A Travellerspoint blog

Salar De Uyuni

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The salt flats tour of Uyuni is probably Bolivia's premier tourist draw card. One unfortunate consequence of its popularity is that every man and their dog in southern Bolivia offers a salt flats tour. Some of the operators are excellent. Some are terrible. Some are outright scammers and some may like as not actually kill their guests. Reviews in Tripadvisor detail many incidents of drivers being continuously drunk and aggressive; of appalling conditions at the hostels and food poisoning. There is also the ever present risk of altitude sickness and hypothermia as the tour passes through altitudes up to 4300 metres above sea level. Unfortunately, choosing a responsible operator is difficult as the tour companies seem to pool customers with whomever has availablity at any given time. We went through Gisele Tours and our driver was Rudy and he was excellent.
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There were 6 of us on the tour, which is standard, as the four wheel drives used can't (should not) carry more. Joining us on the tour was Marie from Geneva, Quentin from Paris, Danielo from Santiago and Nadia from Mexico. And what a great bunch we were! We all got on well and had a great time. That's another factor for a great tour - the quality of your companions.
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The tour lasts 3 days, leaving Uyuni in the morning, visiting the train graveyard just outside town then its on to the vast salt lakes of Uyuni. This is the largest salt lake on earth, covering an area over 10,000 kilometres and is dead flat. The Salar is in fact a real lake, part of a chain of lakes including Lake Titicaca in the north of Bolivia that have been trapped by the rising of the Andes high in the Antiplano with no route to the sea. The lake is incredibly deep, up to 120 metres. The surface is covered by a crust of salt that varies between one to twenty metres floating on a lake of brine.
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The lake's vast size and lack of features mean you can mess around with perspective in photos, which is great fun (but harder than it looks).
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After hours and hours driving across the featureless lake we stopped at Isla Huaca Inca, which really highlights the marine character of the
Salar.
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As dusk fell we drove for another couple of hours to a salt hostel on the 'land' (that really isn't as exotic as it sounds). None of the hotels have hot water or heating and temperatures at night are very , very cold so we were thankful we hired sleeping bags in Uyuni.
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The second day we were up before dawn at 4.30am and set off through the mountainous, volcanic region near the border with Chile. Bolivia, is now landlocked but once had access to sea through this area. In the 1870s phosphates were discovered in the Atacama desert bordering Bolivia and Chile which would have been a boon export for Bolivia. However, British corporate banking interests considered this a threat to their investments in Chilean phosphate mines further south, so they lobbied to Chilean government to invade Bolivia. In the war that followed Bolivia lost its entire coast line and port as well as its share of the phosphate rich Atacama. Bolivia remains unreconciled to this loss and still includes the lost provinces on official maps. Relations with Chile remain tense.
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The tour then swings south through a series of colourful volcanic lakes which are home to flamingoes and borax mining. At this point the tour passes its highes altitude point of approximately 4600 metres at Laguna Colorado before descending to the little village of San Juan at 4300 metres. As we bid adieu to Lake Colorado a storm from began to flow over the mountains bringing snow and dropping the temperature even further.
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The hostel here is very basic with dorm accommodation and no hot water. Meals were basic but included Bolivian wine and although I'd sworn off alcohol while at altitude we were soon having a very happy time. We broke out the last dregs of the tequila we'd bought at the Auckland duty free, which was then followed by beers from the local market. A couple of French girls from another tour came and joined in the fun. They were not having such a good time with their Israeli companions, who barely spoke to them or acknowledged their existence. shortly afterwards someone from another tour group came over and asked us to keep the chat down as they were trying to sleep. We agreed - we had. 3.30am start the next day - and everyone began finishing their drinks. A little over 15 minutes later the guy was out again, insisting a little more forcefully that we pack it in, which we duly did. It 7.45pm.
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On the morning of the last day we were driving by 4.30am (one of the four wheel drives' battery was flat and needed recharging). Ruddy and the other drivers skills in navigating this trackless wasteland is amazing. There are no roads only the tracks of earlier cars to follow. The route wound us through mountains in the pitch blackness until we reached a series of geysers. It was too dark for photos but the sound was like jet engines in the inky blackness. It was so cold that the stop here was calculated in milliseconds.
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Then we drove on to a lakeside hot springs where everyone piled into the water, except us. It was just too cold to contemplate stripping down to bathers and making the dash. We sat in the cafe nursing a warming coffee. From there it was pretty much a long drive back through the mountains back to Uyuni. The scenery was as dramatic as ever, but it was a bit familiar by now.
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We arrived back in Uyuni about 6pm. Sadly it meant saying goodbye to our new friends as we had a flight that night to La Paz. It was a terrifc tour, with great people and certainly the highlight of the trip to date. Special commendation must go to Rudy, our excellent drive, guide and cook. Fantastic work!!
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Posted by paulymx 18:20 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Uyuni

"Nothing to see here"

Uyuni is as small, non-descript Bolivian town that sits on the edge of the Uyuni salt flats, which is its main claim to fame. The city is also now a major destination on the Dakar Rally, which is now raced across the harshest terrain of Bolivia, chile and Argentina instead of North Africa.

You can start or finish the salt flats tour in Uyuni. If finishing in Uyuni the salt flats will be the finale and highlight of the tour. We opted to start in Uyuni though. Many people take the overnight bus from Sucre to Uyuni and start the tour the next morning but that is rather insane as you'd be starting the tour without sleep or a shower, so we booked ourselves on the day bus instead. Because of the shocking state of the roads the journey takes about 10 hours.

The bus line 6th of October promised a new, modern bus with WC, recliner seats, air conditioning, TV and onboard refreshments. It delivered none of these things. The bus, when it arrived two hours late (11.30) looked modern on the outside, but the interior was very shabby. The TV and WC didn't work, the seats uncomfortable and the air conditioning did not work. The driver was in a state and hustled us aboard, not even checking out tickets, and we hit the road. Once we'd navigated out of the city and the driver pushed the bus to its limit. On the straights - which were pretty few and far between - we did almost 25 kilometres an hour! But our usual speed up the mountains and round the bends was a more conservative 10 KPH. It was honestly the worlds slowest bus.
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Without air conditioning the bus quickly became a sauna, leading the passengers to revolt and throw open the ceiling vents. This at least bought in a cooling breeze, but once the sun began to set the air turned frosty and we had to close the vents again.

Potosi is Bolivia's silver mining capital. Silver has been mined here, often in horrendous conditions since the 1600s. Potosi's silver exports were so essential to the solvency of the Spanish crown that Spain fought harder and longer to retain its Bolivian colony than any of is other possessions in South America. Although it is a working city with no tourist sights, tourists do flock here to tour the mines, where they can do such amusing things as pose for selfies with sticks of live dynamite (and be secretly thankful that they don't have to work in the mines' hellish conditions).
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But there was one drawcard in Potosi. As the hours passed more and more people began approaching the driver with the plaintiff question, "bano?", to which he replied, "Potosi!" We were all looking forward to Potosi very much. But then we drove straight passed the bus station. Everyone was looking very puzzled. A few miles outside of Potosi on a desolate stretch of road the driver pulled over, opened the door and pointed a rubbish strewn road verge and said, "Banos!" Oh shit. Literally. Nothing could have been less appealing, but needs must and everybody exited the bus and tried to find some semblance of cover that wasn't already covered in rubbish, broken bottles and toilet paper. Shelly and I ducked around a large boulder at the back of the bus, where I proceeded to 'assume the position.' I had no sooner squatted down when I heard the sound of pneumatic brakes releasing. I called to Shelly, "Check the bus." Shelly gave me a confused look. "Check the bus NOW!" The look of horror on Shelly's face said it all. "RUN!!!", I yelled and Shelly raced after the bus as it drove off down the highway, while I stumbled along behind. Fortunately the driver (or one of the passengers) saw us and the bus pulled over. "Beuno?", the driver asked as I stepped aboard, gasping for breath. I don't think that was the word I was looking for.
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We arrived in Uyuni about 7pm. It was already dark and we had no idea where we were or where our hotel was. A friendly taxi driver pointed us in the right direction (Uyuni is a rather small town). Uyuni had no tourist attractions to distract us so we had a mediocre meal of llama and chicken and rice before going to bed early. We needed all the rest we could get for our Salt Flats tour the next morning.

Posted by paulymx 08:44 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Sucre

Sweet, sweet, sugar beet...

From Manaus we'd planned to go to Sucre in Bolivia but when we entered the details into skyscanner we were confronted with a problem. The price was a ridiculous $3000! We tried a variety of different destinations but all were insanely expensive. The best option seemed to be to fly all the way back to Santiago and take a bus north. In desperation I changed the search parameters to Manaus to Bolivia and surprisingly a flight to Santa Cruz popped up for a couple of hundred dollars. We jumped on it immediately.
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The flight was eventful. We had a short stop over in Sao Paolo. Although the domestic airport is new and flashy, the international area was old with poor facilities. A sign of the Olympics upgrade no doubt. How Brazil will handle the Olympics with its infrastructure I can't help but wonder. From Sao Paolo it was only 3 hours to Santa Cruz, a dry, dusty and non-descript Bolivian city. From Santa Cruz Sucre is only a short distance away as the crow flies, but this is Bolivia's altiplano, a region of mountains and high, dry plains. The bus ride is 16 torturous hours along rough roads at little more than walking speed. We chose the sensible option of a 40 minute local flight. After a short turn around at the airport qwe boarded a smaller plane for the flight to Sucre. No sooner had we settled in our seats when the cabin crew came out and advised us there was a problem with the plane and we all needed to disembark. The announcements were all in Spanish but we found one crew member who could translate. So back to the terminal. After an hour it was apparent the plane was not going to fly so we were all bundled onto another flight going to Cochambamba, where we would be transferred to another flight heading to Sucre that day. Two flights later we arrived in Sucre as the sun was setting - 3 hours late.
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For a national capital, Sucre is surprisingly small. It lacks an international airport. It's tiny airport is on a par with regional airports, like Broome in Western Australia. Waiting in the carpark were a scrum of taxi drivers. Lonely Planet had carried warning about taxi driver muggings and crime in Bolivia and advised only take official airport cabs (a common enough warning in South America). Yet none of the 'cabs' here looked remotely like a real cab. They were a motley assortment of regular cars, some of which had the word 'taxi' stuck on their sun visor. A persistent old man with missing teeth kept asking us if we wanted a taxi. We tried to shake him as we tried to get money out of an ATM, but he hung onto us like glue. Shelly was very dubious, but as we tried to negotiate with the throng of drivers a security guard from the airport came over and told us the old guy was an official taxi driver and he would vouch for him. Shelly was still dubious as we climbed into the back seat of his beaten up car, but he did not kill or rob us and delivered us safely to our hostel.

The drive from the airport was not particularly auspicious as it took us through the steep but disorderly back streets of Sucre. The roads were dirt and the houses were mud brick. Dogs scrounged through drifts of garbage and all the while the old taxi groaned and wheezed it's way along. I'm pretty sure both the clutch and gearbox were about to give way. Maybe our meagre fare would help towards some much needed repairs.
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Our room at the hostel Casarte Takubamba was a two room suite, with a vast dining room/ kitchenette adjoining a large bedroom and separate bathroom, although the two flights of narrow stairs were a challenge for our bags. We'd booked one night but quickly extended to two.

The owners reassured us the streets outside were safe to walk so we set out into night. We were three blocks from the Plaza Das Armas, which is the main square of every Spanish town. Around the square is the cathedral, government offices, restaurants and bars. Sucres square was rather small, in keeping with the city's regional aspect. The city was named after Antonio Sucre, one of Bolivia's independence leaders, who was born here. Bolivia was the last Spanish possession in South America to obtain independence after revolting against the Spanish in 1826. From there Bolivia's history has been turbulent with civil wars and wars against all of her neighbours, all of which turned out badly for Bolivia. Sucre's anomalous situation as "capital" was the result of a civil war between the conservative landowners in the south, based in Sucre, and the reformists in the north, based in La Paz in 1898. Sucre lost and the government was moved to La Paz, but as a sop to national pride Sucre continued as the 'official' capital but without any government functions.
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After walking the streets we popped into a local bar intent on some traditional Bolivian food. The food they served was pretty average and not helped by the owners choice of music - death metal, played very loud. The table next to us was four elderly Bolivian ladies who seemed unperturbed by the cacophony. We were too tired to care and ate our meals and drank some beers.
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The first rule of altitude sickness is - take it easy. Don't drink alcohol, drink plenty of water and don't overdo things. I'd completely forgotten about the change of altitude from Manaus - virtually sea level - to Sucre - 2810 metres - and paid the price. Two hours after going to bed I awoke with such a pain in my head I though it would explode. It felt literally like my head was being pressed in a vice while two drills were working their way into the back of my skull. My heart was racing and I was very short of breath. I hurried to the fridge and quickly downed 2 litres of water and a couple panadol. For the next few hours I lay very still wondering whether this would be the end of our Bolivian adventure, after all, altitude sickness is serious. It can kill even fit and healthy people and there is no predicting whether you'll be affected or not.

