Manaus: concrete and jungle

Deep in the Brazilian rainforest, Jonathan Ali sips cocktails in the Paris of the Amazon, the city of Manaus

Downtown Manaus. Photograph by Jonathan AliInside the Teatro Amazonas: boxes in the main auditorium. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinInside the Teatro Amazonas: the plaster ceiling in the main balcony. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe ballroom floor of the Teatro Amazonas, inlaid with precious hardwoods. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe facade of the Teatro Amazonas. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe two streams, Rio Solimoes and Rio Negro flow parallel to each other without mingling. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

Getting there

“Manaus?” my friend asked. “Of all the places in Brazil to visit—why there?”

It was a fair question. And my friend had some authority in asking it. She’d passed through the city once, en route to Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, somewhere infinitely more exciting. All Manaus had going for it, she declared, were its opera house, and lots of cheap shoes.

The easy answer was that I was going to be in the Guyanese interior, and Manaus was just a hop across the border and a short flight away. A more truthful response would have been that the idea of Manaus itself was fascinating: a city of over a million souls, 1,600 km up the Amazon River and surrounded by the world’s largest rainforest.

And so I flew with two companions from Trinidad to Georgetown. We boarded a bus that took us south, through the interior. We broke our journey for a few days on the Rupununi Savannah, and then continued by Land Rover along the dusty red earth road to Lethem, the small administrative town on the Guyana-Brazil border, in the heart of cattle country.
Brazil begins at Lethem. You’re as likely to hear Brazilian Portuguese spoken as you are English; many of the shops are Brazilian-owned; and Brazilian reaís are accepted as readily as Guyanese or US dollars.

Lethem was even more Brazilian than usual on this day. It was Gloria Saturday, the first day of the annual Rupununi Rodeo, and dozens of Brazilian vaqueiros, in their cowboy hats and boots, plaid shirts and denim jeans, had poured across the border for the biggest event of the Lethem social calendar.

We crossed the Takutu River by motorboat, the massive concrete bridge that will eventually connect Guyana and Brazil looming high on our left. Soon we were in a taxi, speeding along the tarmacked highway that slices through the scrubland towards Boa Vista, on the Rio Branco. Now we were well and truly in Brazil.

Meeting Manaus

Approaching Manaus, about an hour’s flight from Boa Vista, you don’t really get a sense of arriving at a metropolis in the middle of the rainforest. Miles of uninterrupted dark green, the dense trees like endless heads of tightly packed broccoli, begin to be broken by patches of cleared land. Dots of zinc-roofed settlement appear, then the airport, the Eduardo Gomes International, in half-forest. And you’re there.

Driving the multi-lane expressway into the city, I felt we had stepped back in time a few decades. Billboards advertised upcoming concerts by Julio Iglesias and Deep Purple. The Playboy Club’s gates stood audaciously open. There were old-fashioned Volkswagen Beetles and vans. And the buildings, while still fairly new, had a certain premature shabbiness. Was it something to do with the encircling forest, the oppressively muggy (90 per cent humidity) jungle air?

The Paris of the Amazon

Manaus, capital of Amazonas, exists essentially because of the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Brazil was the world’s largest producer, and because of Eduardo Ribeiro, governor of the state, who had a vision of Manaus rivalling the cities of Europe—the Paris of the Amazon.

Under Ribeiro, remembered today as the Pensador (Thinker), broad Parisian-style avenues were laid down, interspersed with Italian-style piazzas and fountains. Manaus was the first city in Brazil to introduce tramcars, the second to have electric streetlights. Much of the old city still exists in the exquisite Portuguese-style period residences and official buildings scattered throughout the city.

