After a few days in the bustling centre of Manaus, and a few days cruising the calm waters south of the Rio Solimões, we headed about 3 hours west, to a small town, Novo Airão. Recommended by several blogs and hostel guests we’d met, it’s best known as a gateway to several remote national parks, and a great place to see the Boto river dolphins.
We joined a group taxi, a “Lotação”, that travels every morning from Manaus up to Novo Airão. It leaves from the Manaus side of the Rio Negro bridge. Once we left the few suburbs on the southern side, it’s an unremarkable trip, hours of forests, small farms, and the occasional cow that’s broken loose. Novo Airão has a decent selection of small, basic Pousadas to stay a few nights. We got the best deal – and took our chances sleeping outdoors in hammocks. The Pousada Bela Vista has a waterfront along the south side of the Rio Negro, a pool, a bar, and free breakfast. Visiting in the low season, we almost had the place to ourselves.
A regular at the bar was a German guy, who’s been living in the area for many years with his Brazilian wife. Once we got talking, we got a feel for the remoteness of this place, literally at the end of the road. Any further than this town, in any direction, you must travel by water. All the way to the borders of Venezuela, Colombia, or Peru. The former location of the town, now called “Velho Airão” was invaded by ants, and abandoned. The last resident, an elderly Japanese man, now lives alone, but gives tours to the rare visitors.
The main attraction here of course is the river, and the natural beauty around it. The size is overwhelming. From the town’s port, you look north, across to what appears to be other side, 3.5km away. However, you’re actually seeing one of the islands, part of the Anavilhanas archipelago – the second largest freshwater archipelago in the world. The river actually extends between 14 and 19km wide, in this area. Very calm, very slow-moving, and stained dark, with the colour of strong tea.
In the river, live the pink river dolphins, the Boto species. Next to the port is the floating office of a conservation project, who study the Boto, another small grey dolphin species, and the more reclusive manatees, who also inhabit the area. Several times a day there’s a feeding, where the semi-tame Botos swim up close to get fed some fish. The speed, strength and intelligence of the dolphins is marvellous to see. They’re happy to halt, half-in, half-out of the water to get a chin rub from one of us, carefully snapping a fish, before darting off into the murky water with their lunch. They’ve all been given names, Eddie being the friendliest.
Next up, we found a local boatman Antonio, who took us out for a few hours tour to visit some small villages along the riverbank, and into the archipelago’s lagoons. Visiting as we were during the wet season, the famous beaches of the area were almost completely submerged. In the dry season they’re a bright white all along the banks, with new islands appearing as if from nowhere.
Antonio took us town to Santo Antonio, a tiny community of only 7 families. As pets, they’ve got a Toucan, 3 Macaws, a Parrot, and a hyperactive monkey. Keeping these animals isn’t strictly allowed, but they’re well taken care of and free to move around wherever they want. They macaws enjoy hanging out upside down, grooming some hair or taking a biscuit snack. Surprisingly for such a small village, they have their own school and church, and children from the neighbouring villages come in by boat for their education.
A neighbouring village, Tiririca, had a tame Eagle, who seemed to enjoy his lookout on the riverbank, while being incredibly photogenic.
After a strong rainstorm, our last stop was one of the few small beaches not yet submerged. A local family was preparing a barbecue after a successful day’s fishing – and their small children were highly entertained to meet a gringo from Ireland, and a Brazilian from the faraway state of Paraíba.
Back on dry land, we enjoyed our last evening swinging into the river on a well-positioned rope. A beautiful orange sunset after a stormy day, a fine end to our final full day in the north of Brazil.
Novo Airão being a bit of a one-horse town, it gets very quiet midweek. In fact, in our search for a normal meal after 6pm, we discovered there’s a rotation system for the restaurants – usually just one is open each night. The quality however is always good, with plenty of fresh meat and fish available here year-round. The only pricey one was “Sabor do Sul” which wasn’t anything special, only the first we found.
Weirdly, however, the town has a craft beer shop on the main street. Despite being smack in the middle of nowhere, you can buy bottles of Leffe, Franziskaner, Duvel and many more, at outrageously inflated prices. The shop is a hobby project for the only other German who lives here – and runs a micro-brewery called “Sarapó“, just down the road.
Our original plan to return to Manaus was to take an overnight ferry, that would drop us back to Manaus the morning before our flight to Rio. Unfortunately we hadn’t checked the ferry times beforehand! The boat doesn’t go every evening. Another lotação taxi was the only way back, and fortunately, one was available in time. Back to Manaus – back to Rio – ready to continue our trip!
- Lotação Taxi: R$55 / €15 per person
- Pousada Bela Vista: R$50 / €14 per night
- Boat Trip R$250 / €70 for 4 hrs
- Restaurants R$37 / €10 (expensive) or R$10 / €3 (basic)
- Dolphin feeding: R$10 / €3 for about an hour’s visit