Green days by the river: Marajó Island

Marajó Island, in the mouth of the mighty Amazon River, is more than three times the size of Jamaica, and little known outside Brazil

A lazy afternoon on the Paracauary. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinFishermen on the Paracauary River, Marajó. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinMorning traffic on the Paracauary River. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinSunday at Praia do Pasqueiro. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinSunday at Praia do Pasqueiro. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

On weekdays the Praia do Pasqueiro is almost deserted. But on even a somewhat overcast Sunday the neatly thatched huts lined up above the high-water mark are full of holidaymakers eating and drinking away the hot hours. Waiters ferry trays of drinks and food — fried fish, rice, salad — from kitchen sheds further back on the beach to the plastic tables and chairs clustered in the palm-thatch shade.

Closer to the water’s edge, a handful of sunbathers recline in deckchairs, and a dreamy-eyed couple canoodle under a large striped umbrella, sharing sweet nothings and plates of seafood. Youngsters prance on the wet sand and plunge into the shallow waves. Teenagers stride out into the warm water until it’s nearly deep enough to swim.

Terns skitter along a sandbank. Far away and above, clouds sail along an oceanic horizon. But the slight tang in the breeze isn’t sea salt. It’s something greener, muddier, more vegetal. The Atlantic swells far out to the north, but its currents only rarely make their way to this beach. And the flotsam fragments scattered on the sand around my feet are bits of jungle detritus: twigs with glossy green leaves, the seed pods of unknown trees, a piece of palm trunk covered with four-inch thorns.

The expanse of brown water that stretches as far as my eye can see is in fact the outflow of the world’s mightiest river. I am standing at the north-eastern tip of Marajó Island, in the mouth of the Amazon — the world’s largest island surrounded by fresh water.

One hundred and eighty-five miles long by one hundred and twenty-six miles wide, the Ilha do Marajó is more than three times the size of Jamaica. On the map, it looks like a chunk of Brazil that broke away and got itself lodged in the mouth of the Amazon. Much of the island is a landscape of seasonally flooded savanna, with patches of forest on higher ground, and its population of 250,000 is mostly clustered along Marajó’s eastern edge, facing the Pará River, which flows into the Amazon.

Agriculture is the main activity. That flooded savanna happens to be the ideal habitat for water buffalo, a species native to Asia. But about a century ago — no one seems to know exactly when — providence arranged for a boat carrying a small herd of the placid beasts to founder within swimming distance of Marajó’s shore. The buffalo castaways thrived in the heat and mud, and today the island’s herds outnumber the human population three to one. The evidence is everywhere, grazing along unpaved roads or wallowing in mudholes. Even the Marajó police sometimes patrol on buffalo-back, and buffalo meat and cheese — a soft mozzarella — are ubiquitous on restaurant menus, and exported to other parts of Brazil.

Adrift in the Caribbean Sea, Marajó would be a major Antillean island, but here on the shoulder of Brazil, South America’s largest nation, it remains relatively little-known, even to most Brazilians. Rio do Janeiro and São Paulo are both more than 1,500 miles to the south, though the nearest major city, Belém, is just a three-hour ferry ride away. In the age of mobile phones, high-speed wifi, and satellite TV, you can’t really describe Marajó as isolated. But with its slightly rugged frontier charm, its rustic daily pace, and still unspoiled beaches and wetlands, it’s as good a place as any for the kind of trip where you play at being blissfully cut off from the rest of the world.

Which is why I find myself at Praia do Pasqueiro, watching the waders, the swimmers, the busy waiters and happy Sunday lunchers — and noting with surprised approval that table service is prompt and efficient under these thatched huts on the shore of an island at the edge of the Amazon jungle.

When we too have waded, swum, and lunched, my companion and I decide it’s time for a late siesta. Luckily we’ve pre-arranged transport back to our pousada. We wait at a bench where the dirt road to the beach trails into white sand, outside a bar shack with a portrait of Che Guevara and red, gold, and green stripes. Only ten minutes late — or exactly on time, by the Marajó clock — two motorcycle taxis come roaring round the bend. Riding pillion, we have an exhilarating twenty-minute journey, the drivers obligingly slowing down when we want to take photos of an especially winsome buffalo, or a concrete-block house decked with balloons and streamers for a birthday party, blasting music and overflowing with guests.

By sheer luck (our original hotel cancelled our booking at the last minute) we’ve found ourselves in exactly the spot we’d have chosen to stay, if we were old Marajó hands. The pousada, a single bungalow divided into eight small rooms, is perched on the eastern bank of the Paracauary River, about two miles from the centre of Souré, the island’s capital. There are a few acres of rough lawn, dotted with fruit trees, where two ponies graze early in the morning, and a ginger-rumped capybara forages. A kitchen and dining-room are built on stilts at the edge of the water, and almost hidden behind a thicket of flowering shrubs is a long jetty leading out over a mangrove patch to the river.

