Heart and Soul of AmazonasBy: © Michael Bryant 2014
Manaus is the little known (even amongst Brazilians) capital city of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Sure a lot of people have heard of it, but the bulk of it's tourist trade is stop-overs for people going on Amazon jungle eco-tours, headed to some of the many jungle lodges or going on a fishing trip in the Amazon basin. While the Amazon Rain Forest offers some fantastic eco-tourism, jungle lodges and unbeatable sport fishing for species such as Tucunaré (Peacock Bass), I believe Manaus deserves more attention than an over night stop on the way to these experiences. For a fraction of what you spend on the eco-tour or fishing trip, you can extend you time in Manaus and have an enjoyable experience.
The reason for its relative anonymity is its isolation. Unreachable by road a good part of the year (rainy season) from the southern part of Brazil, Manaus is relatively expensive for Brazilians to visit. Airfare from Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo is often as high or higher than airfare from Miami. The newly completed (more or less) Pan American Highway than links Manaus with Caracas, Venezuela passes through long stretches of wilderness and its main river crossings are via small wooden bridges or ferries. The Pan-Am is not paved all of the way and thus rainy season may find sections nearly impassable. Manaus, itself, is a city of around 1,500,000 people situated about 300 kilometers south of the equator and the largest city (in fact the only large city) in the huge state of Amazonas. It is located on the Rio Negro about 18 kilometers from its junction with the Rio Solimões (which Peruvians call the Amazon) where together they form the Amazon River. The "Encontra das Aguas" (Meeting of the Waters) is a popular sight because the two rivers are so different in character and composition they flow side by side without mixing for several kilometers.
Manaus was the center of settlement for the "Rubber Barons" near the end of the 19th century and several examples of beautiful architecture of that period exist. The most notable of these is the Amazon Theatre, which is a gold domed opera house built in 1896 . Some other examples of turn of the century architecture include the Palace of Justice (1900) and the Rio Negro Palace (1900-1910). The local market on the riverfront (built in 1883) is worth seeing, as are the Bosque do Ciencias and several of the local museums. However, those are just the typical tourist sites that can be visited. Hotel accommodations, from very reasonable to expensive luxury hotels, can be found at the sites as well. A word of caution though, motels (throughout Brazil) should not be confused with hotels. Motels are places, often quite luxurious, that you can rent by the hour for an amorous tryst.
To really enjoy Manaus, you need to step outside of the typical tourist mode and experience the spirit of the people and possibly a "festa" (festival or party) or three. Outside of "Carnaval", which is a big festival throughout Brazil (not just Rio) just before the start of the Catholic Lenten season, Boi Bumba is the region's largest and most famous festival. Boi is a style of music and dance that celebrates the history of the people of the region. The natives of the region call it a festival of folklore. Boi Bumba takes place on the 28th, 29th and 30th of June on the island of Parintins (a 1 hr 15 min flight or 26 hr boat ride from Manaus) and is a competition by two groups (or Corrals) from Manaus of Boi dancers, singers and bands. Each night the two groups, Garantido and Caprichoso, present a pageant of sight and sound that is unlike anything outside of the region. Judges decide a winner after the completion of the third night of the festival. It is a major influence on and of the region and everyone in Manaus is either a Garantido or a Caprichioso. The Boi Bumba festival of Parantins is about 80 years old, but a newer festival of Boi has begun where the people of Manaus (and visitors) don't have to make the exodus to Paratins. Boi Manaus takes place in October at the sambodromo in Manaus and is a lesser-known younger sister to the boi of Paratins. But you don't have to be in Manaus only during these times to experience the Boi. Garantido (Friday night) and Caprichoso (Saturday night) both hold weekly practice sessions at the sambodromo for about three months before the Parantins festival. Admission to the sessions is less than US$5.00. In addition, the amphitheater at Ponta Negro often has a free presentation of Boi Bumba music and dance (or other regional music) on Sunday afternoons throughout the year.
