Fascinating Manaus is gateway to Amazon

The Miami HeraldJuly 13, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Manaus, Brazil

    What to eat: The food of the Amazon is influenced by Indian, African and Portuguese cuisine and also the fruits and spices of the rain forest. Don't leave Manaus without trying tacacá, a spicy soup, or the coconut milk and shrimp dish vatapá, sampling Amazon regional fish such as arapaima (also known as pirarucu), tambaqui and tucunaré (peacock bass), slathering yellow tucupi sauce on your fish or duck or sampling guarana tea.

    Where to stay:

    ■ Boutique Hotel Casa Teatro. Just a half-block from the opera house, it has a rooftop terrace with scenic views of downtown. The place is packed with eclectic collections and interesting art objects and antiques. Its suites are quite small but have everything you need: mini-fridge, air-conditioning, large showers, safe and small flat-screen TV. (Rua 10 de Julho, 632. Casateatro.com.br/english.)

    ■ Hotel Tropical Manaus. The Ponta Negra area boasts a sandy beach along the Rio Negro. It's also home to the Hotel Tropical Manaus. It's quite isolated — about 30 minutes outside the city center — but the hotel has a mini-zoo, tennis and beach volleyball courts, pools, hiking trails, an archery range, spa and a launch area for seaplanes. Brazilian breakfasts are generally ample, but this place leaves others in dust (Avenida Coronel Teixeira, Ponta Negra. Tropicalmanaus.com.br.)

    ■ Amazon Ecopark Jungle Lodge. To get a taste of the jungle without being too far from the city, try this eco-lodge a half-hour trip by boat up a tributary of the Rio Negro and an hour from the airport. It offers excursions such as a rain forest walk, night-time caiman spotting, and a visit to a monkey sanctuary. (Tarumã Acu River, Tarumã. Amazonecopark.com.br.)

MANAUS, Brazil — It's that time in the late afternoon when the light turns golden and life slows down in the square that anchors this Amazon city's opera house.

Children clamor to catch bubbles sent aloft by a vendor, tourists pedal by the African House as patrons sample juice made from the fruits of the rain forest, and the stand in the corner of the plaza turns out bowl after bowl of steaming tacacá soup.

If there's one square that encapsulates all that makes Manaus special, it's the Largo de São Sebastião. The architecture, culture, cuisine and history of the Amazon are all on display in this historic district near the Port of Manaus.

Entering the pink opera house with its neo-classical and Greco-Roman flourishes is like stepping back into the 19th century, when the rubber industry made Manaus the richest city in Brazil.

It was a time when the "aroma of rubber perfumed the air," when women sent their gowns out to be laundered in Portugal, the world's best opera companies visited and rubber barons lit their cigars with currency, says Roberio Braga, secretary of culture for Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil but one of the most sparsely populated.

Manaus burned brightly only briefly, from 1879 to 1912. Then the rubber industry sputtered out, after rubber tree seeds were smuggled out of Brazil and planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and British colonies in Africa. Manaus fell on hard times.

The famous opera house was shuttered for decades. "We had a very poor period. Everything was devalued," Braga said.

But the renovated opera house, known as the Teatro Amazonas, is again a cultural hub, home to the Amazonas Philharmonic orchestra and open for tours and performances.

Brazil has been on the minds of many people the past month, with it hosting the World Cup soccer tournament, which ends Sunday. Manaus, in particular, was a host city for some games, including the United States versus Portugal.

"This is a special opportunity, so we must take advantage of it," Braga said of the World Cup. "This is not so much a financial windfall, but an opportunity to promote our state" and cement its reputation as a cultural and tourism center.

Start at the opera house

There's plenty to see in Manaus starting with the Teatro Amazonas, on Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro. Finished in 1896, it boasts a dome with 36,000 pieces in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the original painted stage curtain imported from Paris, and a driveway made of rubber that muffled the sounds of horses and carriages.

The Murano crystal chandeliers were imported from Italy, the pine floors noted for their acoustic properties came from Lithuania, the gilded mirrors were sent across the ocean and up the Amazon from France, and the furnishings brought in from France and Italy. If you crane your neck toward the ceiling, the view mimics what you would see if you were looking up from under the Eiffel Tower.

The São Sebastião church, whose bells toll on the quarter-hour, sits on the opposite corner from the opera house, and it's worth popping in if you're in the neighborhood.

Around the square are bars where tables are drawn out on the sidewalk and patrons take their time nursing ice-cold beer at restaurants that serve freshwater fish from the Amazon. At art galleries, cafes and souvenir shops, you'll find dolphins and monkeys carved from exotic woods, woven baskets and jewelry crafted by indigenous groups.

The weather in Manaus is tropical, so after you've finished your tour of the opera house, stop by Sorvete Glacial for cones or scoops of ice cream that you buy by the weight. My favorite combo was açai — made from the berries of the açai palm, maracujá (passion fruit), and cupuaçu, a custardy white fruit that tastes a bit like pineapple meets chocolate meets apple.

Though it sounds counterintuitive to drink a hot soup on a steamy day, don't leave Largo de São Sebastião without stopping by Tacacá da Gisela for a spicy concoction of mandioca broth, tapioca paste, the lip-numbing jambu leaves and dried shrimp.

Mix it all together and you have tacacá, a signature dish of the Amazon. The curious melding of tang, tartness and briny shrimp is flavor heaven.

Where the rivers meet

Walking across the black and white mosaic tiles of São Sebastião square will put you in the mood for another must-see attraction. The wave-like patterns represent the Encontro das Águas, or Meeting of the Waters.

Just east of Manaus, the Río Negro joins the Río Solimões (the name given the Amazon River around Manaus and west to the Peruvian border) but when the two rivers meet, they don't mingle.

The Río Negro, which looks like black tea due to decomposing material, and the muddy brown Solimões keep to themselves for nearly 4 miles before they finally mix and flow on as the mighty Amazon.

The striking demarcation between the two results when the slower, warmer Río Negro meets the faster, colder Solimões, whose headwaters are in the Andes. Differing water densities slow the mixing process, too.

Tours of the Encontro das Águas are available by air and water.

Pink dolphins deliver

No trip to Manaus is complete without putting in some time on the Amazon and its tributaries, which are so essential to this region's way of life. Though Manaus itself is a bustling metropolis of nearly 2 million people set up on a grid with good bus connections, there are few roads outside the city.

Long, narrow motorized boats, the lanchas rápidas, are the taxis of the Amazon. Tour operators will arrange visits to Amazon families where you can learn how they live on the river.

Manaus is also a convenient jumping off place to the world's largest tropical rain forest, and many Amazon tour operators and outfitters are clustered in the side streets near Largo de São Sebastião.

I had long heard stories of the pink freshwater dolphins of the Amazon but I had my doubts about how pink they really were. The ones I saw at a rustic floating dolphin attraction at Acajatuba Lake were a delightful rosy hue. Even though it was pouring rain, seeing these creatures was one of the high points of my trip.

A dolphin encounter is an easy day trip from Manaus and you'll see the flooded jungle where ceiba and other trees have acclimated to the fluctuating water levels of the rivers and the high-water marks reaches far up on the stilt homes along the edge of the Río Negro.

You'll also enjoy a trip through the Anavilhanas Archipelago — a labyrinth of small islands in the Río Negro — where you'll catch sight of manatees, monkeys and jacana birds, whose yellow flight feathers look like fluttering butterflies.

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