The next morning I felt much better, except for the breathlessness and lethargy, which would never leave us. Shelly was breathless too but otherwise okay. We decided to stick it out in Sucre a few more days to acclimatise.
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We took a local bus out to the cement works on the northern outskirts of the city. The cement works has been mining the soft hills around Sucre since the late 1800s as the soft limey rock makes great cement. As the mine slowly cut away a vast section of hillside, the miners hit a layer of magnesium oxide. The layer was extensive, covering an area almost two kilometres wide. As the magnesium oxide would contaminate the cement, excavations on that particular rock face were stopped. The rock face was now exposed to erosion and weathering and over the next few years observant miners commented to each other about the tracks and footprints that slowly began to appear. Eventually it was realised that the rock face contained a fossilised dinosaur trackway. The sucre trackway is now recognised as the largest set of dinosaur footprints in the world, with over 12000 footprints visible.
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A museum has been built overlooking the trackway and twice a day you can be escorted to the rock face. The guide doesn't really tell you anything informative, but it's impressive to get up close.
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The same forces that exposed the tracks in the first place now threaten to destroy it. Erosion is wearing them away - the rock is very fine and powdery. Things are not helped by the cement works, which continues mining operations only metres from the tracks. The owners are seeking unesco funding to help preserve the trackway, but bureaucratic wheels turn very slow....

The rest of our visit was taken up with searching for a suitable tour company to do the Salt Flats tour. Stories about drunk drivers, unsafe vehicles and food poisoning abound but it seemed that no matter which company you chose it was pretty much pot luck. If your driver was a psycho, you were in for three days of hell - if you survived that is. We ended up choosing Gisele Tours out of Uyuni, but first we had to get to Uyuni and that's another story.
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Posted by paulymx 06:23 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Amazon

We signed up for a 3 day / 2 night Amazon tour through Gero Tours. They do longer tours with options to sleep or trek deep in the jungle, but that seemed a bit extreme for us. Two nights without a warm shower is about our limit these days.
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We were picked up at 8.30 and driven to the new port a little out of town. There we took a fast boat across the Negro River to the Amazon. There is an interesting effect when the waters of the rivers meet - the black water of the Negro river and the muddy, sediment filled Amazon waters have different Ph, temperature and composition, and do not merge together but flow in parallel for several hundred kilometres.
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Across the river we were driven by ubiquitous VW kombi 80kms on some very dicey roads until we reached a little landing and transferred to canoe, which whisked us across a lake to our lodge.
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The lodge was very basic and somewhat ramshackle, but then this is the Amazon. We were served a generous lunch and had two hours to kill before we set out on our first expedition.

Our guide was Antonio, a tall, funny native of Guyana who regaled us with tales from his interesting life. He'd worked in mines in Guyana and had been a diver for a diamond mine before a serious bout of malaria ended his career. He then got into tourism and freelances his guiding services. I have never met anyone with either a better sense of balance or sharper eyes.
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We set out by canoe (long tailed boat) to look for wildlife. It was the wet season and the river was rising. Here the water levels can fluctuate by as much as 30 metres. Stains on the trees and buildings revealed the high water mark. We cruised through the flooded forest and saw numerous birds, a howler monkey, a porcupine and spider monkeys, along with ferns, orchids and bromeliads. Unfortunately the plants and animals mainly live in the tree tops making it quite difficult to see and photograph.
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The next morning we started early and popped in to visit a local settlement.
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When I think of the people of the Amazon I think of AmerIndian tribes with bowl hair cuts, painted faces and feathers, but there was nothing like that. The local people were of mixed heritage but otherwise little different to the Brazilians of Rio or Salvador. Despite the Spartan nature of their houses many had satellite TV, mobile phones and other conveniences. There is some farming here but most people make a living from fishing.
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Throughout the area there were scattered houses and villages. Antonio said there is an influx of settlers in the region as people abandon the city life and return to their traditional lands. Grants and assistance provided by the Lula government has made this option more appealing, but it's still a hard life.
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The first white men to come through the Amazon were Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. They travelled from west to east, coming down via Peru as the Portuguese had blocked the Spanish route along the east coast. The Aguirre expedition is the most famous. Setting out from Iquitos in Peru they were looking for the fabled city of el Dorado. What they got instead was death from disease and mutiny. Aguirre was not the original leader of the expedition but the leading mutineer. When they finally reached the Atlantic near Belem the survivors seized a ship, declared an independent Peru under the leadership of Aguirre and attempted to attack Spanish Panama. They were defeated and killed of course, but an account of the expedition by a priest provides an interesting insight into life on the Amazon before the conquest. He described passing huge cities that ran for miles along the river, populated by hundreds of thousands of people. There were multi storey buildings, mud thatched and painted white and gold. At least four cities were mentioned. These stories were long thought to be wild fantasy as not a single trace was ever found. But then no white men ventured up the Amazon for almost a century after Aguirre. It's now believed that these cities did exist and the population of Amazonia was once in the millions, which were subsequently wiped out by smallpox and other western diseases. The cities were all built of wood and would have required constant maintenance, without which the buildings would have rotted and been swept away with each years flood leaving no trace.
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There are two films about Aguirre. The first is Aguirre, the Wrath of God by Werner Herzog and starring the crazy German actor, Klaus Kinski. There is a more modern and correct version in Spanish called El Dorado. They're both worth watching.

