MANAUS - As the plane approaches the dense green mantle, interrupted by the curves of the most abundant river in the world, you start to make out the shapes of the friendly – and not so friendly – animals living in the rainforest.
Before we embark for our cruise on these alligator, snake and piranha-infested waters, we spent a day in the urban jungle of Manaus.
North of Brazil, the capital of the Amazonas state is full of contradictions with its vertiginous pace and suffocating heat, its geographic impracticality and 1.8 million inhabitants. Founded by the Portuguese in 1669 about 4000 kilometers from Sao Paulo, the explanation behind the rapid economic growth of Manaus is found in its Hevea brasiliensis – the rubber tree.
From 1860 to 1920, Manaus lived through a rubber boom. It was the only city in Brazil with electricity and had technological advances that very few in the country had: tramway, avenues built over swamps and marshes, imposing European style buildings such as the Teatro Amazonas theatre, government palace, the municipal market, and the customs building.
Today, some of these buildings are abandoned, and some have become museums. They serve as a memory of the time when the city known as the “Paris of the Tropics,” with eccentricities to satisfy the new rich class that wanted to live with the luxury and comforts of the Old Continent.
In 1928, Henry Ford founded Fordlandia, a prefabricated industrial town not far away from Manaus, to secure the best source of cultivated rubber on the planet. He was tired of paying overpriced rubber prices to the British for his automobile business. Thousands of men came to this absurd and remote city.
When slums popped up
The rubber boom came to an end with the development of mass-produced synthetic rubber during World War I and II. Manaus soon found itself facing economic and social problems brought upon by high unemployment rates and the multiplication of slums. In 1957, the Brazilian government decided to create the Free Economic Zone of Manaus, with a special legal status and tax incentives to lift the region out of economic desolation.
To get away from the hustle and bustle, we visit the Rio Negro Palace (Black River Palace), the sumptuous residence of German Karl Waldemar Scholz, who settled in the Amazon forest in the early, prosperous 20th century. The residence became government headquarters in later decades and is now a tourist and cultural center. As well as exhibiting their state symbols such as the Amazon flag and anthem, the palace has a collection of historical photographs.
All of the city’s stately and ostentatious mansions and buildings were built with materials brought from Europe. Today, some are still standing, untouched, and some have been devoured by vegetation. The municipal market should figure amongst the top ten of the world’s craziest markets (if such a category exists). Under its half-English, half-French iron structure, a crowd of people in white uniforms scale and fillet some 1,700 species of freshwater fish that are indigenous to the region. What is most surprising is the size of the fish. The arapaima fish, for instance, is so big it would take about a month to eat it. It wouldn’t fit in any refrigerator – it weighs about 150 kilograms and measures 2.5 meters long.
When we arrive at the port terminal, there are trucks full of merchandise, men carrying packages, suitcases and trolleys: travelers embarking for a quick errand, to visit their family or go on vacation… It is here in the port of Manaus that we here a phrase that we will here again and again on our trip: “Instead of roads, there are rivers.”
We board the Iberostar Grand Amazon cruise ship, which will take us along the Solimoes River.
The Amazon rainforest, which covers the state almost entirely, is home to more than a third of the living species of the planet. The Amazon River covers millions of square kilometers and represents 20% of the earth’s freshwater.
Its name comes from Greek mythology – the Amazonas were legendary female warriors who would cut their right breast to use their bows and spears more freely. Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana, who was the first European to travel the length of the Amazon River, claims he ran into a tribe of corpulent women shooting poison arrows, which reminded him of the Greek Amazonas – hence the name.
As we pass by, fishermen greet us as they throw nets from their boats. Every now and then we spot small floating houses and bars, across large swaying tree trunks. Some people live in the floating houses, but most live directly on boats. In both cases, it is common to see them asleep on hammocks.
Shut off from the world
We visit an indigenous household. Alvaro is the grandson of an indigenous rubber collector, but his children and him now collect manioc. With curtains instead of doors and hammocks instead of beds (apparently the safest way to sleep protected from snakes, jaguars, insects, etc.), the house stands on stilts. Alvaro and his family tell us about how they collect rainwater and use medicinal plants and reveal the secrets of the urucun, a red fruit also known as annatto, which is ideal for make up or sun protection.
In the 16th century, when the Europeans arrived in Brazil, there were around five million indigenous people, but now there are only 40,000 left, in 76 ethnic groups. The caboclo people live off agriculture, hunting and fishing, while the ribeirinho people live mostly off fishing. There are no more nomadic groups on the banks of the river because they avoid contact tourists and white men in general.
Our guide, Rafael, tells us that there are about 18 tribes in the jungle that have never had contact with any outside people. He tells the anecdote of a group of German journalists that tried to contact some of these groups a few years ago, they came back alive but their clothes and cameras had been thrown in the river.
We pass by the much more untouched region of Manacapuru, the second largest city in the Amazon after Manaus. Here there are 90,000 inhabitants who live mostly on floating houses. We learn about piranha fishing. Of the 15 piranha species that exist in the river, the black ones can kill a person in 10 minutes. But if one were to be inevitably devoured by an animal in these waters, all we ask is that it is not the candirus vampire fish. For those who didn’t believe in jungle myths, these terrifying fish do exist, they enter through holes in the body and if they don’t find any, they make one in seconds, and feed on guts!
As if this was not enough to cause nightmares, that same night, we went alligator spotting. In the most complete darkness and silence, between marshy water plants…. the boat stops near the coast for us to watch the alligators, some of them three meters long.
The next morning we visit the site of the Meeting of Waters, the confluence between the Negro River – a river with almost black water – and the the Solimoes, with sandy-colored water. For six kilometers, they run side by side without ever coming together, because of their temperature differences, velocity and density.
We navigate for an hour and a half down the Negro River, to the Acajatuba lake, where we spot the botospink dolphins. But don't be fooled. The guide explains that they are known for their ferocious temperament and powerful teeth.
A three-toed sloth swims up to us. This tree-mammal is as sociable as the small monkeys from the Ariau Amazon Towers, a hotel on stilts in the middle of the jungle, where the movie Anaconda was filmed. Even though the anacondas are not as large as the ones portrayed in the movie, there are lots of them. The best accomodation in this hotel are the Tarzan Houses, tree houses in the jungle canopy with wooden catwalks.
When we visited one of the Tarzan houses, a family of five monkeys joined us, impossible to dislodge until our guide applauded twice – then they all lined up and walked out.