Manaus: Modern City in the Rainforest
When you think of the Amazon Rainforest, you’re likely to think of the wildlife, the lush vegetation and tall trees, and the Amazon River. Yet in the middle of Amazônia’s more than 2 million square miles of biodiversity lies the city of Manaus, a modern developed city that is home to nearly 1.8 million people.
Based on a recommendation from a Brazilian friend, Manaus was my first stop in Brazil. After a surprisingly quick passport stamp (the online visa process was rather painless as well) and a night at a hotel near the airport, reception recommended an Uber to get into the city. Conveniently, the same Uber app from the US works in Brazil, no updates needed for location nor currency.
The first thing one notices when entering Manaus is how industrious everything looks; everyone seems to be working. Any thoughts of a relaxed jungle city next to the river quickly fade away as industrial locations of world brands and local enterprises line the streets. People are also working to sell goods on the side of the road, all types of products from fruit to bottled of water to upholstered chairs to novelty toys. Beyond that, Manaus has a robust collection of small business shops and eateries, and most of them keep pretty busy.
In the middle of the city is the famous Amazon Theater opera house, built in 1884. It’s a beautiful building within a lively neighborhood. Sometimes described as an “opera house in the jungle,” it’s really an opera house in a city, surrounded by paved plazas, buildings, and friendly places to eat. You have to leave the city to see the surrounding jungle.
The local hostels have a mix of international travelers and Brazilians visiting Manaus, for whom they help coordinate trips into the rainforest (they usually say “jungle” when speaking English). The two primary options are to purchase a trip to a jungle lodge, or the more passive option of the daytime river boat trip which visits five different river attractions throughout the day.
The jungle lodge trip leaves the city at 7:00 AM in a compact Toyota for a two-hour drive to the shore of the Urubu river, which runs alongside the Amazon. Fabrizio, our driver, speaks no English, but is still pleasant company as I ride shotgun and a middle-aged man and his teenage son sit in the back seat. A long, narrow motorboat meets the us at the shore, and Fabrizio helps the boat captain load the passengers’ luggage and a single bunch of bananas for the lodge. After dropping off a local woman at her family’s shoreside home, the boat later arrives at the jungle lodge dock. There are seven wooden structures there, collectively surrounded by the rainforest on three sides and by the river on the fourth.
It’s hard to describe exactly where this jungle lodge would fall in terms of accommodation levels. It has bunk beds and open-air hammocks, very basic showers, a dining hall that serves prepared food at mealtimes, and a surprisingly well-stocked bar. Everyone who was there enjoyed themselves, so it seems like just the right amount of exposure to the surrounding rainforest.
After lunch we spot some toucans in a nearby tree. Later in the afternoon, we are taken out in long wooden boats to fish for piranhas. Junior, our college aged guide, gave us each a fishing line with a hook and then chopped up some chicken for bait with a huge knife. He effortlessly swung his line (no fishing pole, just a baited hook on a line) like a cowboy and threw it at least 40 feet, the amateurs in the boat cast their lines, but not quite as far.
In between fishing locations, we’re interrupted by some river dolphins about 20 feet from the boat. Junior turned off the motor and we paddled slowly as the dolphins reappeared every minute or so. We later continue fishing and Junior pulls in a few piranhas. We head back to the lodge and Junior’s fish become part of dinner; they’re boney and difficult to eat, but how often does one have a chance to eat fresh piranha?
In the morning we go out for a hike after breakfast. The first wildlife that greet us are the mosquitoes, so bug repellant and long sleeves are helpful. Junior points out the “jungle captain” birds calling as we walk past, we spot the small monkeys hight in the trees, and Junior later lures a tarantula out of its nest with a small plant that he picked. Junior shows us a Tarzan-like vine that he said could hold 100 kilograms, which one of the guests tests by climbing 20 feet into the air (I was wearing utility gloves to protect my hands from mosquitoes, but it turns out they work well for climbing too). Junior showed us a few plants used for medicine along the way. Two hours after our hike started, we went back to the boat and head back to the dock. After lunch, a boat and car ride bring us back to Manaus, arriving mid-afternoon.
After washing my dirty jungle laundry by hand in the evening, I get some sleep and check out of the hostel in the morning. The staff agreed to keep my large backpack safe until the riverboat returned in the afternoon. A car takes us to the dock, and we board the covered boat that seats about fifty. Some friendly Brazilians guests kindly translate the most important announcements as I eagerly agree to let them practice English with me for the day.
The first stop is the point where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon, and it looks like an optical illusion. The Rio Negro water is the color of dark Coca-Cola, and the Amazon is the color of light tea with milk. Where the two rivers meet you see the segregation of color clear as day, the differences in density, temperature, and composition keep the two waters separate. The boat continues to a few different places throughout the day, one to see a big Amazon fish called the Arapaima, another to see small wild monkeys in a lily pad wetland area, to a native riverside village, and then a dock where dolphins come to be fed. It’s worthwhile for a day tour, and definitely more relaxed than the jungle trip.
On my way to the airport in the evening, with my full 70-liter backpack in-tow, there is a huge samba party in the street across from the opera house and in front of the church. It’s Saturday night, and the open-air concert has a large Brazilian audience including locals, visitors, and Franciscan monks from the church. It’s 9:00, so there’s plenty of time before my 3:00 AM flight. After a plate of food eaten while standing, a group of nine Brazilians plus one Scotswoman invites me to go to a filho dance house near the airport, which sounds like a great way to pass the time before my flight. With some friendly translation to explain why I’m carrying a huge backpack, the security manager says I can leave my bag in the back office. After learning the basics steps of filho with a patient Brazilian dance partner, I enjoy the last few hours in Manaus, before I leave in a quick Uber to the airport, falling asleep as soon as I find my seat.
Manaus had a lot to offer, and as I’m briefly woken up by the airplane taking off, I’m thankful that the recommendation worked out well as a first stop in South America.