This part of our trip even from the very first day of planning was a headache to plan, a challenge but also something that we had been waiting for. Driving through the BR-319 and the infamous BR-230 (officially called The Rodovia Transamazônica) was the ultimate overland crossing as the proximity to the world’s biggest river makes, for parts of the year, both of them impossible and impassable.
Working on the logistics, calculating time and adding the delay we had from my father’s incident, we started our adventure in mid August, a bit after the rainy season with BR-319, a Brazilian highway with a total length of 857 km that links the cities of Porto Velho and Manaus. With that delay given, we were forced to change our plans a bit and drive only the first 457 km of BR-319 up to Humaita. Truth to be told now, this first part was nothing like the adventure we were looking forward to. It is totally paved with right and left huge deforested areas turned into farmlands. Our previous searches on You Tube offered many entertaining glimpses of the considerable challenges on this infamous highway that crosses the Amazon.
From here and after a quick river crossing, we entered the BR-230 that starts running parallel to the Amazon for over four thousand kilometers of mud and jungle. Designed in the seventies as a fully paved road, the huge construction costs and the remoteness of their path led to abandon the original idea and build the BR-230 (its official name) as a dirt road in almost all its extension. The first 1.600 kilometers, our target, remain completely unpaved, making it difficult, bumpy and with pits and holes capable of dismantling any vehicle. Voukefalas was about to be put up for an endurance test. It took us four and a half long, hard and nerve testing driving days to complete the task and finally enter Itaituba. Along the way we spent our nights free camping near the jungle or in small settlements. The second day was the hardest as the latest rain had created huge wash outs that made Voukefalas drive on three and at times on two wheels on the ground in order to cross them over. The scenery was exceptional and the pay off was worth it for the bad road conditions!!! While crossing, we were lucky to spot a young black puma and a small family of raccoons crossing the road right in front of our astonished eyes. The downside of it was that we also crossed huge areas being cleared from the jungle in order to be replaced by cattle farms.
In Itaituba we spent the night outside the police station (no, we didn’t do anything bad, we were just offered that option when we asked where was a place to camp). We took the route for Santarém, a very worthwhile stop that provides easy access to the Floresta Nacional (FLONA) do Tapajós and other jungle and river areas, with great hiking, canoeing, wildlife spotting and visits to local communities. Here our route with the crew from “the pin project” (we traveled together since Puerto Maldonado read their adventure here) was meant to split as we were heading west to Manaus and they were heading east to Belém. Before we split though, we spent our last days in Alter do Chão, 33 km west of Santarém that is best known for its Ilha do Amor (Island of Love), a picturesque island ringed by a white sand beach directly in front of the town. In high water, the time we were there, the island becomes much smaller and almost completely submerges. The beach restaurants and cool, calm water of the area though makes it a great place to chill out, something that we both needed after the BR 230.
Alter do Chão is much more than a beach town. The lagoon (Lago Verde) is home to many animals and can be explored with a combination of small speed boat and canoe to nearby flooded forest reserves and isolated communities. Rochelle loved the beach and was amazed at the fresh water beach swims. I literally couldn’t find her one afternoon as she went off swimming in the sunset. After a week we said goodbye to our fellow overlanders and boarded our boats for a two days sail up the Amazon. Niko and Georgia, in case you happen to read this, thank you for sharing an unforgettable experience with us and we wish you good luck to the rest of your adventure.
On our boat now, we experienced the great Brazilian hospitality and we were given permission from the captain to camp on board while sailing. We met and talked to lots of people that were interested in our trip. With my little Portuguese we managed to communicate and get local advice and info about the rest of our course. After two wonderfully relaxing days we reached Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city, an urban metropolis in the middle of the jungle and a major port for ocean vessels that sail up 1500 km from the ocean. Manaus is no colonial gem, but does have an amazing theatre and some minor colonial buildings around its busy port on display. It’s mostly a place to stock up on anything you forgot to pack or to refill your tank with beer and catch up on the internet after a week long in the forests. Based out of here we took a day-long jungle tour that took us through some of the many places, both up and downriver, that are fairly easy to reach from the city. Next up was a drive through Roraima where the tropical rainforest gives way to broad savanna. This drive included most of the Brazilian territories of the Yanomami, one of the country’s largest surviving indigenous peoples. It was here that we were hoping to see some raw wildlife, something that didn’t happen. See, wildlife has this charisma to appear only when least expected. For us this is one of the characteristics that make it so unique (we explain why further down). So after a great walk to some nearby waterfalls, we reached our final stop in Brazil, Boa Vista is the state’s capital that still doesn’t make the itinerary of most travelers but serves mostly as a transfer point to overlanders heading to Guyana.
The chapter about Guyana in our guide book starts: “Few places on the planet offer raw adventure as authentic as the densely forested Guyana. Although the country has a troubled history of political instability and inter-ethnic tension, underneath the headlines of corruption and economic mismanagement is a joyful and motivated mix of people who are turning the country into the continent’s best-kept ecotourism destination secret.”Just this was enough to make us cross into this wonder of a country. Our first stop was Lethem. From here a long three to five day- drive would bring us to the capital of Georgetown. Why three to five? Well, in this part of the country roads don’t exist and the only drivable option is a trail “that locals use to bring in and out their supplies.”
As we rolled out of Lethem, we didn’t know what to expect. The first part included the Rupununi Savannas, an Africa-like plain scattered with Amerindian villages and a diversity of wildlife. Rivers cut through the plains and overflow during the rainy season. After a couple of flooded passes we came to rescue to a minivan that was stuck in the mud. Voukefalas was impressive once again and finally we ended up at Annai (the heart of the north Rupununi) to spend the night in the airstrip at Rock View Lodge. The next day we were told that there would be even a bigger challenge, so we were up and ready as early as possible. The first 6-7 hours were slow and full of dangerous mud crossings that had been made even deeper by big trucks. With lots of caution and with Rochelle’s guidance (the best Co-Pilot & Spotter ever) we managed to go through them successfully. And yes, finally Rochelle got great use out of her gum-boots!!!
By lunchtime we reached the Iwokrama Centre for Rainforest Conservation and development, established in 1996. Going through their brochure, we read that this is a unique laboratory for tropical forest management and socioeconomic development for Amerindians. Its size of 3710 sq km of virgin rainforest is home to jaguars (South America’s largest cat), the world’s largest freshwater scaled fish (arapaima), and the world’s largest otters, river turtles, snakes, eagles and caimans. But yes, you guessed it, the wildlife once more was difficult to spot and therefore we saw none of the above. After our lunch and as the prices of the lodge were way out of our money range, we pushed on.
In this part we were driving through thick jungle with deep water crossings and in some cases way over our bonnet. Our investment in a snorkel for the car definitely paid off and Voukefalas for one more time proved to be a trustful member of our team. Long after the sunset we reached 58 mile, a gas station-Christian community that accommodates travelers crossing this hard road. This was our pit stop for the night and the next day we reached Liden where the trail ended. From there the way to the capital was just a straight drive.
Georgetown is an easy-to-navigate city with impressive architecture and a laid-back real-life chaos. In our quest to seek out the city’s riches, we explored the city centre, took care of our visas for Suriname and enjoyed a Caribbean influenced meal among locals before we hit the Eastern Highway that follows the coastal plain to the Suriname border. The whole coastal region is collectively known as Berbice. Corriverton, our last stop was actually two small towns on the west bank of the Corentyne River, bordering Suriname. The next day we came face to face with the most bureaucratic border crossing in this trip. It took us a total of 5 hours and 20 different tasks just to check out of Guyana and finally board the ferry to Suriname. On the other side of the river the entry was exactly the opposite, a straight forward half an hour and we were in.
Welcome to Suriname, a warm, dense labyrinth of rivers with live rhythm of ethnic diversity. From the country’s colonial capital, Paramaribo, to the jungles of the interior and everywhere in between we got a genuine welcome. Whether from the descendants of escaped African slaves, Dutch colonialists, Indian or indigenous Amerindians, this country welcomes overlanders with a smile. Paramaribo itself is loaded with interesting venues, party-hard night spots and exceptional restaurants. One of the most unique experiences we had was a drive-through currency exchange office and a museum visit. We made it only until the restaurant as we had a bit of a hangover from the rum of the previous night. When we finally recovered and headed to the museum, it was already closed. Way to go, Overlanddiaries. Double issued stupid pass!!!
Cruising downtown, we came across black and white colonial buildings and line grassy squares, food stalls of spices and Indian roti shops and Maroon artists selling colourful paintings. One thing worth noticing is that the inhabitants (locally known as Parbos,) are proud of their multi-ethnicity and the fact that they live in a city where mosques, Christian churches and synagogues lay together in harmony. After a couple of days in the capital and one jungle stay in an inland river, we crossed in French Guiana, a tiny country of colonial architecture, prison-camp history (watch “Le Papillon”) and some of the world’s most diverse plant and animal life. It is here that we finally came across a sloth on the ground (they only come down from the trees once a month to poo). We saved him from his attempt to cross the road and safely returned him to the forest. Isn’t wildlife really wonderful when it appears when least expected? At this point and by pure luck, we found out that French Guiana is also a base for space launches and that the next day a satellite launch would take place in the nearby city of Kourou. It was an opportunity that we wouldn’t miss for anything in this world and yes, we were there! After the successful launch we drove through the capital of Cayene and finished up with a visit to an area that migrants from Lao call home nowadays. As a total, all of the three Guyana’s were really interesting and although in a fast pace, we were really glad we took the effort to visit them. They are all distinct one from another and they all are worth a visit by far.
– Guyana English speaking largest population is from East India and the best rum in the world, El Dorado, is made here.
– Surinam Dutch speaking drive on the English side of road. The Prime Minister has an amazing history and is wanted for smuggling 500 kg of cocaine to Amsterdam.
– French Guyana is like a mini France with great groceries to buy with Euros, a Lao town and a space station.
All of them a great surprise!!!
Further on, we reentered Brazil with direction Macapa, a long straight road of nothing worth mentioning. From here we would take a barge down the river finishing our passage through the Amazon basin in the river’s mouth at Belém. The adventure goes on…