Manaus, Gateway to the Amazon

If you’re planning to visit Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest you’ll most likely travel through the city of Manaus. As you’re about to learn there’s more to do in this city than just arrange your Amazon trip. Plan to spend an extra day or two on either side of your Amazon adventure to explore this interesting city.

Manaus is located on the banks of Rio Negro, near its confluence with the Rio Amazonas. During the late 1800s rubber became an important commodity worldwide. At that time rubber was produced from the latex of rubber trees which are endemic to the Amazon Rainforests. Manaus’ location between the jungle and the river made it a natural transportation hub for this growing industry. As a result, Manaus experienced an economic boom that made it one of the richest cities in the world and lot of foreign merchants became very wealthy. Coming mostly from England and France, rubber barons built extravagant mansions, churches, shops and warehouses in the middle of this jungle town. Materials were imported from Italy, France and England to decorate and furnish them in typical styles of the European elite.

Transporting goods from the Amazon to Europe took a long time and proved to be too costly. Rubber barons searched for alternatives. The solution was to steal seedlings from Brazil and plant rubber tree farms in Malaysia. This quickly put an end to the economic boom in Manaus. After the downturn in the rubber market many of the extravagant buildings were left to decay. Recently though, some have been restored and can be enjoyed by visitors to the city.

Teatro Amazonas (Amazon Theatre)

None is more elaborate or embellished than the Amazon Theatre. After years of neglect, the theatre was recently restored and is open to the public for tours and shows. Its pink stone walls and colorfully tiled dome roof made us curious to see inside.

As we stepped into the auditorium we were overwhelmed by its grandeur. The large theatre is very majestic. Four levels of personal balconies with plush seating wrap around the room. The best seats in the centre are reserved for the Governor of the state of Amazonas. High above, murals on the domed ceiling depict themes from tragedy, opera, dance and music. The painter was Brazilian but studied in Paris. You can see this Parisian influence in his use of the underside of the Eiffel Tower to separate the four paintings.

The main ballroom is also very grand with stately Italian marble columns, French chandeliers, a muraled ceiling and patterned hardwood flooring. It’s easy to imagine the elites of Manaus celebrating their wealth in this opulent room in the middle of the jungle. It is the only room in the theatre in its original state.

Largo de São Sebastião (St. Sebastian Square)

The theatre is located on Largo de São Sebastião (St. Sebastian Square). Although the theatre should take all of your attention, we found it difficult to take our eyes off the patterned walkway. Using tiles imported from Portugal, the black and white wavy design is meant to represent the Meeting of the Waters; the confluence of Amazon and Negro Rivers. We would see these black and white tiles in different patterns on many sidewalks throughout Brazil.

A 19th century statue in the centre of the square symbolizes the four corners of the world and was used to commemorate the opening of the important shipping ports in Manaus. Around edges of the square are brightly painted historical buildings that are now occupied by tourist restaurants.

Igreja de São Sebastião (St. Sebastian Chuch)

Also on the square is Igreja de São Sebastião. Looking rather plain from the outside we were very surprised to see the elaborate interior of this church. It was difficult for our eyes to choose between admiring the colourfully painted vaulted ceilings or the marble altar surrounded by stained-glass windows. We didn’t imagine such an elaborate church in the middle of the jungle.

During the day, the heat keeps most people away. In the cooler evening however, restaurants around the plaza’s edge spill out onto the patterned tiles. Both locals and tourists come to eat while enjoying the view of the beautifully illuminated buildings.

Mercado Adolpho Lisboa (Municipal Market)

Adolpho Lisboa Municipal Market is a lovely building with one half composed of painted stone and the other half made of metal. The metallic structure was built in Paris in 1908 and shipped to Manaus. That seems rather extravagant for a market, but was the norm of the wealthy merchants of the time.

The market is a busy place with many stalls selling everything from fish to hammocks. It is located on the Negro River and there’s a small port at the back where boats can easily deliver their goods straight to the vendors. The market isn’t the only place to shop in the area. The surrounding streets are also bustling with stores.

We knew we wanted to buy Brazil nuts while in Brazil. We found them for sale in the market at an incredibly cheap price; 1 kg of Brazil nuts (castanha-do-Pará as they’re called in Brazil) were only R$ 35 (Less than $7 USD). So of course we bought a kilo!

Historical Centre

On our walk to the market we went through the historical area and found a few more nice old heritage buildings and monuments in good condition.

Unfortunately, there were also many dilapidated old buildings. Poverty in Manaus is quite evident. Walking through the streets of the Old Town we could see signs of what this area must have looked like before the economic downturn. What must have been gorgeous buildings are now crumbling ruins. It was quite a depressing site.

Port of Manaus

The Port of Manaus is buzzing with activity. Many types of boats are docked on the wharf including small fishing boats, ferries and tour boats. Further down the shore large ocean-going ships are docked at the industrial port. It’s as busy as any port on the ocean and this one is on a river.

The large shipping vessels don’t need to worry about going under any bridges on their way to and from the ocean. The only bridge in the Amazon River Basin is the Negro River Bridge located upriver from the port. Surprisingly no other bridges cross the Amazon River or any of its tributaries.

On the edge of the dock a sign marks the high-water levels each year. The last two years were among the highest water levels yet and are near the top of the board. Let’s hope the water doesn’t get much higher, or they’ll need a new board.  

Safety in Manaus

Before we left for Manaus we were warned by several people that the city is very dangerous. When we walked in the downtown area we saw quite a few homeless, most likely drug addicts. Some were sleeping in shady spots in parks or on busy sidewalks. Most didn’t bother us, but we could feel their eyes watching our every movement. It is easy to see that this is an area where petty crimes can occur. During the day we don’t think it is unsafe, but it is not recommended to walk anywhere at night. Our hotel told us that even the popular Largo de São Sebastião is not safe late at night.

We are usually careful when we travel but in some parts of Brazil, including Manaus, we were extra diligent. We never travel with valuables such as jewelry and try to dress so we fit in as much as we can. Mobile phones are very popular to pick-pocketers and ours were always kept in zippered pockets or bags. We don’t carry large amounts of cash and only show small bills when shopping. Our most valuable item is the camera which is kept well hidden in a weathered camera bag and only brought out for short times when being used.

How to get to Manaus

Even though it’s the best place to use as a base for Amazon Rainforest tours, it’s not easy to get to Manaus. There is an international airport which is how most people, including us, arrive. Taking a long haul bus is possible but only from a few Brazilian cities. We looked into taking a bus from Cuiabá, but it would have taken 2 full days. The last option is to take a slow moving ferry up or down Amazon River. It’s a slow but cheap way to transport people and goods along the river. We’ll describe our ferry ride on the Amazon in the coming weeks.

Coming Next – The Exotic Amazon Rainforest

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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