Manaus: Brazil's jewel of the Amazon jungle

  • Article by: MIMI WHITEFIELD , Miami Herald
  • Updated: May 30, 2014 - 1:31 PM

During the World Cup, Brazil’s “jewel of the Amazon” promises to put on a good show.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of the Conception in Manaus honors the region’s patron saint.

Photo: Mimi Whitefield • Miami Herald,

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It’s that special time in the late afternoon when the light turns golden and life seems to move at the pace of a bygone era.

Children clamor to catch soap bubbles sent aloft, tourists pedal by the African House on three-wheeled bikes, a stand turns out bowl after bowl of steaming tacacá soup and Manaus’ opera house looms over it all.

If there’s one square that encapsulates all that makes Manaus special, it’s the Largo de São Sebastião. The architecture, culture, cuisine and history of the Amazon are all on display in this historic district near the Port of Manaus.

Entering the pink opera house with its neoclassical and Greco-Roman flourishes is like stepping back into the 19th century, when the rubber industry made Manaus Brazil’s golden city, the richest in the entire country.

It was a time, from 1879 to 1912, when the “aroma of rubber perfumed the air,” when women sent their gowns to be laundered in Portugal, the best opera companies in the world visited and rubber barons lit their cigars with currency, says Robério Braga, secretary of culture for Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil but one of the most sparsely populated.

Then the rubber industry sputtered out, after rubber tree seeds were smuggled out of Brazil and planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Africa. The famous opera house was shuttered for decades.

But the renovated opera house is once again a cultural hub, home to the Amazonas Symphony Orchestra and open for guided tours and performances, including some that are free. And Manaus once again is hoping for a star turn when it hosts four World Cup games from June 14 to 25, with the United States playing Portugal on June 22.

“This is a special opportunity, so we must take advantage of it. This is not so much a financial windfall, but an opportunity to promote our state” and cement its reputation as a cultural and tourism center, Braga said.

There’s plenty to see in Manaus, starting with the Teatro Amazonas, as the opera house is called. Finished in 1896, it boasts a dome with 36,000 pieces in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the original painted stage curtain imported from Paris, and a driveway made of rubber that muffled the sounds of horses and carriages during a performance.

The Murano crystal chandeliers were imported from Italy; the pine floors noted for their acoustic properties came from Lithuania; the gilded mirrors were sent across the ocean and up the Amazon from France, and the furnishings brought in from France and Italy. And if you crane your neck toward the ceiling, the view mimics what you would see if you were looking up from under the Eiffel Tower.

The São Sebastião church, whose bells toll on the quarter-hour, sits on the opposite corner from the opera house, and it’s worth popping into if you’re in the neighborhood, which also has bars with patio seating, art galleries and souvenir shops.

The weather in Manaus is tropical, so after you’ve finished your tour of the opera house, stop by Sorvete Glacial for cones or scoops of ice cream sold by the weight. My favorite combo was açaí, made from the berries of the açaí palm, maracujá (passion fruit), and cupuaçu, a custardy white fruit that tastes like a mash-up of pineapple, chocolate and apple.

Though it sounds counterintuitive to drink a hot soup on a steamy day, don’t leave Largo de São Sebastião without stopping by Tacacá da Gisela for a spicy concoction of mandioca broth, tapioca paste, the lip-numbing jambú leaves and dried shrimp. Mix it all together and you have tacacá, a signature dish of the Amazon. The curious melding of tang, tartness and briny shrimp is flavor heaven. It’s served in the waterproofed shell of a gourd with a little wooden pick to stab the shrimp.

Walking across the black and white mosaic tiles of São Sebastião square will put you in the mood for another must-see attraction. The wavelike patterns represent the Meeting of the Waters, Encontro das Aquas.

Just east of Manaus, the Rio Negro joins the Rio Solimões (the name given the Amazon River around Manaus and west to the Peruvian border) but when the two rivers meet, they don’t mingle.

Like neighbors who can’t get along, the Rio Negro, which looks like black tea due to decomposing material, and the muddy brown Solimões keep to themselves for nearly four miles before they finally mix and flow on as the mighty Amazon.

The striking demarcation between the two results when the slower, warmer Rio Negro meets the faster, colder Solimões, whose headwaters are in the Andes. Differing water densities slow the mixing process, too.

Tours of the Encontro das Águas are available by both air and water.

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