Manaus, Brazil: Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Reading Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, as a ten year-old, I felt compelled to pack my bags and take a cargo ship immediately to Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River. Of course, at that age I was unable to travel abroad unaccompanied. So I waited until I was seventeen. And I travelled by plane, rather than by cargo ship.

The author Anne Fine wrote this on Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, which was a runner up for the Guardian Award:

“We all fell on Eva Ibbotson’s perfectly judged, brilliantly light to read, civilised Journey To The River Sea, in which we are shown how, as one of the characters reminds us, ‘Children must lead big lives… if it is in them to do so.”

In hindsight, I can see how true that statement is. What’s written below comes straight from my seventeen year old travel blog.

As a child I read primarily to be transported to other worlds, be they real or imagined. In a sense, the ‘other world’ described in Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea was not quite the world I visited when I finally did end up in the real Manaus and Amazon rainforest. But its essence was there, strangely familiar. Like a half-forgotten dream.

Manaus, the capital of Amazonia, was at the time difficult to reach. I had to fly from Sao Paolo, so I extended my trip to allow for some travelling around Brazil, with brief stays in Paraguay and Argentina. Rio de Janeiro, as I remember it, was and is one of my favourite cities in the world, boasting vivid beautiful panoramas of the coastline and characteristically pointed green mountains, colourful favelas which cover the steep hillsides. Paraty and Ilha Grande are two destinations I would love to return to one day.

Today Manaus is more accessible, with direct flights from several South American cities and also Miami, Florida. The port city is the centre of the Brazilian Amazonian region and sits close to where the Río Negro and Río Amazonas meet. Its architecture also results from the confluence of the different European cultures which had industries in the region, principally rubber and timber, and also the local indigenous communities who have become urbanised. As a child I ran my fingers over an atlas, I saw a mysterious green expanse taking up most of northern South America, a vast wilderness I knew was the Amazon basin. It was hard to imagine a colonial city with an opera house in the middle of the largest rainforest on earth.

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It was precisely this that attracted me to the city, too, alongside its proximity to veritable wild places. I couldn’t imagine European mansions, an opera house, a cathedral and municipal buildings, competing with Amazonian flora and fauna.

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Manaus Port from the Rio Negro

Manaus is not on most tourists’ agenda when they visit Brazil. A four-hour flight from Rio De Janeiro, and only accessible by boat or plane, tManaus’ isolated location makes it the city where Brazil’s indigenous people have best survived globalisation, and continue to practice their traditions (e.g. herbal medicine, manioc consumption.) Beside this fusion of indigenous and European culture, Manaus is also the gateway to the Amazon rainforest, the largest forest on earth and the largest river by discharge, the Amazon river. Because of its scale, it is often referred to as the River Sea.

Get in

To get to Manaus, you’d need to either get an expensive flight from Saõ Paolo, or a less expensive but more time consuming boat from the port of Belem.  Tourism is not greatly catered for here, though there are many companies which organise expeditions into the rainforest. If you intend to visit Manaus, don’t book before but shop around and see who you can meet on Couchsurfing. There is one hostel, Hostel Manaus, but hostels are not so common here so don’t expect competitive service. It is however just around the corner from the impressive Teatro Amazonas and central square.  The only other people I met in the hostel were people coming to Manaus for work or research.

48 hours in Manaus

To do and see:

Wandering around Manaus I was amazed to have my preconceptions based on Eva Ibbotson’s book verified: there were numerous European buildings in close proximity to the river and the rainforest; the markets sold exotic fruits that I had never even heard of before.

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Teatro Amazonas, Manaus

Amazonas Opera House: This is the most famous and architecturally beautiful building in town, inside and out. While in town I caught Mozart’s opera The Barber of Seville, which was in Italian with Portuguese subtitles

Museo do Indio: There is a small selection of artefacts and exhibitions showcasing the customs and traditions of various Amazonian native communities, including the Yanomami.

Encontro das aguas: A short boat trip from Manaus Port will bring you to the place where the Rio Negro, a dark, almost black coloured river, and the Amazon river, which is sandy coloured meet. The two rivers side by side for 6km without mixing because of the different temperatures and velocities of the rivers.

Indigenous craft market: The indigenous market is an interesting place that sells beads, wooden crafts and various herbs. Guarana, a natural stimulant, is commonplace here.

Vegetarian/Vegan eats:

Adolpho Lisboa Municipal Market: On the shore of the Rio Negro, this market sells a good variety of tropical fruit, vegetables (including the infamous tummy-bloating Amazonian staple, manioc), guarana shakes and chewy tapioca pancakes. The ubiquitous Brazilian pick-me-up can be found here: Açaii. Many stalls also sell fish caught freshly from the river, though as a veggie this wasn’t on the hit list.

Sorveteria Glacial: When I think about my favourite ice cream in the world, I think not of Italian gelato but of this unusual ice cream parlour in the capital of Amazonia. The choices are endless, from tapioca and açai to Cupuaçu and açerola, two refreshing tropical fruits that I had never seen outside of Brazil. This place is an oasis for those who need a break from the heat and humidity with some of the best air conditioning in town.

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Likely the best ice cream on the equator

De Fiori: As a vegetarian, you can get bored of Paõ de Queijo in Brazil. As a vegan, you can get bored of salad and fruit and sometimes crave something substantial. There are no vegetarian restaurants in Manaus, but thankfully Italian food is very popular. Here as a vegan you can eat cheeseless pizza with plenty of fresh vegetables, or eat one of the many suitable pasta dishes on the menu.

Into the wild

Many come to Manaus with the sole objection of entering the rainforest. While I would also recommend spending at least a day in the city, as mentioned previously there are many ways of exploring the forest.

There are various eco lodges, but the main way of leaving the city behind and entering the wild is by going with a guide. Fortunately for the wildlife, there are many restrictions in place to make sure people don’t go into the forest without knowing the terrain, and to discourage poaching.

I ventured into the forest with a guide from a local indigenous community who goes by the name of Billy. He took a small group of us, a Brazilian, a French guy and two English guys, into an isolated part of the forest, where we stayed in hammocks with mosquito nets and ate basic food from bowls made of found leaves.

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During the day, we’d travel by canoe through some of the flooded tributaries that connect to the main river. We passed sensitive plants, caimans, and at night confused the fireflies with the stars which reflected off the water’s surface. During one trip through a dark, swamp-like section, Billy looked up at a tree, and without warning began to climb. He came down a few minutes later holding a sloth. A little odd.

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We walked a lot. En route through the forest we saw an anaconda as it slivered rapidly down a leafy slope; during the night the floor was crawling with tarantulas. One day the others went fishing for piranhas. I didn’t partake in this, though somehow after we all went swimming in the river after having seen the type of things living in there. We also visited some local people living in houses with stilts close to the shore.

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Going to a place you’ve read about is never going to be the same as the imagined world you have in your head, but it was nevertheless dreamlike to visit a landscape and culture that had in some way pervaded a period of my childhood. I hope to return one day, to see more of the Amazon basin.

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