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Adventure in the AMAZON

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Meals were a rotation of fresh jungle vegetables, fruits and fish, washed down by freshly squeezed juices and Brazil's traditional rum and sugar cane cocktail, the caipirinha. Among the highlights were chocolate-tasting guava showered in cream, and savory crepes made from a finely ground root called manioc.

The fish we ate was pirarucu, a scaled fish that grows to 10 feet long and 400 pounds. It is highly valued for eating, and so is at risk of being overharvested and could be listed as an endangered species, said Devon Graham, president and scientific director of Project Amazonas, which, among other things, catalogs wildlife in the region.

Our guide for the two to three tours we took each day was Joao da Silva, a squat, muscular 28-year-old born and raised in the Amazon. He was well suited for shepherding tourists through the jungle, having spent a year training Brazilian soldiers how to survive there.

With his hands constantly waving, it was clear he enjoyed imparting the basics about his home. Even after his wife had a baby, Joao stayed an extra day at the lodge to finish giving us the tour.

Joao hopes tourism will help build international support for the rain forest's protection. All of the tours began with a ride on a narrow, wooden boat -- a kind of flat-bottom canoe powered by a small outboard motor -- customarily used by locals to get around.

During our introductory tour, Joao explained that the Amazon is a "floating forest." From December to April, 4.5 feet of rain falls in the area, according to the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency. By the end of the rainy season, much of the dry land is submerged.

We visited at the start of the rainy season. Yet even islands like the one where we decamped for a hike, on our second day in the territory, were already losing ground to the rising waters.

On the hike, Joao demonstrated how to climb a tree without the help of low-lying branches. He strapped me into a harness made of rolled palm leaves. Then he talked me into hopping my way up one tree's bare trunk, using the harness and my feet for support.

When I didn't get very far, Joao generously blamed it on the poor traction afforded by my socks. Farther on, Joao cracked open a large Brazil nut and plucked out a grub. The milky-white wormlike grub thrives on the fruit inside the nut. Joao said humans can survive on grubs, if need be, because they are so nutritious.

"Try it," he said. "It tastes like coconut."

Coconut custard, to be precise.

Holding wildlife

Toward the end of the hike, Joao and our motorboat's driver demonstrated how to build a lean-to out of bamboo branches and leaves. They chopped the bamboo trunks, then arranged them into a frame. Next they laid the leaves, bent in the shape of a fan, across the frame.

By arraying the leaves on top of each other, they created a water-resistant hut.

When we were piranha fishing, Joao demonstrated how to cast a makeshift fly-fishing line and bait the hook as tightly as possible to prevent the fish from nibbling freely.

He recommended ignoring the piranhas' fearsome reputation, saying they didn't whip into a bloodthirsty frenzy unless starved. They prefer fish, not humans, he said.

After he caught an 18-inch-long piranha, Joao showed me how to hold it, behind its gills. The fish didn't bite, although it flapped a little. To further undercut the piranha's carnivorous stereotype, Joao typically encourages visitors to go for a swim after fishing, but we didn't because a storm was approaching.

Despite the driving rain that night, Joao took us out in search of alligators. We sped away in an uncovered boat. Waves buffeted the narrow vessel, shaking us as the rain pelted our cheap ponchos, the drops pitter-pattering against the flimsy plastic.

Joao stood at the prow of the boat, aiming a flashlight at the shoreline hundreds of feet away. He was looking for a pair of eyes, gleaming just above the ground or water's surface.

This required patience. Joao surveyed the coasts of many islands. Several times, using hand signals, he directed the boat's driver to quiet the engine and, eventually, row it toward land. Peeling back branches, Joao jumped out and waded in the waist-high water. Once, an alligator scurried away before Joao came too close.

Returning empty-handed, he beckoned the driver to press onward. An hour into our pursuit, the boat pulled up to an alcove of branches and brush. Joao stepped out again. He concentrated his flashlight on two red eyes illuminated in the thicket. After taking a few steps, he lunged forward. There was a splash, then another. Joao twisted his arm in the froth.

Quickly, he climbed back onto the boat, clutching a baby alligator. It was 18 inches long and surprisingly motionless. Joao held the alligator around its neck and torso, dangling it in front of us.

He separated its jaws to reveal sharp teeth, showed the white membrane that covers its eyes under water and identified it as a 4-month-old boy.

"Anyone want to hold it?" he asked.

I did. Trying to clasp its neck, I fumbled, but the alligator was surprisingly limp and docile. The rain made its bumpy skin feel slick.

Then Joao dropped the alligator back into the water, and we sped away.

With Joao shining his flashlight into the darkness, we searched for more alligators until the rain pounded so heavily the flashlight beam barely reached the shorelines.

At the lodge, I ambled back to our cabana and settled into the hammock. A rainy mist washed over me. Thunder thumped in the distance. Across the river, over the treetops along the horizon, bolts of white lightning streaked. It was nice to feel, listen and watch.

When you go

Getting there: Getting to Juma Lodge required a night's stay in Manaus, Brazil, the gateway to the Amazon. Flights to Manaus from elsewhere in Brazil can cost $1,000, so we bought an air pass, which allowed for multiple flights around the country within 21 days.

Brazil's domestic airlines offer air passes, some of which cost as little as $300. For more information, contact Varig Airlines (800-468-2744; www.varigbrasil.com / english) or Tam Brazilian Airlines (888-235-9826; www.tamairlines.com).

From Manaus, Juma Lodge arranged travel to the lodge, picking us up at our hotel and taking us by motorboat, van and then motorboat again into the interior.

Lodging: Like other jungle lodges in the Amazon, Juma Lodge provided all lodging, food and activities during our trip. We stayed three days and two nights, although the lodge offers packages as long as six days and five nights, which include camping in the jungle. We would like to have stayed at least another day. Lodging prices start at $380 per person. For more information, go to www.jumalodge.com. There are more than 40 lodges in the Amazon, which can be found through guidebooks and Brazilian tourism Web sites.

Preparations: Before traveling, we were vaccinated against yellow fever. Guidebooks warned that authorities check to make sure tourists have received the vaccinations, although we weren't checked. The lodge said it wasn't necessary to take malaria pills -- the surrounding waters were so acidic that few mosquitoes lived there. We didn't take the pills and were fine. We did use suntan lotion and strong insect repellent, mainly to repel flies. A rain poncho was a necessity. Due to the humidity, it was also useful to bring plastic bags for keeping cameras dry and storing wet clothes.

For more information about lodging, touring and other activities in the Amazon, try the Brazilian Tourism Office: 800-727-2945; www.braziltourism.org. Another official Web site is www.embratur.gov .br / en / home / index.asp. -- Jonathan D. Rockoff

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