top of page
Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Brazil

Parnaiba River Delta Journey: Natural Diversity Beyond Compare

Editor’s note: Second in a series from a reporting trip to Brazil Oct. 21-27, 2023.

  PORTO DOS TATUS, Brazil – On a warm spring morning we motored up the Rio dos Morros, working our way through a maze of tributaries on route to the Atlantic.

  The Morros is a narrow, brownish stream in northeastern Brazil with thick mangrove forests lining each bank. Eventually, we would cruise into the adjoining Parnaiba - Brazil’s third largest river - and later in the day continue on to the mouth of the biggest open sea delta in the Americas.

  We were a group of three on an open-air tour boat that could hold 10. Besides me, Rodrigo Chaves manned the helm while my interpreter and cousin, Gustavo Said, sat nearby. This part of Brazil is lightly populated, in particular the area from Teresina – the capital of the state we were in, Piaui – to the sea, a distance of around 200 miles. It is precisely the lack of people and development that has kept this massive river delta so pristine and rich in fish, shrimp, oysters, crab and wildlife. This is a sharp contrast to other parts of the country, the Amazon in particular, where unchecked development has caused havoc on the environment.

  Rodrigo, raised on one of the delta’s many islands, was an excellent guide: No moving creature escaped his attention.  At one point, he pointed to a stand of Siriba trees.

  “Can you see the monkeys? Rodrigo asked.

  At first glance we couldn’t.

  “Look again.”

  Finally, we spotted them - a family of capuchins, known world-wide as the organ grinder monkeys. They had tan faces and black bodies. Their long, curved tails were firmly wrapped around tree branches, allowing them to safely dangle downward to munch on one of their favorite snacks – the leaves of the Siriba trees.

  Toward mid-morning we rounded a sharp bend and into the Parnaiba. The river there was a narrow offshoot of the main stream, separated by several large islands. An unexpected surprise lay ahead. On the east bank, a massive sand dune rose high above the water. We docked on the beach.  Gustavo and I trudged up the dune. It was a slog as our feet sunk deep into the soft white sand. At the top, another surprise: The sand stretched east as far as we could see, a virtual desert amid a jungle-like forest of mangroves and palm trees. I later learned that this section of the delta was an extension of the Atlantic shoreline, created by a fierce easterly wind that blows hard across the flat, treeless plain from August through November. The delta area itself is comprised of more than 70 islands and spread over 1,050 square miles.  Since it was high tide we were 60 feet above the water. Later in the day, at low tide, the height would almost double. The heat was oppressive so we scooted straight down the dune and into the water. The temperature was so mild we could have comfortably soaked for hours. Interestingly, the water had gone from fresh in the Morros to brackish in that section of the Parnaiba, the result of a closer sea.

Parnaiba Economics

  As we headed north, Rodrigo talked about growing up in the delta. It was, he said, a difficult life. One of six children in a family of fishermen, Rodrigo was raised in a primitive home lacking electricity and running water. He began fishing and crabbing at an early age, as did his three brothers. So remote was their location that when each of his brothers took ill medical attention was not possible. They died at ages 12, 10 and 9.

  After that, he, his parents and two sisters moved to Porto do Tatus, the small village where we began our journey that morning. Rodrigo continued fishing for two years before the opportunity to become a guide surfaced.

  “This is better than fishing. I can make more money,” he said.

  He was solidly built with fair skin. To fend off the hot sun, he wore a long-sleeved shirt and baseball-styled cap. He had a broad nose, thick eyebrows and thin sideburns that ran the length of his face. His blue eyes revealed a man wise beyond his 23 years. I mentioned that to him.

  “I am young,” Rodrigo said, “but I have lived a lot.”

  Up ahead Rodrigo pulled our boat close to shore, where a pair of crabbers were emptying their traps. Siri crabs, known for their swimming prowess and tasty eating, filled a couple of large baskets in the men’s aged wooden craft. The crabbers told us a buyer would be along shortly and pay them 60 cents for every four crabs. The buyers would then sell the crabs to local restaurants at $2 per four, who in turn would list it on their menus for $4.50 – a final markup of 750 percent.

  That economics lesson made it clear why Rodrigo changed professions.

Lunch Time

  The crabs made us hungry. Rodrigo had the perfect solution. We had crossed the main branch of the Parnaiba into a smaller tributary, which happened to be in the neighboring state of Maranhao. After several hours touring uninhabited wilderness we now were cruising alongside Carnary Island. Unlike the other sparsely populated islands, Carnary had plenty of activity.

  “There used to be only around 500 people living here,” said Rodrigo. “Now there’s 5,000. They dug for fresh water. When they found it, everything changed.”

  Small resorts dotted the shoreline. We pulled into one, Casa Caboclo. Cabanas filled with diners were scattered about a grassy knoll. Gustavo and I found a table and ordered the house special – a crab, oyster, clam, white fish and veggie stew simmered in a palm oil and coconut milk sauce, served over white rice. How good was it? Had it been my last meal, I would have passed on a happy man.

  Back on the river, we moved into a narrow stretch of the Parnaiba. We noticed the mangrove tree forests varied in their appearance from bank-to-bank. Rodrigo explained that the gnarly ones – on our right - were red mangroves, which were of little value. The taller and straighter ones on the left side – white mangroves – were prized for construction.  Carnauba trees towered above the mangroves. The roofs of many of the cabanas and small homes we saw that day were made with their leafy palms.

