Time out: Manaus, Brazil
by Achal Prabhala
July 28, 2002
Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas (Amazonia), is perhaps a little ignored, even within Brazil, for being so far away from the sun- kissed beach destinations of Rio, Salvador and other parts of the eastern coast.
Yet, it is the largest Brazilian city within shouting distance of Guyana, and affordable enough to comfortably vacation in.
The interesting thing about Manaus, in relation to tourism from the Guyanese point of view, is that it offers attractions that are distinctly similar to ours. Both cities (Georgetown and Manaus) act as gateways to large areas of forestland. Both cities have period buildings, public spaces, parks, and monuments.
However, even the casual visitor will discern the high level of tourism infrastructure that exists in Manaus. Starting with the inland journey, on smooth Brazilian roads, to the air-conditioned public buses, to the cheap and convenient intra-city public transport, Brazil’s public services are indeed impressive.
Manaus, is, of course, a large city: 1.5 million people to be precise, which is about twice the size of Guyana’s population. Much of Manaus was built in the rubber boom of the late 19th century, though as a settlement, it had roots that went many centuries back. Between 1890 and 1920, it was a city of unimaginable riches; a few people, it is rumoured, could afford to get their laundry done in Paris.
But the rubber boom had its ugly underside, and in the case of Manaus, it was the exploitation of Amerindian labour. In the early 20th century, an Englishman, Henry Wickham, managed to smuggle out the rubber plant into South East Asia, to Malaysia and Singapore. At around the same time, synthetic rubber production was invented. This was a double blow from which Manaus never quite recovered, and the city then fell into something of a slump.
Today, Manaus is a bustling city, and a thriving port. It continues to serve as a major node of trade, industry and tourism, though less so than its more glamorous, eastern Brazilian counterparts. Yet, there is a distinct character to this part of Brazil, which is much more ‘Indian’ in spirit, with a definite slant towards the culture of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. That alone, and the fact that it is the capital of a state which houses 75% of the Amazon jungle, makes it quite unique.
Manaus serves as a key destination for Amazon tourism. Everywhere you go, you are besieged by the options: nature camps, river rides, boat trips, trekking excursions, piranha watching - there are choices galore. The adventurous tourist will not be disappointed, and neither will the day-tripper.
In comparison, the tourist options available out of Guyana are far fewer. The near Essequibo islands (Leguan, Wakenaam) offer splendid beaches, but no infrastructure to support tourism. The beaches of the Corentyne would offer only marginally more support. One hears of the odd organised beach resort, but it usually comes with a hefty price tag.
There are various ‘forest’ lodges, near and far, but they are impossibly expensive for the average Guyanese person. In addition, destinations like Iwokrama are difficult to get to, not necessarily because of the distance, but more because of the wildly fluctuating road conditions.
Naturally, Brazil has the advantages of having cities like Rio and Salvador, massive tourist destinations, which can deflect people towards less popular places like Manaus. Yet, even a forgotten, backwater city like Manaus offers the obligatory tourist pleasantries. Large, leafy parks, splendidly restored monuments (churches, buildings, markets and dockyards) and a vibrant street culture, make it a friendly, accessible city.
Getting around, for instance, is easy and cheap. Fifteen minutes (and approximately $100 by bus) from the heart of the city is Praia Ponta Negra, a beach that looks out onto the inky-red water of the Rio Negro. The Rio Negro is clean and refreshing to swim in, though a decidedly eerie experience, due to the sheer blackness of the water.
Then, there is the fabled ‘Meeting of the Waters’ - a few minutes outside town by boat, where the Negro and Solimoes rivers run side by side. One is black, the other is white, and the waters just run alongside, never mixing, and remaining - incredibly - distinct.
Within Manaus, the city would appear to have worked hard to promote its legacy. The legendary Teatro Amazonas, or opera house, recently restored at enormous cost, is an aggressively marketed landmark.
Built at the height of rubber boom, at unimaginable expense, the opera house’s architecture is eclectic and neo-classical, with material and artists having been brought in from all over Europe. The dome is covered with 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles painted in the colours of the national flag. The central nave, in the shape of a harp, can seat 640. On the ceiling are painted scenes depicting music, dance and drama. The central gold chandelier descends to the level of the seats for cleaning purposes and changing light bulbs.
In short, the ultimate folly, the ultimately crazy outburst of a city which didn’t know what to do with its money. The Manaus opera house was immortalised in Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, which starred Claudia Cardinale and Klaus Kinski.
The easiest way to get to Manaus from Georgetown, is through Lethem and Boa Vista. Flight travel makes the trip expensive, though Trans-Guyana Airways, which operates flights to Lethem, has recently slashed its fares. Yet, one wishes that it were as cheap and comfortable to travel on Guyanese ‘highways’.
From Lethem to Boa Vista, it costs approximately $1,500 in boat-crossing fees, taxi and bus fare (Bon Fim to Boa Vista is a one hour journey). From Boa Vista, several companies ply the 12- hour route to Manaus. One can either take a day bus, and see the Amazon jungle all around, or a night bus, and save hotel money. Either way, the ride is comfortable, with the buses being air-conditioned and fitted with clean toilets. For the size of the journey, the cost (approximately $11,000 roundtrip) is remarkably reasonable.
In Manaus, there is a range of residential options, from the Tropical Hotel, Manaus’ finest establishment, to a number of cheap pensaos in the central/port area. Prices range from $30,000 a night at a top-end hotel, to $1,000 a night at a comfortable, but spartan establishment. Manaus, like several other Brazilian destinations (and indeed, European and American ones) offers a quality range of low-budget accommodation, quite essential for attracting tourists, a chunk of whom tend to be budget travellers.
Food is equally good and cheap: you can get by with eating on the streets for as little as $1,000 a day, and a little more if you prefer restaurants where you can sit down at tables. In that sense, it is probably just about as cheap (or expensive, depending on which way you look at it) as Georgetown. Yet, the range and quality of Brazilian cuisine available, makes it better value for money.
Certainly, the people of Manaus and Amazonas seem to be using the Amazon as a resource to generate revenue and employment. Is this positive? For the most part, yes. Environmental standards and regulations for any activity within the Amazon, have grown stricter over the years, and one imagines that any tourism that exists must heed those rules. Local involvement is - visibly - at a high level. Indigenous peoples are actively involved in the production and selling of their products, and one doesn’t feel that they have been reduced to a tourist-serving class.
But more than just using the jungle, Manaus offers a splendid urban example of how to ‘sell’ a destination. You cannot turn a corner without bumping into a native Indian handicraft seller. Exquisite curios, from earrings, to necklaces, to baskets, to hats and even medicinal herbs and drinks, are fashioned locally and sold every day to people from all over the world. Refreshingly, there is very little hardsell, and the whole feeling is one of the ordinary Manaus citizen being in control of her situation.
Hopefully, Guyana’s heritage and natural resources too, will one day become equally appealing, accessible and locally affordable.