Manaus, Brazil (Day 1) (2019)
The morning of March 10 found us tied up at the floating dock in Manaus. Because the Amazon rises and falls some 40 feet each year the concrete dock is mounted on pontoons so it can rise and fall with the water. We visited Manaus for two days back in 2012:
Manaus is a city of more than 2 million situated a few miles up the Rio Negro from where that river joins with the Solimoes to form the Amazon proper. Founded in 1669 when the Portuguese built a fort here, it reached its apex as one of the richest cities in South America during the last decades of the 19th century as a result of the rubber boom. At that time the Amazon rain forest in this region was the world’s only source of rubber and the development of vulcanization for car tires drove worldwide demand for it. The boom ended in the early 20th century after a number of rubber tree seeds or seedlings were smuggled illegally to England (it was illegal to export them at all) and the British successfully transplanted them to Malaya (now Malaysia). By the time synthetic rubber was developed around the time of World War I Brazil had already lost its monopoly to the cheaper Asian rubber and Manaus fell on hard times. Its economy revived in the late 20th century as a manufacturing and trade center and it has prospered ever since. Situated in the rainforest almost 1,000 miles up river from the ocean, Manaus can be reached almost exclusively by air or water and it has a thriving river boat culture.
Since we had seen a lot of the city in 2012 we signed up for an overnight excursion to the Amazon EcoPark Jungle Lodge, which would give us a chance to visit the rainforest and some non-urban parts of the river. This map posted at the lodge shows the location up the Rio Negro northwest of Manaus (the brown river at the bottom is the Solimoes, considered part of the Amazon by Peru).
In the morning we boarded a bus for what amounted to a panoramic tour of Manaus (panoramic is a tour where you spend most of the time driving in a bus). We drove around the Mercado Municipal, a large market made in large part with iron and glass. Opened in 1882 (during the rubber boom), it was modeled on Les Halles in Paris. Gustave Eiffel was one of the architects. The iron structures were manufactured in Europe and sent here by ship. The side facing the city is built largely of masonry while the iron and glass side faces the river. Handicrafts are sold here, along with vast amounts of Amazon fish, meat, fruits and vegetables.
We drove past the Palacio Rio Negro, a mansion built by a German rubber baron in 1913. Later it housed the municipal government and today it is something of an art gallery. We toured it on our last visit to Manaus & it is quite lush and beautiful on the inside.
We drove around a bit, passing what looked like a favela neighborhood and a park paved in stone near a bridge.
Finally we came to the Teatros Amazonas, where we left the bus for a tour of the building. Opened on the last day of 1896 after 115 years of construction financed by rubber money, this is the icon of the city . . . a large pink opera house deep in the rainforest where you would least expect to find one. All the materials were imported from Europe and transported up the Amazon by ship: roof tiles from France, steel walls from Scotland, marble from Italy. Almost 200 chandeliers were imported from Italy to light the building, 32 of which are made of Murano glass. On top is a dome, designed to enable the painted curtain in the theater to be raised without folding or rolling. It is covered with 36,000 ceramic tiles imported from France and painted in the colors of the Brazilian flag.
The theater itself is shaped like a horseshoe around the stage. The ceiling is painted with a huge Murano chandelier in the center. Each of the pillars holding up the second tier is topped by a figure bearing the name of a composer or playwright. The upper levels are fronted by what looks like bronze railings and there are many other sculptural details giving the room a very lavish Belle Epoque appearance. The curtain, depicting the meeting of the waters, is from Tiffany and the ceiling was painted in Paris and assembled here after shipment.
In an interior lobby is a large table top model of the opera house made of legos. You just never know what you are going to see.
Upstairs is a large room that looks like a ballroom. It is surrounded by pillars and has a painted ceiling with glass chandeliers. There are paintings around the walls and the floor is made of 12,000 pieces of Amazon wood (cut and fitted in Europe we were told last time) laid without glue or nails (not sure what is holding them down). The floors in particular are quite impressive.
