Halfway between Belém and Manaus, where the Tapajós and Amazon rivers meet, the pleasant town of Santarém is an excellent base from which to explore the Middle Amazon. As well as evidence of prehistoric occupation in the cave and rock paintings of Monte Alegre, the area around Santarém was home to one of the largest pre-Columbian populations in the Americas, whose ceramics and agricultural techniques have left signs that date back to 2000 years ago. Founded with the arrival of the Jesuits in 1661, the towns economy has seen the boom and bust of the rubber trade and is now based on forest products, fruit and tourism. A natural port of call for river traffic, Santaréms life is centred on the waterfront. The low waters of the dry season reveal fine white river beaches, whilst the spectacle of the meeting of the waters contrasts the light brown Amazon with the clear Tapajós. On higher ground a little way up the Tapajós, the village of Alter do Chão has splendid views of the river and its turquoise lagoon. Festivals still take place in this once sacred indigenous site, whose background is well documented in the excellent Indian Art, Culture and Science Preservation Centre. Further up river lies the Tapajós National Forest and the intriguing former rubber plantations of Fordlândia and Belterra.