Dispatches from Abroad: Down the Amazon (II) – Washed up in Manaus

My riverine interlude between Leticia and Belém has been punctuated by a stopover in Manaus, a bustling industrial and most unlikely city of more than 2 million people located at the junction of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões. Following the 4-day, 3-night boat trip from Tabatinga described in the first part of this travel-blog, I arrived at Manaus late Saturday. A long walk up the floating ramp brought me in sight of the famous plaque of river heights, a wonderful example of “physical” data visualization (for more, check out this web-site: http://dataphys.org/list/ which I recently discovered thanks to my friend and colleague David Buckley Borden).

Maximum heights of the Rio Negro at the Port of Manaus

As I well knew, 2015 was one of the highest levels on record, surpassed only by 2012 and just barely by 2009. The four years 2012-2015 were in the top 10 since records began more than a century ago, whereas 2016 was in the lower-middle of the pack. A great classroom exercise would be to digitize and plot these data relative to other indicators of climatic change.

I had hoped that I’d spend a couple of nights in Manaus and then catch a boat on Monday further downriver to Belém. I learned Sunday morning, though, that direct boats to Belém leave only Wednesdays and Saturdays. So rather than take a boat Monday to Santarem and then chill there for another boat onward to Belém, I opted to book the Wednesday boat and spend a couple of extra days exploring Manaus.

My first views of Manaus were of coming up the Rio Negro from its confluence with the Solimões. Despite the visual attraction of the meeting of the water, this is not best side of the city. The Rio Negro east of Manaus is lined with refineries, oil and gas tanker terminals, tugboats and barges, container docks and cranes, with intervals on the water of visible and malodorous oil slicks. As one moves west upstream, the favelas come into view, and finally the Customs House at the base of the city center, and just inshore of the aforementioned ferry dock (click on any of the thumbnails to see larger images of all the photographs).

Still further upstream is a magnificent bridge that crosses the Rio Negro on the road to Manacapuru, eventually dead-ending at Novo Airão. We had passed Manacapuru on Saturday; my GPS told me that by car it was only 90-some km and an hour or so to Manaus, but it was six hours by boat. And beyond the bridge is the new development of Ponta Negra, with its stunning beach and high-rises with multi-million dollar condos.

Manaus and the bridge to Manacapuru
Ponta Negra beach

A short walk in the afternoon heat from the docks up the hill to a hotel by the Centro left me sodden with sweat, but a shower and clean sheets more than made up for that.

Sunday morning I met up with my fellow ecologist & myrmecologist (“ant-geek”) Fabricio Baccaro, his wife, the forest ecologist Juliana Schietti, and their year-and-a-half-old daughter Beatriz, for some sightseeing around town.

The Centro is dominated by the Teatro Amazonas, a carefully-restored opera house built in 1896, during the first, rubber-driven, economic heyday of Manaus. It is fronted by a plaza (Praça São Sebastião) with stone tiling mirroring the meeting of the waters, and surrounded by a variety of small shops, art galleries, a branch of the Amazon Museum (Musa Amazonas) which featured an excellent exhibition on Fish and People of the Amazon, and a few restaurants (click on any of the thumbnails to see larger images of all the photographs).

Fortunately, this weekend featured a series of free concerts in the Teatro as part of the Música na estrada (music on the road) series, and by lining up an hour in advance Sunday evening, I got to see the inside of the theater (click on any of the thumbnails to see larger images of all the photographs).

Although the performance by the Orquestra Sinfônica do Theatro da Paz and piano soloist Thiago Bertoldi was excellent, the music, standard issue Beethoven, was unfortunately hackneyed (really, Für Elise as a piano encore?). After the concert, the church across the street (Igreja São Sebastião) was beautifully illuminated.

Igreja Sao Sebastio

In between the morning walk and the evening concert, I enjoyed a lunch of Tambaqui no tucupi—the Amazon freshwater fish Colossoma macropomum simmered in a broth extracted from cassava roots and Acmella oleracea (Asteraceae) leaves and served with farinha, rice, and peppery tucupi sauce—followed by an early dinner of Tucuma no tapioca—shreds of the fruit of the Astrocaryum vulgare palm and cheese melted over a tapioca pancake and topped with melted butter (click on any of the thumbnails to see larger images of all the photographs).

I spent Monday morning catching up on desk work and cataloging photos, but in the afternoon, joined Fabricio and two of his students, Flavia and Teo, for a field trip to the Adolpho Ducke Forest Reserve just north of Manaus. Flavia and Teo were going for the week to sample ants, but Fabricio and i just joined for the afternoon to talk about sampling strategies and ways to think about how ants detect food (in this case a blend of—you guessed it—farinha and oil-packed sardines (click on any of the thumbnails to see larger images of all the photographs).

This morning, I took a few hours to visit some of the museums in the Centro, including Eduardo Ribiero’s house, which has been beautifully restored, and the multiple museums within the Palacete Provincial. I also stepped inside the Manaus Cathedral, tried (but failed) to visit Manaus’ Sephardic synagogue (more like a fortress than a house of worship), and simply enjoyed looking at the mix of fin-de-siecle architecture mixed cheek-by-jowl with new, often tawdry, construction (click on any of the thumbnails to see larger images of all the photographs).

And finally, a visit to the Universidade Federal do Amazonas, located within the set-aside forest of the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA). An excellent afternoon talking ants with Fabricio, followed by a brief walk in the forest to see them.

Azteca ant nest in the INPA forest

The leaf-cutters (Atta sextans) had recently had their nuptial flights, and we saw numerous queens starting to excavate new nests (video below).


All in all, a wonderful few days where the rivers meet. Tomorrow I board the Amazon Star for the five-day, four-night excursion downriver to Belém! More once I arrive…

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