Updated: Feb 20, 2020
The Hotel Tropical was one of the most luxurious hotels in all of South America, providing five-star lodging to the the world's rich and famous. In January, I booked the largest suite on the property for $73 a night.
Situated roughly ten miles upstream from the meeting of the waters, where the slow-moving Rio Negro and turbulent Rio Solimões join to form the mighty Amazon, the Hotel Tropical sits in slow decay. In the past, its popularity and prestige merited months on a waiting list just for the chance to spend a night in the Tropical. Now, entire wings are closed off. Vacant. "Under renovation," signs say, but the sounds of renovation do not echo through the hallways. Once immaculate, red roof tiles, which separated the majestic lodge from the dense forest, are now covered in a patina of moss. The pools, while clean, are devoid of guests and surrounded by orchestras of broken chairs, lounges, and umbrellas. A private zoo frequented by foreigners and locals alike, at present, boasts a majority of empty exhibits. Years ago the main attraction, an onça-pintada (jaguar), was a fierce, muscular, hunter of the jungle . Now he paces back and forth emaciated and stressed.
Upon entering the lobby, you'll see a sign. Unmissable, it reads:
CHOOSE YOUR ADVENTURE (R$500/each)
Swim with pink river dolphins
Visit a local tribe and participate in a ceremony
Go to a fish farm and fish for pirarucu
See a floating village & eat at a floating restaurant
Hike Lake Januari and see the giant Vitória Régia
Experience the meeting of the waters
Each line-item a tourist trap. Extremely enjoyable, but a tourist trap nonetheless. With these prices, thank goodness I purposefully walked into this trap just a few days prior.
One thing I know about the Brazilians who run these adventures is they love to scam. For residents of Manaus there is a price, a "true price." A price which does not exist for tourists and merely serves as a foundation, increasing depending on your: age, gender, height, hair color, native tongue, eye color, regional accent. As indicated in the price list above, if they can, they will sell you the adventure piece by piece. What a tourist won't know is the following: THERE IS ONLY ONE TOUR! If you get on their boat, you will be going to ALL SIX activities. So, in order to find favor with their new "friend," some of these vendors will throw in an adventure or two at "no additional cost." What a steal. Literally.
One simple way to avoid the tourist mark-up is to book like a local. Book through WhatsApp. Look around for alternatives and negotiate a lower price. I have no shame to admit upon booking, I lied to get closer to the "true price": My name was Raimundo (not true)...I was from Manaus (at one point this was semi-true)...I wouldn't need transportation (true)...I would bring a few others with me (also true). After some negotiating, we arrived at R$90/person. No steal this time. Before ending the call he mentioned a few important things:
Boat leaves at 9:00 AM
Pay in cash (bring extra for juice/sodas not included with the provided lunch)
Boat returns at 4:00 PM
Sounded like a great idea until my alarm went off at 7:00 AM the next morning. We had an hour and a half to eat breakfast, get ready, order an Uber or 99 (cheaper Brazilian version of Uber), convince the driver to take us with two extra passengers, travel from Bairro Flores to the Porto de Manaus, find the guide, pay said guide, get to boat, and find a seat. By some magia (once again) we were early. Really early. We arrived at 8:00 AM, promptly found the guide, purchased our tickets, and reserved our seats. While my family was content hanging out on the boat for the 45 minutes prior to departure, I was not. I needed to explore. So I did.
The first thing you'll notice when you step out of a cab at the Port of Manaus is the noise. Whether selling or simply yelling, the people working in the port are LOUD. Another thing you'll notice is color. Color in the clothing, skin, fruits, vegetables, spices, meats. Color is everywhere. When you leave, it's as if a dull veil has been cast over your world. The last thing worth touching on, which you WILL notice, is the smell. In the words of Fat Bastard from Austin Powers in Goldmember:
That [smell] could gag a maggot! Even stink would say that stinks! You know when you go into an apartment building and you smell the other people's cooking on each floor and you go "What are they cookin'?" That, plus crap!
I would like to say you get used to the smell after a few minutes, but you don't. Yes, there are fleeting, welcomed, moments when you may walk by stacks of bananas and the sweet smell of the fruit overpowers the stench of whatever else is lurking in the air, but these are, as I mentioned, fleeting. A blip in the olfactory timeline.
Terrible smell aside, the port of Manaus is a microcosm frozen in time. The boats, the people, the vendor stalls. I wasn't alive half a century ago, but I can't imagine things have changed much.
Upon descending the concrete ramps, which appear only during the dry season, your feet are greeted with sand. Not the white sparkling sand one might encounter while enjoying Recife or Rio, but brown, sand-dirt amalgamation. Mixed in this sand are millions of fish scales, food wrappers, glass shards, and of course, feces. Moving towards the water, there is a market comprised mostly of vendors selling fish and a few genius vendors selling the essential spices and vegetables you will need to cook the fish. Large vultures wait patiently for fish innards frequently strewn about by the busy fishmongers. Occasionally boats arrive with mounds of ice, causing the fishmongers to flurry over and exchange cash for the power of preservation. The smell, once again, is overpowering.
Moving parallel to the market and concrete ramps, the visual begins to change. Large wooden boats are moored alongside long yellow docks, their departure times painted on a tarp pinned to the upper deck. Previous locations, dates, and times can be seen faintly underneath the fresh paint. Boat captains sit just outside their cabins, waiting as they receive the last of their travelers and supplies. Hammocks color the inside of the boats; a confetti of interwoven cotton fabric. Children are silent, their eyes fixed on the horizon, wondering what great adventure or disappointment awaits. There is so much beauty, character, and uncertainty at the port. Though your nose will thank you, the second you leave, you are already longing to go back.
Camera: Canon EOS Kiss III
Film: Kodak Tri-X 400
When: December 2018
Where: Manaus, Brazil