Manaus, the capital of Amazonas State, is a hilly city of around 1.8 million people that lies 766 km (475 miles) west of Santarém and 1,602 km (993 miles) west of Belém on the banks of the Río Negro 10 km (6 miles) upstream from its confluence with the Amazon. Manaus is the Amazon's most popular tourist destination, largely because of the many jungle lodges in the surrounding area. The city's principal attractions are its lavish, brightly colored houses and civic buildings—vestiges of an opulent time when the wealthy sent their laundry to be done in Europe and sent for Old World artisans and engineers to build their New World monuments. Founded in 1669, Manaus took its name, which means "mother of the Gods," from the Manaó tribe. The city has long flirted with prosperity. Of all the Amazon cities and towns, Manaus is most identified with the rubber boom. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it supplied 90% of the world's rubber. The industry was monopolized by rubber barons, whose number never exceeded 100 and who lived in the city and spent enormous sums on ostentatious lifestyles. They dominated the region like feudal lords. Thousands of seringueiros (rubber tappers) were recruited to work on the rubber plantations, where they lived virtually as slaves. A few of the seringueiros were from indigenous tribes, but most were transplants from Brazil's crowded and depressed northeast. Eventually conflicts erupted between barons and indigenous workers over encroachment on tribal lands. Stories of cruelty abound. One baron is said to have killed more than 40,000 native people during his 20-year "reign." Another boasted of having slaughtered 300 Indians in a day. The 25-year rubber era was brought to a close thanks to Englishman Henry A. Wickham, who took 70,000 rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil in 1876. (Transporting seeds across borders has since been outlawed.) The seeds were planted in Kew Gardens in England. The few that germinated were transplanted in Malaysia, where they flourished. Within 30 years Malaysian rubber ended the Brazilian monopoly. Although several schemes were launched to revitalize the Amazon rubber industry, and many seringueiros continued to work independently in the jungles, the high times were over. Manaus entered a depression that lasted until 1967, when the downtown area was made a free-trade zone. The economy was revitalized, and its population jumped from 200,000 to 900,000 in less than 20 years. In the 1970s the industrial district was given exclusive federal free-trade-zone status to produce certain light-industry items. Companies moved in and began making motorcycles and electronics. In the mid-1990s the commercial district lost its free-trade-zone status. Thousands of workers lost their jobs and businesses crumbled, but the light-industrial sector held strong and even grew. Today it employs over 100,000, has the largest motorcycle factory in South America, and makes 90% of Brazilian-made TVs. Manaus is a sprawling city with a couple of high-rise buildings. There are a lot of hotels and sights are in the small city center (Centro), but the area is congested and not very attractive.
Manaus has several decent in-town hotels, but the jungle lodges outside town are where you should base yourself if you're interested in Amazon adventures. Most jungle lodges have naturalist guides, swimming, caiman searches, piranha fishing, and canoe trips. Many jungle lodges are near the Río Negro, where mosquitoes are less of a problem because they can't breed in its acidic black water.
Here, as in other parts of the Amazon, you can find lovely indigenous artisanal items made from animal parts. Macaws, for example, are killed in the wild for feathers to make souvenir items for tourists. As a result, there are no longer many macaws in the forests close to Manaus. Traveling home with items made from animal parts, certain types of wood, or plant fibers can result in big fines and even jail time, so beware.
With more than 300 stores and restaurants, Amazonas Shopping is the largest, most upscale mall in the region.
Studio 5 Festival Mall
Part of a larger commercial complex, Studio 5 Festival Mall contains many clothing stores, restaurants, cinemas, a hotel, and even a convention center.
The Customs House in Manaus was built by the British in 1902 with bricks imported as ship ballast. It stands alongside the floating dock that was built at the same time to accommodate the annual 10-meter (32-foot) rise and fall of the river. It's now home to the regional office of the Brazilian tax department, and the interior is of little interest.
Catedral da Nossa Senhora da Conceição
Built originally in 1695 by Carmelite missionaries, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception (also called Igreja Matriz) burned down in 1850 and was reconstructed in 1878. It's a simple, predominantly neoclassical structure with a bright, colorful interior.
Igreja São Sebastião
With its charcoal-gray exterior and medieval style, this neoclassical church (circa 1888) seems foreboding. Its interior, however, is luminous and uplifting, with white Italian marble, stained-glass windows, and beautiful ceiling paintings. The church has a tower on only one side. No one is sure why this is so, but if you ask, you may get one of several explanations: the second tower wasn't built because of lack of funds; it was omitted as a symbolic gesture to the poor; or the ship with materials for its construction sank. As you stroll through the church plaza, note the black-and-white Portuguese granite patterns at your feet. They are said to represent Manaus's meeting of the waters.
Museu do Índio
The Indian Museum is maintained by Salesian Sisters, an order of nuns with eight missions in the upper Amazon. It displays handicrafts, weapons, ceramics, ritual masks, and clothing from the region's tribes. The gift shop sells traditional crafts such as necklaces made from seeds and feathers and baskets.
Palácio Rio Negro
The extravagant Rio Negro Palace was built at the end of the 19th century as the home of a German rubber baron and was later used as the official governor's residence. Today it houses some of the city's finest art exhibits and a cultural center. The Museu da Imagem e do Som, on the same property, has three daily screenings of art films and documentaries Tuesday through Friday and four screenings daily on weekends. Don't miss the cultural exhibits out back, which include a caboclo home, an indigenous home, and a cassava-processing house.
Built during the rubber boom of the late 1800s, the grandiose Teatro Amazonas was financed by wealthy Brazilian rubber barons who wanted a cultural gem rivaling those in Europe. All the bricks for the building were brought over in ships as ballast from England, and the crystal chandeliers and mirrors were imported from France and Italy. Don't miss the awe-inspiring ceiling murals in the main hall. Operas and other events are presented regularly. Monday-evening performances are free and usually feature local artists of various musical genres. The Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra plays Thursday night and can be seen and heard practicing in the theater weekdays 9–2. A variety of foreign entertainers also have performed here.
INPA–Bosque da Ciência
Used as a research station for the INPA (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisa da Amazônia), this slice of tropical forest is home to a great diversity of flora and fauna. Some highlights include manatee tanks, caiman ponds, a museum, a botanical garden with an orchidarium, and nature trails. It's a great place for a walk in the shade.
Mini-Zoo do CIGS
Dozens of animals native to the Amazon live at this 8.8-acre zoo. Pains have been taken to create natural habitats for some of the animals, but due to lack of funds, other animals are simply kept in cages. The Brazilian army operates a jungle-survival training school here, but it's not overrun with tanks and soldiers.
Transformed from a sewage-treatment plant that never functioned, this art gallery displays exhibits and holds dance and theater performances. Its elegant neo-Renaissance–style interior, with hardwood floors and massive wood beams, is reason enough to visit.
Meeting of the Waters
Outside of Manaus, the slow-moving, muddy Amazon and the darker, quicker Río Negro flow side by side for 6 km (4 miles) without mixing. If you run your foot in the water at the meeting place, you can feel the difference in temperature—the Amazon is warm and the Negro is cold, the consistencies of the rivers are different, and the experience is magical. At the CEASA port you can rent a boat, or go with a tour company. It takes about an hour to go from CEASA to the Meeting of the Waters, spend some time there, and return. A taxi to CEASA from downtown is about R$30.