Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cayenne to Macapa Travel Report

Since I missed posting yesterday due to traveling,  today's post will come in two parts.  Part I:  Cayenne to Macapa.

Once again,  there's relatively little information online about how to make the trip from Cayenne, French Guiana to Macapa,  Brazil.  I will try to provide as much detail as possible.  I left my hotel room at 7:30am and after a very short walk,  arrived at the area where the shared taxis leave for St Georges.  The shared taxi stand straddles the canal that runs through Cayenne.  The intersection of Rue Mole and Av de la Liberie.  The taxi stands are clearly labeled on the north side of the Canal,  slightly less so on the south side of the canal,  which is where one needs to be for shared taxis for St Georges.  But,  ask around,  people direct you where you need to go and it is not a problem.  My shared taxi left at 9am,  it seems as though it is because that is when it was scheduled to leave,  unlike Suriname,  where shared taxis left when they were full. 

Other bloggers have noted that it is important to mention to your driver that you need to visit immigration,  or passport control before arriving at the river.  I'd like to reiterate that,  because I did not mention it to the driver until it was too late and we were already at the river.  He refused to take me back.  After a few minutes of deliberation over whether I should find it or not,  I decided to take my chances and get in the pirogue for Brazil without an exit stamp.  I do not recommend this.

The status of the bridge from Oiapoque to St Georges is,  as of Feb 7, 2012, "mostly complete,  but not in use."  The construction work on the bridge appeared to be complete from my vantage point under the bridge,  but I never saw any vehicles crossing the bridge.  Once it is open,  all the information about the location of the exit/entry stamps for both Brazil and French Guiana will probably change,  and given the bridge is a few hundred meters from most of the businsess that cater to people crossing the border,  information about how to get from the bridge to those businesses will need to show up at some point online as well. 

I made it into Oiapoque in the middle of a heavy downpour.  To get an entry stamp into Brazil I went to the Policia Federale building,  which is straight up from the river,  about 5,  6 blocks then on your right.  They were kind enough to stamp it for me.  I had forgotten to show them my yellow vaccination card,  and they forgot to ask for it.  I asked if I needed any additional papers with the stamp,  and they indicatd that no,  the stamp was all I need.  So at that point I was officially in Brazil.  :) 

My next tasks were to find an ATM,  fortunately a bank (Banco do Brasil,  I believe) was on the same road,  half way back to the river front.  Walking towards the river it is on your right,  and clearly labeled.  The money exchanges are not near there and that bank will not exchange funds if you do not have an account there.  In order to find the exchanges,  or Cambios,  continue the walk back to the river,  then turn right.  A few blocks up they will start to appear on the right hand side.  Ditch any Euros you have left,  then use your new Brazilian currency to find a place to eat.  Any will do that provides protection from the ongoing rains,  if you're there during rainy season like I was.

Next task after that was to locate a ride to Macapa.  The road,  BR-156 between Oiapoque and Macapa has been much written about in the Lonely Planet forums,  there are videos on youtube of trucks stuck in the mud and busses sliding sideways through the mess.  I am here to tell you that with a good Toyota Hilux 4x4 and a competent driver,  that you will not get stuck,  and in fact,  you won't even be worried about it.  I was able to locate both of those things, and it turned out that one of my fellow passengers in the Hilux had also been in the shared taxi wtih me from Cayenne.  We didn't figure out we were both going to Macapa that night until jut before the shared taxi dumped us off unceremoniously at the river,  but we were happy to find each other again.  And actually we ran into each other in the Policia Federale station as well. 

I'll come back to him,  his name is Jose,  the Well Dressed Peruvian. 

I found my Hilux at 1:20pm,  they said they'd leave at 3:20pm,  and they did,  right on time.  I had put my backpack in the rear seat of the truck,  and was pretty nervous when they drove off with it at one point,  but Jose the Well Dressed Peruvian indicated through sign language that they'd be right back.  We left at 3:20pm,  and arrived in Macapa at midnight,  with several stops along the way for food.

The bags had been loaded into the back of the truck,  covered wtih a tarp and secured firmly into the bed of the truck.  When we arrived in Macapa,  Jose the Well Dressed Peruvian was dropped off at the airport,  I was next,  and at my hotel before 1am.

Ok.  Enough logistics,  hopefully that is enough information for anyone wanting to make the trip.  Got questions?  Ask away and I'll answer them as well as I can.  :) 

Now for the fun stories. 

Rocking the Truck:  Twice now,  once in French Guiana and once in Brazil,  have I been in a vehicle when it's being refueled.  The gas stations,  just like in the US,  will automatically cut off the gas when the nozzle senses the gas tank is full.  So what if you want to squeeze the absolutely most gas into the tank possible?  You rock the entire vehicle back and forth,  and keep fueling.  This moves the gas back and forth in the tank,  and when the gas is mostly on the other side,  you can quick get in a little more gas before the wave comes back.  Does this mean that there's gas splashing out of the tank?  Who knows,  probably.  I was on the inside of the vehicle both times,  getting rocked unexpectedly.  Didn't think to jump out and look for fuel on the ground.