  As we moved closer to shore, we noticed more exotic critters. Schools of narrow fish that looked like giant minnows whisked by. Oddly, their bulging, orb-shaped eyes protruded half way above the water.  Rodrigo identified them as four-eyed fish.  Up ahead, a small herd of mammal rodents that resembled over-sized guinea pigs scooted up the river bank and into the mangroves.

  “Capybaras,” Rodrigo said.

  The animals were once heavily pursued for their delicious meat and useful hides until hunting them was banned in the 1960s.

  Further upstream, we spotted a group of red-shelled crabs scurrying along the shore. Rodrigo explained that the crabs were connected in an interesting way to a bird we would be seeing in large numbers at the end of the day. That intel tweaked our curiosity.

  Soon after, Rodrigo treated us to another surprise. He docked the boat against the shoreline and waded into the water. Dipping his hands below the surface, he pulled out an oblong-shaped wooden basket. He opened a small cover, reached in and came out with a hand full of shrimp. Back in the boat he explained that the owner, a man named Moises, kept 150 traps – all handmade - in this part of the river. Each day, Moises gathers his bounty and sells it for $2 a kilo [2.2 pounds] to the same people who buy the crabs.

Home Stretch

  By mid-afternoon we had entered the larger part of the river, moving closer to the mouth. We noticed a couple of fishermen in a boat in the middle of the stream, bending over the side and tinkering with something. Rodrigo said the traditional way to fish the river was to run a net from one side to the other with around 200 live-baited hooks affixed to the netting. So abundant are the fish in these waters the catches usually are prodigious.

  As we neared the Atlantic, the wind blew harder. The water was pure saline at that point. We arrived at a sand bar that served as a divide between the river and the ocean. Gustavo and I splashed around in the river and explored the sand bar. We stayed clear of the sea: Rodrigo warned that deadly riptides awaited unsuspecting swimmers.

  All the activity made us hungry again, so we stopped at a quaint oyster bar perched on a hill overlooking the river. On the dock we encountered an oysterman with a net filled with his catch for the day. Within 15 minutes we were relishing a dozen of them splashed with lime juice and a hot pepper sauce and washed down with cold beer.

  Our next stop was a fisherman’s camp, located on a long stretch of beach near the mouth of the river. We mingled with the ragtag group of men. They had been there eight straight days so far, selling their daily catch to the men who roam the river for shrimp and crab. The camp consisted of three open-air A frames constructed of white mangrove and carnauba palms. The main structure had elevated flooring where the men cooked their meals. We watched as one of them, over a hot fire, skillfully turn a bunch of sticks covered with, well, we weren’t sure.

  Gustavo asked.

  Fish livers, was the answer.

  A pot of rice simmered nearby. The fish livers would be served over the rice for dinner that evening.

  When we relayed that information to Rodrigo, who had remained in the boat, he smiled and said, “It’s the best.”

  By then, eight hours into our trip, the sun was lowering in the clear, western sky. We headed to our final destination, anchoring in front of a small, uninhabited island covered with mangroves and tall skinny trees with white trunks that looked like birches. A couple of beautiful scarlet birds with unusually long pointed beaks glided by overhead and into the mangroves. Rodrigo reminded us of the red crabs we had seen earlier in the day. The birds, he said, are called guará. When young, their bodies are grey. But their favorite food are those crabs. When the guará mature into adults they turn the same color as the crabs.

  The sky turned from blue to grey as the sun disappeared into the horizon. Dusk had arrived as did flocks of guará by the thousands from the south and west, heading directly into the bush for an overnight stay. They were surprisingly quiet. Not so quiet was the explosion of color: Every inch of the green mangroves and trees were occupied by scarlet birds. It looked like hundreds of Christmas trees adorned with bright, red lights.

  In 15 minutes, the show was over. Dusk was quickly disappearing: We had a 45-minute ride back to port.

  “Hold on!” Rodrigo said, as he gunned his single, 90-horsepower motor.

  The noise drowned out any sounds of night along the river. The air was chilled but not overly so. Like one of those barroom broncos, the boat bounced up and down, making for an uncomfortable ride. My aching bladder was not happy so, as a distraction, I reflected on my good fortune of spending a very long day on a very special river.

  While lost in thought, we raced deep into the growing darkness.

Editor’s note 2: This story is dedicated to Sam Abell, one of National Geographic’s greatest photographers, and Ron Fisher, an exceptional Geographic writer and editor. In 1978, they took a chance on a young, novice journalist and photographer. The result was an amazing, four-month Geographic assignment to Canada and Alaska. I was overwhelmed by the opportunity and, frankly, struggled with the writing end of the assignment. Ron’s deft editing touch saved the day. From the experience I learned much about the crafts of descriptive storytelling and penning detailed photo captions, which has served me well in my subsequent 46 years in the business. This river journey reminded me of my Geographic gig. And of Sam and Ron’s role in jump-starting my career.


Reported and written by: George J. Tanber

Edited by: Michael Gordon

Photo editor: David Kozy

Body part A when photo present

Cover Photo
Cover Photo

I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.

Body part B when photo present

bottom of page