Adventure in the AMAZON

On an ecotour of Brazil's watery jungle, there were piranhas to be caught, grubs to be eaten and gators to be tracked.

June 05, 2005|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | By Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Perhaps I'd seen too much James Bond or watched too many National Geographic specials, but I expected the piranhas circling our fishing boat to thrash at the bait, not nip it off the hook to avoid being reeled in.

I was fishing deep in the Amazon, being schooled by flesh-eating fish.

The piranhas were hungry. For three hours, they had feasted on our bait of raw chicken. But they weren't brutish. They had nimbly picked the meat clean off my hooks. As storm clouds gathered overhead and lightning crackled in the distance, time to catch one was running out.

When I felt a slight tug on my line, I responded with the gentlest of jerks. Our guide had recommended this course of action, and next I followed the rest of his advice. Hand over hand, I pulled in the line. It felt heavy, but so had that sunken tree branch I had snagged earlier.

Then the water churned. I could reel in the line, but only with resistance. A narrow head emerged, and the piranha whipped its tail and wriggled. Soon, the fish dangled from my line, out of the water and then over the boat.

"Do you want to hold it?" the guide asked.

Our tour of the Amazon consisted of such hands-on experiences. During three days in the vast, watery jungle in December, my wife and I learned how to climb trees without branches, survive on worms that had burrowed in wild nuts and hunt alligators at night. We also saw an orange sun rise over the Amazon and learned to turn bamboo into huts.

It was all thanks to an increasingly popular kind of interactive travel.

Ecotourism can range from rain-forest hikes in Costa Rica to dog sledding in Norway, from watching wildebeests on an African safari to swimming in an Australian desert oasis.

The idea behind such trips is to be environmentally friendly and culturally sensitive. The International Ecotourism Society, based in Washington, says this type of travel amounts to 1 percent of the $5.5 trillion annual travel market, but it's the fastest-growing segment, with receipts increasing more than 20 percent per year.

"People are looking for more experiential tourism," said Laura Ell, membership director of the society, which has 800 members in more than 80 countries. "They want a unique experience. They want to do that safari. They want to see that rare bird. They want to go mountain biking."

My wife, Sumathi, and I wanted to see the Amazon. There are several ways to see the 2.7 million-square-mile tropical rain forest, from the comfort of a luxury hotel to the adventurousness of a river cruise. We aimed for the ecotourism middle ground, a lodge providing three meals a day with guided excursions into the wilderness.

The Brazilian Amazon boasts more than 40 lodges, according to the Brazilian tourism agency, and their numbers are growing. Ours, Juma Lodge, was recommended and booked by a travel agent.

Established about six years ago, Juma bills itself as the lodge deepest in the Amazon. To get there, we flew from Sao Paulo to Manaus, a city of 2 million residents that is the main gateway to the interior.

From our Manaus hotel the next morning, we took a boat, a bus and finally another boat -- all arranged by the lodge -- across the jungle's shimmering lakes, over a lush island and along its winding rivers. The half-day trip -- 60 miles into the forest from Manaus -- offered its share of sights, from alligators resting on sandy shorelines to dolphins tumbling out of dark waters to macaws, toucans and other birds soaring overhead.

Arriving at the lodge, we met another Amazon resident. As we sipped a welcoming drink of fresh-squeezed orange juice, one of Juma's domesticated monkeys introduced himself.

The monkey, Joel, walked up to the mosquito netting surrounding the open-air hospitality bungalow, stretched and yawned. Sumathi never summoned the courage to draw near to Joel, let alone play with him. That was partly because he stole both sets of room keys from some New Zealand tourists earlier in the week.

It didn't help when Joel briefly fought with the lodge's two other pets, a pair of woolly monkeys that, it turned out, were fiercely protective of each other.

Following the lead of Juma Lodge's staff, however, I welcomed his climbing all over me. He was a happy-go-lucky, if persistent, play partner. While he took a hat, he never snatched my glasses.

'Floating forest'

The lodge was far from an urbane escape. To avoid flooding during the rainy season, its thatched-roof cabanas and bungalows stand amid the treetops on wooden stilts rising as much as 60 feet above the ground. Walking between the huts means traversing walkways whose wooden planks sway and shake.

Alligators inhabit the shoreline below the most scenic cabanas -- the ones with river views. Guests on tours of the rain forest have chanced upon jaguars. Strong insect repellent was a must. It was hot and humid. Air conditioning? Forget about it.

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