse, and transportation between Manaus and Porto Velho today goes by (cargo) boats, a trip that takes between 3-6 days (downstream vs. upstream).

The road, or what was left of it, was about to be reclaimed by nature when the digital era found its way to Manaus, which needed a fiber cable for internet access. The BR319 had a new function. A cable was laid along the entire 800-km stretch and the telephone company of Embratel maintains it. Every 30 kms or so there is an enormous satellite tower as well as a site for a caretaker to live with his family.

A highway?

From Manaus going south they are working on resurfacing the first 200 kms. I’m not sure if this is Embratel’s doing or the government’s. As we understand it, Embratel maintains the bridges and when we drove the BR319, most of them were in good condition (note that this may change after any serious rain). A couple of them are still in bad condition though.

General condition of the road

At this moment I wouldn’t recommend driving this road with a MAN truck or any other truck of the sort. But then again, these last tumbledown bridges could be fixed this dry season making the road accessible for all types of overland vehicles within a year. No doubt commercial trucks will continue to use the ferry for the years to come.

Some impressions of the 5 days that we needed to cover the distance.

Day 1 (170 kms)

The ferry from Manaus crosses the Encontro das Aguas, where the black-water Rio Preto meets the white-water Solimões, which is a stunning sight. The ferry arrives at Careiro a Varzea, a village on stilts characterized by a lot of commercial activities: small wooden boats carrying passengers or bringing in fish, alongside the road all kinds of food stalls with fresh meat and fruits, and restaurants selling espetinhos (skewers with meat) and pratos feitos (set meals).

What you see is not shade but the meeting of the white Salimões River and the black Rio Preto. This is the official start of the Amazon River.

The BR319 adventure has begun. The first 100 kms are still excellent surface – not much of an adventure. Numerous white Volkswagen buses function as local buses. Houses on stilts, flooded lands, dead trees, lots of waterfowl and, on dry patches, buffaloes and cows.

Castanho is the last village to fuel up. Asphalt continues to be good. Easy driving. Few people live here but the area is under development for cattle ranches: lots of recently burned down forest hems in the road.

That afternoon we catch our first ferry which somewhere this year will cease to run as the military is about to finish the construction of an imposing looking concrete bridge, which is so high and large that we’ve found ourselves a perfect shady spot to spend the afternoon and decide to camp here for the night.

Day 2 (120 kms; avg 16 kms/hour)

The electricity wires along the side of the road betray civilization although there are but a few houses. New inhabitants mostly come from other regions in Brazil in the hope of building a future here, a hope which is reflected in the names of their ranches:

  • Sitio Bom Futuro (ranch Good Future)
  • Sitio Deus Proverá (ranch God will Provide)
  • Sitio Nova Vida (ranch New Life)
  • Sitio Paraíso (ranch Paradise)

In the middle of nowhere somebody is building a new, Seventh-day Adventist church. There is no house in sight though. Odd.

The road deteriorates with potholes while parts along the side of the road have disappeared into a meter-deep void. Halfway morning our speed has slowed down to 10-15 kms/hour which we will maintain for the next 3 days. Asphalt never really comes to an end, but it’s more a constellation of puzzle pieces than a road.

Around midday we reach the second ferry. There’s a village on this part of the river, largely inhabited by indigenous people. Lots of kids running around and playing in the water, and people sitting on verandas waiting for the heat to abate. It is incredibly hot during all these days, especially because there is a total absence of wind. As we cross the river, a freshwater dolphin accompanies the ferry.

Bandeirante
Bridge in need of repair

The road ceases being a road, even though at times we see the yellow line that once divided the 2-lane highway. This is no more than a trail meandering through rainforest. No people live here, partly due to the fact we’re driving along a Reserve. Forest, forest, forest, a couple of birds and lizards, a ribbon of something that once was asphalt and the two of us (+ 6 oncoming vehicles in the next 3 days).

Finding a place to sleep is tough, as it will be in the coming days. No shade to be found here! Finally we succeed at 4 o’clock, and manage a rinse in a stream and cooking a meal before a rain shower hits us. We’re grateful for the storm; it brings down the temperatures considerably.

Day 3 (100 kms; avg 12 kms/hour)

Driving brings us in a sort of trance. We’re not thinking, not acting (apart from staying awake and keeping the car on the road), just being. Slowly we bump down the track, swinging from left to right as the car moves through potholes, over bumps, down eroded stretches and back up again. Nothing to entice us.

