Manaus, & Why You Shouldn't Go There

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Oh boy, this is gonna be a positive one.

Defined by it's decayed decadence, Manaus is the barely breathing corpse of the rubber era. Disembarking from the 4 day journey down the river, we pulled past a blockade of kitschy, erroding colonialism and into the frantic harbour. You’re already on edge. The locals on the boat gave me, and the only other gringo on the journey, many warnings about crime in the city, and about how we, in particular, would have to watch our backs the entire time. You walk for about 10 minutes until you find a taxi, at which point about 20 will appear at once and compete for your patronage fairly aggressively. They didn’t speak one word of Spanish and you’ll probably wind up with an inflated gringo price.

I immediately signed up to go back into the jungle, which you can read more about here. I came back sick, exhausted, deprived of food and sleep. Hauling bags through Manaus’ sketchy city streets gained me a decent amount of unwanted attention, and I opted to just book into the first budget hotel I could find. You should book in advance, it can get pretty busy in town when the opera is on.

Teatro Amazonas, a gaudy testament to the indulgent self-aggrandisation of the turn of the century’s rubber moguls, who wallowed in pseudo-European grandeur while raping the rainforest for its resources. The opera theatre, a ‘baroque monument in triumphantly poor taste’ is considered by Eduardo Galeano to be ‘the chief symbol of that vertigo of wealth at the beginning of our century’. The Brazilian rubber market collapsed in on itself. The rich moved on. Manaus is a relic. The theatre itself sits on a central square, where teenagers loiter on benches, with little else to do. The street vendors who line the outskirts of the square couldn't even make the effort to be pushy. The city is tired. The Palácio Rio Negro is nearby, comparatively grandiose and comparatively uninteresting.

Manaus gained fairly recent notoriety after a massive stadium was erected in the city for the 2014 World Cup, the Amazonia Arena. It cost $270,000,000 to build, in a country ravaged by poverty and violent crime, and it hosted 4 games. There is no team in Manaus big enough to play here, and it’s bang in the middle of the Amazon, pretty damn far from the homes Brazil’s biggest teams. It’s too expensive to even host local league games here. It doesn’t bring in the concert and event revenues that were predicted, the novelty of a stadium in the Amazon wearing off relatively rapidly. Considering Manaus is an impoverished city, ranked as the 34th most dangerous city in the world, funding on that scale could definitely have had better uses. In fairness, 17/50 of the most dangerous cities in the world are in Brazil, and 42/50 are in Latin America, so these kind of stats are ones that you grow fairly used to as you travel through the continent. Corruption, political instability and poverty are pervasive throughout the region- it doesn’t make it too dangerous to visit, but just avoid Venezuela for the time being.

Manaus is one of the few spots along the Amazon to see the meeting of the waters. A famous phenomenon, the black waters of the Rio Negro and the sandy waters of the Rio Solimões run alongside one another as the rivers meet and merge. They run without mixing for around 6km, and any boat that you take out from the Port of Manaus will probably bring you out to see the spot where they meet. I could attempt to explain about silt run off and why there’s a variation in the colours, but honestly my biology knowledge is so negligible that Wikipedia will probably sort you out a fair bit better. Also my entire explanation of the occurrence was in Portuguese, which I don’t speak, so you’ve gotta embrace the unknown a little in Brazil.

The city is lightly livelier at night, and there's a couple nice enough spots to sit and sample Amazonian food. These normally have inflated prices if you want to sit around the main square, particularly when the opera is on, but Manaus felt sufficiently sketchy to me that I preferred not to eat in local spots in dimly lit areas, which I’m typically all for. Having been in the Amazon for 2-3 weeks at this point I wasn't too interested in eating here, but for the tourists that flocked to the city as their only excursion to the jungle, it was a fun novelty. If you’re on a budget, or just not too bothered, I’d recommend grabbing yourself some street food, mainly based around Amazonian fish that’s so heavily deep fried there’s really no evidence that there’s meat in there at all. Brazilian street food has a tendency towards the fried in general, but it’s damn tasty and it makes saving money while travelling round the country a lot easier. The first night I spent in the city I sat in the square with my street snack and watched as a stage was erected in the square, by the side of the opera theatre. Over time locals started to congregate, kids playing, street vendors wafting around the smell popcorn, friends sitting in plastic chairs and waiting for any kind of entertainment to start. A magician came out to preform some tricks in the evenings. Some attention was paid. The magician was unremarkable.

I barely cared about being mugged off by a taxi driver on the way to the airport. I just wanted to leave.

Manaus is one of the most popular spots for travellers looking to visit the Amazon, with easy flight links to major cities. I wouldn’t warn against these tours, they’re a great opportunity to travel deeper into the jungle than tours in Peru or Bolivia offer. However, my key piece of advice would be to get in and get out. Don’t stick around the city, if you can avoid it, it’s a waste of the precious time you have to spend in Brazil.

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Travel blog city guide to Manaus Brazil, city in the Amazon