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Equatorial, Wild and Most Curious
Marajo Island at Mouth of Amazon River
By Larry Rohter
The Island of Marajo, at the mouth of the Amazon River

Even for Brazilians, who have left almost no nook or cranny of their vast country unexplored, the island of Marajó, at the mouth of the Amazon River, seems a distant and exotic destination.

The size of Switzerland, Marajó abounds with exotic wildlife, jungles, beaches, lagoons, mangrove swamps and flood plains, but has few permanent human inhabitants and is permeated with an end-of-the-world feeling. No wonder then that "At the Limit" - the Brazilian equivalent of the television reality show "Survivor" - was once shot on Marajó.

For the adventurous or curious, though, Marajó and the group of smaller islands that surround it have an almost irresistible appeal. Rarely does nature in all its intimidating majesty seem so close at hand: Two gigantic bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and the Amazon River, confront each other offshore and together shape human life onshore into a battle of another sort, against the stifling exuberance of the tropics.

Which is not to say that conditions on Marajó are necessarily spartan. Yes, luxury is hard to obtain, but in three trips over the last five years, what has impressed me most is how much more welcoming to visitors the archipelago is today than at the time of my first sojourn, in 1978. With the construction of several hotels in recent years, it is now possible to sample the wilds and then return to the comfort of an air-conditioned room and a cold drink.

A water buffalo on Marajo Island

That's exactly the routine I followed on my most recent visit, in October. After strolling along an isolated beach, where waves lapped the white sands, I would return to my hotel, the Ilha do Marajó, and relax poolside or play table tennis. After the tide had changed, I would return to the same spot on the beach, only to find that as a result of the eternal struggle for supremacy between the Amazon and the Atlantic, what had earlier been salt water was now fresh water, or vice versa.

For those with the time and the money, there is also the possibility of hiring a boat through a travel agency and trying to chase down a pororoca, the endless wave of the Amazon. A monthly phenomenon related to the cycles of the moon, a pororoca develops when the Atlantic Ocean tide advances into the river basin and creates a giant swell that flows upstream for several hundred miles at speeds of 20 miles an hour or more.

Pororocas occur in river channels all over the eastern Amazon, but some of the most spectacular waves, 10 feet high or so, occur near the north shore of Marajó - as local people, forced to rely on canoes rather than motorboats - know all too well.

For residents and visitors alike, island life tends to be concentrated in the northeast corner, where the towns of Salvaterra and Soure, both on the Bay of Marajó, face each other across the placid, half-mile-wide Paracaury River, which can be crossed by ferryboat or water taxis. The main hotels are all there, down along the riverfront or the bay, and many of the working ranches that offer lodging to tourists and a glimpse of the Marajó cowboy's rugged life are close by too, less than a half hour by car.

A beach on Marajo Island

The ranch experience is an essential part of any Marajó visit, and the most comfortable of the rural settings available to visitors is at the Marajó Park Resort Hotel, which is actually on the island of Mexiana, just north of the main island, across a narrow channel. The Equator runs through the middle of Mexiana, and the island teems with tropical wildlife in a way that is scarcely imaginable, from alligators and jumbo catfish in the rivers to graceful egrets and noisy toucans in the air.

Nature excursions from hotels are led by knowledgeable caboclos, or native river dwellers, and my outing, at the peak of the dry season, did not disappoint. Four-foot-long iguanas scampered across laterite roads as my fellow guests and I approached in a jeep.

And when we stopped at a canal to throw in a net, we almost immediately caught several adult pirarucu, a species of giant bass that grows to be as long as eight feet and typically weighs more than 200 pounds. And that's no fish story.

Once, I was in a canoe with our guide, Raimundo, who warned me not to fall into the water, which was full of stingrays and lamprey and electric eels. Returning to land, we first saw herds of wild boars, Marajó ponies and capybaras, large, short-tailed, semiaquatic rodents native to the Amazon, and then a troop of squirrel monkeys screaming at us from the trees.

We could also distinguish animals rustling in the nearby copses, and since we were in an area known to be a leopard habitat, it was entertaining to think that was what we were hearing.

Water buffalos roaming on Marajo Island

Most of the members of my group were French tourists and newcomers to the Amazon, and from them, the superlatives flowed: "C'est magnifique! Fantastique! Incroyable! Vraiment, c'est le top!" is what I heard over and over again as their cameras clicked.

I couldn't disagree: In 26 years of traveling all over the Amazon region, I had never seen so much wildlife in one place, except at a zoo in Manaus that is operated by the Brazilian Army's jungle warfare school.

But Marajó's signature animal, odd though it may seem, is the water buffalo, said to have arrived accidentally from French Indochina in the 1920's, when a ship bound for French Guiana wrecked just off the coast. The island, in fact, today has four times as many buffalo as people - 600,000 versus 140,000 - and the animal's presence permeates life on the island.

