Though it is not the longest river in the world, the Amazon is the world’s greatest river. At the end of a 6,570km (4,080-mile) journey that begins in the Peruvian Andes, the river’s massive mouth discharges a fifth of all the world’s fresh water into the Atlantic, permeating the saltwater over 100km (60 miles) from the shore. The River Amazon dominates Brazil, yet Brazilians are only beginning to discover it.
Amazonia began to excite scientific interest all over the world a century after its “discovery,” when, in 1641, a Spanish Jesuit called Cristóbal de Acuña published A New Discovery of the Great River of the Amazons, carefully recording Amerindian customs, farming methods, and herbal medicine, and concluding that – mosquitoes notwithstanding – it was “one vast paradise”. In fact, a tenth of the world’s 10 million living species make their homes in Amazonia.
During the last decade of the 19th century, Brazil sold 88 percent of all exported rubber in the world, and for 25 years, around the turn of the 20th century, rubber made the Amazon port of Manaus one of the richest cities in the world. However, British-controlled plantations in Asia undercut Amazon rubber prices just before World War I, and within a decade Manaus was a jungle backwater again. American industrialist Henry Ford attempted to compete with the British by organizing his own Amazon rubber plantation in 1927, but was unsuccessful. You can still see one of Ford’s two plantation sites, Belterra, near the Amazon river, 825km (500 miles) from Belém.
A city of 1.4 million set on the river’s southern bank, one degree south of the Equator, Belém is the gateway to the Amazon and the capital of the state of Pará – which covers an area twice the size of France. With public parks, wrought-iron bandstands, Beaux-Arts buildings, and mango tree-lined avenues, Belém retains more elegance of the bygone rubber era than its rival, Manaus, although it is still chiefly a port city for the export of tropical hardwoods, brazil nuts, jute, and other primary products.
Belém’s old city has narrow streets containing old houses fronted with Portuguese tiles, while, the Ver-O-Peso, Belém’s vast dockside market at the northern end of Avenida Portugal, is a showcase of Amazonia’s prodigious variety of fish and tropical fruit; the Feira do Açaí at the end of the market is the exclusive seller of the small açaí berries that are the basis of much of Belém’s cooking. Continuing along the dockside, you will come to Estação das Docas. Here, the dilapidated warehouses have been transformed into an impressive cultural space with restaurants, bars, and a theater.
One of the world’s largest river islands (48,000 sq km/18,535 sq miles), Ilha de Marajó, at the river’s mouth, is larger than Switzerland, yet has a population of just 250,000 people. – and these far outnumbered by the herds of water buffalo that wallow in the flat, swampy northern area. A government-owned ENASA ferry makes the four-hour trip to Soure on the island’s eastern tip (tel: 91-3211 6600), while air taxis from Belém Aeroclub do the trip in about 30 minutes. From Soure, day trips can be arranged to the Providencia and Santa Caterina buffalo ranches. Fazendas Laranjeira and Tapeira both have private museums with archeological relics from ancient Amerindian sites.
The port city of Manaus, strategically positioned close to the point where the three greatest tributaries form the Amazon river, is an oddity, an urban extravagance that turned its back on the rich surrounding forest and survived instead on federal subsidies, its exotic past, and today, increasingly, on tourism. Its moving spirit has always been quick riches. Once it had Art Nouveau grandeur; then, in the latter half of the 20th century, it acquired the image of a tawdry electronics bazaar, justified only by its status as a free port. Now, an ambitious restoration program is breathing new life into the city’s architectural and cultural aspects, a program that helped it win the right to host games during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The city’s Vivaldão stadium is being rebuilt for the tournament.
Manaus still has reminders of its rubber wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The TeatroAmazonas (Amazon Opera House; www.cultura.am.gov.br) was begun in 1882, at the height of the rubber boom. The columns and banisters are of English cast iron, with stage curtains, chandeliers, and mirrors supplied by France. The marble came from Italy and the porcelain from Venice. Decorative motifs show the meeting of the Amazon waters and scenes from romantic literature about the Amerindians. After many years of neglect, the theater was renovated in the 1990s, and functions as the venue for ballet, opera, and orchestral performances, including the Festival Amazonas de Opera (www.amazonasfestivalopera.com), which takes place in April and May. It’s also the location of the Amazonas Film Festival, each November.
To really appreciate the majesty of the Amazon, you will need to leave Manaus and go to stay at one of the many jungle lodges – varying in comfort and cost – that sit in relatively close proximity to the city. A two-night minimum is recommended for a stay in a lodge. They will all include transport to and from Manaus, excursions, guides, and meals (but not drinks), and most have a schedule of activities that includes short treks into the forest, canoe trips, piranha-fishing, torchlit caiman-spotting, and visits to local communities. The further into the jungle you go, the more pristine the forest, and the greater number of animal species you are likely to spot.
tel: 92-9146 0594
One of the better, larger and more comfortable options close to Manaus, being located on the Tarumã river, approximately one hour from Manaus airport, with a transfer by van or bus and regional riverboat. The lodge has 64 rooms located in 20 bungalows.
tel: 92-3656 6603
Five hours by road and canoe from Manaus is the Amazon Rainforest Adventure Station, a remote, idyllic floating lodge on the Mamori River. There are 16 rooms with shared cold-water shower facilities, and a limited supply of electricity. A canopy platform allows a fantastic view over the rainforest as it comes alive at dawn and dusk.
tel: 97 3343 4160
Located in the Mamiraua Nature Reserve, the largest protected area of floodplain forest in Brazil, on the confluence of the Solimões and Japurá rivers. This floating lodge has 10 en suite rooms with solar-powered electricity. Beause it is so remote, you are likely to see some rare Amazon species. Access is by a one-hour flight from Manaus to Tefé, then a four- to five-hour trip upstream by motorized canoe.
1320 Avenida Coronel Teixeira, Praia da Ponta Negra
tel: 92-2123 5000
This landmark hotel and resort in its own park, 12km (7 miles) from the center of Manaus and on the banks of the Amazon, has become the social center of Manaus since opening in 1976. Its architecture is not exactly tropical, but the gardens, circular swimming pool, and, above all, the excellent swimming in the Rio Negro during the low-water season, make it a major attraction. The number one choice for visitors to Manaus.
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