After a couple of weeks at home visiting family and friends, we found an extremely reasonable flight to Brazil using our American Airlines miles (only 20,000 points? Let’s go!). We landed in Manaus, a city buried deep inside the jungle on the Amazon River, a thousand miles from the ocean. Our priorities included seeing the city of Manaus, spending some time in the jungle, visiting Rio de Janeiro, and hopefully seeing one other city in Brazil as well.
Manaus is a city that, simply put, should not be there. Who builds a huge city in the middle of a rainforest? And models it after the capitals of Europe, in a time when every single item has to be sent by ship across the ocean and up the river? Rubber barons, that’s who. Founded in 1669, the city really blossomed during the time when British rubber barons used the rainforest (and slavery) to reap profits from the rubber plants they found there. By the 1880s, the rubber boom had made Manaus landowners rich, and they wanted all the comforts of the cities back in Europe, including a grand opera house, a cathedral, homes, and servants. To this day, the opera house in Manaus is one of the most famous in the world, built Italian Carrera marble, French bronze work, Italian Murano glass chandeliers, a crystal-studded curtain made by Tiffany. It sat 700 guests, and even included a rudimentary air cooling system, as well as rubberized bricks and padded Damask walls to block out the sounds of the horses and carriages outside. The floors, made of rainforest hardwood, are still original. After reading about the Manaus opera house years ago, I knew I had to visit. And at only 20 reals/$4 USD per visit (half price for Chris!), it’s a bargain tour.
The rest of Manaus is an interesting place, too. We wound up spending two hours in the Manaus City Museum, thanks to a docent there who really made the history come alive for us. The city boasts three palaces as well; the Palacio Rio Branco, Palacio Rio Negro, and the Palace of Justice. In addition, the Municipal Mercado, based on a French ironwork building, is another fantastic sight to check out. It’s across the street from the river port, teeming with container ships, sightseeing cruises, and steamships. These are constantly traveling upriver into the Amazon, or downriver to Santaram, Belem, or the Atlantic Ocean.
We spent one of our Manaus days sightseeing the Amazon River. We started the day swimming with the pink dolphins that only live in this region, near the meeting of the rivers that make up the Amazon. Then we went “fishing” for pirarucu fish, followed by a pretty good lunch, featuring all kinds of fish from the river, stews, farofa (toasted cassava), various nuts, fruits, and side dishes, plus a dessert made of coconut and acai. Afterwards we walked along an elevated boardwalk through the forest, encountered some tiny monkeys, and marveled at butterflies and gigantic water lilies. The last stop of the day was a replica of an indigenous village. While it is not “illegal” to go visit Amazon indigenous villages, they are quite far away (like several days by boat), and you have to have permission from the military and from the village elders, and in short, they don’t really like visitors. However, some people who have left their tribal homelands have created tourist/cultural centers near Manaus, and you can visit those. We watched some dancing, saw how the huts and houses are made, tried foods like toasted ants and manioc, and I got to hold a sloth, while Chris held a cayman. Although super touristy, it was also an interesting way to catch a glimpse into the lives of these seldom-seen people.
Amazon Jungle Expedition
Manaus was very interesting, but the main reason people go to Manaus is to book a tour to stay in the Amazon jungle. We booked with Amazon Authentic Jungle Tour, and they set us up with a small group to head out for five days, four nights. We stayed at a lodge on Lake Mamouri, and each day we had a morning excursion (by foot or by boat) and an evening excursion (usually by boat). We really enjoyed the whole trip. We got to go piranha fishing, cayman spotting, and dolphin spotting. We also did a lot of bird watching, including several species that only live in the Amazon, such as the huatzin bird. We walked through the rainforest and learned about walking palms, acai trees, Brazil nuts, and other forms of palm trees. We sampled cupuacu (custard apple), lime, coconut, avocado, tucuman, and guava. We watched our guides, Carlos and Jefferson, show us how to make a thatched roof from a palm frond, and how to use the formalin from ants to disguise their scent when hunting. We visited a local village and saw their school and their church. Over the course of our days in the rainforest, we toured both terra firma and várzea (the flooded forest). When we visited it, we were in the middle of the wet season- from the beginning of the wet season to the end, there will be a difference of eight meters of water.
When we returned from our river trip, we lucked out, because for the next two nights, the city of Manaus celebrated what they call “Carna Boí”. It is a combination of two festivals, marking the end of the Carnaval season, and the beginning of the Boí Bumbá (Beat the Bulls), an indigenous celebration. For two nights, dance teams and singers take the stage at the Sambódrome, along with flags, elaborate costumes, musicians, and of course the huge crowd singing along. It begins at 7 pm and the last group takes the stage at 2 am. We went one of the two nights, and we were glad we did! What a fun night!
Rio de Janeiro
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the north of Brazil, but of course you can’t visit this country without going to Rio de Janeiro, so made sure to leave time to spend a week there. On our first day we booked a walking tour, so we could see the National Library, the theater, and the cathedral. We learned about the history of the Portuguese royal family, who came here during the Napoleanic wars, marking the first time a European state has ruled from one of its colonies.
After a couple of days in the center of the city, we rented an apartment at Copacabana beach, and started working on our tans. When we weren’t swimming in the ocean or walking on the beach, we sampled drinks such as caiparinhas (made with cachaca, lime, and sugar), ate some local foods like feijoada (bean stew), churrascaria, and picadinho (meat stew).
We also visited Sugarloaf Mountain, taking the cable car to the top, to take in the view of Guanabara Bay and the city’s famed beaches. On another day we rode the cog train up through the Tijuca Forest, the largest urban forest in the world, to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue at the top. Although Rio has an excellent bus and metro system, the taxis and Ubers are so inexpensive here, we just used our Uber app and for $2-$3 we could visit these sights, or Ipanema Beach, without breaking a sweat.
Hopping northward from Rio to our next country, Suriname, we stopped in Fortaleza for a few days to explore the capital city of the state of Ceara. Reminiscent of South Beach in Miami, the city features miles of sandy beaches, and dozens of high-rise condo buildings fronting the beach promenade. At dusk, parents, children, runners, bikers, and walkers use the car-free promenade to get in their daily workout, and then eat at a beach-side cafe or shop at one of the dozens of stalls selling hats, bikinis, coverups, and more. We also visited the Ceara Museum of Sight and Sound, and the Ceara Cultural Arts Center. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of attractions here- although our time at the beach was our main focus.
Brazil is the 5th largest country in the world, and there’s just no way to see it all in one month. Happily, we had already visited Iguazu Falls when we were in Argentina/Paraguay. Hopefully this trip is just a start in exploring all that this friendly country has to offer. For now, we are heading north, so keep an eye out for our next blog post, which will cover Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana.