Spot the dead donkey: Belem to Teresina
Back on the bikes after an extended break, we were anticipating an easy 900km across northern Brazil from Belem to Teresina. What we found, however, was undulating terrain, roads in bad condition, heavy traffic and strong winds along a dull, monotonous road, with only assorted roadkill to take our minds of the pedalling. This is an area full of friendly people though who brightened up our long days on the road.
Having reached Macapa on the north shore of the Amazon River, we booked onto a passenger ferry for a 30 hour crossing to Belem. We had treated ourselves to a tiny, private cabin, rather than hanging up our hammocks, and on seeing the boat were glad we had. The hammock space was crowded with people lay head to toe with each other.
To finally be crossing the Amazon was an amazing feeling. The boat weaved through the Amazon Delta rather than heading out to sea and as we sailed along it was hard to comprehend that we were sailing across a river rather than along one. At times we would be chugging along narrow passages with jungle on either side, but at others would be in vast open waters with land far away on the horizon.
The city of Belem appeared out of nowhere; a huge, towering metropolis in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. It was not what we were expecting and we never got over the size of this modern, ever-expanding metropolis.
First though we had to offload our bikes, a tricky job as the boat docked next to another, rather than against the dock. This meant everybody had to clamber through the other boat to get onto land. In the chaotic free-for-all, Paddy heroically did several journeys to pick up the bikes and bags we couldn’t get off in the first run, climbing over the roof of the other boat and then swinging onto the deck of ours.
All in all, it was an incredible experience, but our bodies, used to being active, were restless on the long journey. However, we were not getting back on the bikes anytime soon, but were heading back to the UK to attend the wedding of Paddy’s brother, Ed. We arrived during a particularly wet spell and the grey skies did nothing to quell our lack of enthusiasm for the return to normal life.
Back in Belem a few days later after a fabulous wedding, we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat and drink buffet with our Couchsurfing host, Lysmar, down by the Docas along the Amazon River, our final view of this amazing wonder. The next morning we hit the road, enjoying the city’s excellent cycle lanes which completely remove cyclists from the flow of traffic.
At some point, I will learn not to believe anything that I read in the Lonely Planet. People who write these books must whizz around on first class coaches as they completely miss the point of the places they write about. Belem to Teresina is not flat, there is wind and there is rain. This all came as a bit of a shock, as after reading the guide I’d prepared myself for an easy leg.
Instead we arrived in Castanhal, 75km from Belem, in the mid-afternoon absolutely exhausted and over-whelmed by the heat and humidity after our week in England. On our way into town we were flagged down by a local cyclist, Clayton, who had worked in England and was keen to show us around the city. He invited us to stay with him and his family, but we reluctantly declined as we were so exhausted we knew we would make terrible guests. Instead we met up with him for beer and pizza and were joined by his teenage son, a dedicated road-cyclist with hopes of competing in the 2016 Olympics which are to be held in Brazil.
In the end we decided a day off was needed to recover from the jet travels of the last week, but the next day it was time to get moving again for a nine day stretch to Teresina. The cycling started as it would continue, hot, windy and hilly. The roads weren’t pleasant to cycle on, with heavy traffic and maniacal truck drivers forcing us off the road. We understand that when there is no space, we have to get off the road, but many drivers seem unable of going around us even if there is nothing coming towards them. Mostly, we stuck to the hard shoulder, but for patches where it was unrideable with overgrown bushes we had little choice but to brave the trucks.
The area we were cycling through was middle-of-nowhere countryside, with endless fazendas (farms) raising cattle, and very little else. There was little of interest to spot from the saddle and our biggest talking point during breaks was the variety of roadkill we saw. Cycling into the wind, we usually smelt ‘that’ smell before we saw the unfortunate victim, and were also warned by swarms of vultures fighting for the choice pieces. For somebody terrified of pigeons, cycling head first towards a flock of vultures is ‘eyes-tight-shut’ kind of stuff.
There were a few of the usual dogs, but the number of cows who’d stepped into the road at the wrong time was incredible. The most heart breaking though were the donkeys, as we’d developed a fondness for these animals, who we often saw stood in a field, staring far away with the saddest look on their face. We can’t understand why owners don’t tether them as losing them must be a significant financial loss.
Most of the animals get hit during the night, and we are careful to find somewhere to sleep before it gets dark. Generally, that’s been easy to do, but one night we found ourselves watching the sun set faster than we could pedal, and we arrived into the town of Ze Doca in the pitch black, trying to avoid the potholes whilst swatting away dive-bombing flies. After a tough, hilly 135km this was no night for our usual pasta and tomato sauce, so we treated ourselves to a massive pizza to restore our energy.
This area is the hottest in Brazil, with the city of Teresina having an average temperature in the low thirties (Celsius) along with humidity in the 80s, and we’d made a concerted effort to stop at least every 20km for a cold drink. Mainly, that was realistic and we discovered that the gas stations and restaurants would let us fill our water bottles with icy cold water free of charge. On some stretches though the gaps were longer between water points and there was also a significant lack of shade under which to shelter for lunch. At one point, I got very shaky from being in the sun for too long and we resorted to building a temporary shelter on the hard shoulder, from the tarp hung over the two bikes. Not the safest place to lie down, but there was little other option.
