Since its founding in 1661, Santarém has ridden the crest of many an economic wave. First wood, then rubber, and more recently minerals have lured thousands of would-be magnates hoping to carve their fortunes from the jungle. The most noteworthy of these may have been Henry Ford. Although he never actually came to Brazil, Ford left his mark on this country in the form of two rubber plantations southwest of Santarém—Fordlândia and Belterra.
Today this laid-back city of 300,000 has a new boom on the horizon: soybeans. As highway BR 163 from Mato Grosso State improves (a federal government priority is to pave the rest of this road closer to Santarém), it's becoming the fastest, cheapest route for hauling soybeans from Santarém to Atlantic seaports for international export. To meet the global demand for soybeans and to make enormous profits, Brazilian farmers are clearing vast tracts of forest south of town and all along the way to Mato Grosso. With this new boom, Santarém may change drastically in coming years.
Santarém-based trips can take you into a little-known part of the Amazon to places where the ecosystem is greatly different from those around Belém and Manaus. The area receives much less rain than upstream or downstream, and has rocky hills, enormous wetlands, and the Amazon's largest clear-water tributary, the Rio Tapajós. While Santarém itself can feel built-up and lacking in charm, it is the gateway to one of Brazil's emerging hot spots, Alter do Chão.