Driving 'The Beast' through South-America


By Isabelle Demaeght, August 13, 2019

After Fortaleza followed Jericoacoara, an 'obligatory' stop: white beaches with enormous sand dunes. The town was so full that we had to park outside the village and continue on foot. The village was teeming with beach buggys driving tourists around, hawkers offering all kinds of knick-knacks and beach cafes with loud music. We drank a glass of mineral water there and then took 'The Beast' for a ride along the beach, looking for a quiet spot. We came across a fisherman who sold us a fish, which we filleted on the spot and turned into Ceviche. (Ceviche is raw fish, 'cooked' in lime juice, with some onion, tomato, cilantro and a hot pepper. Handy, a refrigerator on board).

Filleting fish on the beach

Many tourists

In the Lençois National Park (pronounced lensois) the dunes are even more extensive. Between these dunes crystal clear water collects during the rainy season. From June onwards it is possible to swim in it. Again, an 'obligatory' stop. However, we found a similar place that is (still) undiscovered. After 'The Beast' had plowed obediently across 15 kilometers of beach and through the dunes, we were next to one such swimming hole. In the afternoon there were a few other visitors and some kite-surfers (people who stand on a surfboard and let themselves be pulled along by a kite). But after the wonderful sunset, we were all alone in this huge sandpit with pools for swimming.

Sand dunes

Another dream spot

After a stopover in São Luis, we set off for Belém. The distances are huge, the roads sometimes very bad, the traffic chaotic: mopeds, walkers, huge trucks, and ... cattle. The cow that had just been killed by a truck was 'met head on'. She is cut into pieces on the spot and anyone who wants a piece can have one. We declined :-)

A traffic victim

On the way, we slept in the best hotel in the village (called "Comfort") which seemed OK at first but on closer inspection was a good reflection of the amount we paid (15€). I always note that my standards of minimum hygiene are much higher than those of most South Americans and I still have trouble adapting to their hygiene standards.

In Belém Adriaan, together with some Toyota workers, performed the necessary maintenance. The new brake pads were also installed here. The enthusiastic parking attendant at our hotel, who absolutely wanted us to park in his garage, had to admit that 'The Beast' was too high. We did end up with a damaged roof tarpaulin. Fortunately, PVC sheeting and special contact adhesive could be found in town.

I got my hair cut. Because the ladies did not understand me very well, my hands and feet were also taken care of. This traveler is now walking around with painted nails....

Belém is the most important port in the north of the country, made big by the rubber plantations. From this city, many boats depart for Santarém and Manaus (cities inland along the Amazon).

Fishing port of Belém

We visited Ver-o-Peso (translation: see what is weighed). This is where goods used to be weighed (to collect taxes) but now it is the fish market. We sailed a bit on one of the tributaries of the Amazon. A touristy tour but OK because of the nice company and the delicious fish meal. They have so many delicious types of fish here.

Filleting fish with a machete


Boat ride

Two native boys

Washing, drinking and of course swimming

The main purpose of our visit in Belém was to apply for an extension of our Brazilian stay with the Federal Police. During the first visit (6 days before our visa expired) they explained to us that we first have to stay too long. Only then can a fine (of € 24 per person per day) be imposed, and then we receive a document stating that we must have left Brazil within 60 days. If not, deportation follows. The document must be signed by us, by the Federal Police (and also witnesses, actually). So we had to wait a week before we could go back for this procedure.

We moved to a more Brazilian hotel. A pool, bar/restaurant, a terrace, lots of people and lots of noise... but we did our thing there and had a great time cooking in front of our room door on the tailgate of the car and getting everything ready for our Trans-Amazon trip.

Until the mid-20th century, touring the Amazon was only possible by boat. In the 1960s, a route straight through the rainforest towards Peru was established but most of it is in a not so good condition. I read about the Amazon rainforest, its access routes and the dangers. I wasn't eager to start but it was one of Adriaan's dreams (who sometimes seems to seek out the difficulties). So no complaining...

Our Amazon crossing from Belém starts with delays: first the police, then a detour: because heavy rains damaged the bridge over the Guamá river a few months ago, we all have to cross with a ferry, which leaves 40 kilometers further on.

Up to our first sleeping place, the road is paved, with heavy traffic (of all roughly the same trucks, large payloads with tarps - no idea what lurks underneath). Here the rainforest has already had to make way for plantations of palm trees. We decide to take hotels for as long as we can: while we still find villages. It is very hot and humid.

Bad weather along the Amazon

The second day (July 31) was 450 km of which most of it was on an asphalt road. In the evening in Altamira we found a super price/quality hotel. At the beginning of day three, we made a detour to the Altamira prison because we saw footage of it on television last week. The prisons here are so full that some prisoners have to sleep standing up. The prisoners join one of the two rival gangs who kill each other (41 dead two days ago) or even worse: decapitate each other (16 of them) and use their heads as a game ball. The armed guards we saw outside on the walls did not dare to go in, but filmed the whole drama. The videos are, reportedly, now somewhere on the Internet.

