Manaus was everything I didn’t expect – a large bustling city with high employment, a strong manufacturing industry, a rich cultural heritage and large, modern buildings (although there were plenty of favelas too). And I learnt it wasn’t on the Amazon River either. It’s very close but it is in fact on the Rio Negro River, which is a tributary to the Amazon and in its own right one of the world’s largest rivers. And it’s lucky that it is – the Rio Negro as you may have guessed, gets its name from the black colour of the water. The river has a tea tree type tinge, which helps it to deter mosquitoes. Something that the nearby muddy Amazon has masses of.
So after a short ride from the airport I check into my hotel, the Hotel Tropical. The hotel seems like a colonial throwback – long hallways, large timber doorframes and ornate staircases are abundant. It feels like it could be the set for a 1970’s James Bond movie. It’s away from the main hustle and bustle of the town centre and right on the river so for me it fit the bill well. I had to sit by the pool for a while, sipping a martini…
The next day I took a tour of Manaus city itself. I was blown away by some of the magnificent buildings that were constructed during the rubber boom in the 19th century. The opera house was one of the most spectacular I’d ever seen. As we walked through it a full orchestra was in practice. Watching them play in the theatre, you could have been in London or Paris and it seemed crazy that this was in a town that really had no roads in and out – a mere spec in the middle of almost endless Amazonian Jungle. And the opera house as it is now is only a watered-down version of what is once was. For example, the roads around the opera house were once made completely of rubber to ensure that the noise from horses and carts outside the opera didn’t affect the performance.
The market was equally impressive as were some of the palatial old homes of rubber barons. They certainly didn’t do it too hard back in those days. The city was the first place in South America to have electricity and was also the first place in the whole Americas to have trams. Back in the day it was at the cutting edge within the new world.
After the rubber boom, Manaus obviously went into decline and it’s only in recent years that the area’s tax free status has created a resurgence in the area. All sorts of manufacturing happens here now – from cars and motorbikes through to TVs. Apparently the Manaus Harley Davidson factory outputs more Harley Davidsons that are made in the US each year. There have been numerous documentaries in recent years about Manaus’ growth and fears have been raised about its growth causing negative environmental effects. A local, Wolf, gave me a different perspective. His view was that prior to the local manufacturing industry there were very few local jobs. This in turn led people to do what they had to do in order to scrape out an existence – illegal poaching and logging being the most extreme examples. His impression was that Manaus’ growth was actually helping the environment. Yes, the city was growing quickly – but the region wasn’t so much. All that was happening was that Manaus was now providing job opportunities for people in the local area, so now they were travelling to Manaus to work, rather than potentially trying to earn a wage via illegal logging and poaching.
The Brazilian Amazon
We boarded the Amazon Clipper form a small pier outside Manaus. The boat was small but had a great communal feel. It was to be our home for the next three days as we left the metropolis that was Manaus and set off into the labyrinth of waterways on the Rio Negro and Amazon rivers.
It took us some time to leave Manaus but once it was out of sight we almost immediately starting seeing wildlife. A dolphin would jump out on one side of the ship as flocks of Egrets flew past. Most of us sat on the top deck of the boat as we travelled and as the sun slowly set, the sky slowly changed through what seemed like a full spectrum of colours before finally settling on a crimson red sunset.
The next morning we woke up early and jumped in a small canoe to start exploring. It was nearing the end of the wet season so it meant that there was literally water everywhere. Areas that were normally forest were meters deep in water, meaning that we had the unusual experience of canoeing through tightly packed forests – sometimes with trees almost completely submerged and only the very top leaves being visible, making them look like small bushes floating on the water.
The wildlife was abundant. Sloths were everywhere and at one point we spotted three in a single tree. There were monkeys, iguanas, chameleon and of course lots and lots of birds. My camera certainly went into overdrive.
After returning from our exploration we had the opportunity to swim in the Amazon. Our guide assured us that the Piranhas and anacondas wouldn’t be interested in us and so we took the plunge – it was certainly refreshing in the jungle humidity.
That evening we took a night safari and we saw a different range of wildlife, especially in the birdlife. The Owls, in particular, were abundant and their large eyes made then easy to find with a spotlight – you could seem them glowing from over a hundred metres away.
The next day we did a little more land based exploring. We walking through the jungle and although it was raining we were pretty well protected by the canopy above. We learnt a lot about the plants from the jungle – so many of which are used for western medicinal drugs. One tasted like Vicks vapour drops for example! We also spent some time in a local village and learnt about their farming and cooking techniques. There were certainly a resourceful bunch but then I guess you have to be if you live in the Amazon.
On our last day we went to the meeting of the waters. This was quite an amazing sight – to see the meeting of two of the world’s greatest rivers, the Amazon and the Rio Negro. One is yellow and the other is black. They have completely different Ph’s, densities and mineral breakdowns, which means that they don’t mix particularly well. So at the meeting this is this spectacular line, almost like an invisible barrier segregating the two huge volumes of water. Following that we returned to Manaus where our journey ended. A great journey of exploration completed.
