Is Manaus worth visiting? It’s a question asked by many a traveler looking to pierce into the very heart of Brazil, where the vast Amazon Rainforest rolls out to the west, the north, and the south, and the snaking mud river at its heart wiggles away to the horizon. It’s also the question that we’re here to answer…
Manaus is often hailed as the gateway to Amazonia. A whopping 600+ miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, it’s right there in the beating heart of South America, with virtually only one road in and one road out. But isolation doesn’t affect it too much – the town still clocks up a population of 2.2 million people and serves as one of the principal trading ports for the country!
This guide will take a look at what we think are the seven highlights of the city. Along the way, we’ll touch on all sorts, from the mainstay attractions and landmarks to the enthralling natural landscapes that encompass the metropolis.
Nearby national parks and nature reserves
It should hardly come as a surprise that the first couple of highlights about this town in the far-flung reaches of central Brazil are all about the wild natural landscapes that encompass it on all sides. And so it is that we begin with the national parks that await on the peripheries of the city. There are quite a few to get through, however we’d say there’s one in particular that stands out from the crowd…
Cue the Parque Nacional do Jaú. Covering a mind-blowing 2.3 million hectares of land just to the northwest, this is a taste of real Amazonia. It was inscribed in 2000 to protect the vast swathes of virgin rainforest that exists on the plateaus within. Intrepid visitors who make their way over will get to see towering castanheira woods that are stalked by jaguars and margays – some of Brazil’s most untouched and untapped backcountry.
There’s more, too. The Rio Negro State Park North Section buts right up to that, with its own igapó forests that host over 200 species of birds. Then there’s the hard-to-get-to Parque Estadual do Matupiri (the Matupiri State Park) reserve even further south, where the gallery woods are interspersed with the settlements of the indigenous Mura people.
To discover the greater Amazon
We’ve already touched on the enticing national parks that abound around the city of Manaus, but that’s really just a taster of the lush green world of the Amazon that spreads out west from here. Mhmm, the snaking river and the rainforest that bears its name goes all the way from the city limits to the Peruvian and Colombian borders in the west. It’s one of the world’s most undiscovered corners, which means the Bear Gryllses among us have plenty to get through…
There are oodles and oodles of planned trips that start in this city and take you out to the very depths of the Amazon region. They include four-day, three-night river cruises to unconnected villages where you’ll stay in traditional longhouses and fish for piranhas. There are also canoe outings that take you to the amazing joining of waters on the Rio Negro (more on that later), and jungle treks that reveal wonderful waterfalls and colossal tree species.
For those after more of an expedition, then Manaus can also be the start point for a whopping great big cross-Amazon expedition that takes you all the way to Peru’s mystical cloud forests and then down to the Pacific coast of South America beyond. It’s a very long undertaking that will likely require months of hard travel and lots of planning but sure promises to be an adventure like no other.
Because it’s one of the gateways to the Amazon, Manaus is also a great place to shop for unique craft trinkets and souvenirs. Gone are the novelty Brazil hats and bikinis of the coastal towns. Here, you’ll find bazaars filled with wood-carved figurines and mystical healing herbs and roots sourced by the local tribespeople to cure all manner of ailments (we’re not sure the doc would recommend them, though!).
The main place to shop for such items is the iconic Adolpho Lisboa Market. The building itself is worthy of note. It was raised in the 1880s and modeled on something similar over in France. The exteriors are picked out in vibrant reds and yellows and there’s a gorgeous Art Nouveau extension that’s framed in wrought iron extending out on the far side. Dive in and you’ll encounter everything from river fish to local fruits to spices and medicinal plants.
For more high-street wares, you can head to the Manaus Plaza Shopping or the multi-level Amazonas Shopping Center. Those are for your usual branded goods and food courts. Foodies, meanwhile, won’t want to miss the Municipal Market Senator Cunha Melo, which is a hotspot for street eats and people watching.
