May 02

Adventures in the Amazon: Cayenne to Macapa

by in Brazil, South America

We were anticipating a tough leg, having read accounts of cyclists riding from Cayenne to Macapa, but just how hard we could never have imagined beforehand. The ride to the Brazilian border from French Guyana’s capital, through endless hills, heat and rain was difficult enough, but it was just a warm up for the three-day slog along the dirt road to Calcoene. At the end of the road though, we were rewarded with our first sight of the Amazon River, a special moment on our trip.

Cayenne was the quietest capital of our journey and we enjoyed the chance to relax. A walk along the beaches to the east of the city rewarded us with the astonishing sight of a turtle laying her eggs in the middle of the day, and we watched her mesmerised.

A giant leatherback turtle on the beach near Cayenne

A giant leatherback turtle on the beach near Cayenne

Back on the bikes, we had a slow start as we waited for the huge Carrefour supermarket on the edge of town to open. Finally loaded with food for three days, we set off. There would be nowhere to resupply on the road to the border so it was important to carry enough for several days of cycling.

The road started gently and I spent most of the morning wondering when the ‘killer’ hills we’d heard of would appear. My first realisation that we’d reached them was when I was gasping for breath at the top of a small rise. They were the kind of hills that look like nothing but destroy you. I’m never very good at judging them, but the problem was removed rather quickly when slopes appeared that were evidently steep. Road workers had put up ‘warning 10% climb’ signs along the route, but they obviously hadn’t measured the gradients.

10% climbs on the road in French Guyana

10% climbs on the road in French Guyana

We’d planned to make it to the town of Regina but stopped early at a youth hostel with an idyllic setting on the banks of a gentle river, where we hung our hammocks in a carbet for the night. In the end, it was lunchtime by the time we reached Regina the next day, as on the way the hills got tougher still. The town was a strange little place. People were either incredibly drunk or in church. As there was nothing open and we needed water, we approached the churchgoers and they kindly loaded us up with bottles of ice tea too.

We headed on and covered another 40km through thick jungle. The next stretch was beautiful. The hills were slightly gentler and the road meandered along the top of the forest canopy, giving us fantastic views down onto the trees. Cycling through jungle or forests can be quite dull when you can’t see past the edge of the road, but here there was plenty to entertain, including large, bright blue butterflies fluttering past.

Our campsite in the rainforest, French Guyana

Our campsite in the rainforest, French Guyana

It’s funny, in Guyana, when the terrain was similar I was obsessed with jaguars and snakes. My fear hadn’t completely disappeared but the presence of a tarmac road somehow made it feel less wild. Completely ridiculous, but there you are. I was much happier to wild camp and we found a beautiful, hidden spot at kilometre marker 144 in a gravel pit beside the road, where we listened to the calls of parrots and howler monkeys in the trees. Of course, I still checked for creepy crawlies in my sleeping bag and zipped up the doors to stop anything getting in. One can’t be too careful.

Paddy cycling through the rainforest in French Guyana

Paddy cycling through the rainforest in French Guyana

The next morning we had a nice 45km into the border town of St Georges. Exhausted after three tough days of cycling, we sat on a bench drinking Orangina and failing to believe that we were about to complete our final border crossing of the trip. It’s less than a year since we left Rio de Janeiro, and in that time we’ve cycled through every country in South America. There’s still plenty of Brazil left for us to cover as we make our way back, but arriving back into the country where we started felt like the beginning of the end in many ways.

We weren’t the only ones heading back to Brazil. As we waited to board a water taxi we watched Brazilians being deported by the French Gendarmes. Along the road from Cayenne we had seen many burnt out cars, which are set alight by the police when they catch Brazilians in the country illegally. None of the deportees looked too concerned and probably would be back trying again the next day.

As we motored upstream towards the town of Oiapoque our thoughts, however, were on heading south towards the Amazon River. We took the afternoon off to stock up on supplies, clean our clothes and catch up on some sleep. It felt familiar being back in Brazil, with ice-cream parlours on the street corners and boys playing football on sandy pitches with tiny balls.

Sheltering from the heavy rain for lunch

Sheltering from the heavy rain for lunch

The next morning we set off towards the jungle. The first 50km was tarmac and although it was hilly the going was fairly easy because you could get up enough speed on the downs to get most of the way up the other side. The only issue was avoiding frogs and monkeys wandering out in front of us.

It started raining early and we hid in a deserted tree-house for cover. For the next three days we would be playing a game of ‘waterproofs on, waterproofs off’. There seemed to be only two weather systems at work, blistering hot or torrential rain. Fortunately, it was easy to tell there was an impending shower if a white haze appeared ahead and we got adept at covering up in time, well, mostly.

Starting up another long steep hill

Starting up another long steep hill

At 53km the tarmac disappeared and we started to bump along avoiding the potholes on a dirt road and continuing to climb hills that got steeper in spite of the road surface. We met a French traveller who had driven around South America and who was returning home to Cayenne, and another couple who had sailed from Africa to Fortaleza in a catamaran. They all thought we were mad, which says something, coming from people on their own adventures.