Fellow Travelers:  I was extremely lucky to have a pretty awesome group of people in the Hilux with me.  Aside from Jose the Well Dressed Peruvian,  there were two kids,  maybe early 20s,  one guy,  one girl,  and the driver,  who could have been my Uncle Art,  if my uncle had darker skin and spoke Portuguese.  The driver was a steady guy,  quietly confident in his driving skills,  and successfully navigated the entire course of potholed muddy section of BR-156 without any problems whatsoever.  He was a little quiet,  but would occasionally say things that would make the other riders laugh.  He put on some music that was unusually hip for his age,  and the rest of us started dancing to it in our seats.  The younger guy began flirting with the younger girl,  who seemed to enjoy it,  and Jose the Well Dressed Peruvian did nothing to discourage that.  Jose,  by the way,  was probably late 20's,  early 30's,  and all of us were having a pretty good time.  This was about perfect for doing nearly 9 hours together.  I had a huge grin on my face for being in the middle of what I consider to be a major hurdle of my trip,  and aside from the challenge of getting into Suriname,  the most difficult portion. 

Food:  Food along the way,  from Oiapoque all the way to Macapa,  was served largely in large open areas,  typically a cement pad with a metal corregated roof overhead.  Some tables and chairs were set up,  and usually it was a "pay by the kilogram" deal.  You load up your plate with as much as you care to eat from the buffet,  it's weighed,  you pay,  and stuff your face as full as you care to.  The last stop was an exception,  there was an open grill and some guy grilling up skewers of chicken and beef.  In fact,  pretty much everywhere I've been in Brazil has been serving beef,  it's all been quite tasty,  and I quite like it.  Even walking around on the streets in Macapa tonight,  I found single guys with small grills in the most unlikely of places,  and always a few people sitting around enjoying some food.  On the road I usually grabbed some beef,  rice and beans.  Although the beans was a risky choice given the close quarters shared with 4 other people in the Hilux

Dry Season:  I had read that Suriname and French Guiana have a mild dry season starting in February.  I had also read that the start and end date of that mild dry season was subject to a lot of variation,  like most weather is.  Also,  I had read that the dry seasons weren't particularly dry,  and the rainy seasons weren't particularly wet.  As it turned out,  my hopes for a nice bit of dry season while traveling through this part of the world have been completely and utterly thrown out the window.  I have been soaked over and over,  even after buying an umbrella for myself in Paramaribo.  I've been rained on in all these countries so far,  and I expect it to continue as I move deeper into the...wait for it....the Amazon RAINforest.  :)

The trip itself from Oiapoque to Macapa was,  in parts,  quite beautiful.  We drove through plenty of forest,  but we also drove through areas where the forest had long since been cut down.  Where that happened recently were large ugly scars on the earth,  with burned vegetation and tree stumps.  Where it happened some time ago,  ground cover has taken over,  and there were some cows wandering about.  In fact,  at one point it looked like it could have been a hillier portion of Iowa,  although that illusion did not last for long,  really just until the next palm tree showed up,  so about 10 seconds.  There was a lot of mist rising from the forest,  and the moon is near full,  and illuminated portions of the trip after sundown.  At one point we drove through miles and miles of farmed trees.  I've seen rows of poplar trees being farmed in Eastern Washington,  but nothing anywhere near the scale of this.  It was easy to feel as though I had somehow shrunk and those were normal sized rows of corn.

French Police:  During the trip from Cayenne to St. Georges,  we went through two police stops.  The first one was done without any problems.  The second one the police was confused by a US passport.  At one point as he was giving back ID cards,  he leaned in the minibus and asked me,  "Do you need a visa to visit here,  France?"  I don't have a visa in my passport because no,  as a US citizen you do not need a visa to visit France.  I had researched this fairly thoroughly before I left Seattle.  I responded with a frown and said,  "no, I don't need a visa."  He said,  "ok,  I'm just checking with my chief."  and walked off to radio his superior.  Good thing the chief knew the deal,  as the guy came back and handed me my passport.  I smiled and thanked him,  but what I was really thinking was,  "Seriously?  Why did you just ask me if I needed a visa?  If I did need a visa and knew that I needed one,  would I have made it this far?  Like,  I had an entry stamp in my passport already for French Guiana.  And if I knew I needed one but didn't have one,  would I have said,  "Oh yeah,  sorry,  totally forgot about that,  I know I needed one but never got one,  is that okay?" 

I have heard Oiapoque described as a "rough and tumble border town."  I wouldn't describe it as that, but I would describe it as "vibrant."  Once I got cash,  food,  and a Hilux to Macapa taken care of,  I really quite enjoyed the town.  If I had planned to stay there an extra day I think I could have.

This day has been one of the most fun so far,  although one of the most challenging,  it was also the most rewarding.  That grin that I talked about while on the way to Macapa,  that pretty much stayed there for the entire 9 hours.  :)

Now some pics.

This photo looks a little fuzzy because I had my camera stored next to a large bottle of cold water.  As soon as I took it out,  it warmed up in the tropical heat,  and immediately the lens fogged over.  It was mostly recovered by the time we got to the bridge,  but not entirely.

Pirogues,  and French Guiana on the far shore....probably....unless an island which belongs to Brazil,  that's entirely possible.

Oiapoque with Jacques!

The competent Hilux driver,  with Hilux after driving through a bit of that mud.

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