Wednesday, March 27, 2013


The Gran Sabana continues for several hundred kilometres south of Santa Elena. The Brazilian border though is much closer. It's so close, and so porous, that regular taxis shuttle back and forth from Santa Elena and don't even bother stopping at immigration. I only realised I was in Brazil when the driver told everyone to get out and I had to walk back to the border post to get my entry stamp (I didn't bother with the Venezuelan exit stamp though, so as to save as much precious space in my passport as possible). The Brazilian savannah is much like the Venezuelan one: dry, dusty and sparsely populated by Pemon, the same indigenous tribe that lives across the border. The main industry consists of smuggling heavily subsidised Venezuelan petrol across the border and selling it in Boa Vista, the nearest town of any note. The Brazilian authorities probably turn a blind eye to it as it saves the government substantial sums of money and provides employment in an otherwise neglected corner of the country. It's a further 1000km due south before you get to Manaus, the first major city. 1000km and you're still very much in the north of the country. Brazil's a big place.

The grandiose Teatro Amazonas, an extravagant masterpiece of European high culture in the middle of the rainforest.

Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and on the banks of the Rio Negro (the Amazon's largest tributary), is an island of urbanity in a sea of wilderness*. Its raison d'ĂȘtre is rubber. The rubber tree and its latex sap was known since the days of the first explorers, but was regarded as little more than a botanical curiosity. It wasn't until the mid 19th century that people found a use for it ... and then another, and another. Soon rubber was being used for a legion of consumer products and the markets couldn't get enough of it. Plantations sprang up along the banks of the Amazon and its major tributaries and their owners quickly grew obscenely rich. Of course these plantation owners wanted to keep up with the latest European fashions and so porcelain, grand pianos, Parisian couture and fancy furniture sailed up the Amazon whilst blocks of rubber flowed down. The most iconic symbol of this golden age of rubber is the Teatro Amazonas, a grandiose opera house, styled on the grand European opera houses of the time (and of course the materials were all European too: Carrara marble, French tiles, English steel frame). As the saying goes all good things must come to an end, and so did the golden age of Amazonian rubber. The Great Depression, competition from British colonies (most notably Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Africa) and the discovery of synthetic substitutes all helped seal its fate.

Close up of liquid latex dripping into a collecting cup from a rubber tree.

Nowadays, despite its location and distance from ... anywhere, Manaus is a major commercial centre with numerous primary and secondary industries. It helps that the river is big enough to accommodate ocean-going vessels, allowing Manaus the odd distinction of having the most landlocked sea port. The city also doesn't have a direct road connection with the rest of the country (the Transamazonian highway is not fully sealed and still requires several ferry crossings. Ecotourism to the rainforest from Manaus is possible, but time-consuming and expensive. In fact everything in Brazil is surprisingly dear. In the eight years since I was last in the country the real has doubled its value against the pound and prices have increased substantially. Prices for many goods are on a par with western Europe, from food at the supermarket to the price of phone calls. It is the great success story of South America and its people are markedly better off, but that makes for wallet-unfriendly travelling.

Instead I decided to leave pretty quickly, but at least in style: sailing down the Amazon river to its Atlantic delta at Belem. It is an iconic journey, sharing a deck with other passengers and sleeping in a hammock slung from the ceiling. It's a serene way of travelling and far more comfortable than the bus (which would probably take longer as Manaus is connected to the rest of Brazil by a lone dirt track that requires multiple ferry crossings), though not particularly scenic as for most of the trip the boat is a good kilometre from either bank, and when it rains (which is often) you often can't even see that far. Nevertheless I did manage to spot a couple of the elusive Amazonian river dolphins and numerous macaws in the thousand or so miles and four days that it took to reach our destination..

Hammocks strung up on the top deck of our boat. It's all quite organised and you can also notice the bags are placed on plastic pallets to keep them dry from the inevitable rainwater that splashes across the deck.

*Manaus is the capital of Amazonas state. 98% of it is covered by rainforest and if it were a country, it would be the 19th largest in the world, between Iran and Mongolia, whereas Brazil itself is almost twice the size of the EU. Due to its position on the equator its size is under-represented compared to countries closer to the poles so it's size is not immediately apparent (if you're geeky and want to learn about the details see this link). Did I mention that Brazil is big?


Anonymous said...

So the hammock was your sleep for the night? Greetings, Sabine

Erik said...

Not just for one night, but for the 4 of the boat trip. Quite comfortable actually and managed to find another traveller going the other way to offload it onto.