Undoubtedly, however, its showpiece is the fantastic Teatro Amazonas, the Amazon Opera House. Designed in the Italian Renaissance style, it took 12 years to build and was opened in 1896, with a cupola of tiles imported from Alsace, Italian crystal chandeliers, French bronze fittings, and cast-iron columns from Glasgow. (Only the wood used to make the seats was not imported, but even that was sent to France for construction.) Immortalised in Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, the Teatro—which seats 701—has played host to Luciano Pavarotti and Margot Fonteyn, among others. While we were there preparations were being made for the annual Festival de Ópera, which was opening with an opera by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

Modern Manaus

Today, much of Manaus’s prosperity comes from its downtown free-trade zone. Electronic goods are plentiful. Yet if there’s one commodity that does better business than any other, it’s shoes. Sapatarias abound; the trendy Brazilian rubber slipper, Havaianas, is on sale everywhere, and ladies’ shoes in particular are popular. Even though it rains for a good portion of the day almost every day, the women of Manaus stubbornly put fashion before practicality and walk the streets in the most fancy sandals, all the better to show off their elaborate pedicures.

Heading south out of the Zona Franca you come to the waterfront area and the main market, the Gustave Eiffel-designed Mercado Municipal. The Mercado, with its impressive Art Nouveau roof, is under restoration, so market activities take place in a huge adjoining building. Get there early enough and amidst the buzzing throng of vendors and shoppers you will see the fishermen offloading their catch, as well as boats bringing in various jungle fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Dining and liming

No doubt much of the river fish that comes into the market ends up in the various restaurants of Manaus, such as the excellent Canto da Peixada, where we had our choice of huge steaks of tambaqui, jaraqui, tucunare or my favourite, the luscious pirarucu, grilled simply with lemon and herbs or served in one of a number of sauces.

As much as Manaus is gastronomically a fish city, though, it’s still Brazilian, which means beef, and lots of it. This is easily sampled from one of the many roadside churrascarias, where for just one real you can sink your canines into a juicy charcoal-grilled skewer of beef, or, for a little variety, beef and sausage, served with a spicy chili-water condiment.

For the definitive sit-down churrascaria experience, however, we headed to carnivore central, the Búfalo, where liveried waiters regaled us with an endless supply of grilled grade-A meats, brought to the table on huge metal skewers and expertly sliced onto our plates.

Regardless of what you eat, however, there really is only one drink to be had, and that’s the caipirinha. There is a simple reason why this cocktail of cachaça (a sugar cane spirit), fresh lime, sugar and crushed ice is Brazil’s national drink: é magnífico. We ordered it everywhere we went, comparing and contrasting until we were veritable caipirinha connoisseurs. Otherwise you could do worse than drink one of the fine Brazilian lagers, as you sit at an agreeably noisy bar, chatting into the wee hours.

The meeting of the waters

We were in a covered speedboat in the middle of the Amazon River, hardly ten minutes out of Manaus, en route to a jungle camp, when our guide, Herman, motioned to the pilot to cut the engine.

“Here we are,” Herman announced, “the Meeting of the Waters.”

And there we were. Although Manaus is usually said to be on the Amazon, it is actually on the Rio Negro, so called because of its dark colour, caused by decomposed forest matter. A few kilometres downriver, the Negro joins the light-coloured, sediment-filled Rio Solimoes, which has its source in the icy Andes of Peru. Here the Rio Amazonas truly begins.

When the two rivers meet, however, their differing temperatures and velocities mean that, for several kilometres, they do not mix but run side by side, dark by light. This is the famed Encontro Das Águas: the Meeting of the Waters.

Our camp, on a small lake in submerged forest—much of the Amazon forest is submerged—catered almost exclusively to young backpackers. Although we could have whiled away the time doing nothing more strenuous than lying in a hammock, we tried the activities on offer: forest walking, canoeing, dolphin-spotting (successful), and piranha-fishing (unsuccessful), all just a short boat ride away from the metropolis.

Adeus Manaus

The charms of Manaus are not always obvious. It may not have São Paulo’s eclectic sophistication, Rio’s beach and samba swing, or even Salvador’s African-influenced cultural vibe. Yet as the week drew to a close and we got ready to leave, I found myself admiring this city that, often by the sheer improbability of its existence, is remarkable in its own way.

As I took a last, lone walk through the streets near our hotel I came upon a group of young women bent over in a huddle. They stepped back, and I was able to spy what they were exclaiming over: a large butterfly, black, with bright blue markings on its wings, making drunken circles through the fresh early-morning air. I had seen a butterfly of this same type in the forest, and here it was again, completely out of its element and yet, somehow, not out of place, in this jungle city slipped from its days of eminence but still very much alive.