We finished that day's exploration with piranha fishing. Shelly was dreading this as she doesn't like fishing. In fact this was her first experience of fishing and she got right into it. She caught one. I caught nothing. Antonio and Marco, the captain caught dozens and took home a load for dinner.
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That evening we ventured out for a spot of caiman fishing. Eagle eyed Antonio managed to grab a small one out of the water. He has lightning reflexes. Caimans out here can grow to 6 metres.
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The last day trekked on foot into the jungle. The heat and humidity were stifling, not to mention the swarms of mosquitos that made every step a torment. But it was good to see the forest at close hand. Antonio hauled out an enormous tarantula from an innocuous looking hole in the ground. I'm afraid of spiders and I can tell you I can now recognise a tarantula burrow at 50 paces. There were hundreds of them. Antonio also spotted a couple of poisonous tree frogs. These were so small I could even see them.
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After lunch we set of back to Manaus and civilisation. It was a great tour and we must thank Antonio, our guide. He was excellent.
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On a side note - Werner Herzog obviously did suffer enough with the filming of Aguirre because he returned to the Amazon several years later to film another tale of obsession and madness in the jungle - Fitzcarraldo. After his first lead actor fell seriously ill and had to be evacuated, he called on His crazy friend Klaus Kinski to fill the role. Klaus was crazy bonkers by this stage and the filming was fraught with problems, mainly caused by him. Legend is that some of the native extras asked Herzog if they could kill Kinski for him. Herzog politely declined. Fitzcarraldo is the tale of a rubber baron in Iquitos, Peru who wants to fund the construction of an opera house deep in the jungle (sounds familiar). To fund the construction he sets out to exploit a distant rubber field that can only be reached by carrying a ship over a mountain that divides two rivers. Hero used no special effects. The ship, all 320 tons of it, were manually hauled over a mountain by native labour For Real. The film says a lot about white men in the jungle.
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Posted by paulymx 19:27 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Manaus

Heart of the Amazon

I mentioned before the internet allows you to make rooky mistakes when booking your travels. It also allows companies to lie. We booked a flight through budget airline GOL, from Salvador to Manaus. There were many flights with various stop overs and duration times so we chose one with a single stop in Recife, taking approximately 6 hours. Once we were on the flight however, we found we were on a milk run - Salvador to Recife, change planes, fly to Belem at the mouth of the Amazon, then to Santarem, then to Manaus.

Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon, was once the wealthiest city in Brazil. Manaus' wealth came from the exploitation of rubber. The Latex tree grows naturally in the rainforest and had been used for millennia by the natives. The industrial revolution made rubber a precious commodity and Brazil had a monopoly on rubber production until the late 19th century when a British company managed to smuggle 100 seeds out of the forest and set up a rival plantation in Malaysia. From that point on Manaus' fortunes steadily declined until it became a regional backwater. This was quite a come down as Manaus had been Brazil's wealthiest city up until 1900. Up until the 1980s the city consisted solely of its dilapidated 19th century core and the run down docks, but then it suddenly and unexpectantly boomed as a manufacturing centre. Its population is now 2 million and continuing to expand, which has placed enormous strain on the city's already inadequate infrastructure.

Manaus can only be reached by air or boat as there are no roads through the jungle to link it to the rest of Brazil (although there is now a road running north to Guyana).
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The city's sole tourist sight is its magnificent opera house. Construction started during the Imperial period, lapsed when the Emperor of Portugal was expelled from the country, then restarted under the republic. It was finished in 1894. All materials in its construction were imported from Europe, even the wood for its parquetry floors, as the builders did not want to sully the building with 'native' products.
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We walked down to the old docks, where riverboats still ply their trade up and down the river. The docklands were terribly dilapidated but had restoration potential. The streets were jammed packed with stalls and traders and very lively.
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But Manaus was not a place to linger. Tourists only come here to visit the Amazon and we had a three night Amazon trip ahead.
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Posted by paulymx 16:24 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

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