Ever read a book that has inspired you to travel? For me it happens all the time, but never has the urge to move been so strong as when I read the children’s book Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, this was the first time that a book inspired me to buy a plane ticket.
The author Anne Fine wrote this about the novel, which was a runner up for the Guardian Award, which I think perfectly describes the work:
“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.”
As a teenager, I read a lot; particularly works that transport the reader 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 made my way to the real Manaus and Amazon rainforest, but its essence was there, strangely familiar.
Manaus, the capital of Amazonia, is pretty far away from England, and expensive to reach, so I extended my trip to allow for some travelling around Brazil, with brief stays in Paraguay and Argentina. Rio de Janeiro has definitely become one of my favourite cities in the world, a cultural melting pot, 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.
For now, I want to focus however on Manaus and the surrounding Amazon Rainforest; it’s an unlikely city in the middle of the largest forest on earth.
It was precisely this that attracted me to the city. I couldn’t imagine a colonial European city springing up in the middle of virgin rainforest, an opera house, a cathedral and municipal buildings, competing with amazonian flora and fauna.
Manaus is not on most tourists’ agenda when they visit Brazil. A 4 hour flight from Rio De Janeiro, and only accessible by boat or plane, the Manaus’ 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 density, it is often referred to as the River Sea.
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 by the number of European buildings in such close proximity to the rainforest and the markets selling exotic fruits that I had never even heard of before.
Amazonas Opera House: This is the most famous building in town, and also the most distinctive. While in town I caught Mozart’s opera The Barber of Seville, which was in Italian with Portuguese subtitles. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t speak Italian, nor Portuguese, so I fell asleep midway. I can however testify how comfortable the antique furniture is inside this architecturally beautiful theatre.
Museo do Indio: There is a small selection of artefacts and exhibitions showcasing the customs and traditions of various Amazonian tribes, including the Yanomami. At the time of writing this I was a prospective Anthropology student, a path I steered away from in my first year of university when I realised that learning a language is a more surefire way to understand other cultures.
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: You’ll have to ask a local about this, but the indigenous market is an interesting place that sells beads, wooden crafts and various herbs, amongst which are the stimulant guarana and a herbal aphrodisiac!
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 açaii to Cupuaçu and açerola, two refreshing tropical fruits that I have 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.
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 a few 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 perhaps with the intention to poach or exploit one of the many resources of this rich biodiversity.
I ventured into the forest with a guide from a local tribe who goes by the name of Amazon 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 leaves we found.
During the day, we’d travel by canoe through some of the 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 and allowing us to cuddle it. A little odd, but definitely an experience.
We walked a lot, on our way seeing 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. Though I didn’t partake in this, crazily 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 water.
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.