The local police, for instance, patrol on water buffalo rather than horses, and visitors to any ranch can also ride the beasts, which, despite their fierce look, are docile. Water buffalo are most common out on the flood plain to which they are supremely adapted, but they also wander the streets of Salvaterra and Soure and appear on restaurant menus as a local delicacy.

Fishing in Amazon

Buffalo meat may not sound particularly appetizing, but it turns out to be lean and to have, according a United States Department of Agriculture bulletin, "40 percent less cholesterol, 55 percent less calories, 11 percent more protein and 10 percent more minerals " than beef. Buffalo cheese, another Marajó favorite, also proved tastier than I would have thought. The two are combined in a dish known as a Marajó filet, with melted cheese on top of grilled buffalo steak, but local restaurants also serve lots of fish (especially bass and catfish) and crab.

With all the animal life, it is sometimes easy to forget that Marajó also fascinates archeologists and others interested in Amerindian cultures. From about the fifth century A.D., the island was inhabited by a people renowned for pottery featuring complicated geometric designs, most often in red and black, and anthropomorphic figures.

Though this group vanished, examples of its Marajóara pottery, some of it recovered by caboclos as they go about their normal farming and fishing activities, are on display at the unusual Museu do Marajó, in a former Brazil nut factory in the village of Cachoeira do Arari, in the middle of the island. My only complaint about the museum is that it requires a ride of more than an hour through the jungle on a dirt road, with occasional delays at riverbanks waiting for a ferry.

The museum was the pride of an Italian priest, the Rev. Giovanni Gallo, who lived on Marajó for many years until his death in 2003 and wrote several books about Marajó culture. The museum is a curious grab bag:

A giant bass on Island of Marajo

There are exhibits focusing on Amazon legends and folklore (with captions, unfortunately, only in Portuguese) and a collection of stuffed animals, including sloths, parrots, coatis, anteaters and armadillos.

But the pottery display is remarkable and varied. It includes a type of large funeral urn known as an igaçaba, which the Indians used in a process archeologists refer to as secondary burial. What that means is that inside each urn is a smaller vessel containing the bones of the deceased and an object associated with him or her: a doll for a child, for instance or an ax for a man.

As my cab made its way through the lush tropical forest on the road back to Soure, it occurred to me that Miami was little more than a five-hour flight away, and that Rio de Janeiro was fewer than four hours distant. My driver, Seu João, said he had never been to either place and wanted to know if life there is in any way similar to Marajó.

"No," I answered. "There is no place on earth like Marajó."

One can get to Marajó by air or sea, and of those two options, traveling by boat is definitely more interesting and enjoyable.

A sunset on Marajo Island

A double-decker ferry leaves Belém, a city of 1.5 million just across the bay, every morning around 7, and the three-hour-plus trip across to Marajó offers a rare opportunity to observe the fishermen and foresters who eke a precarious living from the river and the jungle. The one-way fare is about $4, at 3 reals to the dollar, and reservations can be made by calling (55-91) 257-0299.

Travel agencies in Belém can make arrangements (and the best deals) for travel to Marajó by boat or by air. Flights are in light planes only, typically for a half-dozen passengers. One-way air fare from Belém is about $70.

From New York, travelers must fly into São Paulo to get to Belém. Internet fares for early December start around $950.

Where to Stay

In Soure, the best bet for lodgings is probably the Hotel Ilha do Marajó, at the edge of the river between Seventh and Eighth Streets, (55-91) 241-3218 It has 36 rooms, a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts.

A double room runs about $40, breakfast included. Across the river in Salvaterra, the rustic Pousada dos Guaras, on the Avenida Beira-Mar, (55-91) 4005-5656, and, is on the beach surrounded by a forest reserve. The location is a bit remote, but the 50-room hotel has its own restaurant, nature trails and playgrounds. Double rooms cost $40, breakfast included.

A sunset on Marajo Island

Of the newcomers on the island, the cozy Paracauary Eco-Resort, Avenida Prado 6, Soure, (55-91) 222-6442,, which opened in 2001 and has eight rooms, stands out. A double is $40, with breakfast, with a 25 percent discount is offered for stays of longer than two days.

The relatively luxurious 80-room Marajó Park Resort, on Mexiana Island, (55-91) 213-7043,, offers multiday packages only, beginning with four days and three nights for $800 a person, including air fare from and to Belém, all meals and excursions with a guide.

Where to Eat

Paraiso Verde, at Travessa 17 2135, Soure, (55-91) 3741-1581, specializes in regional dishes like duck, crab and water buffalo in large portions, with a friendly, leafy atmosphere that lives up to its name, Green Paradise. Lunch or dinner for two is about $25, including beer. Open daily to midnight.

At first glance, Delicias da Nalva, 1051 Fourth Street, Soure, doesn't seem like a restaurant at all. That's because the owner, Nalva, is operating out of her own home, focusing on dishes made with water buffalo steak and cheese. A meal for two runs about $20 with beer. It is open until 10 p.m. There is no telephone, and payment is cash only.

The above article is from The New York Times.






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