The Amazon on a Shoestring

Manaus sits at the mouth of the Amazon, where the Rio Branco (white river) merges with the Rio Negro (black river). Since Manaus is the largest city in this gigantic rainforest, all Amazon exploration starts and ends here. Tourists flock here in hundreds of thousands every year and since the industry is geared towards luxury travel, trips into the forest tend to burn a hole in the wallet. Having spent a day in Manaus earlier in the year, I decided to go back and see what this crazy city was all about. With a limited stash of $$$, there was little choice but to ignore the extravagant tours and get creative.

Swim with river dolphins – USD 50

The Amazon is large enough to sustain a diverse habitat and as a result, it’s the only river that plays home to river dolphins. The pink-bellied river dolphins are a curious species with funny customs. Courtship involves males diving to the bottom of the river and picking up rocks in their jaws. Size does matter and the dolphin that picks up the largest rock wins the female’s affections. A one-hour boat ride up the Rio Negro takes you to dolphin land. Humans (with fish treats) are treated as friends. The dolphins playfully swam around us and occasionally, much to my discomfort, nibbled harmlessly at my knees. Creepy.

Take a waterfall tour – USD 50

With most tourists going gaga over the prospect of trekking through the Amazon, the waterfall tour is a hidden gem. Over 85 waterfalls are splashed around Manaus.  Many locals frequent these waterfalls over the weekend so if you head over on a weekday, you’re practically guaranteed a private audience with one of nature’s most destructive forces. If you work up the courage (I couldn’t), you could join the local lifeguards and try body surfing (no lifejackets, no body boards) down one of the more popular, relatively milder rapids.

Explore the local market – Free

Walking through the local market, you’ll notice that fruits and vegetables take on an alien look in Brazil. From watermelons bigger than footballs to a yellow fruit that tastes like a nut, Manaus has it all. Come Sunday, the centre of town gets cordoned off for a large Sunday street market; a great place to let loose the hidden shopper within.

Get some culture at the Teatro Amazonas – Free

Built in 1896, at the height of the rubber boom, the Teatro Amazonas is modeled on the Opera house in Paris and is a sight to behold. Magnificent from the outside, the theatre is massive on the inside with intricate carvings and painting on the walls and ceilings. Beauty and rubber extravagance aside, the best part is that most of the concerts at this theatre are free. Easier said than done though, because half the population of Manaus queues up for most shows an hour before the doors open. However, a few passion fruit caiperinjas (available outside the theatre) should ease the discomforts of sitting on the cobblestone street.

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