BrazilSunday, June 8, 2014
Outpost in the Amazon
Visitors may find the sci-fi feel of the place enhanced by the fact that the only reliable ways to get there are by plane or river boat. The next closest urban centre, Belém, is 1,250km away, and Manaus is a four-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.
Manaus is surrounded on three sides by mostly impassible jungle and on the other by rivers: the enormous Rio Negro and the almost unimaginably more powerful Amazon River.
When you step off the plane, even the air can seem other-worldly, a hot, humid blast that feels like steam — so much so that physical effort can be utterly exhausting.
But this city of two million is more than just jungle. It is a free-trade zone with an oil refinery and dozens of electronics and appliance factories. Its residents, an ethnic soup of Brazilians of native Indian, African, European and Japanese descent, assemble everything from cellphones to Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
To keep all this going you need life-support. The city protects itself from the hostile environment with ice-cold air conditioning. Passing from refrigerated hotel to scorching sidewalk to refrigerated taxi can be a thermal shock.
Soccer fans should be prepared to sweat when Manaus hosts four World Cup games next month in a new US$300-million stadium that looks destined to become a white elephant. Arena Amazônia is the venue for England vs Italy, Cameroon vs Croatia, USA vs Portugal and Honduras vs Switzerland.
Opera in the Amazon
Colonial houses, churches and monuments dating back to the 1850s are clustered in Largo Sao Sebastião, where the star attraction is a French Belle Époque opera house built over a century ago by rubber barons — the 700-seat Teatro Amazonas.
This year, the opera season running until June 30 includes 33 performances. Visitors looking for high culture in the Amazon can see Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor or Bizet’s Carmen.
For breakfast with a view of the Rio Negro, visit the newly restored Adolpho Lisboa market on Rua dos Barés. It was inspired by Paris’ Les Halles market and features Portuguese stained glass. The crafts sold there are unique to the Amazon.
A taste of the jungle
While an excursion to a nature lodge or a river cruise up the Amazon to Peru is the best way to experience the rainforest, you can also visit the jungle without foregoing urban comforts.
The National Institute of Amazonian Research offers 13 hectares of forest within the city limits. Visitors can see the Amazon River’s aquatic life in nearby aquariums.
For a closer encounter with the jungle, a five-hour trek still gets you back to civilization in time for dinner. Mosquito repellent, water and close-toed shoes, preferably boots to protect against parasites and other creepy crawlers, are mandatory for setting foot in the Amazon.
One such excursion leaves from the Hotel Tropical Manaus, a sprawling resort just outside the city.
The guides are walking encyclopedias on the rainforest, its daunting trees, exotic fruits and medicinal plants. Tours, for a minimum of five people, cost 195 reais (US$86) a head. Jungle creatures like tapirs and jaguars tend to stay hidden but you may see monkeys, parrots and toucans.
If you stay at the Hotel Tropical, one of the city’s best nightclubs is on the top floor.
A cruise down the Rio Negro is another way to explore the jungle. Companies like Fontour and Amazon Explorers offer excursions in English. Both use large boats equipped with bathrooms.
An Amazon Explorers’ cruise costs 135 reais (US$60) per person and departs from the port near the Adolpho Lisboa market. Fontour charges 150 reais (US$66) a day, and leaves from the Hotel Tropical pier.
About 30 minutes out, visitors experience “the meeting of the rivers,” when the dark, tea-coloured waters of the Rio Negro touch the clearer waters of the Rio Solimões, as the upper Amazon is known in Brazil.
The rivers run side by side for several miles, eventually coming together in swirls as different temperatures and water densities balance.
With any luck passengers will also see playful, pink river dolphins, or their gray cousins known as tucuxi.
The itinerary also includes stops at a floating restaurant for lunch and a market with indigenous crafts. There, you may get to hold a sloth, or a “lazy beast,” as the locals call them.
Fish dishes in Manaus are served with fried plantain, yellow manioc flower, and rice and beans.
A typical breakfast features fruits and juices found nowhere else, like the pulpy cupuaçu and palm fruits pupunha and tucumã.
For a more exotic meal, order tacacá, a soup made from the wild cassava root common to the Amazon. To eat the wild cassava, you have to squeeze out the juice and boil it, which removes its toxic qualities.
The result is a yellowish cooking broth packed with nutrients that Amazon tribes call tucupi. Tacacá is hot tucupi with dried shrimp and jambú, a spinach-like green that briefly numbs the tongue.
Restaurants like Banzeiro and Waku Sese offer sophisticated recipes crafted with regional ingredients. Try the costela de tambaqui, the ribs of a giant river fish.
For an afternoon stroll, walk along the Rio Negro toward the Ponta Negra, or “Black Point.” The view can be stunning at sunset, as you sip on chilled coconut water.