On days like this, we’ll take any excuse to stop cycling early. The third day back on the saddle, we had a tough climb into an un-named village not even marked on our maps and the call of an ice-cream stall was too tempting to ignore. We wrestled the bikes down the embankment to the stand and then realised that the woman next-door was showing the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich on a tiny television set. That was us done for the day, especially as by the time Chelsea had won on penalties it was too dark to get back on the road, so we checked into a rickety, wooden pousada.
Our plan had been to camp along this route, but the gas stations have been busy, unappealing places we haven’t felt particularly safe about pitching the tent in, and there has been nowhere along the road out of view. Another reason has been the number of huge snakes we have seen squashed on the roadside, more than anywhere else on the trip. Fortunately, the heat has left us dehydrated, because for me as a girl nipping off into the grass for a quick pee and standing on a live snake is a terrifying prospect.
So the gas station and restaurant toilets, normally avoided because of cleanliness levels, have become my safe haven. These stops have also provided great opportunities to meet local people, who are some of the friendliest we have met on the trip.
Exhausted, after a tough morning, we called into one Posto (service station) and were immediately surrounded by kids wanting to know everything about us. They thought it was hilarious that we didn’t speak any Portuguese, but it was a perfect opportunity for them to try out their English on us and they crowded around with their text books to practise their pronunciation. It was a fun break and we left them with an even greater motivation to master the language.
We had hoped that the Spanish we had learnt would be of use here, but even still we are struggling. There are many similar words between the two languages, but the pronunciation is so different (we are convinced half the time people are speaking Russian!) that we find it difficult to be understood.
Similarly, we often don’t understand what people are saying to us. On one drink stop, just after we had crossed our 18,000km mark, we were chatting to a lovely lady who wanted to know all about our trip. We can usually managed these exchanges ok with the help of the map, but we got very confused when she started to say something that sounded very much like ‘Saddam Hussein’ accompanied with hand actions that Paddy thought meant beard and I interpreted as a decapitation movement. The looks between us were of complete bemusement, thinking we had it totally wrong. She moved onto ‘Osama Bin Laden’ and then ‘Obama’, which is when we realised she actually was saying these names, but the context of it was completely beyond us.
To help answer one of the common questions, ‘where are you from’, we had brought back Union Jack flags from the UK, which flew briskly from the back of our bikes. It was something we had considered early on in the trip, but we’d thought taking them through Argentina may not be to our advantage. We’d forgotten about them until we arrived back in London and saw the city decked in red, white and blue ready for the various summer festivities, including the Olympic Games, which we still hope to be back in time for.
There is still a lot of pedalling though until we reach Rio de Janeiro, and hopefully more interesting scenery than this latest stretch. Having said that, there was a wonderful section on the way to Caxias, with long, gentle climbs that gave us plenty of time to admire the scenery, rather than the usual quick ups and downs with demand all our attention on the road. It felt like the perfect cycling day and with some good tunes playing on the Ipod I pedalled along in heaven.
The stretch into the busy city of Teresina bought me back down to earth with a bump, as we battled the heavy traffic, dodged potholes and got lost, needlessly climbing a huge hill twice in the process. Every time we arrive in a Brazilian city we cannot believe the size of them and swear that we will avoid them in the future as much as possible, as they aren’t fun to cycle around. Somehow we never do though.
Here we’re staying with another Couchsurfer who has been showing us the local sights. Fortunately, there isn’t too much to do in Teresina apart from hide from the heat and drink ice cold beers, which for us is an absolutely perfect break. Our legs are achy and are bums sore after the hard riding, but it feels great to be back on the bikes.
We have just two months now until we fly back from Rio de Janeiro and about 3,000km to cover before then. The idea of returning home is both exciting but completely bewildering as well and we have both started having flash backs from the most random places on the trip. It’s good to think that whatever our next step, we will always have incredible memories of our time spent cycling around South America, but that’s for the future. Tomorrow it’s back in the saddle for more adventures and to make more memories to add to the collection.
Information on crossing the Amazon: Macapa to Belem
The boats across the Amazon actually leave 25km away in the town of Santana. It’s not very well signposted, but if you cycle out of town towards the town you will be on a very straight road, when you reach a petrol station on your right, where the road curves right, you should turn left down towards the river and then turn back on yourself to find the dockyard.
You can buy tickets in Santana, but you can also get them in Macapa from travel agents based near the fort on Mendonca Junior. You will need your passports when you book your tickets and when boarding. There seemed to be boats leaving to Belem every day, the car ferry goes twice a week (Tuesday and Friday).
We travelled on the Almirante do Mar, a three-deck boat, with hammock space on the bottom, cabins, restaurant and air-con hammock space in the middle and a bar on top. We paid 440 Reals (£150) for an air conditioned cabin with private bathroom and bike carriage included. It was about 130 Reals per person for the basic hammock spaces and we would have had to pay extra for the bikes. Food was not included in the ticket price (we didn’t realise this), but you could buy meals on board.
The boat travels through the Delta rather than going out to sea. The crossing took 30 hours, which seemed to be the usual travel time. The boat docked just west of the centre of town.