Soon after the small indigenous village of Estrella, with its signs making clear that it was out of bounds, we got hit by a major downpour. The sky turned black, the road was slippery and our shoes were covered in mud making it difficult to clip our feet in and out of the pedals. It was time to get off the road for the day. But the great camping spots we’d been seeing all day, where the forest had been cleared for road works, had disappeared and we had to cycle for another hour before we came across a clearing where we could hide our tent. There was just 40 minutes of light left to set up and eat, before we crawled inside and listened to the rain lashing down outside.

We knew the next day would be harder and prepared ourselves mentally. The first 30km was reasonable and we stopped for an early lunch in a restaurant celebrating reaching the halfway mark. What we hadn’t anticipated was the crazy, monstrous hills that lay ahead.

Paddy cycling through the mud

Paddy cycling through the mud

They may have been less than 100m in ascent each time, but the gradients were reaching 20 per cent. Difficult at the best of times, but when you are crunching up along a slippery, stony surface it’s even worse. There was also no way of taking any momentum into the climb as at the bottom of each slope was a patch of mud and potholes or an old, wooden plank bridge that had to be manoeuvred around carefully and slowly. Needless to say, there was a lot of pushing our heavily loaded bicycles.

We stopped for the night about seven kilometres before the next village. Cycling in the wet had left us with damp clothes, the sweaty heat trapped under our Gortex having as much effect as the rain itself, and I was suffering from a painful rash that had me walking like John Wayne. We slept very well that night, even with rustling noises outside the tent.

Laura cycling over a wooden bridge

Laura cycling over a wooden bridge

The nappy rash cream, part of our first aid kit, had worked wonders overnight and we set off again, pushing up and rolling slowly the hills. We visited a shop in the village to fill up on water and Paddy removed a link from his chain. We’d both been having problems cycling uphill because of grit in the chains but Paddy’s was loose as well and kept springing off.

It wasn’t a complicated job and we were soon off again, now cycling through open fields where the forest had been cut down. There were signs of road works here and we spoke to some workers measuring the road. They were in charge of the stretch of road we had just covered and were preparing to tarmac the route this July. It will make a big difference when that’s done, but July seemed optimistic looking at the state of the road at the moment.

Laura pushing up a muddy stretch, mashed up by works traffic

Laura pushing up a muddy stretch, mashed up by works traffic

As we continued on there was more works traffic and the heavy vehicles had made even the smaller slopes difficult to get up. I came off cycling up one. No longer able to turn the pedals around, I discovered to my horror that both of my feet were stuck in the pedals. There was little choice but to brace myself for the fall, which wasn’t too painful as I was moving so slowly.

Paddy arrived quickly to check I was ok and pick me up. His next reaction though was to exclaim, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d had the camera recording for that, it was really funny!’ He got a withering look in return as I stood there dusting off my grazed elbows and knees.

For about 10km the asphalt stopped and started before turning to dirt again

For about 10km the asphalt stopped and started before turning to dirt again

Fortunately, we were only two kilometres from a restaurant where we enjoyed a huge, well-deserved lunch. We were quite perplexed, as well, to see tarmac and set off again hoping for a smooth ride for the rest of the day. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. For about 10kms there were long stretches of tarmac, but they hadn’t been joined together and then suddenly disappeared altogether. It wasn’t too terrible though as the road was much flatter now and we flew along the final 37km towards Calcoene.

It was a special moment when at last we hit the tarmac again and turned off towards the town. It had been a tough few days and we were absolutely exhausted. Hungry and tired we returned from the local shop with a bag full of food we couldn’t work out what to do, so gave up and sat in the centre of town with bags of chips and beers watching locals jump into raging rapids, emerging again far down the river.

Lots of washing to do after a wet and muddy week

Lots of washing to do after a wet and muddy week

We had a day off in this sleepy town to rest our legs. The next day, we set off in the rain to cover 360km to Macapa. The terrain was fairly flat and the road, passing through pine tree plantations, had little to steal our attention, meaning we made good time and took just two and a half days to reach the town. We also reached our 17,000km mark and stopped briefly to mark the moment, although the heavy rain meant it wasn’t our best photograph. We found some nice wild camping spots on the route and developed an aroma which set the cat at one roadside café crazy, licking the sweat off our hands.

Marking reaching 17,000km in the rain

Marking reaching 17,000km in the rain

After a bouncy ride into the city, we found ourselves in the centre and on the shores of the Amazon River. When we left Rio de Janeiro we didn’t really believe we would ever make it so far. Crossing the Amazon has always been one of the special moments we’ve imagined of our journey around South America and our first sight of the huge, muddy, brown river was an emotional one.

Delighted to have reached the Amazon, a special moment

Delighted to have reached the Amazon, a special moment

It turns out we’ve arrived in Macapa at the start of a holiday, so there will be some waiting around for a boat to Belem. It’s not so bad. The riverfront is lovely and rammed with food stalls selling chips, crepes, kebabs and caipirinhas, which we are working our way through as we gaze out across the water. Not bad at all.

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