8 more branches to go

This isn’t so much adventure as it is endurance. Music keeps us awake. Hour after hour we crawl at 15 kms/hour. In the heat, forever focused on potholes and with little distraction the journey becomes utterly exhausting. When we stop for a pee and turn off the engine we take in the silence of the forest. Correction: the Amazon forest is never silent. There are the sounds of birds, insects, and dry leaves when there’s the tiniest breeze.

Forest alternates with large, black-water lakes with surfaces smooth as glass. The trees around them are beautifully reflected. The storm last night felled a tree, which now lies across the road. Some eight thick branches need to be sawn off before we can continue. The saw we bought a couple of years ago is a great improvement on the machete we depended on to slash our way through the Southeast Asian jungles in Laos and Cambodia.

At 5 we succeed in finding a place to sleep. It has shade but no stream for a swim or rinse. We use our 10-liter shower bag instead. We appreciate the absence of mosquitoes during this entire stretch. In the evening, as the heat abates, it’s pleasant to sit outside and watch the pitch-black sky dotted with stars. We see the Milky Way.

Day 4 (160 kms; avg 21 kms/hour)

Endless Road. No shade. Scorching sun. Ribbon with pieces of asphalt continues. A greater number of reasonable bridges. Some have disappeared altogether but because it’s dry season we can detour through the now dry riverbeds. One bridge is extremely narrow, while on one or two others I have to coach Coen across because the planks are missing.

Civilization reappears and the ribbon now returns to a wide road which is terribly washboarded so speed remains low. Lots of burning forest, fazendas under construction, and hunters on motorbikes carrying guns as well as bows and arrows.

At 4 we call it a day. There is no shade and we sweat it out by spending much time in the Rio Santo Antonio. Talk with locals who have to carry water from this stream to their houses. We’re only 2 months in the dry season (another 4 to go) and already their wells are dry.

Day 5 (80 kms to start of the Transamazônica)

Macaws, toucans, howler monkeys. The locals caught a tapir last night, they’re on their way back to the forest to retrieve it.

Dust, dust, and dust. Wide road. Washboards. Horrible driving. More burning forest and burning grass plains (to stimulate the growth of fresh grass). So much destruction for so few cows. I’m considering becoming a vegetarian. At 10 o’clock we see the road sign that tells us Manaus is 640 kms behind us, and Humaitá another 30 kms ahead of us.

For more on Brazil, check out these articles:

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6 thoughts on “Brazil’s Worst Highway: the BR319 Through the Amazon

  1. Quando cortam uma arvore na Amazonia o mundo inteiro diz ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!
    Pelo menos duas estradas boas deveriam existir na Amazonia,uma de norte a sul e outra de leste a oeste,é a unica forma do Brasil ter soberania e desenvolvimento nessa regiao.
    Eu afirmo sem medo de errar que duas estradas boas nao farao mal algum para a floresta e ainda facilitaria a fiscalizaçao de toda irregularidade madereira,narcotrafico e posses ilegais de terras na regiao.Hoje a Amazonia é terra de ninguem justamente pela dificuldade de acesso.

  2. If people continue to clear Brazilian rain forests of trees the ultimate effect will be devastating to Brazil and an environmental disaster. Maybe it is just as well that there are few roads into the rain forests. Fewer roads means less destruction, less harm to the environment.. Responsible builders only use that wood that comes from responsibly managed forests.

  3. What a fantastic road. The fact of the possibility of being held up by Indians who would dig traps in the road and then ambush you makes the journey more exciting. Not too advisable on mountain bikes or even hitch hiking but if that is the only option. Go for it.

  4. Nice to see the road again, I travelled it in the mid 70-ties and I´m surpised it looks the same. I remember we took a small bus for maby 8 persons from P.Vehlo and Ive been on Rio Trinidad for to weeks from Bolivia.before that,The only passenger remember was a missionary. But I remeber the burning forrest and that there had been some killing ( I think it was quite big controverses with native indians) of roadworkers so that the military took over the projerct.Well thanks for your photos , Im sorry to say that I didn´t have any camera back then. Best Regards. Ola/Sweden

  5. i’m thinking of walking the segment between Manaus to the TA 230 ‘highway’. i know TA 230 but thought to try something wilder. Doable? Any advice? bo keeley

    • Heya Bo, I would say it is very doable. I think every 35 kilometer there is an Embratel tower. You could ask to pitch a tent or sling a hammock. Make sure you have your water and food with you.

      For more information you could check out this bicycle guy’s blog.

      Good luck and have fun!

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