Bustling, booming, and somewhat chaotic, the capital of Amazonas is a commercial hub and river port that is a feast for the senses. Aside from serving as the point of departure for all forays up and down the Amazon and into the rainforest, Manaus has a rough-edged, colorful vibrancy and culture all its own. While much of the city is modern, numerous architectural landmarks, including its magnificent opera house, attest to its importance as the Amazon’s 19th-century rubber capital.
Unlike Belém, Manaus has a much more recent history. The city’s origins can be traced back to an early 17th-century mission settlement along the banks of the Rio Negro. Over time it blossomed into a small trading center. However, it wasn’t until 1856 that the town of Manaus—named after the Manaós Indians—officially come into being. Shortly after, the Amazonian rubber boom hit and Manaus’s fortunes soared. Speculators from all over the world descended upon the Amazon, hoping to strike it rich. Many did, due to the fact that as the world demand for Brazilian rubber rose, so did prices.
Meanwhile, exports were booming. The shrewd governor of Amazonas, Eduardo Gonçalvez Ribeiro, slapped a 25 percent export tax on rubber and then proceeded to spend the vast sums collected on transforming the backwater town into a glittering city. The grandeur of the sweeping boulevards, monumental squares, and palatial public buildings was matched by the rubber barons’ splendid mansions. Manaus was one of the first cities in the world to have electric street lights and boasted the first electric trolley system in South America.
Ribeiro also hired architects, artists, and master builders from all over Europe to build a sumptuous new opera house with imported materials such as marble, crystal, and wrought iron. When some rubber barons voiced discontent that the main cupola was being covered with glazed tiles instead of gold, the extravagant governor assured them that in time, as rubber profits increased, he would tear the theater down and build an even grander one.
Unfortunately, by 1915, the bottom had fallen out of the Brazilian rubber industry. A devastated Ribeiro committed suicide, rubber barons put their mansions up for sale, and Manaus fell into a stagnant torpor from which it wouldn’t emerge until the 1960s. In 1966, in order to stimulate the region’s almost nonexistent economy, the military government transformed Manaus into a zona franca, or free trade zone. Electronics assembly plants mushroomed throughout the city and the population multiplied exponentially with the influx of workers seeking jobs in the booming electronics industries.
It used to be that all TVs, radios, sound systems, telephones, blenders, and other electronics equipment bought in Brazil were “Made in Manaus.” Although the opening of Brazil’s markets to imports beginning in the 1990s ended Manaus’s retail monopoly, the electronics industry is still going strong and it’s not uncommon to see Brazilians at Manaus’s airport laden down with computers, DVD players, and digital cameras.
Getting to Manaus
Considering its distance from everywhere else, most people arrive in Manaus by air (there are even direct flights from Miami). Due to the precarious state of the roads throughout Amazonas, bus travel is minimal. The most prevalent means of regional travel is boat.
Flights arrive at the Aeroporto Eduardo Gomes (Av. Santos Dumont, Tarumã, tel. 92/3652-1212), which is 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the center of town. A taxi downtown costs around R$40–45. You can also take municipal bus 306. If you’re going to Ponta Negra, there is a Fontur minibus that takes passengers to the Tropical Manaus for R$15, with stops in Centro.
Long-distance buses arrive at the rodoviária (Rua Recife 2784, Flores, tel. 92/3642-5805), 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Centro. To get downtown, take the 306 bus or a taxi (R$35–40).
If you arrive by boat from Belém or Santarém, you’ll disembark at the Estação Hidroviária (Rua Marquês de Santa Cruz 25, Centro, tel. 92/3621-4359) on the Porto Flutuante, which is in the heart of the city. If you don’t have too much luggage you can walk to hotels in Centro.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition