Cycling the Transamazon Highway

Part 6: Rio Madeira to Rio Branco

  Rio Madeira to Rio Branco

Deutsche Version Smiling I cycle around the blocks in Humaitá, at the Madeira river. Not much has changed in downtown, there are still the same old bars, restaurants and food stalls at the port as 4 years ago. The only thing that changed are these annoying jeep drivers that try to sell me a trip to Manaus. Last time the road was closed and I had to travel to Manaus by boat. But now the road unofficially re-opened and small jeeps make the journey in one or two days. Business doesn't flourish that much. They charge the same price as a boat and make it in half the time, but it's still better to hang out 4 days on a boat than 2 days squeezed into a dirty jeep.

I'm not interested in Manaus today, I'm heading southwest. Finally I reached the paved world again. And while still cycling in town, on asphalt, after 2600 kilometers dirt road, I hear for the first time this ugly sound: "Pffffffffffff........." My first flat tire on this tour!!

This and other reasons make me wonder if I really should be happy about the pavement. A year-round accessible road also means year-round destruction, and much more people are attracted to intrude this areas. Since they paved the BR364 from Porto Velho to Rio Branco population pops up. Tens of thousands of people have been attracted to settle along the road or in town, destruction is massif.

I already cycled this part 4 years ago, while travelling from Tierra del Fuego to Venezuela, so I will not cycle the same route again. Does that count? I know, hardcore "Freds" (Formerly I was one myself, as a lazy student with much more time than just a couple of weeks each year) would call that cheating. But I decide to take a bus to save off time to explore some unknown areas around Rio Branco, and to reach the Bolivian border, instead of riding 4 or 5 days along these burning fields once again.

So the remaining part contains only short day rides. If you are not interested in that you might stop reading here... :-(

OK, for those still reading, here it goes: I arrive in Porto Velho early in the afternoon, and the bus for Rio Branco would only leave at midnight, so I need to hang out some hours in town. The one and only tourist attraction of Porto Velho is it's old train station. Yes, there is a train station here! It was built in accordance with the Bolivian government in 19-something to connect Porto Velho, which is downstream the Rio Madeira rapids, to Riberalta, Bolivia, as compensation for the annexation of what is now the Brazilian state of Acre. However, it never made it that far. It ended in Guajara Mirim, at the Bolivian border. It had cost Millions of dollars, thousands of lifes and was in service only for a few years. What remains today are some old, rusty steam engines that run some 20 kilometers up and down for the tourists once a week. The rest disappeared in the jungle.

On the small square between the train station and the river there are a couple of outdoor bars and two or three party boats anchored along. That was my favorite place on my first visit, and that's where I hang out tonight.

While siting there and enjoying my beer I watch out for other "Gringos". Not much tourists make it here. The only reason to come here is either to catch a boat downstream to Manaus, or a bus either westward to Bolivia/Peru or south towards the Pantanal area. Distances are gigantic, it takes 5 days to Manus (2 or 3 days on the recently re-opened road), 3 days to La Paz or 2 days to Brasília, so most people prefer to fly. Most tourists here (except me) are long-time travelers, traveling several months or years. But tonight no one is in sight. (Two weeks later I learn that Raphaël Krafft and Erwan Barret have been here today, two French cyclists who started in the south of Argentina last winter and who's homepage I've been monitoring for months.)

At midnight I load my bike into the bus (buuuuhhhhh....) and off we go. It's almost flat, paved all the way and there are bars and restaurants along the way whenever you need them. Besides the heat it was easy cycling. In the bus however I wondered what happened to the asphalt. It bounces and shakes all the time, it's not much better than on a gravel road. Obviously these pavements are only comfortable on two wheels.

At 3 in the morning we have to cross the Rio Madeira once again. The ferry runs only once an hour, and so they let us wait for 55 minutes, even if there were 20 other cars, buses and trucks waiting. On the other side the ferry doesn't land on Rio Madeira, but enters the Rio Abunã. Rio Madeira and Rio Abunã form the border between Brazil and Bolivia, and the ferry actually enters Bolivian waters while maneuvering. Another 3 hours and at sunrise I reach Rio Branco, my favorite city in Brazil. It's 10 minutes from the bus terminal to the central square, where I have a very special welcome party...

I have almost two weeks left before I have to fly home, and there is enough to do.

First of all (after my welcome party...) I visit my friend Gilberto Farias, whom I met almost 5 years ago in the south of Argentina. Two years ago he left for another bike tour across South America, this time not alone but with his wife and his recent born kid. He just came back a few months ago and is now preparing an exhibition in the town hall and his next book. Not a bad way to make a living. I have to be back in my office in December...

