Over the past season I’ve spent three weekends in Manaus. ROYAL PRINCESS arrives on Friday mornings and leaves Sunday evenings. We almost didn’t make it this time. Apparently a dispute between the river pilots and Brazilian Navy that involved both the ROYAL PRINCESS and Holland America’s PRINSENDAM kept both ships sitting in the Amazon for five hours, unable to dock and unable to tender because of a dispute between the Amazon River pilots and the Manaus pilots. Finally around 1PM we got to dock and PRINSENDAM started tendering. The issue went all the way up to the top court in Brazil before being resolved . . . but we made the front page of the paper!
Manaus started for me while my daughter Rebecca was on board, a few days before Christmas. The famous Manaus Opera House and the surrounding square was beautifully decorated with lights and alive with activity and Christmas spirit.
Located where the Rio Negro joins the Rio Solimoes to flow almost 900 miles to the Atlantic as the Amazon, Manaus was founded in 1669 as the Fort of São José do Rio Negro. In 1832 the town was named Manaus or “mother of the gods”. Also known as the “Heart of the Amazon” or “City of the Forest”, Manaus was a backwater town in the state of Amazonia in one of the poorest areas of Brazil.
When the commercial value of latex from the Amazon rubber tree was discovered, suddenly Manaus became a boom town. During the rubber boom at the end of the 19th century Manaus was exporting 42,000 tons of rubber a year. It is said that during the rubber boom money was like water . . . and people lit cigars with hundred dollar bills. The rubber barons sent their clothing back to Europe so their shirts could be laundered and starched “properly”.
It was during this time that the famous Manaus Opera House, Teatro Amazonas, was constructed. Here, plunked down in the middle of the Amazon jungle, you had this fantastic opera house.
This is the Palacio Rio Negro built 1903 as the private home of a German rubber baron. It has been used as the residence of the governor of Amazonas, but today is an art museum and cultural center.
I had an interesting experience on this last ROYAL PRINCESS trip to Manaus. We had a little old German woman on board who spoke very little English. It turned out that the German rubber baron who had built the Palacio Rio Negro was her grandfather! She showed up at the museum after it had closed, but managed to show the security people her identification and a few old pictures she had brought along of the house as it was originally. They took her to the main office and they graciously took her on a private tour through what had been her grandfather’s home . . . and she even found an old painting that she recognized immediately as her grandfather.
At the turn of the century a sneaky English botanist . . . you’ve got to watch those sneaky English . . . turned up in Brazil to collect “rare orchids”. Actually he was collecting the seeds of Brazil’s rubber trees which he took back to England. English botanists were able to develop more disease resistant rubber trees that could thrive on plantations in English colonies in Asia . . . and the rubber boom in Manaus came to an abrupt halt.
During the war there was a brief rebirth of the rubber business, and then that halted, and Manaus became again a poor little backwater jungle town, albeit one with a beautiful opera house falling into disrepair.
About 30 years ago the Brazilian government opened an industrial free zone offering incentives to companies who would move to Manaus. Suddenly Manaus’ fortunes began to turn yet again. Today in the Manaus free zone you will find Sony, Samsung, Bic, Honda, Harley-Davidson, LG and a host of other huge factories. What thirty years ago had been a city of 400,000 is now a city rapidly pushing 2 million, the capital and largest city in Amazonas, and the eighth largest city in Brazil.
The Teatro Amazonas has been beautifully restored and is now the top tourist attraction in Manaus and the venue for special concerts and programs. Manaus is sprucing up and gearing up to host the World Cup in 2014, which should be interesting since the city has virtually no hotels. Look for a lot of cruise ships that can navigate the Amazon River to be in Manaus at the time of the World Cup to be used as floating hotels.
I had hoped to finish Manus with a bang redoing the 13-hour Elite Amazon Tour that would take us up the Rio Negro, to a jungle eco lodge exploring the flooded forest and hiking through the rain forest, and then heading out in the darkness in a little boat to look for alligators. It was fantastic the first time, but, because we sat five hours waiting to dock . . . it didn’t happen as planned.
But my last weekend in Manaus has been busy . . . filled with fun and the VERY potent Brazilian drinks! I’ll tell you all about it the day after tomorrow . . .