In 1669, the Portuguese colonizers founded the Fort of São José do Rio Negro, which gave rise to the future capital of Amazonas. The Manaus Indians occupied both banks of the low Negro river and formed the most important ethnic group in the area of influence of the Fort.
Until the 1860’s – when the latex extracted from Amazon rubber trees became crucial for financing the construction of a modern city – Manaus kept basically the same aspect of the first half of the 19th century. Population growth from 1860 on was steady, though not significant as it would be in the 1890’s. The export trade of “hevea brasiliensis” tripled in the 1860’s and this fact had an important impact on the regional economic activity, hitherto stagnant.
At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Manaus became the second largest Brazilian city in the Amazon and one of the largest river ports in South America. From 1889 to 1915, its population grew from fifteen thousand to eighty thousand inhabitants. The timid urban center gave way to a planned city, built from a rational and supposedly efficient design.
The great transformation of the city occurred during the administration of Governor Eduardo Ribeiro (1892-1896) and was expanded by his successors. Water Supply and sewerage systems, telephone, electricity and streetcar lines formed the infrastructure of the new city. In addition to the grounding of some creeks (which became public roads), squares, bridges and two major hospitals were built as well as sumptuous residences (such as the Scholz family mansion, currently an important cultural center) and monumental public buildings, including the Amazonas Theater, the Justice Palace, the Adolpho Lisboa Municipal Market, Customs, the Benjamin Constant Institute, Pedro II Amazon Gym, the Public Library and many others. These buildings are some of the urban monuments in the city of Manaus built during the rubber pageant (1880-1912) and form a sequence of postcards of the city.
When I go to Manaus, I always walk through the city’s central squares, which are the places of my childhood. I lived a few meters from Largo São Sebastião, where the Amazonas Theater is. In this square – whose Portuguese stone pavement that consists of black and white waves inspired the famous Copacabana sidewalk – the visitor can experience one of the best tacacás in the city (a hot soup made with tucupi, jambu, dried shrimp and tapioca starch) . Or have a beer or an Amazon guarana soft drink at Armando’s bar, African House and other bars in the square. The squares of Matriz, Health, Saudade and Pedro II are also important historic squares. The latter is situated at the end of Sete de Setembro Avenue, where you can see old houses, including the building of the History and Geography Institute. At the end of this avenue is the island of São Vicente, where there is a building of the Navy. From there one can see Negro river. In this central area there are still beautiful neoclassical townhouses, as can be seen at Largo São Sebastião.
The most popular area of downtown Manaus is formed by the port (Manaus Harbour), the Customs (both built by the British) and Nossa Senhora dos Remédios square and its surroundings (Barés street, Barão de São Domingos, Miranda Leão) and the Municipal Market. At the end of Remédios square is located the Porto da Escadaria, from where the (motor) boats leave for the inner Amazonas.
INPA (Institute for Amazon Research), where is Bosque da Ciência (Science Forest), is one of the most delightful places in Manaus. At Adolpho Ducke Forest Reserve – an important area of scientific research administered by INPA-, there is a Botanical Garden which is a stunning cutting of virgin forest. Another preserved forest area in the urban perimeter is the campus of the Federal University of Amazonas. But there are also two beautiful parks in the city: Bilhares and Mindú. Farther from downtown, it is worth visiting the Cultural Center of the Peoples of the Amazon, located near the industrial center, an area that is home to hundreds of factories in the Free Zone.
Of the older neighborhoods, I like Aparecida, with its old houses that refer to a Manaus from another era. São Raimundo and Educandos are more popular neighborhoods, crossed by creeks which, unfortunately, were grounded. From the avenue that borders the upper reaches of Educandos there is a panoramic view of the Negro river.
The most beautiful beach in the city is Ponta Negra, but close to Manaus there are beautiful beaches, especially during the period from August to November. For those who want to know a little more about Amazonas, I think it is essential to take a boat trip to the Anavilhanas islands, which form the largest river archipelago in the world. The biodiversity of this archipelago is amazing.
