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Brazil Travel: Manaus Past and Present

Brazil Travel: Manaus Past and Present

Manaus is smack in the middle of Brazil’s northwestern territory, a location that makes it ideal for travelers interested in launching on an Amazon tour, whether along the river or into the rainforest. It is the largest and most populous city in the Amazon with over 2 million inhabitants. Of the total population of the Amazon, 50% lives in the Manaus metropolitan region.

The city’s location on the Amazon has granted it some importance in the history of Brazil and South America. Manaus was founded in 1669 and for many years was existed simply as a Portuguese fort build to guard against encroachment by the Dutch from the north. In the 18th century it was also populated by missionaries who sought to evangelize the neighboring indigenes. This became the status quo throughout the colonial period while the Spanish, French, Portuguese, and other European groups were still positioning for control of the region.

In the late 19th century, as industrialization in general and the manufacture of automobiles in particular required the use of rubber, the Amazon rose up to meet the demand, producing a rubber boom that inflated the fortunes of Manaus. Those who benefitted the most from this economy, the rubber barons, built opulent mansions and spent millions on public buildings such as opera houses and churches.

These edifices were constructed in the art nouveau and neoclassical architecture styles popular at the turn of that century and many of them, mimicking buildings in Europe, verged on the gaudy. The most famous example of this is Teatro Amazonas, the opera house which is still the pride of Manaus today. Visitors to Manaus have the opportunity to visit the opera house and view performances by the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra.

Other buildings constructed during this time are the Municipal Market Adopho Lisboa, which is a replica of Les Halles in Paris; the Customs Building, which was built of stone blocks imported from England; and the elegant Palace of Justice. The new found wealth of Manaus also brought additional improvements to the city, including electricity, a sewage system, potable water, and tram transport.

Continued demand for rubber production kept Manaus and other Amazon cities – Iquitos, Peru, also became wealthy from the boom – floating high for several years. However, the winds of wealth shifted in the early 1900s, when rubber seeds where smuggled out of the Amazon and planted in southeast Asia, which eventually resulted in the rapid impoverishment of the city. The streets of Manaus were plunged into darkness when the city could no longer afford to power the generators that produced electricity for its streetlamps.

In the 1950s, Manaus’s fortunes began to turn once again when it became a duty-free zone. For the remainder of the 20th century, this change caused in-migration to Manaus from other parts of Brazil and, in some areas of the city, resulted in disorganized settlement. Today, the economy is principally dependent on industrial production – which includes brewing, shipbuilding, soap manufacturing, chemical production, petroleum refinement, and mobile phone manufacturing. Ecotourism is also gaining increasing importance in the local economy, with hotels and other attractions concentrated in the center. The port of Manaus remains main transport hub for the entire upper Amazon Basin.