Altamira prison

Most of day three is earth road which we travel at a speed of about 40 kilometers per hour. (An earth road is really just an excavated, a fixed-track forest path. The soil varies from powder, as fine as wheat flour, to rock-hard dried clay and everything in between, sometimes 'embellished' with pits and holes or gullies in which water has run off. During the rains, everything here seems to become muddy, red, shifting masses, parts of which sometimes wash away. Fortunately, it's the dry season now - we ourselves (and 'The Beast') are turning red from the dust). We see some patches of forest, especially around the places where cocoa grows: we see cocoa traders in the villages and heavily loaded trucks with bags of cocoa (on their way to Switzerland and Belgium?).



Tree (and Isabelle) On the fourth day, we take a turnoff to the north: Fifty kilometers before Santarém, we visited a national park with a (mandatory) guide who gave us a detailed explanation of the fauna and flora in the rainforest during a short walk. We hung from lianas, tasted the bark of a tree, sniffed at fruits, hugged a 600-year-old forest giant, saw untouched hardwoods that had fallen down 60 years ago, stayed at an appropriate distance from a poisonous spider, covered our hands with tiny ants (the formic acid keeps mosquitoes away), we learned about medicinal effects of leaves, bark and wood fibers. It deeply impressed us - so much diversity in such a short walk. We can imagine that indigenous people find everything they need in these forests.

Once in Santarém Adriaan visited a doctor, got (conventional, not jungle) medicine for his throat/bronchial/lung infection, and was somewhat better the next day. He thinks that the sometimes moldy-smelling air conditioners in hotel rooms are playing tricks on him. Adriaan hopes it's not our 'own' air conditioner - we can't clean the one in 'The Beast'. It is 33° here on cloudy days, and 37°C on sunny days.

At Santarém, the clear blue-green Tapajós River and the mud-brown Amazon River flow together. They travel kilometers side by side without merging into each other which gives a unique view. Here we also enjoy the hustle and bustle of the fish market with the attraction of the pink dolphins who come to eat the fish waste that ends up in the river.

Pink dolphin

We read about tour operator Gil Serique, who offers individual tours south of Santarém and we look him up. We stay with him for 3 days because he is such a pleasant, eccentric figure. There is always someone to drop by and so we met a Dutch criminologist who has been working against deforestation for 10 years (Tim), a young thirty-something who wants to invest here (Joe), and a young Swiss overlanders couple (Marvin and Ladina). Tim told us about his foundation and his effort to make illegal deforestation visible (to Brazilian justice).

"The Amazon is not a river" Tim teaches us, "but a flood forest, where the water collects during the rainy season and then slowly empties into the ocean". Tim was here for the filming of a television program; he has also been heard on Dutch radio before. (This programme is Dutch spoken.)

We swam in the Tapajós river between the treetops, I hesitantly and Adriaan enthusiastically. A few more months, and then the most beautiful beaches of Brazil will be here again. (It is called the Caribbean of Brazil here.) Now we only see the roofs of the huts and the tops of the trees because 'everything' is under water since the wet season just ended.


We really wanted to see even more Amazonian beauty, but from the water this time. Gil's tour is expensive: with US$ 900 well outside our budget. We found a skipper in the village and someone who was willing to serve as an interpreter. Narcis (the interpreter) is actually a musician; he enlivened our trip with his saxophone playing.

Houses stand in the water for six months


On August 8, we decided to finally head for Peru. Day five of our crossing starts with driving 200 kilometers back (over asphalt with many holes and potholes) to the earth road (called BR-230), and from there further west. We stay in Itaituba (after crossing the Tapajós River by ferry), again in a reasonable hotel. Actually, everything goes smoothly...

During day six we finally see the Amazon forest. When we stop and get out of the car we hear it - an enormous noise from all kinds of animals. We cross the "Parque Nacional da Amazônia" and the "Floresta Nacional do Amana". The dirt road is reasonably passable - we are moving at an average of 36 kilometers per hour. We are having a good time on the "Trans-Amazônica".


At the end of day seven, we can't find a hotel. We pitch our tent next to the airport (which mainly runs on the gold mine), about a 20-minute flight in a small single-engine plane. We meet pilot Marcello, who flies dynamite and fuel in and gold (by the kilo) out. A few people live next to the airport and they spontaneously offer us the use of their bathroom. That would not happen in Europe, we think.

Meanwhile, we are in a different reality. Day seven, eight and nine are dominated by deforested terrain. Here and there we still see strips of forest, standing on slopes that the machines couldn't reach. Our amazement is great, it makes me completely silent. Apart from the parks we don't see any rainforest along the Trans-Amazónica. My fear of this crossing disappears; no dangerous animals here, no impenetrable forest. We mainly see land that has been transformed into pasture with grazing cows and the trunks of burned forest giants in between. And we see lit fires, to wipe out the "unwanted" vegetation. The first few minutes there is amazement, but after hours and then days this becomes concern because we see so much burnt green.


It is CO2 emission, to make place for (CO2 and methane emitting) cattle. We think back with melancholy to the 600 year old forest giant, which fortunately stands on protected land. How many tons of carbon did that one tree capture, carbon that a cattle farmer with a can of gasoline suddenly blasts into the air?

Fire 'cause'

The distances here are large, but the scale on which people 'work' here is unimaginable. People here (used to) say, "God is big but the rainforest is bigger". We (now) have a different idea about that. We listen to podcasts on the road, which have 'the climate' as their subject with clock-like regularity. Because of what we experienced in the last few weeks we decided that we, big carnivores, would also like to make do with a lot less meat.