The vast kingdom of the Amazon, known as Amazonia, stretches across nine South American nations. At 1.4 billion acres it is the largest and densest rain forest on earth, roughly the size of the contiguous United States, and contains over 1,000 bird species, 300-plus mammal species, and roughly 45,000 species of plants. Freshwater dolphins, manatees, jaguars, macaws, toucans, and squirrel monkeys are just a few examples of Amazonia’s incredibly varied wildlife. And the statistics associated with the water that runs through it, once known as “the River Sea,” are just as staggering. As it gathers strength from more than 1,000 tributaries, the Amazon’s volume becomes ten times greater that of the Mississippi and is responsible for one-fifth of all the water pours into the world’s oceans. The area claimed by Brazil comprises 60 percent of this hot, steamy region, with coastal Belem, at the mouth of the Great River, and Manaus, in the heart of Amazonia and accessible only by air, the popular starting points for exploring it.
Manaus is home to the famed Teatro Amazonas, a Belle Epoque opera house built in 1896 at the height of the rubber boom. Just as historic are the corridors of the century-old Mercado Adolfo Lisboa, and iron-and-glass replica of the now-defunct market hall in Les Halles, Paris. It brims with the region’s bounty of fresh fish (including piranha), fruits (like the sweet/sour bacuri), and vegetables as well as ancient herbal remedies used by the river communities for countless ailments. Boats leave Manaus to visit the Encontro de Aguas (Meeting of the Waters), where two tributaries – the dark waters of the Rio Negro and those of the muddy Rio Solimes – meet to from the Amazon. (Peru, where the Ucayali and Maranon rivers join and also from the Amazon, claims to be the great river’s birthplace as well.)
Human destruction of the area continues but there are still many ways to experience the Brazilian Amazon. Hotel Tropical is popular for its convenient location on the shores of the Rio Negro, 10 miles from Manaus. A more enlightening experience awaits deeper in the jungle at the Pousada Uakari, which is affiliate with the Mamiraua institute’s pioneering conversation project. Guests stay in thatch-roofed cabins on rafts anchored on the river within the Mamiraua Reserve. The 18-suite Anavilhanas Lodge, a study in minimalist jungle decor, is set in the eponymous riverine archipelago – with 400 mostly deserted islands, it is the largest in the world. Another way to explore the river is via Amazon Clipper Premium’s expeditions. Air-conditioned, old-style riverboats carry 18-32 passengers who can watch for pink dolphins at Janauaca Lake, fish for piranha, and canoe into the lesser tributaries.
The biggest festival in the region is Boi Bumba, as eagerly awaited as Carnaval is in Rio; revelers come from all parts for music, theater, and dancing. It takes place in late June in Parintins, a 1-hour flight or 10-hour boat ride from Manaus.
WHERE: Manaus is 1,666 miles/2,681 km northwest of Sao Paulo.
BEST TIME: Jul – Nov for dry season; late Apr – May for Festival Amazonas de Opera in Manaus; late Jun for Boi Bumba.
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