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DESTINATION: BRAZIL

Rooms With a Jungle View

Deep in the rain forest is the Ariau Amazon Towers Hotel, an elaborate, luxurious lodging where rooms and catwalks at tree level allow a closer walk with wildlife

May 09, 1999|JOHN HENDERSON | John Henderson is a sportswriter for the Denver Post

AMAZON RAIN FOREST, Brazil — I named her Sol because she was up every morning, peering through my window just like the scorching Brazilian sun, reminding me it was time for room service. I'd get out of bed, walk to the window, take a banana from the fruit bowl on my table and hand it to Sol, a full-grown woolly monkey.

You're not supposed to feed the monkeys at the Ariau Amazon Towers Hotel, but the management underestimates the wave of charity that hits you when staying at one of the most fascinating hotels in the world.

At Ariau they want customers to appreciate the Amazon rain forest and its wildlife. How can you not appreciate a big brown ball of fur with a human-like face looking at you with baleful eyes while hanging onto your window by one claw? How can you not build attachment when an hour later she's down by the lobby, letting you pet her like a house cat?

I spent four days at the hotel in January, living in the lap of luxury only a paddle-stroke from the jungle. I also gained a new appreciation for the Amazon. During my stay I learned how to take a picture of a coatimundi (a raccoon cousin) without losing a lens cap, how to take a hook out of a piranha's mouth without losing my finger and how to hold a caiman (South American crocodile) without losing an arm. All this while staying in rooms built at treetop level in the largest jungle on Earth. The Ariau hotel was built on stilts in the architectural style of the Amazon Indians. The purpose is to protect the structure during high-water season, but one benefit is up-close-and-personal contact with creatures I'd only seen in zoos.

Ariau (an Indian word for potato root, pronounced are-ee-au-OO) attracts visitors from all corners of the globe to its spectacular complex. The hotel consists of nine towers with 210 rooms and 12 suites; the complex is connected by three miles of catwalks high in the trees. Those catwalks are patrolled constantly by a small army of woolly monkeys, coatimundis, spider monkeys and macaws. When I walked out of the dining hall with a banana, I had a procession of primates accompanying me to my room.

In addition, Ariau has two observation towers, two small swimming pools, two restaurants, four bars, two dance floors and two heliports. It all comes at a price: a three-night, four-day package starts at $375 per person, with suites starting at $800 per person for three nights. But three meals a day are included (alcohol is extra), as well as various free excursions into the jungle with a guide.

Obviously the hotel doesn't cater to budget backpackers. During my stay guests ranged in age from their 20s to 70s and were from Argentina, Brazil, Italy and Japan, with a fair number of Americans. Open for 12 years, Ariau has become a hot spot for the environmentally chic and the incredibly wealthy. Bill Gates stayed here. So did former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and actor Kevin Costner. Jimmy Carter stayed here twice.

But this is not a zoo. Ariau, in cooperation with Brazil's environmental agency, has reintroduced Amazon creatures back into a jungle environment after they were confiscated from private homes. Thousands of macaws have been released from the hotel in a project called Aviary of Hope.

On my vacations I like a little adventure, and I had decided to go to Brazil. After checking out the Internet, guidebooks and getting word-of-mouth recommendations, I picked Ariau. But it was not easy to get here. After arriving in Natal, a seaport in northeast Brazil, I took Varig Airlines' Brazilian milk run to Recife, Fortaleza, Sa~o Luis, Belem and then Manaus--a nine-hour trip. Manaus, a river city in northwest Brazil, is a gateway to the Amazon, and even from there the jungle looked intimidating. The Ariau picks up guests at Manaus airport, and a transport guide was waiting when I got off the plane. A short bus ride took me to a hotel where we picked up other Ariau guests. Then, with 25 other passengers I boarded a flat boat for a rainy, three-hour ride northwest on the Rio Negro to the hotel. As we moved upriver, the dark green wave of jungle curved all the way to the horizon.

The Amazon rain forest, while slowly being destroyed, still covers about 2.5 million square miles. Its borders stretch from east-central Brazil to the Peruvian Highlands, from Venezuela to Paraguay. It's home to 15,000 species of wildlife, thousands of which haven't even been classified.

As we arrived at the Ariau hotel, a group of women in red and yellow garb greeted us with dancing to a jungle rhythm (an employee told me they are boated in from Manaus). Just behind the spacious lobby, which overlooks the river, was a sprawling collection of giant wire houses with a smattering of jungle birds, including macaws and toucans; aquariums held fish ranging from catfish to electric eels.

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