Rubber once made Manaus rich, and now the city on the Amazon – which hosted four FIFA World Cup games – is experiencing a great renaissance
Amazon river boats cluster along the quay like grapes on a huge vine, while dock workers rush back and forth bearing heavy loads. André Peres Araújo, the boats’ 33-year-old owner, urges them on. “We were supposed to cast off two hours ago, but the freight isn’t even here yet,” the strapping Brazilian thunders. And it’s not just Araújo who’s having to wait – while the perspiring laborers stow heavy sacks of beans and rice below deck, the passengers higher up have long been comfortably ensconced in the hammocks they have brought along. The news of the delay doesn’t seem to put them out unduly, either. After all, what’s an hour here or there in the middle of the jungle?
The river is the artery, the very lifeblood of the entire region
Manaus, one-time center of the legendary rubber boom and now the venue for four FIFA World Cup matches, is surrounded by jungle. The city’s only link with civilization – excepting the airport – is the Amazon river, on which mighty cargo and cruise ships tie up at the quays of the constantly expanding municipal docks. “The river is the artery, the very lifeblood of the entire region,” says Araújo.
Long ago, in the 1870s, thousands of explorers and laborers flocked to Manaus because factories all over the world were calling for rubber, and that important material came from the sap of the rubber plant – back then endemic to the Amazon.
Suddenly, the once sleepy jungle community saw a surge in its fortunes, and the rubber barons, wealthy overnight, even built themselves magnificent palaces. “Manaus was the first Brazilian city to install electrical power and a sewage system,” says historian Ibrahim Base, 48. At the height of the rubber boom, the city resolved to build a splendid opera house, for which marble and -crys-tal were brought from Italy, and furnishings from Paris – no price, in fact, was too high for the barons to pay. In 1896, the Teatro Amazonas opened with a performance of La Giocondo by Amilcare Ponchielli. “Although the building’s acoustics are perfect,” says Ibrahim Base, “the big stars stayed away for fear of tropical diseases. ”The boom came to an end almost as suddenly as it had begun. A British natural scientist traveled to Amazonia, where he collected roughly 70 000 rubber seeds. The British used these to lay down extensive plantations across their Southeast Asian colonies. In 1910, the price of rubber began to nosedive and never recovered – causing Manaus to fall into seeming oblivion.
Rescue arrived after the city was declared a free-trade zone. In 1967, it gradually began to awaken from its slumbers and regain its old vitality. Manaus’ famous landmark, the opera house, was reopened after an extensive period of restoration in 1990, and the city has now spruced itself up for the World Cup championship. Many of its old buildings, including the Mercado Municipal market building designed by Gustave Eiffel, have been restored to their former glory. A stroll through the market reveals the regions’s tremendous diversity of native species. There’s a fantastic array of stalls laden with fish and fruit bearing (unless you speak the language) wholly unfamiliar names – like pirarucu and tambaqui, cupuaçu and bacuri.
Water taxis wait outside the market to take passengers to a point roughly 20 minutes downstream, where Nature stages a spectacular performance – the place where the Amazon and the Rio Negro rivers converge but continue to flow side by side for another six kilometers before their waters, each a different color, fully merge. This point is also the favorite haunt of the Amazon river dolphins that feature in numerous legends. They are said to be able to assume human form by night, making them capable of transformations just as amazing as those the fabulous jungle city has achieved.