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If there’s one place that really lives up to most travellers’ mental images of the Brazilian Amazon, it’s the Rio Negro. It’s on these dark, reflective waters – teeming with fish and caiman and stretching endlessly towards the horizon – that we find thousands of islands clustered into lush green archipelagos, around which meander countless channels and waterways perfect for bird-spotting from canoes and small boats.
But there’s a side to the Rio Negro region that you might not have imagined: the metropolis of Manaus, the river beaches that rival anything to be found on Rio’s coastline and make for a perfect family vacation, and even swimming – yes swimming! – in waters that are safe and perfectly free of piranhas and other underwater creatures you might be imagining.
It’s this blend of the expected and the totally unexpected that makes Rio Negro such a compelling destination for visitors, offering a great “all rounder” location with a glimpse of the Amazon’s many faces.
The Rio Negro, its tributaries and the Rio Solimões are perfect for wetland trips, exploring the narrow channels that wind through the vegetation and micro islands by canoe and small boat. Water levels are higher during rainy season – when the river can span some 30 kilometers – but the channels are navigable by small boat year-round.
A major highlight of the river is the Anavilhanas National Park – one of the largest river archipelagos in the world, and an environmentally-protected haven for many of the Amazon’s animals and birds. Some 400 islands are liberally scattered over 350,000 hectares of virgin rainforest, and there are some appealing jungle lodges to be found here, around 100 kilometers along the Rio Negro from Manaus.
The urban jungle meets the literal jungle in Manaus itself. A buzzing metropolis of nearly two million people planted right in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest, Manaus was a wealthy city during Brazil’s rubber boom, and its famously grand opera house harks back to this golden age. Today the city is a little gritty in places, but the last decade has seen increased investment in tourism, and refurbishment has brought the city’s historic centre back to something approaching its former glory. At the edges of the city, river beaches attract flocks of locals and tourists alike, all relishing the chance to strip down to their swimwear and get a little respite from the humidity of the rainforest.
Although the jungle looms large over Manaus, it is one of Brazil’s most important commercial cities, with container ships bound for the ocean docking at the busy port, and traders from Peru, Colombia and Bolivia gathering here to do business. The city’s large market is a colourful place and offers good opportunities to pick up local handicrafts as well as jungle fruits and vegetables, and the Museum of the Indians outlines the history of the region’s indigenous peoples.
Importantly for visitors, Manaus lies close to the famous ‘meeting of the waters’ (px) where the black tea-coloured Rio Negro meets the latte-coloured Solimoes, and the two run side by side, without mixing, to form the River Amazon itself.
Manaus’ nightlife is more varied and lively than one might expect to find in the middle of the jungle, and there’s plenty of opportunity to try local dishes such as pirarucu and tambaqui fish which can be cooked in a variety of imaginative ways. A particular regional highlight is grilled tambaqui fish with farofa (seasoned manioc flour), rice and jambu (a leaf similar to rocket but with a very dist Manaus has a busy cultural calendar and some sights and are attractions that are worth seeing in their own right, but for many visitors it is merely a jumping off point for major adventures along the Rio Negro and into the jungle. There are some decent accommodation options here, but for the best Amazon jungle lodges you’ll need to head out of the city itself and into the thick and steamy jungle.
Not to miss:
The Rio Negro region, deep in the far northern rainforest, is a favourite for visitors looking to taste a little of everything that the Brazilian Amazon has to offer. Travellers with special interests or activities in mind may find another region more suitable for their particular needs but for the classic Amazon experience, look no further than Rio Negro.
Channels and wetland excursions
The Rio Negro, the adjoining Rio Solimões (the upper Amazon) and their many tributaries create a vast patchwork of wetland, and although in wet season the Negro can reach up 30km in width, the surrounding network of channels and natural canals are perfect for exploring by canoe or small boat. This is the ideal way to slink through the jungle without disturbing the birds from their daily routines and, if you’re lucky, spot small mammals in the trees.
Guests at jungle lodges and aboard certain yachts may also have the chance to explore the waterways at dusk or night, when the already teeming jungle somehow seems to come yet more alive. Extinguishing the boat’s spotlight and listening to the forest’s raucous orchestra in the pitch black is an experience you’ll never forget.
Water levels are higher in the wet season (px) but most channels are navigable by small boat year round.
Be sure to visit the Anavilhanas National Park – with some 400 islands dotted around 350,000 hectares of untouched rainforest, this is one of the the world’s greatest river archipelagos, and an environmental protection order has ensured that its flora and fauna continue to thrive.