Besides Carnaval and Boi Bumba, they are many lesser "festas" throughout the year. Brazilians will celebrate at the drop of a hat. Or you may want to experience the "festa" that accompanies a "futebol" (soccer) match. Manaus has a league of 8 professional futebol teams and two major stadiums. To understand how much Brazilians celebrate futebol, a short story is in order. When we were living in Venezuela, my wife got news from Manaus of a tragedy on the Amazon River. It seems a group of people had chartered a riverboat (Mississippi River gambler style) for a weekend outing and an impromptu futebol game broke out on the large flat roof of the boat. Fans of each side lined the sides of the roof to prevent the ball from going overboard and to cheer on their "team". One side scored a goal and the magnitude of the celebration on the one side of the boat caused it to capsize drowning more than 30 people. While a sad tale, it accurately illustrates the "festa" atmosphere that accompanies the game in Brazil. Brazil may not always (though often they do) have the best team on the field in international matches, but their fans always have the most fun. Your hotel staff can advise you of any smaller festivals that may not be well publicized, or the schedule of any games of the local futebol teams while you are in Manaus.
There is also a relatively active nightlife in Manaus apart from the organized festivals. Local bars and night clubs often have major Brazilian stars as headliners, as well as Manaus being the home of the group Carrapicho, the group who recorded the international hit Tic Tic Tac (or to hear it "tchiki tchiki tchac"). The Moranginho (old Hawaii Club) on the Estrada Ponta Negro is one of the hottest spots in town on the weekends, especially Sunday nights. Tukanu's Bar on Avenida do Tourismo is another popular spot. Rabo do Vaca (old Deus Me Livre) on Estrada Torquato Tapajos is a hot spot for "forro" music and dancing, which is similar to Cajun Zydeco music with forro dancing equated to a livelier, hotter lambada. All of the clubs seem to have a "motel" right next door (or at least very close by) if you are so inclined and get lucky. Based on the amount of flirting that an old graybeard like me experiences, even with my wife accompanying me, from lovely young Brazilian girls on an average night out in one of these clubs, the chances of "getting lucky" are good, if that is your wish. However, no matter what your inclination, the "festa" atmosphere and spirit of the region, accompanied by some good music and dancing is a certain bet on the Manaus nightlife circuit.
A more relaxed, but equally enjoyable, "festa" is spending a Sunday afternoon at Ponta Negro. I regularly go to the "barracas" (small stalls) at Ponta Negro along the beach (during dry season, during rainy season the beach disappears under water) on a Sunday afternoon for some regional food and a few cold beers with friends. It is an excellent spot for meeting people, or just people watching. I regularly make new "friends" there. After a few hours at the barracas, I amble over to the amphitheater, where at 4:00 PM almost every Sunday there is a free show of music and dance. Quite often this show is Boi Bumba music and dance, but interspersed throughout the year with MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira), Samba, Forro and others. By the time the show winds down about 6:00 or 7:00 PM, I am ready to go home and call the weekend enjoyably over. That is, unless a trip to Moranginho is in the works.
Although I have only scratched the surface of what can be experienced in and around Manaus, I hope that I have given you the idea that Manaus is much more than just a jumping off point for eco-tours and fishing expeditions. Manaus is a vibrant, exciting city filled with warm, happy, friendly, fun-loving people that make extending your stay before or after your Amazon trip worthwhile. I think it even deserves a trip of it's own, even if you don't plan an Amazon tour. I don't think you will regret the time spent at all. In fact, you may find, like me, that you don't want to leave the "heart and soul" of the Amazon.
Boi Bumba Video
The Bombadromo on the Brazilian Isle of Paratins comes to life in late June for three nights as the two corrals of Garantido and Caprichoso serve up a Carnivalesque spectacular of sight and sound that really needs to be seen to be believed. Welcome to Marc Pingry's fascinating take on Brazil's, Boi Bumba.