It’s also sheer luck that the pousada has no Internet connection, and although there’s probably an Internet café somewhere around, I’m yet to go looking. For the first time in years, I’m properly cut off from email, Facebook, Twitter, and online news, and already I’m feeling the salutary effects — and a distinct absence of curiosity about what may or may not be happening anywhere else in the world.

Post-beach and post-siesta, I grab towel and paperback and head barefoot down the sloping lawn to the jetty. The river — flowing into the Pará, and thence the Amazon — is rising fast, swelling with the far-off Atlantic tide. As I sit reading, I glance across occasionally to see how much higher the water-level has crept up the jetty posts. A pert sandpiper keeps an eye on things. Eventually I give in to a craving for a swim, but as I dip into the water, the strength and swiftness of the current are a surprise. I make sure to stay within arm’s length of the jetty, lest I’m swept away to Souré.

As the afternoon light goes rosy and gold, the silty river water seems to turn silvery green. Delicate pink flowers float down from a nearby tree, to be snatched by the current, and a pair of toucans hop about overhead, trading comical croaks. The water is just a few degrees cooler than the balmy air, and the only thing that can tempt me to emerge is the thought of a sunset caipirinha before dinner.

Twenty years ago, visiting Marajó was for the truly intrepid. It’s much easier now. There are morning and afternoon ferries to and from Belém, and several dozen small hotels and pousadas offer accommodation to visitors. You can even stay on one of the island’s large ranches — buffalo rides included. The main beaches around Souré, like Praia do Pasqueiro and Praia da Barra Velha, are easy to access, with those aforementioned restaurant shacks and waiters eager to offer refreshments. Marajó merits mention in the main Brazil guidebooks, and growing numbers of international visitors come in search of adventure, but most tourists are from other parts of Brazil, and few locals speak much or any English. (Luckily, my companion is a quick study at foreign languages, and does all necessary interpretation. My Portuguese is limited to basic and essential words, like “caipirinha.”) We may have chosen a slow week for our visit, but on Marajó we don’t encounter a single other non-Brazilian.

Which fits perfectly into my plan for a real retreat. And, unable to follow most of the conversations going on around me, I can indulge my non-verbal observation skills, listening for tones of voice or laughter, watching the flashes of facial expression among a quartet of fishermen chatting in a moored boat, the casual ease with which moto-taxi passengers play with their mobile phones as they whiz past.

We spend an afternoon making a lazy tour of Souré. We start at Delicias da Nalva, Marajó’s most famous restaurant, in an enclosed porch attached to the house of Nalva herself, the owner. After a slow and copious lunch, and having declined Nalva’s gentle entreaties to order dessert, we set off for a stroll down a long red-dirt avenue, shaded by massive mango trees.

Few of its streets may be paved, but Souré is laid out in a careful grid, with a covered market, a square decorated with fountains and arches, and a handful of surviving Art Deco or Portuguese colonial-style buildings among less ornate concrete-block houses and shops. The obligatory water buffalo is grazing at a strip of green above the river. Three young men lead ponies down a slipway to the water and they all trot into the water, heading out for a swim. A dozen scarlet ibis wing past, red streaks against the blue sky.

We pass hardware stores, a bank, shops with hand-lettered posters advertising fresh açai — the Amazon palm fruit celebrated for its nutritional properties — and a tour operator or two. We can, if we wish, arrange a hiking trip, a buffalo trek, a fishing expedition, or hire a car to drive us some hours into the heart of the island, to an archaeological museum housing the remarkable decorated pottery created by Marajó’s long-ago Amerindian inhabitants.

But our jetty on the Paracauary is waiting, the river is streaming past all green and silver, it’s another hot day — and what could be nicer than a swim? The tide is low this afternoon, and the water has dropped ten feet. Mudskippers flop about among the mangrove roots, and children are splashing and shouting near another jetty further upstream. Yesterday’s current has disappeared, and the Paracauary is gentle as a lake.
It’s half a mile to the other side, where the bank is lined with coconut palms, flowering trees, little houses. The occasional boat goes by, painted red and blue or orange and green.
Somewhere in the world, someone is emailing me right now, but it will be days before I know it, or even care.

There are hours and hours left before dusk, in which to float in the slowly rising river, look out for toucans and parrots, eavesdrop (without understanding a word) on fishermen.
And then will come sunset, and faint lights twinkling on the far bank of the Paracaurary, and another caipirinha.

 


Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights to Paramaribo, Suriname, with regular air connections to Belém, Brazil. From Belém there are daily ferries to Marajó