Not even the best washing machine will be able to clean my old shirts and shorts from the red dirt of the Transamazon. I need to buy new ones. But that's not so easy in Brazil if you like relaxed shopping. Due to the low salaries shop owners employ a huge number of shop attendants. Some of them are paid the official minimum of U$ 50 (monthly, not per day!), but most of them even less. The effect is that you are surrounded by lots of attendants as soon as you only look into the shop's direction, each one competing with each other for some extra Centavos of commission. Today I don't dare to approach these shops.

It's a long and relaxing weekend. There is a public holiday, the "Dia de Petropolis", to commemorate the treaty of Petropolis, where Brazil and Bolivia signed the annexation of what is now the state of Acre from Bolivia. As part of the compensation Brazil promised to built the railroad from Porto Velho to Riberalta, mentioned before. It never reached Bolivian soil. Bolivians are still angry about that, so it's probably better to wait some days before cycling into Bolivia. :-)

Acre is said to be the most dangerous and violent state in Brazil. This might be partly true. The long border line with both Peru and Bolivia, plus corrupt police, make it the principal entry port for all kind of drugs. Wildwest-shootouts are frequent. However, If you ever heard about Acre it's probably because of the killing of Chico Mendes. The killing of the leader of the rubber taper union and environmentalist 11 years ago was probably the only time Acre received international attention. For more information on Acre and Amazonia check

However, tourists not interested in the drug business will not be bothered. I spend my time mostly out of town, cycling or canoeing, and return at night to take advantage of the Brazilian nightlife. Instead of chestnut trees, outdoor bars are situated under big mango trees, and it's mango season now. Veeeeery dangerous if you don't wear a helmet...

But finally I leave town for the last stage of my tour: The ride to Plácido de Castro, at the Bolivian border. On the way out of Rio Branco I pass the old airport that closed only a couple of days before. The old landing field is private property now, and the new owner immediately piled up sand and dirt on the field to prevent future touchdowns. And takeoffs!! One big airplane is still there. Probably it couldn't take of on time and will now have to pay a ransom for takeoff allowance... To please the taxi drivers they constructed the new airport far, far out of town. It's huge, big enough for Boeing 747 or Airbus 310, just in case they ever want to land here...

It's almost flat, I left most of my luggage in town, and I cycle on a paved road. After all this time with tons of gear on a dirt road it seems so easy now. You just push once and roll on for kilometers... almost.

Halfway from Rio Branco to next town is a big environmental park, the "Parco Chico Mendes", one of the few places where you can see all the Amazonian wildlife, including jaguars. Luckily they are behind thick steel bars...

I'm not in hurry, so I stop often at bars or under Mango trees. A lot of local cyclists are on the way, and they all have the same idea. The trees are welcome gathering points, offering free food and shadow. I even met someone who is walking to Bolivia. He can't afford the bus (it's about U$ 5), and hitchhikers (except wealthy tourists) are usually expected to pay for a ride, so he left Rio Branco the day before, pretending to reach Plácido de Castro 3 days later... I wonder if I should pay a bus ticket for him, but he seems to be to proud to accept.

The "outskirts" of Rio Branco are huge. Along the paved road settlements and farms spread out for hours and if you travel only along the paved main roads you will leave the country with the sad impression that no jungle remained. This is the country of Chico Mendes, the "battlefield" of rubber tapers, who depend on unspoiled forest, and the powerfull local landlords. The battle is still going on, but time works for the later ones. It just takes a minute to cut down a big tree, but several hundred years to grow.

Plácido de Castro is a small town at the Abunã River, named after the guy who "freed" Acre from Bolivia in 1930. On the Bolivian side of the river is a small, nameless village. The village has no road access, not even streets. It's just a couple of houses, accessible only via the Brazilian road system and the river. OK, I could hire a boat to bring my bike over, but that would be ridiculous. So I strip shirt and sandals and swim.

It's a small river, but the water level might rise up to 15 meters in the rainy season. Now, at the beginning of the rainy season, it's still at its lowest and I have to climb up to reach the houses built high about ground. There is not much interesting to see. Before the Brazilian currency was devaluated in 10 months ago (from U$1 down to 50 cents in less than 2 weeks) a lot of Brazilians came here for cheap shopping. Now still a lot of "shops" offer original China-made Rolex watches, Samsonite suitcases and the newest Top 10 CD's, but the customers disappeared. But it's funny to hears Spanish again. "¿Gringo, que passa?" It sounds so different from Portuguese... Bolivians have good beer and there is even a small bar, but unfortunately I left my money on the Brazilian side... and I have to commemorate the end of my tour without my bicycle and without a drink. And in wet shorts.


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