Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Forbes.com
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.forbes.com/fyi/1997/0310/092.html

The Jungle Booking

Patrick Tierney

Brazil's 205-room Ariaú Hotel may be the world's only accommodations set amid the wild flowers, birds and monkeys of the rain-forest canopy

The way to Tarzan's house was a wooden catwalk 60 feet high that angled through the jungle canopy, with trees growing through the floorboards and lianas draping themselves all around. Well-camouflauged crocodilians hunted in the flooded forest below, and a procession of brilliantly colored parrots was arriving for their dinner—at the hotel's expense, of course. I passed a menagerie of friendly monkeys, one of whom jumped on my back and began grooming my hair while another tried to relieve me of my watch. Finally, I went up a staircase that spiraled around a huge mahogany tree and found myself on a 90-foot-high platform snugly fit between branches looking over the Amazon's thousand shades of green.

Tarzan's house is one perch in the world's largest treetop resort. With seven cylindrical towers and two lookout towers rising to 130 feet, and three miles of catwalks connecting them through the multilayered mazeway of the rain forest, Brazil's Ariaú Hotel dwarfs the more famous tree lodges of Kenya and California. The genius of the place is that you can experience the jungle far better up in the canopy—where most of the birds, monkeys and flowers are—than stumbling around on the ground.

According to the hotel's foundation myth, it was all Jacques Cousteau's idea. "One day the eyes of the whole world will be on the Amazon," Cousteau supposedly told a wealthy Brazilian lawyer, Francisco Ritta, in 1982. "If you build a hotel up in the trees, people will come."

Cousteau's prophecy must have sounded as otherworldly as the voices in Field Of Dreams advising an Iowa farmer to construct a baseball park in his cornfield. Back in 1982 Brazil had a military dictatorship and the world's most mountainous foreign debt. The only ones interested in the Amazon were illegal goldminers bent on gutting the place. But, like the Iowa farmer, Ritta had faith. He also had 1.7 million acres of land which promised to become immensely valuable if ecotourism boomed.

So he built it.

And they have come—to what is now a 205-room resort. Recent guests include Kevin Costner (who played the farmer in Field Of Dreams ) and other stars for whom the lodge has become, like Iguazú and Angel Falls, an obligatory part of The Great South American Tour. Some of the suites are named after celebrities; others for heads of state. (The overachieving Helmut Kohl left a legacy of both a suite and a boat.) I started off humbly, going from the gleaming mahogany floors of the reception room over trapezelike paths to the most remote tower. "This is where the not-so-famous people stay," my guide said. "Maybe you can get a room named after yourself."

My room was a small, pie-shaped wedge, simple enough to fit into a monastery or a summer camp. There was no hot water or air-conditioning. But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the room's cozy, tree-house feel. Like the rest of the hotel, it was built of reddish, native hardwoods, which made it pleasantly bright. The manager told me that they hadn't cut down a single tree while erecting the hotel, which accounted for the eccentric turns some of the elevated paths took and for the fact that my porch was enveloped in leaves.

I sat there overlooking a branch of the Rio Negro. At first, not much seemed to be happening. Then I spotted a green-and-yellow caiman—a cousin of the Florida alligator—right below me, waiting for unwary birds. Large pink dolphins surfaced from time to time, coming far out of the water to display their lovely dorsal colors; I could see why the natives believe these beautiful creatures are enchanted women. And it wasn't until I'd been there for an hour that I saw a golden-brown Amazonian hawk, completely still, just a few feet away. I began feeling like another nest owner in the neighborhood, and more relaxed than I'd been in months. I also began wondering if our ancestors made the right choice when they climbed down from the primeval trees to become journalists and stockbrokers.

Those who took that other evolutionary option are the real stars of the resort. Six different species of monkeys live on the premises—including woolly, spider and capuchin. I've trekked for weeks through the rain forest without seeing as many monkeys as I did on any casual stroll around the Ariaú. Like the resident troops of parrots and macaws, these wild monkeys are fed daily. Since their basic needs are met, they've become happy freeloaders who have enough leisure to compete for attention from tourists.