The Meeting of Waters
The Meeting of Waters is one of the highlights of a visit to this city and one of the most striking natural wonders in the whole of Brazil besides. Just as the name implies, it’s the point were two of the great waterways of the country collide together. The Rio Negro – the Black River – comes in from the north and runs straight into the mighty Amazon River itself.
What’s truly unique is that both rivers have very different types of H2O. The Rio Negro is packed with humic acid that means the water stays a dark, inky hue. The Amazon, however, is filled with mud runoff and silt from the forests further inland. When the two intertwine, they run alongside each other for nearly four miles without properly joining, allowing visitors to witness a strange phenomenon with two differing tones of water gurgling but not mixing.
There are loads of organized tours that you can do to take you out to see the Meeting of Waters. They usually last a full day and also include stops at other POIs in the Amazon region, along with lunch in a local village. Alternatively, you can get to the site yourself by hopping on a public ferry from the ports in downtown Manaus.
Is Manaus worth visiting for the sightseeing? Probably not on its own. Let’s just say that this isn’t Rio or Sao Paolo. However, this town isn’t without its intriguing landmarks. There are some spots that are sure to catch the eye and have you reaching for the camera ASAP.
Chief among them is the resplendent Teatro Amazonas. This flamboyant playhouse is often hailed as the icon of the city as a whole. It rises above the plazas of the happening Centro area with a flamingo-pink façade that’s picked out in lines of cloud white and filigreed with marble curves and Art Deco touches. Up top is a golden dome with mosaic tiles that look like a mix of something out of the Middle East and the indigenous tribal lands of the Amazon.
There’s more than just that, though. Check out the handsome Cathedral Metropolitana, with its yellow-and-cream frontispiece and duo of Neoclassical towers. And there’s Praça da Matriz, a bustling gathering point with babbling fountains and leafy seating areas.
There are more museums in Manaus than you could hope to get through in a whole week. They aren’t the large-scale national collections that you get in other Brazilian cities but rather more niche things that chronicle life in the Amazon and local culture.
We’d always recommend beginning at the acclaimed MUSA (Museu da Amazonia if you want the long name). That’s the best place in Brazil and arguably South America to learn about the natural wonders of the Amazon. It actually makes its home in the Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke just on the north side of the town, incorporating open-air viewing platforms that let you get up close and personal with the local wildlife.
For even more in the way of local culture, head over to the Museu do Seringal Vila Paraiso by boat. It’s a strange spot on its own little island just outside of the city, showcasing a traditional 19th-century homestead that’s packed with imported antiques from Asia. The Teatro Amazonas Museum is also top quality, offering insights into the great shows and the construction of the town’s iconic opera house.
Partying in the Amazon Rainforest? You bet. Manaus, being one of the last urban pitstops before the wild woods take and snaking rivers over in earnest, is pretty much the only place where you can get a taste of hedonism in this untrodden part of Brazil.
The main nightlife scene takes place in the Centro area of the city. You’ll want to be in the blocks between the Avenue Leonardo Malcher and the banks of the Rio Negro. They host all sorts of drinking holes and bars, but the best are probably Enigma’s Bar, for the live DJ shows, and Caldeira Bar, with its al fresco seating spaces.
An alternative party area is the district just behind Ponta Negra Beach on the northwest side of town. That’s where Manaus does its best Rio de Janeiro impression, with bars overlooking the water serving cold caipirinhas to all who come their way.
Is Manaus worth visiting? Our verdict
We’ve just offered seven reasons why this town in the depths of the Amazon should definitely be on your to-do list. First and foremost, it’s a prime entry point to the Amazon itself, which means river tours, sightings of the famous confluence of the Rio Negro, and wildlife safaris are all in the mix.
It’s also got buzzy nightlife and a healthy cultural scene, so there’s plenty to do besides. Overall, we’d say it’s not as important a town to see as Rio or São Paulo but those with extra time and a penchant for nature can’t go wrong coming in this direction during their jaunt to Brazil.