Salvador de Bahia
Brazil’s first capital and the still considered Brazil’s “capital of happiness” – Salvador is a fantastic mix of history and relaxation. One my first day I strolled along the Barra district, with its magnificent beaches and historical buildings such as the imposing Barra Lighthouse which dates back to the 16th century.
Salvador has a predominantly African population, a result of its huge slave trade in the early days of the colony. The surrounding area was sugar plantation territory and feed the demand of the sugar plantation Salvador was at one point had the highest volume of slave trading in the Americas.
Given the long history of the area you may expect the beaches to be polluted and I was surprised to find that they weren’t. The sea was clear and the sand glimmered. And best of all there were a range of venders offering umbrellas, snacks and of course beers, to the local beach goers. The temperature was perfect and I could see how people could easily while away the days relaxing here.
My hotel was only a short walk from the beach and after a slow afternoon I made my way back at sunset.
The next day I took a tour of the colonial centre, or Pelourinho as it’s known locally. The area was chosen for the Michael Jackson film clip “They don’t really care about us” and you can see why. The streets in the colonial centre are so well preserved and so numerous – it’s a credit to Brazil. Having travelled extensively in Latin America I must say that it’s probably one of the best preserved colonial areas I’ve ever seen. Only Cusco (Peru) and Antigua (Mexico) are comparable.
Following the tour I went to a local dance performance. I must say it was probably one of the best dance performances I’ve ever seen. The dancers were amazing athletic. As you may expect, there was quite a lot of capoeira but there was a lot of other dances, mostly with Africa roots but all mesmerising to watch.
Rio de Janeiro
Entering Copacabana beach in my taxi was a euphoric moment. It had been a few years since I’d been to Rio and I’d forgotten just how infectious it was. The timing was perfect – it was a long weekend and that meant that people had come to Copacabana from all over Brazil. To relax, to swim and of course to party. The beach was teeming with people – sunbathing, playing football, playing music or just having a leisurely drink at one of its innumerable kiosks. The kiosks are somewhat of an instruction and fortunately the local authorities have passed regulations to ensure that multi- national organisations cannot own them. They are all locally run and owned – helping to keep Copacabana’s relaxed feel.
I meet up with some friends who live locally on Copacabana. They suggest we start with a few beers at a kiosk but first they suggest we head to Leme, at the far northern end of the beach. This is the area most locals prefer – smaller, less crowded and less tourists. It was a great place to relax, fishermen cast their reels at the nearby point and kids ran around playing. Only ten years ago the nearby favela made the area dangerous. Now, with the favela pacified (in other words, all the drug gangsters removed) everyone seems to not have a care in the world.
Talking about the nearby favela, my friends tell me that there is a new bar at the top of the favela and they suggest that the near vertical walk up there is worthwhile for the views and cheap beers. Agreeing I prepared to leave but I quickly told to sit down. We had to first have a saideira – Brazilian for “one for the road”.
Saideira accomplished we started our walk up the favela. Fortunately there were signs for the bar at the entrance and throughout the favela – otherwise I doubt we would have found our way through the labyrinth of walkways to our intended goal. The walk certainly wasn’t for sissies – it was very steep. And apparently the concrete stairs were only put in a few months ago. Prior to that you had to make your way up in the mud!
On arrival at the bar it all became worth it. The view was spectacular and surprising the bar was full with a wide range of people, from favela locals to fly in Sao Paulo and international tourists. We watched the sunset and then walked back down to Copacabana in the dark. I felt completely safe – something I wouldn’t have imagined possible even five years ago.
The next day I rose early and went for a run along Copacabana beach. It was Sunday and as a result the road adorning the beach was closed to traffic and instead there were joggers, cyclists and rollerblades and people on almost every other type of non-motorised devise imaginable enjoying the early morning sunshine. The four kilometre stretch of Copacabana beach was one long fitness binge. No doubt everyone else also felt the need to wear off last night’s Caparinas.
After a beachside breakfast we decided to take the cable car up to Sugarloaf Mountain, which although separated from Copacabana by a large cliffs, was only a short five minute taxi ride through a nearby tunnel. The queue for Sugarloaf was very short and within 20 minutes of breakfast we were in a cable car up to the first level on Sugarloaf. At this point the helicopter tours of the city caught our eye and we of course had to sign up. The helicopter ride was thrilling to say the least. The ride first took us over Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and as it was now late morning they were heaving with people. From there the pilot headed up to Corcovado and surprising we passed very closely to it, first in one direction and then the other. We were so close that you could see all the tourists milling around the base like little play figures. The views with Sugarloaf and the beaches behind this magnificent icon were similar breathtaking.
That even was the State Final for the Rio de Janeiro state football cup and local(ish) team Bogofodo were in the final. We found a small sports bar near my friend’s place and watch the game with the impassioned locals. Unfortunately, the local team lost but that didn’t prevent everyone enjoying a few more caporinas into the evening!