Santarém provides an authentic taste of rainforest culture. One of Brazil’s oldest settlements, it was home to Tapajós Indians before Portuguese colonists took over in 1661. There’s something here for everyone: ancient relics, museums, boat trips, nature walks and more than 60 miles of sandy beaches.
Five hundred miles upriver from the Atlantic, Santarém lies in the heart of the rainforest at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajós rivers. Most cruises call here, docking at the new Docas de Santarém terminal. As the town is in a region rich in timber, bauxite, rubber and gold, the cruise facility is part of an industrial zone that also caters for cargo ships.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
On a stroll along the waterfront you can view the “meeting of the waters”, where the blue-green Tapajós meets the milky-brown Amazon and the two rivers run parallel to each other for miles before blending together. For the best view of the phenomenon, climb the hill that rises up from the waterfront to the Mirante do Tapajós.
Taxis are readily available at the dock; however, it is only a 15-minute walk to the town centre. A guided tour of Santarém including the beach at Alter de Chao organised by a cruise line costs around £60 (Holland America Line). If you want to go it alone, a taxi to Alter de Chao would set you back £30-£40 each way, while a bus from the town centre costs £7-£9.
What to see and do
Whether you enjoy viewing ancient relics, flaking out on beaches, boating down the river past traditional caboclo communities or exploring dense forest — there are plenty of ways to enjoy Santarém.
Try boating, among many other activities in Santarém
What can I do with a half a day in Santarém?
Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady Conceicao — the oldest building in Santarém. Next, visit the Museu de Arte Sacra (Museum of Sacred Art), close to the church. Also worth a look is the João Fona, housed in the old Town Hall, which features a fine collection of ancient Tapajos Indian ceramics and 19th-century artefacts. And at the Museu Dica Frazau you can see the work of Dona Dica (pushing 100 years old), who has fashioned dresses for Belgian queens and tablecloths for the Pope, among others, using natural fibres such as tree bark, straw and patchouli roots.
What can I do with a bit longer?
The village of Alter do Chão, which boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, is one of Santarém’s biggest attractions. Here, you can spend the day relaxing, swimming or embarking on a boating adventure. Or head to the Floresta Nacional do Tapajós for an invigorating guided hike. This protected portion of the Amazon covers more than 1.3 million acres of rainforest, lakes, rivers and freshwater beaches.
Eat and drink
On board your ship or during an excursion you may get the chance to savour freshwater fish, prepared as local specialities such as piracuí bolinhos (fritters). Another popular snack is pão de queijo — little crispy dough balls with melted cheese inside.
River near Alter de Chao
Don’t leave the town without…
Wood carvings, masks, beadwork, artwork, leather goods and other hand-crafted items, which can be picked up at the market across from the riverfront, from the waterside floating market or the flea market inside the port facility. Elaborate hammocks (redes) are sold near the Praca da Matriz area. Feel free to haggle.
Need to know
It is safe to walk around Santarém but, like anywhere else in the world, don’t flash wads of money about or wear expensive jewellery. If you are heading out of town to explore the rainforest, it’s best to take an escorted tour to make the most of your time.
Best time to go
Santarém has a tropical monsoon climate and, due to its proximity to the equator, a steady temperature between 25C and 28C. Expect rain year-round, especially in the wet season (November to July).
Time your visit to avoid Santarém’s wet season
Alter do Chao gets packed during its annual Saire folklore festival in September. Another crowd-puller is the Jungle Marathon in February — an extreme footrace in the Tapajos National Forest that is considered to be the world’s toughest endurance race.