Manaus, Brazil, the starting point for many Amazon River Cruises and jungle lodge tours, seems an unlikely city to exist in the remote reaches of Amazonas, Brazil’s largest but sparsely populated state.
The bustling city of 1.5 million people lies along the banks of the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon’s two major tributaries, which join near Manaus in a spectacle called “The Meeting of the Waters.” The Rio Negro and Rio Solimões display two distinct shades of brown as they join to form the mighty Amazon as it flows toward the Atlantic.
Founded in the mid-19th century, Manaus is largely surrounded by tropical rainforest and lies some 50 miles from the nearest town. Until the 1960s, the only access to the city was by boat or hydroplane along the river; even hydroplanes required 16 hours to reach Manaus from the coast.
Now, Manaus has the only international airport in Amazonas, making it convenient to reach from the United States (via non-stop flights from Miami) or other cities in Brazil. And it buzzes with travelers eager to set off on river and rainforest expeditions.
Surprisingly Rich History and Culture
For such an isolated location, Manaus has a surprisingly rich cultural history, dating from the late 19th-century when it was a haven for regional rubber barons.
With a population of around 30,000 at the time, it was awash with wealth. Manaus was the first city in the Americas to boast electric trolleys. And its Central Market (Mercado Municipal Adolpho Lisboa) was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, and modeled after the old Les Halles in Paris.
But its most distinctive landmark from the era is a magnificent four-tiered Italian Renaissance-style opera house – the Teatro Amazonas – completed in 1896.
Almost all the materials used in the opera house construction were imported by ship from Europe. Its curtain was painted in Paris, its stone came from Portugal, its marble and 198 chandeliers were brought from Italy, its wrought-iron staircase came from England, and the masks topping its pillars — representing poets, writers and painters – came from Greece. Its ballroom floor is pieced together using several different kinds of wood, all formed without glue or nails.
Construction required 15 years since each boat trip from Europe took five months to reach Manaus. Top European opera stars would travel there for months as well to perform.
After the era of the rubber barons ended, the opera house was closed for 50 years before being restored to its original opulence in 1990. Operas are once again performed there, and guided tours are available.
A Marketplace Not to Miss
The area extending from the opera house to the Rio Negro is the main commercial center of the city. On the river banks stands Manaus’ other don’t miss attraction, the Eiffel-designed Mercado Municipal.
The Mercado is home to abundant supplies of seafood, fruits, handicrafts, colorful souvenirs – dried piranhas, anyone? — and herbal medicines. The latter, many derived from a variety of rainforest flora, are still in widespread use among the local people. (Manaus, whose name means “Mother of the Gods,” has a large native Indian population.)
While Manaus has grown rapidly over the past 50 years and has become an important trading center – with duty-free imports attracting new foreign businesses – many downtown buildings and brick streets still evoke its early days. An old cargo-loading area has been nicely renovated into shops and cafes.
You can also visit the local zoo, tour the cathedral, take in a museum, or venture outside of the city to find some sandy beaches along the Rio Negro. If you arrive in Manaus for your Amazon River or jungle lodge tour a day or two in advance, you’ll find plenty to do and see in this most unlikely city amid the rainforest.
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Clark Norton is a Tucson, Arizona-based travel writer who has visited 120 countries and seven continents. He blogs about travel at clarknorton.com.