Discover the Amazonian Megalopolis Manaus

28 Jan

Thoughts of the almighty Amazon have the power to excite and delight travellers like few other places on Earth can. In our minds eye we picture thick natural rainforest with giant trees and an abundance of wildlife, isolated indigenous communities with painted faces and fresh, clean waterways filling the World’s largest river system. So imagine our initial disappointment on arrival in Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city (approx. 1.7 million population) to find a sprawling, dirty hot and humid metropolis seemingly devoid of any natural flora and fauna. The frenetic streets were choked by traffic and its streets filled with rubbish and unsavory characters. On face value Manaus had limited touristic appeal but it frequently finds its way onto traveller’s itineraries using it as a base to arrange jungle trips or considering it a destination in its own right. We realised that perhaps we’d set ourselves up for a fall, with expectations so high, that Manaus was always fighting a losing battle. We knew there must be more to the city than its face value so we set out to discover what Manaus was all about.

TAKE A TOUR OF THEATRO AMAZONAS

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It’s truly a surreal sight to see a Neo-Classical building in the midst of this jungle city. Materials costing in excess of two million dollars were shipped from across the globe to build the Manaus Opera House, constructed at the height of the rubber boom before the turn of the twenty-first century. Wealthy rubber barons, who sought a slice of European culture in the rainforest, spared no expense importing the finest marble from Italy, ceramic tiles from France and iron from Scotland. They commissioned architects and prepped them with grand designs to show off their opulence and wealth. They didn’t miss a single detail and even the roads around the Opera House were laid with rubber to ensure late arriving stage coaches didn’t disturb performances.

Tourists can take guided tours to see inside the opera house every day apart from Sunday and the theatre is also host to regular festivals and performances, with tickets at very affordable prices.

EXPERIENCE NATURE’S WEIRDNESS AT THE MEETING OF THE WATERS

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Known locally as Encontro das Aguas, the meeting of the waters can be viewed around ten kilometres downriver from Manaus and is where the almost black Rio Negro and the sandy-coloured Rio Solimoes meet to form the incredible Amazon. For nearly six kilometres the two rivers run side by side without mixing due to differences in water density, temperature and speed. The phenomenon happens in several places around the world but there’s something special seeing it here in the heart of the Amazon.

There are plenty of agencies offering tours from Manaus but if you’d prefer to go independently take a taxi from Centro to Ceasa port 30 minutes to the east of the city and negotiate a rate for a speed boat ride – the rate starts off high but be patient, barter hard and you’ll pay around 50 reals for around 45 minutes on the water.

 PEOPLE WATCH AT PRAIA DE PONTA NEGRA

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It feels a world away from the chaos of gritty downtown Manaus but just thirteen kilometres northwest of the city, Ponta Negra beach is a haven of calm. The beach is biggest in the dry season from September to December but it’s good to see all year round. The promenade is dotted with restaurants, bars and ice cream vendors. The steps leading down to the beach offer a great spot to people watch. Brazilians love to be at the beach and to be seen. At any one time expect to find bikini clad beauties, large family BBQ’s with thumping sound systems and exciting games of beach volleyball and football. If it all gets too hot for you, take an ice-cold beer knee-deep into the river and enjoy the views.

CLIMB TO THE TREE TOPS

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For the big kids among us, the latest activity taking Manaus by storm is tree climbing. Secured by harnesses and attached to fixed ropes, hoist yourself into the sky under the supervision of climbing specialists. Tree-climbing offers an opportunity to reach the rainforest’s canopy and connect with nature from a very different perspective.

Various tour agencies offer different packages from 3-4 hour excursions to full day itineraries with tree climbing and trips to indigenous villages or flooded forests.

MARVEL AT THE SIZE OF VICTORIA AMAZONICA WATER LILY

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The channels and lakes of the Amazon River are full of surprises. This enormous water-lily is the largest of its kind in the world and can grow up to three metres in diameter. The structure of the plant means that it can sustain the weight of a small baby. The floating lilies are perfectly round with upturned sides. When it flowers for the first time they are brilliant white and transform over a few days into deep pink.

VISIT AN INDIGENOUS COMMUNITY

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If you’re expecting to come face-to-face with lost tribes cut off from civilisation wearing nothing but feathers in their hair, then think again. These communities do exist but most are too remote and isolated for tourists to visit. However, it is possible to visit small communities where traditional indigenous culture and values still exist independently from Manaus. Most rustic villages are built entirely on stilts called palafitas with connecting wooden walkways to protect the houses from the rising water.

SHOP AT MERCADO MUNICIPAL ADOLPHO LISBOA

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It could be mistaken for a petit version of Les Halles market in Paris with its cast iron structure that was shipped from Europe in 1882, but Mercado Municipal Adolpho Lisboa has a distinctly Amazonian feel about it. Smart looking stalls sell leather goods, handmade crafts, tropical fruits and Amazonian medicines. All along the waterfront there are lively markets selling everything you could imagine or need from phone chargers to hammocks. There’s also a colourful banana market which is well worth a look.

PLAN A JUNGLE TRIP OR A RIVER BOAT CRUISE

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Manaus is a fantastic place to arrange trips into the rainforest and boat passages.

Situated at the heart of the Amazon, it’s a great jumping off point for adventure seekers and there’s an abundance of tour agencies that can arrange any kind of tailor-made trip depending on how wild your imagination is and the size of your budget. Most common trips will involve three to four days based at a lodge and taking part in a host of activities including jungle trekking, animal spotting, canoeing through channels and piranha fishing.

Swinging in a hammock whilst drifting down the Amazon is one of South America’s most memorable journeys and a unique way to experience spectacular scenery and river culture. Boats depart almost daily from Manaus up and down river. Arrange your passage at the floating dock and arrive early on the day of departure to claim a decent spot on the boat.

 EAT DELICIOUS RIVER FISH

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Brazilians love to eat well. No matter what social or economic background you’re from there’s fresh and affordable local produce in abundance at cafes and markets across the country. Amazonian cuisine uses simple ingredients cooked well and most commonly found on every menu is river fish. Usually grilled with subtle spices and lemon or stewed with vegetables and yams. The covered market next to Porto Flutaunte (floating dock) is an authentic working class spot to indulge in delicious fish. It’s a fairly grungy place but very atmospheric and the fish is delivered fresh twice a day. Find a free place on the long benches surrounding the kitchen, pick which type of fish you’d like and have fun practicing Portuguese with the locals.

DRINK BRAZIL’S SUPER-BERRY ACAI

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This small, dark purple fruit grown throughout the Amazon rainforest is billed as a protein-rich ‘super-food’ and some even go as far as saying it’s one of the greatest foods in the world. Used by indigenous communities for its healing and anti-aging properties for hundreds of years, the list of health benefits are never-ending from boosting antitoxins and your body’s natural immunity to boosting energy levels and aiding digestion. This locally made produce tastes great and is widely available served as juice,  sorbet or a delicious breakfast served with muesli.

Manaus is no oil painting. It’s not the jungle escape of your dreams. It’s an unashamed working city with all the dirt and noise that goes along with it. However, scratch beneath the surface and you may just warm to this honest and down to earth Amazonian mega-city.

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