How really odd Manaus is can best be seen when coming in on the around-midnight flight from São Paulo. Look down out the window and you will see nothing except intense black, maybe a green and red pair of flights if you are sharp-eyed and over a river as a boat goes underneath, maybe the orange of a forest fire if your trip is in the dry season. But generally, there is not a thing to be seen, until suddenly a small bowl of sprinkled lights appears and grows bigger. It's the 2.1 million-strong human habitat that is Manaus: a concrete and asphalt island, totally surrounded by a forest sea. Outside it and you tenuously transport your technology with you and hope the umbilicus survives until you snap back to safety. Inside it and you have everything the 21st century has to offer – for good and for bad. Sometimes, its true, in slightly strange and locally flavored versions, but available nevertheless.
Two degrees from the Equator, Manaus is never cold. But the winds accompanying the rainy season can make it pleasantly cool between December and April. During these months there are daily downpours that contribute to the average total of 20cm of rain
a month. Outside this period and the rainfall is half- to a quarter of that and it'll be several degrees hotter, and the sun will be quite enough to give the unitiated sunstroke after a 2-3 hours.
If you are seeking a rural idyll, with streets graced by Amerindians and horse-drawn carriages, then look elsewhere. This is a thoroughly modern city and any visitors of indigenous origin are probably looking for bargain wristwatches and trying to figure out the relative merits of different cellular phone call plans. What Manaus does is business and luckily for the traveler arriving there, a very large amount of that involves tourism. A large chunk of the rest is catering for the whims and wants of businessmen visiting the light industry zone – the place where a very large amount of Brazil's motorcycles and electrical goods get made. On the other hand, the local people have got to eat, drink and have fun too. And then there's that huge forest and near sea-like river nearby.
The practical upshot of this is that there are a lot of good restaurants, for just about every sized pocked. There are posh bars and dives, there are several fun fares, there are bars with American rock and others with strictly local stars. There are crowded little scrunty places where you fight your way to the bar and others so vast and cool you need a GPS to find a functioning waiter. There are dance-focused pick up joints and others where its all about the cocktails.
The beachfront at Ponta Negra is the big party hangout and fills up hugely at weekends. The dry season is also the low water season, when Rio Negro's cola-coloured waters recede to expose km of beautiful white sand beaches (many with palms behind). The most popular, like Praia de Lua, are served by regular outboard-motered ferry canoes even during weekdays.
Manaus was founded in the late 1660's but really found its economic feet with the rubber boom in the late 19th century. Recent city administrations have realized that their history is worth celebrating and saving, and a number of old rubber-epoch houses have been restored and are used either as public buildings or museums. These are well worth visiting. Once of the best is one of the most remote, the rubber museum (Museo de Seringal, Vila Paraíso) which is on an island some 25 minutes upriver from Manaus, and which recreates what life was like for those who ran the rubber collecting sites as well as for those who collected the gummy gold. There is also a period-restored church and shop. For a swift jungle experience without the agony, there is a low-key and beautifully laid out area at the Bosque da Ciencia, a 20 minute taxi ride from the city centre. Here you can see manatees, giant otters, and river turtles, as well as free ranging macaws, squirrel, spider and saki monkeys and agoutis (a kind of forest guinea pig on stilts). These are also good educational materials and local flavors of ice cream.