No less impressive is the beautiful landscape of Alter do Chão (a Pará town near the city of Santarém), bathed by the greenish waters of Tapajós river. And also the Ecological Station of Mamirauá, located in the Alto Solimões, which is considered the largest submerged rainforest on the planet. The model of sustainable development of Mamirauá is pioneer in Brazil, because it directly involves the local population regarding the management, preservation and conservation of biodiversity.
Most people’s ultimate destination is not Manaus itself but the Amazon rain forest. From Manaus, you can get a taste of the rain forest with day trips, but if you want to get away from civilization (and the distance it takes to “get away” is constantly increasing), experience “virgin” forest, and see some wildlife, the best way to do so is by taking a longer tour or excursion into the rain forest, with the option of sleeping on a boat or in the forest itself at a camp or jungle lodge, known as a hotel de selva. Depending on your interests as well as time and money constraints, there are several options available.
The famous piranha is omnipresent, and piranha fishing with a bamboo pole and a chunk of beef as bait is a classic activity few visitors can resist.One way is to book an excursion with a specialized ecotourist agency based in Manaus. An average tour lasts 2–6 days and usually includes typical outings such as hiking in the forest and canoeing through igarapés (narrow creeks) and igapós (temporarily flooded forests) in search of wildlife. Guaranteed sightings include flocks of birds and frolicking schools of pink dolphins. Less frequent are monkeys and sloths. Almost impossible are jaguars. The famous piranha is omnipresent, and piranha fishing with a bamboo pole and a chunk of beef as bait is a classic activity few visitors can resist. The best times for viewing animals are around sunrise and sunset. However, as you can tell by the symphonic screeches, squawks, grunts, shuffles, and ribbets, nighttime is when the forest really comes to life. A popular (and somewhat spooky) nocturnal pastime is looking for caimans with a flashlight. They are quite easy to identify by their glow-in-the-dark eyes. As proof that these reptiles have a softer side, your guide will inevitably grab a baby caiman by the neck and invite you to caress its spiny carapace.
Many tours also include visits to the homes of local caboclos (mixed descendants of Indians and Portuguese) who live in stilt houses along the river. Many are quite poor and have little contact with the rest of Brazil. These visits can be interesting—watching milky latex being heated over a fire to become rubber and manioc being pounded into the farinha (flour) that is a main food staple—and sometimes a little exploitative.
You’ll want to make sure of your guides’ qualifications: Most guides work as freelancers, and it’s nice if they not only speak English but also know something about the Amazon’s flora and fauna instead of improvising as they go along.Accommodations on tours may vary greatly. They can range from basic bunks on a boat, and hammocks or tents in the forest, to a night at an exclusive jungle lodge with air-conditioning and gourmet meals. Make sure you know what you’re getting for your money. Consider how much roughing it in the wilds you’re prepared for. You’ll want to make sure of your guides’ qualifications: Most guides work as freelancers, and it’s nice if they not only speak English but also know something about the Amazon’s flora and fauna instead of improvising as they go along. It’s also worth confirming the type of transportation that will be used to explore smaller waterways—noiseless motors or old-fashioned paddle canoes are better than noisy and polluting motorboats that scare off wildlife.
Another way of exploring the forest is to book yourself into one of the many jungle lodges that have increasingly sprung up along banks of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões. Lodges sell packages (usually 2–6 days) that include rain forest and river activities along with meals and sometimes transportation from Manaus. Lodges range from basic rustic to eco-chic and are generally fairly pricy. Keep in mind that your exposure to locals will be minimal. Aside from the jungle lodges’ owners and guides, most of your companions will be other environmentally minded gringos. Finally, given that boats are the main means of transportation in the Amazon, you can very easily hop one and go wherever you want. Regardless of whether you splurge for a luxury riverboat for well-heeled ecotourists or string up your freshly purchased hammock alongside those of Amazonenses traveling downriver in the direction of Belém, adventure is guaranteed.