We´re in Manaus.
There´s so much I want to share, all at once. I´m overwhelmed with exciting things to tell you guys.
I guess I´ll just go in chronological order!
Alexandre and I are staying in a decent hotel. It´s everything you´d need, and nothing more. That means there´s an air conditioner, breakfast, and internet, and no luxuries. The location is helpful, and it´s so quiet. I´ll tell you more about it when we leave.
We arrived in the early afternoon Manaus time (which is currently 2 hours behind Sao Paulo time), so we had some time to explore the city on our first day. To dispel all myths and preconceitos, Manaus is a HUGE METROPOLIS (albiet a poor metropolis). We went downtown and walked around. If you ignore the oppressive heat and humidity, you can easily forget that you are just a few minute´s walk away from the world´s largest river and rainforest.
There are so many people, hustling and bustling and buying and selling their wares. I´m wording it in that quaint way because the informal economy / grey market is huge. I guess its proximity to the port and to Brazil´s borders makes Manaus a prime location for questionably legal street markets offering way more cell phone covers and fake Nike socks than there could possibly be a demand for.
I have to tell you guys, even though Manaus is a big city, it´s not for the faint of heart. Sorry, American friends, but I don´t think I´d bring any of you here. I don´t recommend this place for people who are used to cushy vacations and city planning. The streets are dirty, the traffic is hectic, and social rules are not like those of the US. The bathrooms outside our hotel are unpleasant. The sense of time is different here. It´s hot, hotter and more humid than you´re used to, even if you´re from Florida, and the air conditioners are lacking. You can´t be picky about your food and you need to eat what people serve you. If you care about all of these kinds of things, and especially if you are not familiar with Brazilian culture in general, Manaus is not for you. You need to be a very flexible and easygoing person to enjoy your vacation here.
If you can deal with all that without whining, the locals are so, so nice. One guy saw that we were obviously lost and stopped and offered to explain the map to us. When we couldn´t find our travel agency, we stopped in a store to ask a clerk for help. She used her cell phone to look up the agency´s number and call them and ask where they were, exactly.
We went down to the port, and we got some ice cream at a parlor that the taxi driver from the airport recommended. They had ice creams (well, sorbets) made from local fruits, like cajá and cupuaçu. The cupuaçu sorbet was delicious! Alexandre got açaí sorbet, and was disappointed because it was not as sweet as it is in the state of Sao Paulo. But I was prepared for that because I´d heard about it on Anthony Bourdain!
That first night, we were jet lagged and not very hungry after all of our ice cream gorging, so we just found a little food stand close to the hotel and Alexandre bought an esfia and I got some juice. But Alexandre said it was the best esfia he´d ever eaten!
The next morning, we met up with the guides from the local travel agency. The hotel recommended a really good travel agency. I´ll also give you this name when we leave. I learned quickly that there are a lot of offers for tours and activities up here, and you have to be careful with what you accept. There are shady men hanging all around the city of Manaus who seem to possess magnets that are drawn to people with white skin. They say that they represent travel agencies and will come up and make all kinds of promises as to what you can do and see. Here´s the lowdown:
1. The police, the navy, and IBAMA (the country´s environmental agency) all keep tabs on the legal travel agencies. The legal travel agencies will tell you that many times, to show you that they´re legit.
2. The more legit travel agencies have offices and buildings, and you go to them. They don´t have plastic tables at the port that are also used to sell beer and water.
3. The government has good laws to protect animals and the environment. The legit travel agencies will tell you that you can´t feed the dolphins because you´re not allowed to. They won´t promise that you can see any specific wild animals, either. The places that do promise photo ops with sloths and anacondas are likely holding these wild animals captive illegally and not treating them well. The legit places will tell you, ´´we´ll do our best to take you to places where you can see these animals, but we can´t promise anything.´´
4. The legit agencies will make you wear your life vest on the boat, because it´s the law, and they respect laws. They will also take you on boats that are the appropriate size for your activities -- not too big, and not too small.
Our first day trip was to the Encontro das Águas, or Meeting of the Waters. It´s the place where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões meet. I´m still a little confused about this, but what I understand is that the Rio Solimões is techncially the Amazon River, with a different name in a different area (here). The Rio Negro, the massive amazing river that is home to the Port of Manaus, is its own river but is also a tributary of the Amazon.
Anyway, this point that we went to is where the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro meet. I mentioned it as something I wanted to see in my pre-trip post. It´s so interesting! You really can´t imagine how huge these rivers are. You´ll just have to come see them for yourself.
We left for our day trip out of the Port of Manaus. It´s like a water version of downtown. It´s huge, and there are boats ´´parked´´ haphazardly, and semi trucks squeezed in every nook and cranny, and cranes lifting impossibly large containers, people shouting and running and precariously carrying heavy things.
Our two-story boat left out of the port and headed toward the Meeting of the Waters. We got a little tour of the port and some historical facts from the tour guide.
After visiting the rivers, we took the Rio Negro upstream toward a hiking trail. On the way, we passed a bunch of iganapés (my new Portuguese word), or distributaries / small river channels that break off the main river. Small groups of people (like, 20) form small communities in these ignanpés. They live off fishing and sometimes agriculture, if they´re able to grow greens and fruits on the land close to their channel. Most live on simple floating houses, and few have electricity.
These places are a 15-20-minute boat ride away from Manaus
We stopped at one of these communities for lunch. The locals had set up one boat as a restaurant, and one boat as a sort of gift shop to sell arts and crafts. On the land behind these boats was our hiking trail. Right when we got onto it, we were greeted by spider monkeys. SPIDER MONKEYS!
You can imagine my excitement. We weren´t allowed to touch them or feed them any bananas. I know the tour guide was right to not let us, but I really, really wanted to touch them.
On the trail, we saw a caiman, victoria water lilies, and a huge tree (sorry, I don´t remember which kind).
We had lunch on the restaurant boat. Alexandre and I are losing weight on this trip because processed food is sparse and we are continually served fresh river fish, beans, rice, and different types of squash. I´m not a fan of fish but I´m certainlly not going to deny things people serve me or fish that I can only eat here, once in my life. We got to eat pirarucu (also enjoyed by Anthony Bourdain!), and I really liked it! Look it up. It´s a beautiful, massive fish. (We went to see some that were being held in order to be eaten later. It was just too hard to get pictures of them!)
After our yummy lunch and some perusing around the arts and crafts boat, we headed back to port for an afternoon of exploring and then some rest and respite from the heat before dinner.
At another restaurant later that night, we got ribs of the tambaqui fish, which are sort of a delicacy here and which Alexandre had always wanted to try. He loved it! Let´s just say I was happy to say I´ve tried it, and I could tell that it was well made, and could appreciate it, but I wouldn´t order it again.
OK, more later!
Sorry about the apostrophes!
UPDATE: You can read post two here, post three here, and my general tips about Manaus here.