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Manaus is the largest urban area on the Amazon. It is also the most important Amazonian port and the capital of the state of Amazonas. With 1.5 million people, it cannot be called a city by Brazilian standards (two million people are required for that designation), but it bustles like a major metropolis. The city is one more surprising sight on an Amazon cruise of many surprises, standing as it does in the middle of the Amazon, surrounded by rivers and rain forests. It lies at the critical juncture of the Rio Negro and the Amazon Rivers, and serves as the port for the entire region.
The town has quite a history. It was a small river village during the 1600's, populated mainly by indigenous peoples. Around 1669, because of its strategic presence on two major rivers, Portugal established a small fort in the town. Manaus grew steadily, increasing in importance as a port and, in 1850, it was named the capital of the Amazonas state. But toward the end of the 19th century, fortune smiled. Rubber trees grow throughout the region (and at that time, only in the region), and with the introduction of rubber vulcanization for use in the growing automobile industry, the city prospered along with the rubber barons who settled there. Much of the significant infrastructure in the town (such as the Opera House) was built by wealthy families who tried to convert the town into the Paris of the tropics. Unfortunately, an Englishman smuggled some rubber seeds out of the country, successfully transplanted trees to Malaysia, and the monopoly ended. The invention of synthetic rubber in the 1920's completely finished off the rubber industry and the high times in Manaus were over.
Recently, Manaus has again emerged as an important commercial center. It continues to be the main port serving the Amazon region; it is also a duty-free zone and the center for travel into the Amazon.
Manaus is a mix of crowded residential areas, bustling markets, office buildings, banks and traffic-filled streets. The town begins at the river's edge and extends outward and upward in a melange of curving streets, narrow alleys and mysterious walkways.
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Other South America Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
The official language is Brazilian Portuguese. Although not many residents speak English, the attendants in most attractions do. There always seems to be someone nearby in the markets to translate as needed.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The real (or reais). ATM's are usually found in bank lobbies, especially along the Rua 24 de Maio; there are none in the market areas. Many ATM's take only cards with credit card logos. Unless you plan on spending a lot of cash in restaurants or shops, you can survive with a small supply of U.S. currency. Most cultural sights take both reals and dollars. And even in the markets, someone is always eager to exchange dollars for the local currency.
It is hard to avoid the interesting and inexpensive variety of handicrafts in markets throughout the city -- everything from exotic carvings to handmade jewelry. The most authentic items are blowguns in a variety of sizes and designs, and medicinal oils from regional plants.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Porto Flutuante (floating docks), an ingenious structure that rises and falls with the greatly fluctuating river level. A stone retaining wall at the end of the bridge from the dock indicates the high water marks from 1902, when it was built. The town begins at the docks. Check out the number and sizes of riverboats that are docked with your ship; Manaus is the market center for the entire Amazon region, and river dwellers travel up to five days to buy supplies there.
The dock is connected to the shore by a covered bridge, and then a new, high-end (and delightfully air-conditioned) shopping center, Hidroviaria International Terminal. H. Stern and other upscale retailers are well represented; there's also a bar and an Internet/phone center. But a quick exit brings passengers immediately onto the streets of the city.
All of the main sights are within walking distance of the dock.
Watch Out For
The heat and humidity. The city has no real differentiation between seasons; it is either rainy season or not, but it is always hot and humid. Also, Manaus is on a hill, so walking anywhere means walking uphill. Wear loose clothing (shorts and T-shirts are fine) and a hat, use sunscreen liberally, drink lots of your own bottled water, and take occasional breaks from walking. And a related warning: Cultural buildings are either not air-conditioned or only minimally so.