A large veranda was outside the ballroom, which had a nice view because it was on an upper level. We could see Praca Sao Sebastiao with a wavy mosaic pattern reminiscent of Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro (said to represent the meeting of the waters), and across from the Praca was the 1888 Igreja de Sao Sebastiao, which was reputedly built with only one tower to avoid a tax on two-tower churches. We could look down a stone drive to a square with shops where we shopped last time we were here. Originally the stones were covered with rubber to muffle the sound from carriage wheels and there are supposed to be a few of those left, although we didn’t see any.. And in the other direction was the veranda over the carriage entrance that had statues holding lights on each corner. After completing our tour we said goodbye to the opera house.
We boarded the bus for the journey to a harbor where we transferred to a covered motor canoe for the trip to the EcoPark. On the way we passed more favella looking neighborhoods. The EcoPark Lodge is situated on the Taruma River, a tributary of the Rio Negro. The landing at the park is on a white sand beach, fronted by the river rather than the sea. The lounge chairs under thatched umbrellas indicate that swimming is done here, although we never had time for anything like that. Our lodgings were in a two unit bungalow in the woods a substantial walk from the lodge, fortunately along well marked paths or we never would have found our way back. The room was fairly spartan but there was a nice small porch overlooking the jungle (although we never had time to use it).
After a buffet lunch we left in the boats for a visit to an indigenous village. This took us past beaches and rainforest until we reached the village dock. The Amazon area is at a high level (although it will get higher later) so the forest near the river was inundated with water. Some of the trees had Bromeliads (air plants) attached to their trunks. These plants attach themselves to the trees but do not harm them, drawing water and sustenance from the air.
We walked up to the main building, a wood and thatch affair open on the sides with pictures painted on the front of a sun, a moon, a dolphin and a snake. In the trees on the way we saw blue and orange Macaws and what looks like a Toucan.
In the main building we were entertained by a group from the tribe performing dances. Apparently none of them spoke English (no surprise in Brazil) since the chief’s speech was translated by one of the guides. Dressed in native costume, with topless women, grass skirts and feather headdresses, they performed several dances, one of which involved blowing on a long horn. Then they invited us to join them for the final dance. One couldn’t refuse when a young girl takes your hand and you can’t tell her in a language she can understand that you might have a mobility problem or would prefer to take pictures. One of these young girls took each of Rick’s hands for the dance so he was well protected, but there are no pictures of that for obvious reasons. Note that it was pretty dark in the building and everyone was moving, so many of the pictures are a little fuzzy.
After the show we walked around the village, made up mostly by open wood and thatch buildings. The main one appeared to be for cooking: it had an oven and a grill over an open fire where an armadillo was cooking. They showed us what we think are Brazil nut pods, one opened and empty and the other unopened., and there was a bird with a red face, possibly a Muscovy duck, nosing around on the ground (we saw one like it later with some other ducks).. After a while a macaw came in through a hole in the roof, apparently looking for a snack.
So as we leave the village the question arises, is this real or set up for tourists? We don’t really know, but our guess is that it is a little of both. We saw several other touring groups, so it seems pretty clear that this is a regular business for these people. And there was a souvenir stand in the main lodge we were encouraged to inspect, and we know that many of the items for sale were not made here because we saw some of the same things in stores elsewhere. And it didn’t appear that there was actual housing for this many people, so many of them must live elsewhere and come here and don costumes to perform. On the other hand, we think this was a real indigenous village that was probably here before the tourist industry got going and we have no reason to doubt that the dances and costumes and other things we saw are not authentic. So the answer seems to be that it is an authentic village that is now earning income from tourism.
Sailing back to the Lodge we spotted some apparently indigenous thatch huts on the edge of the rainforest and had some impressive views of distant Manaus over the river. Then later, walking from our bungalow to the open air dining room, we saw a beautiful red macaw in a tree near the building.
After dinner we boarded the boats once again for a nocturnal hunt for a caiman (a variety of alligator). We were out for quite a while with the guide on the boat’s prow using a spotlight to look among the waterlogged trees. He also jumped off the boat to walk into the woods looking for them. It was kind of spooky out there in the dark with his flashlight moving back among the trees; at one point we were stopped near what looked at first like an alligator but turned out to be an abandoned row boat. It was looking like all would be for naught when he finally nabbed a baby caiman. We took it back to the pier by the lodge where the other boatload of our people showed up too with another baby. We had a good look at them and also a lot of explanation about them from the naturalists. Then we went back to our bungalow to sleep before an early call in the morning and (hopefully) the little caimans were returned to where they were found.