In fact, the Ariaú Tower seems to have turned into a kind of experiment in monkey therapy. On a moonlit night I climbed the highest observation tower and found a man from Oregon blanketed by a troop of woolly monkeys, who were all hugging and grooming him while he kept telling them how much he loved them.

One deck down, a female woolly jumped into my arms. When I put her down, after what I thought was a sufficient display of affection, she threw herself on the floor and...I think this is the right word...blubbered. I was disconcerted and strangely touched.

Near the Ariaú, the Rio Negro expands to a width of 12 miles as the main channel breaks around the Anavilhanas Islands, the world's largest freshwater archipelago. Each island is a miniature ecosystem, with rare plants and animals that scientists are only beginning to catalogue. During the day, the far shore is barely distinguishable. At night, under the moon, the river is a mirror of mercury. In 1996 the Negro flooded to record levels, so I could still see treetops swaying in the current.

Thirty-five miles away, the Negro joins the even larger Solimoes to create the Amazon proper at the city of Manaus. Everyone flies into Manaus, although most visitors spend a night in Rio or Caracas en route. Manaus was originally a Portuguese outpost called Barros—the Muds. When naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace visited poor Barros in the mid-19th century, he observed that it had the lowest standards of morality in civilization. Shortly afterwards, the rubber boom began, and if morals didn't improve they were at least Europeanized. Barros turned into Manaus and the muds turned into marble as the rubber lords built an opera house with golden cherubim. Although Malaysian plantations ruined the Amazonian boom long before synthetic rubber came along, the opera house's angels survived them both. It is a replica of Milan's La Scala, tastefully embellished in tropical baroque. When Pavarotti performed here two years ago, he pronounced that its acoustics were among the world's best.

Today, Manaus is a free port and an export hub. Two hundred assembly plants put together TVs, radios and refrigerators, which Brazilians can buy duty-free. The downtown streets are lined with goods—Nikes, Rockports and Walkmans—sold by sweating peddlers. Prices are flexible, like the port itself, which floats on logs that can rise and fall 40 feet with the river level.

The hotel arranges boat rides to see the point where the black waters of the Negro mingle with the cafe com leite colors of the Solimoes. For a while their colors are suspended, side-by-side, until the inevitable mingling takes place. My river guide, an expatriate Frenchman in his late 40s, spewed out a list of facts about the Amazon—that it has more water than the eight next largest rivers on earth combined, etc.—but spent most of his time bragging about the women in Manaus. "There are seven women for every man," he said. "You have to fight them off." He had just married a 20-year-old himself. "In France everyone gave me dirty looks, but here it is normal, very normal."

From here it was a three-hour ride up the Rio Negro by a double-decker boat to the Ariaú Hotel. The Rio Negro gets its name and color from a high tannin content. Basically, it is a tea leached from the riot of jungle foliage. This, and the absence of rapids, may contribute to the fact that there are very few gnats during the day or mosquitoes at night. It's not just infinitely more comfortable than most Amazonian rivers. There is virtually no malaria transmission around the Ariaú, so you don't have to take the awful prevention pills.

Those anti-malaria pills can also spoil your appetite, which you don't want to lose at the Ariaú. All the breads and desserts are baked on site, and they are superb. A woman next to me rolled her eyes in ecstasy at a pudding made from the tart maracuja fruit. Although the meat and salad dishes were sturdy enough, the fish included such rare species as the man-sized pirarucú , almost impossible to get outside the Amazon. "So fresh, simply wonderful," said a carpenter from Berkeley, who looked guilty, since he was supposed to be vegetarian. Even a stern young German beauty, determined to reform everything in sight—she had spotted a nonrecyclable plastic cup—gave a clear verdict: "The food is better than the Caracas Hilton." Which is not what any of us at all expected in the jungle.

As soon as I arrived at Ariaú I was assigned a guide, Edivan, a lanky, mustached man who was born in the rain forest and managed to share a fair amount of jungle lore in a short time. Like most river dwellers, he was of mixed Portuguese and Indian background. "If I didn't have a family I'd go out and join the Indians," he said. "That's really the life I love."