The Teatro Amazonas, or Opera House (Praca Sao Sebastiao, 092-622-1880, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily except Sunday, $7 for guided tour only in English -- no independent entry) is a spectacular monument to what money and serious taste can do. Built at the peak of the city's rubber boom, it offers what was then the finest in European craftsmanship. The lobby, opera house and upstairs ballroom are filled with Murano chandeliers. The seats, individual armchairs made from the local jacaranda wood and polished to a gleam, date from the opera house's opening but have, of course, been reupholstered. The opera house floor is laid with the same wood used in La Scala, and the ballroom floor is composed of 12,000 pieces of rain forest woods laid without glue or nails. Outside balconies are of Portuguese stone, the doors are Parisian originals, and the painted curtain is from Tiffany's. The unique dome was constructed so that the spectacular curtain could be raised and lowered without folding or rolling it. The theater ceiling was painted in Paris and reassembled in Manaus. It depicts what it is like to stand looking up at the Eiffel Tower. Be sure to check out the vents under alternate rows of seats to see what passed for air-conditioning in 1896. When outside, look for a few of the surviving rubber-coated bricks in the driveways (to muffle the sounds of approaching carriages). The public square in front of the building contains statuary from mythology and a huge fountain built to represent Manaus' trade with all four corners of the world.
Museu do Indio (Rua Duque de Caxias 356, 092-234-1422, 8:30 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. Monday - Saturday and 2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. Monday - Friday, $2) is a rather nondescript building run by an order of Catholic nuns called the Salesian Sisters. In their museum, they feature artifacts of the social and cultural structure of the native people of the region. The exhibits are contained in six separate rooms, and include displays of clothing, jewelry, ceramics, shelters, woven mats and baskets, costumes and ritual masks, musical instruments, funeral items, and a display of early-20th-century medical instruments. There are no guides; the labels and signs are in Portuguese; and there is no air-conditioning in the building. Nevertheless, it is a good place to get a glimpse of what life for natives of the region was like.
Catedral da Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, or Cathedral of Our Lady (Praca da Matriz, no phone, daily during daylight hours, free) was originally built in 1695, and rebuilt in 1878 after being destroyed in a fire. It is a very simple building, with little major art -- in stark contrast to most European cathedrals. The glass is in primary colors, and creates a bright and colorful palette inside. The building stands on a slight rise, with sweeping stairs rising to the entrance. Below is the church square, which is usually surrounded by vendors and their wares.
Mercado Adolfo Lisboa (Rua dos Bares 6, 092-234-8441, dawn until about midday, free) is the main market of Manaus. The building, a wrought-iron and brick structure, replicates the original Les Halles market in Paris. Now it is filled with vendors of all types selling meat, many varieties of local fish, produce, spices, trinkets, clothing, medicinal oils, and snacks of all kinds. The meat and seafood area is particularly interesting, with lots of unusual offerings, but the lack of air-conditioning or refrigeration will probably limit the amount of time one might spend in this section.
Mini-Zoo do CIGS (Estrada do Sao Jorge 750, 092-671-6903, 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Tuesday - Friday and 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, $2) is the city zoo and lies a short cab ride from the city center. This is a strange institution -- it adjoins a military base, and many of the animals were captured by the troops while on maneuvers. Visitors should be warned that this is neither a rich city nor a rich country, and the zoo is certainly not up to U.S. standards. Many cages are small and cement-lined, and the animals are lethargic. That said, it is probably the only chance visitors will have to see native jaguars, birds and snakes up close. The grounds are well shaded and pathways are wide. Signs are in English.
Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of the Waters) occurs where the black water (clear with a rather high acidity) of the Rio Negro meets the white water (murky with mud and a more neutral acidity) of the Solimoes about four miles downstream from Manaus, forming the Amazon. The waters flow side by side in parallel stripes for miles before finally merging, becoming a brown river that flows to the sea. The rivers do not mix more quickly because of the differences in water temperature and river flow rates. It is a phenomenon unique to the region and one that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your ship.
Shopping: The main areas for vendor activity are the Mercado Adolfo Lisboa, Rua Marcilio Dias, Rua Marechal Deodoro and the streets surrounding the cathedral. All except the Mercado are outdoors along busy streets. Be prepared to bargain.
Ecoshop (092-232-0409), in the Hidroviaria International Terminal, is the perfect place to find high-end indigenous crafts. It's a little pricey, but the unusual selection makes up for it.