River beaches and swimming
Among the most unexpected sights in this part of the Amazon are the long river beaches that emerge between August and February and can, if just for a moment or two, make you feel like you’ve been transported to some paradisiacal coastline. Unlike the more famous beaches in Rio, these strands are deserted, tranquil and pristine with little chance of a wayward beachball, insistent vendor or unwanted attention spoiling your moment of relaxation.
The waters are warm, slow moving, as clean as it’s possible to get, free of piranhas or other biting nasties and so are perfectly safe for all the family to swim and enjoy. At the height of the dry season – from October to December – so many of these beaches emerge that those on yachts will be able to find their own private beach.
The “meeting of the waters” (encontro das águas)
The Rio Negro and Rio Solimões meet at Manaus, together forming the mighty Amazon. The confluence of these two waterways has become an attraction in its own right, thanks to their stark differences in colour – the Negro being (true to its name) the colour of dark tea and the Solimões a much lighter sandy colour. At their confluence the two rivers produce a remarkable phenomenon, forming a surprisingly literal boundary between themselves and the Amazon itself.
Lago Janauari Eco Park
An easy hour-long boat ride from Manaus, this nature reserve offers an opportunity to explore the Amazon’s wild side without spending days on the river. It’s a popular day trip from the city and is appealing for wildlife lovers, families and visitors on a tight schedule.
Elevated boardwalks provide a path through the trees, allowing visitors to marvel at the sheer size and spectacular colours of the flora. Floating villages sit on crystal clear waters, sloths hang lazily in the branches, and monkeys leap between towering trees.
Sightseeing in and around Manaus
Teatro Amazonas, the grand, domed Renaissance opera house, is Manaus’ most famous attraction and regularly hosts plays and live classical music events as well as opera spectaculars – many events are free. Opera Season runs from April through March, when Manaus Opera Festival draws visitors from across the country. The dramatically ornate 1897 building is certainly worth a visit even if it’s just to snap a photo or two rather than to take in a show. Details of upcoming events can be found at: http://www.cultura.am.gov.br/teatro-amazonas
Other attractions in the city itself are lower key, but there are a handful of worthwhile excursions within easy reach of the city. Almost next door, the excellent Galeria Amazonica is the best spot in the city to shop for locally-produced arts and crafts.
A visit to the rubber musuem, located 30 minutes by speedboat from the city, is highly recommended for its insight into how the rubber extractors lived and work during the industry’s great boom. Those based in Manaus will find it easy to combine a visit to the museum with a dip in the Rio Negro, or it can easily be added to the itinerary of a private yacht trip.
Those looking for more active pursuits can take part in jungle survival courses, which are suitable for anyone aged 10 or above, and run from half-day to several days, depending on your level of interest and energy. Run by ex-army officers, they can be as adrenaline-packed or gentle as travelers wish. Expect to walk away with new skills such as how to make fire without matches, find water in the forest, how to identify edible (and poisonous) plants, making traps, and general jungle safety.
At the heart of Rio Negro’s appeal to most visitors is its reputation as a classic all-rounder Amazon destination. You might not find the best birdwatching or the most pristine forest but you’ll get a good sampling of everything the Amazon has to offer, and all within fairly close reach of the main entry/exit point of Manaus. The region’s relatively undemanding environment helps too – the waters are acidic enough to deter mosquitoes, and the tourism infrastructure around Manaus makes the area highly accessible to all visitors – including families.
Both short and longer trips along the appropriately-named ‘black river’ usually depart from Manaus, and while operators compete in the city for visitors’ custom it is strongly advisable to book in advance of your arrival and to thoroughly research potential tour operators. Even for a short trip, it is essential to travel with a reputable operator who know what they’re doing.
Full-day or half-day trips along the Rio Negro from Manaus almost always take in the famous ‘meeting of the waters,’ (px) which takes place just outside the city and is the start/end point for many a yacht cruise along the Rio Negro.
For those in Manaus, it’s possible to book a day trip via local boat (either private or as a group). Depending on the boat and river conditions it can take as little as 30 minutes or as much as two hours to reach the famed confluence from the dock outside the Tropical Hotel.
Visitors happy to spend a little more might well find that the best way to experience the phenomenon is with a bird’s eye view from a private water plane that will swoop down to a few hundred meters above the river and offer a full appreciation of the scale of the spectacle. It’s also possible to take a water plane overnight trip to the beautiful Anavilhanas archipelago.
A typical trip to the Rio Negro region might also include a visit to a riverside village and/or a trip to the Lago Janauari eco park. Around one hour’s boat ride from the city, this is a 9,000-acre nature reserve notable for its floating villages, and abundant wildlife including sloths, caiman and various species of monkeys as well as its mammoth water lilies.