Edivan woke everyone in my group at 5:30 a.m. for a sunrise boatride. After breakfast we had a morning hike, where we learned which vines gave distilled water in the dry season, how to drink the sap of rubber trees (which is surprisingly sweet) and how to avoid the bite of inch-long ants. The afternoon was for piranha fishing. "The piranha is both very slow and very fast," Edivan explained. "The piranha waits for half an hour and then eats your bait in a split second." Edivan caught a dozen piranhas, which he strung into a necklace. Most of us lost our bait.

Each night ended in a crocodile hunt through the flooded jungle. After negotiating thickets of submerged trees, the motor was shut off and we drifted through leaves and branches. Occasionally, we'd see the orange flashes of crocodile eyes, which disappeared in splashes. Finally, Edivan captured a four-foot crocodilian by grabbing his mouth in a single sweep. The guide in a nearby boat was not so lucky—the crocodile bit into his forearm, and took a chunk of flesh. Although the piranhas must have appreciated the blood, I'm afraid that once the Guide Union is organized, the crocodile hunt will go the way of the Great Buffalo Dance.

Last year the lodge won an award for its work in treating injured animals and reintroducing them into the wild. The trouble is, many of the animals don't want to go back to the wild after they've met the tourists. A freshwater manatee, the largest mammal in the Americas, was one of the recent success stories, although he kept coming back to the main pier trying to bum food. During my stay, the favorites were two ocelot cubs, constantly wrestling. They let me massage them through their wire caging, but when I stepped into their territory the dominant cub hissed and took a swing at me with his two-inch claws. "Nice kitty," I muttered, as I backed out slowly.

Not everyone approves of the Ariaú lodge. One French anthropologist I met in Caracas was indignant about it. "These people think they are doing a great service to the rain forest by going to a resort when their presence alone is causing damage," she said. Maybe. But the presence of all these tourists also does quite a bit of good, employing 80 people from the nearby area—which means they won't have to become gold miners—and converting hundreds of visitors a week to the idea that the rain forest is worth preserving. The experience of nature reserves in Africa and Asia suggests that giant parks won't last without public support. Several guests told me this was one of the most unforgettable experiences of their lives, and that kind of enthusiasm may ultimately do more to save the forests than severe scoldings from scientists.

There are conflicts, of course. Although the original natives on this stretch of the Rio Negro were killed off, enslaved or assimilated long ago, visitors want to see real, live Indians. So the management has obliged by allowing an impoverished remnant of a tribe, the Satura Mawé, to move to a patch of land next to the hotel. "I think giving the Indians their own land is good, but I don't agree with the idea of making them exhibits for the tourists," one of the hotel workers said. The Satura Mawé themselves appeared divided about this whole enterprise. One told me they had decided to call for binding arbitration from a shaman who would rule on the issue from a trance state.

But expect more of these synergies as Amazonian tourism becomes a major industry. The government of Amazonas State, which rules over an area the size of Alaska, is trying to raise $1.5 billion to construct an Amazon theme park along the Anavilhanas, a sort of Disneyland in the wild. Officials project 60,000 new jobs in tourism and a total revenue of several billion dollars a year within a decade.

Keeping it simple is not easy, as I discovered when I moved from my sliver of a room up to the Imperial Suite, where I had a whole top floor with a 360-degree view to myself. The sun went down in red, orange and crimson flames and the moon arose and I was still congratulating myself on my imperial status when a sudden, late winter storm hit. A terrific wind kicked up and the Imperial Suite got soaked. The hammock was blown off its hook and a collection of river rocks and shells went flying across the floor. The lightning was impressive, but I would have preferred curtains.

There are certainly more comfortable lodges in the Amazon. You could ensconce yourself in a new five-star hotel outside Manaus and make the Ariaú a day trip. Or you could select smaller lodges further afield where the trekking is more challenging and the fishing more rewarding. But, like most visitors, I fell in love with the treetop towers. I don't know of another place where you can rise above the canopy and watch comets fizzle across the night sky while being embraced by a woolly monkey.

Patrick Tierney is author of the forthcoming book Last Tribes Of El Dorado: The Gold Wars In The Amazon Rain Forest.