Flying north from Sao Paulo in Brazil, it takes four and a half hours to Manaus. Of those four and a half hours, four hours are spent flying over the greatest forest in the world, the Amazon. Trees, trees and more trees and meandering rivers. When you do arrive above the city, the pilot tips the wing to let the passengers see the meeting of the rivers by the city of Manaus.
It is here that the River Solimôes, the Chocolate river, joins the River Negro, the Black river, to make the River Amazon for the final thousand miles to the Atlantic Ocean. This is quite a sight, as the rivers have different compositions, and therefore do not mix, effectively running side by side for a considerable distance. It is not the only surprise that greets visitors to Manaus.
The airport is a new, modern airport. You would hardly know you have arrived in the middle of the largest forest in the world. At this point you would not also know that you are now also effectively isolated from the rest of the world. There is no escape. Manaus is an island, not literally of course, but it is still nevertheless an island. You can not really go anywhere, apart from the city itself. The nearest town is another Amazonian town, Santarem, which is two hours away by jet.
With the greatest river in the world at its doorstep, you can also leave Manaus by boat. You can head towards Belem, it will take you a week, maybe faster. You could leave by road, but this is not to be recommended. The Trans-Amazonian highway through the Amazon forest does actually make it to Manaus – just. But the great rains in the rainy season means that much of the asphalt is swept away, as the forest reclaims its own. The enormous lorries that cross the highway leave huge potholes that effectively make the road impassable for normal cars. It once took me three and a half hours to go 30 kilometres, because to avoid the potholes, which would trap any normal car, you have to go off the road.
The city of Manaus itself is a mass of contrasts. It is difficult to believe that it was once one of the richest cities in the world. Rubber was found growing naturally in the Amazon, and was collected and brought to the city, from where it found a ready market around the world. But, because the Amazonian forest is practically impenetrable and impassable, it could never be collected in big enough quantities to be sustainable. Hence rubber seedlings were collected by the British and were shipped to Malaysia, via Kew Gardens, to be sowed in plantations. The legacy of this period when Manaus was in its heyday around the turn of the 20th century is the magnificent Opera House, fitted out with the finest Italian marble.
Today, Manaus is more of an industrial city than anything else as a result of the Brazilian Government making it a Tax Free Zone in the 1970s to give some life to the city. Hence many multi national and Brazilian companies have set up factories here to manufacture goods which are sent all over the world.
The relatively few tourists who make it to this part of the world are both fascinated and frustrated by their experience. Here they are by the largest forest in the world, but the jungle is effectively impenetrable and impassable, which makes ‘seeing’ it somewhat difficult, unless you hire a private plane. Even doing this is somewhat frustrating, because the green trees effectively hide any action which may be going on below the canopy level. You also have to remember that the Amazon forest is the size of Europe, which effectively rules out ‘seeing’ it anyway.
However, you can get out on the river, and this is an enjoyable experience, although again you are only seeing the forest from the outside. These days, there are several lodges along different parts of the river, which aim to give visitors an ‘Amazonian experience’. They will take you out to different parts of the river, and you will visit ‘native Indians’, and there will be the chance to purchase the local products.
The more cynical tourists might feel that this all a little ‘contrived’. However, you have to realise that just cannot walk through this forest – I tried it once and gave up after half an hour after being bitten around the eyes by mosquitoes and other bugs – and the real Indians are hundreds of miles away in protected areas, where tourists are not allowed to go, unless given special permission by the Brazilian Government.
There are some good cruises along the rivers – this is a whole world of enormous rivers – which make up the Amazon, which is a fascinating experience in itself. Again, though you are left with the feeling that there is so much more. The River Negro is an especially fascinating river, black as black tea, but in the dry season with the most magnificent white beaches.
Swimming in the river is a fascinating and beautiful experience, as the water is so sweet, clean and soft, you can actually drink it. However, there is a mysterious side to the river, which is teeming full of the most weird and wonderful fish known to mankind. I was once swimming in the river, when a boy who was playing in the water with other boys barely twenty feet away, disappeared under the water from right in the middle of his friends. The Brazilian navy was called in with its frog divers, but they never found a single trace of him, no body and no clue as to what could have taken him.
Because it is so isolated, Manaus also effectively has its own cuisine, which makes it a very interesting place to visit from the culinary point of view. Many of the fish are not found anywhere else, and are very tasty. Even piranhas, one of the most common fish in the Amazon, are extremely tasty.
Manaus is an extremely exotic and unusual city, which will attract visitors who are looking for something different, but let us all hope that local conditions enable the football to be not too exotic and unusual as well!
Gerard Moxon is Founder of Luxury Hedonist.