Manaus is a free-trade zone, and the area a few blocks off the waterfront is full of electronics shops. Prices in Manaus are lower than in other cities in Brazil, but not necessarily below those available at home or through the Internet. Be informed before you buy and carry.
Been There, Done That
Manaus is a center for rain forest and river excursions, nighttime trips in the forests, and more exotic overnight and longer treks further into the wilds. The excursions are of two types -- riverboat trips and excursions based at jungle lodges. Whichever type you choose, if you do not book through your cruise line, make your arrangements before leaving home.
Two reputable and highly recommended vendors are Viverde (092-3248-9988) and Amazon Mystery Tours (092-3633-7844). The Secretaria de Estado da Cultura e Turismo, or Tourist Bureau (092-633-2850) can provide a listing of legally registered touring companies. In no case should passengers purchase excursions from hustlers or freelance salespeople at hotels and bars or in the markets.
The street markets are filled with stands selling local specialties. To accompany your sandwich or fried pastry, try a cooled coconut. The vendor pulls a whole coconut from the ice chest, punches a hole in the top, inserts a straw, and serves it -- refreshing, particularly in the heat and humidity. Local ice cream is delicious too (try the tropical fruit flavors).
For a convenient meal of Brazilian favorites, check out Choppicanha Bar and Grill (092-631-1111), which is located on the pier right beside where the cruise ships dock. It features lots of churrasco (beef offerings), some local fish and a great assortment of cold Brazilian bottled beers. The outdoor tables are nicely shaded and the indoor tables are air-conditioned.
Canto da Peixada (Rua Emilio Moreira 1677, 092-234-1066), about a 15-minute cab ride from the dock, for its authentic and rustic approach to barbecued (a la brassa) local fish. It is a small place, nothing fancy, and the tables are set up outside. When they roll up the metal doors, consider it open. Pope John Paul II ate here during his 1981 visit to Manaus.
For dessert or a midday snack, head to Glacial (Avenida Getulio Vargas 161A or 188, www.glacial.com.br), a local ice cream chain. Choose a dish size, fill it up with as many flavors and toppings as you'd like, and pay by weight. If you don't speak Portuguese, you'll have to guess at the flavors, which include local fruits like acai and cupuacu.
These shore excursions are sure to please:
Best Choice for the Basic Tourist: Take the Manaus City Tour and discover the city's highlights from an air-conditioned bus. Besides touring several neighborhoods, stops include the Opera House and the zoo.
Best Choice for the Physically Fit: Join fellow hikers on the Jungle Nature Trek. An experienced guide leads the walk along trails in the rain forest and points out wildlife and exotic plant life.
Best Choice for River Lovers: Enjoy the Amazon River cruise that features three separate trips -- one in riverboats up the Rio Negro; a second in motorized canoes through the narrow channels on the rain forest; and the third, back on the riverboats, to the Meetings of the Waters.
Best Choice for Overnight Guests: Explore the Amazon after a dark with the Flooded Forest and Alligator Sighting by Night tour. As you travel in motorized canoes through the flooded forest, your guides will attempt to catch cayman alligators and bring them onboard for you to see and touch.
Staying in Touch
An Internet cafe is located at Rua Leovegildo Coelho 516B. It is open from 9 a.m. - 10 p.m. daily except Sunday, when it is open from 4 p.m. - 8 p.m. Access is about $1 per hour.
For More Information
Web sites that provide information on Manaus and the region are www.turismo.gov.br and www.ladatco.com/BR-MAOgate.htm. Keep an eye on the Manaus Web site, www.manaustur.com.br, which historically has been a pretty good source but is currently not operating.
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--By Maria Smith, a travel writer whose work has appeared in newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Nashville Tennessean and the San Jose Mercury News.
Image of the Opera House is copyright Agencia Estadual de Comunicacao - AGECOM, Empresa Estadual de Turismo - AMAZONASTUR e Governo do Estado do Amazonas. Image of exploring the Amazon is copyright Christian Knepper/Rachid Waqued Neto/EMBRATUR's Bank of Images. Aerial view of Manaus and image of Manaus statue are copyright Prefeitura de Manaus.