To see more pristine jungle, you’ll need to travel at least a couple of days by boat from Manaus. Trips will take in a visit to the Anavilhanas archipelago, around 60 miles from the city, before heading further down river. The archipelago is a protected nature reserve, part of the vast UNESCO Central Amazon Conservation Complex, and teems with animal life and colourful bird species.
The farther downriver you travel, lodges become virtually non-existent, so to explore the pristine, remote regions, a private yacht charter is easily the best bet. Kayaks provide access to smaller creeks and through flooded forests, and it is possible to visit caboclos (river communities) to see daily life as it is played out on the banks of the river. Most river trips take three-four days, with options to add on further stop-offs in the jungle or connections to major cities such as Rio de Janeiro.
Choosing the best accommodation for your travel style is the key to an enjoyable visit to the Rio Negro region. For most visitors, the choice is between a jungle lodge or a river cruise. High-end travellers or those visiting in larger groups might prefer the flexibility of chartering a private yacht.
Whatever travel style you choose, it’s important to do some serious research before booking your trip to ensure the planned itinerary matches what you hope to experience in the jungle.
The main appeal of chartering a private yacht is the additional flexibility of tailoring a trip to your tastes, and escaping the more popular tourist routes to discover hidden regions of the Amazon. Again, prior research is key. Good operators will provide local guides, a skilled skipper and crew, and even trained onboard chefs – so it’s important to ensure your boat is staffed with the right people if you’re splashing out.
A cheaper alternative to the private yachts are regular scheduled cruises for instance the Amazon Clipper Premium, a 16 cabin yacht that operates a regular Monday to Wednesday cruise along the Amazon River and a Wednesday to Saturday cruise along the Rio Negro. The boat is comfortable, guides are professional and knowledgable and the food is excellent.
There are very few truly high-end places to stay in Manaus and along the river, so be wary of sales spiel and be sure to thoroughly research any possibilities before booking – and certainly before arrival.
The following are dependably good, and accustomed to catering to a high-end clientele.
This immaculately-maintained lodge is located just outside the village of Novo Airao – a beach destination in the middle of the jungle, and one of the most visited spots on the Rio Negro. Many rate Anavilhanas as the best lodge in the Amazon, and the attention to detail is certainly impressive. It’s worth splashing out on the superior bungalows, whose floor-to-ceiling windows seem to bring the jungle’s wild beauty right into your hotel room, while keeping out noisy nocturnal sounds and flying and crawling beasties at bay. The common areas are well furnished and there’s even wifi available. The food, made using fresh Amazonian ingredients, win rave reviews from guests.
Mirante do Gavião
Novo Airao village is a must-visit for most visitors to the Rio Negro, and this smart hotel is a decent option if the popular Anavilhanas Lodge is fully booked. Located within Novo Airao itself, it lacks the wild appeal of a true jungle lodge but makes up for it with a range of good excursions and easy access to the village’s own sights and attractions.
In Manaus itself there is Tropical Manaus, whose days as one of the Amazon’s finest hotels are long gone, but does offer resort facilities such as a large pool, bars and lounge, and even a small zoo, so families may find it a fun place to stay for one or two nights if intent on exploring the Amazon’s biggest city. Provided you don’t expect stellar service or luxurious lodgings, you might find it makes a surprisingly entertaining stay.
Most international arrivals to the Brazilian Amazon will arrive by plane, and the state capital Manaus handles by far the largest share of flights to the jungle. The city is a major commercial destination as well as the starting point for many adventures into the Amazon, and its international airport is well served by international airlines including American Airlines and TAP Portugal as well as the Brazilian airlines TAM and Gol.
The international airport is located some 14 kilometers from the city center, and taxis are easy to find although congestion can make the journey longer than visitors might hope.
Known as Eduardo Gomes International Airport in honor of a late Brazilian Air Marshall and political activist, Manaus’ airport was the most modern in Brazil when it was inaugurated in 1976. It is no longer the most modern, but a major overhaul for the 2014 FIFA World Cup has brought it up to international standards.
Unless you have a hankering to sit on hot, cramped buses as they crawl through traffic jams, it’s best to avoid using public transport in Manaus. Taxis are readily available but be cautious of overcharging. Taxis from the airport generally operate on a fixed fare basis, but in other situations you should make sure the meter is switched on.
Travelling with a reputable tour company with arranged private transfers to/from the airport and your other destinations will take a lot of the stress out of moving around in Manaus.
The same applies when taking to the water – the simple boats that transport locals and backpackers are far from comfortable, and at their worst can be dangerous. If comfort, reliable schedules and safety are non-negotiable it’s best to stick with a pre-researched, reputable operator.Click here to receive the complete ebook