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Once in a while, if you are lucky, you go on a trip somewhere and your life is changed for the better. That's what happened to me on a recent trip to the Amazon. I've tried to ignore Mother Nature most of my life, preferring to study what humans have done to make the world a better place. Whenever possible, I've concentrated on art, architecture, or other of mankind's achievements in every field imaginable. And though I can appreciate natural beauty in passing, it took the magnificence of the Amazon to convince me really to pay attention to the Earth and its bounties once again.

The Amazon region is about the size of the contiguous 48 US states, and the river itself is the world's largest. It's 11 times bigger than the Mississippi and is 250 miles wide at its mouth. The figures are impressive: 500 kinds of trees, 3,000 species of fish, 1,500 species of birds -- it would take a book to list every superlative. If this display of nature's splendor doesn't grab you, nothing will.

Cruising the Amazon

You can trek jungle trails for a long time and see just a sliver of life along the Amazon, but I believe you can see much more, and do a lot more, by taking a cruise, using a boat as a hotel and making daily excursions into the rain forest. Until recently, you had to put up with fairly primitive accommodations on Amazon river boats, but since May of 2005, you can sleep in a luxurious air-conditioned cabin and enjoy the amenities of a deluxe cruise ship, thanks to the Spanish tourism giant, Iberostar (www.iberostar.com).

Last year, the firm began cruises from Manaus on the Iberostar Grand Amazon, a 2,100-ton ship with a staff of 60 plus, 74 cabins, two restaurants and bars, two swimming pools, theater, gift shop, elevator between its five decks, and cabins with bathroom, TV, phone, mini bar, balcony and more. (The bathroom outlets are for 127 volts, near enough to most 110-volt appliances to work well without a transformer.)

Its price structure, furthermore, is all-inclusive, so that the outstanding excursions, theater performances and lectures are part of the deal, as well as all meals, snacks and beverages. You can keep busy from six in the morning with a sunrise bird watching trip until one the next morning or at the discotheque if you have enough stamina. Helpful and informative lectures on the birds, fish, reptiles and geology of the Amazon Basin are given by the guides in whatever languages are necessary for the guests on board. Veteran guide James is an authority on every aspect of the Amazon, having his own company, the St. James Sport Fishing & Expeditions Travel Agency in Manaus (tel. 92/9985-2319; e-mail: stjamesamazon@hotmail.com).

The ship offers two types of itineraries, one being a four-day trip up the River Negro, the other a three-day journey along the Solimoes and Amazon rivers. You can combine the two for a seven-day journey, as well. Price per person in a cabin for two for the four-day trip ranges from $983 to $1,192. For the three-day trip, the price range is from $743 to $899 and for the combined trip (seven days), prices range from $1,705 to $2,070. Those work out to about $248 to $298 per person per day, everything included. The suites cost from $1,258 to $2,908, depending on trip taken.

At all meals on board the Grand Amazon, you have a choice of an extensive buffet, and at dinner, an a la carte menu as well. The chef offers many local fish dishes, such as the fruit-eating Tambaqui, the Pirarucu, Dourada and Bass. The wines are usually Spanish or Chilean, the service excellent.

The Amazon is More Than One River

The two rivers that merge at Manaus to create the mighty Amazon offer quite different perspectives, the Negro less developed and sparsely populated, the Solimoes and Amazon busier and livelier. The Negro ("black") appears darker in color (and certainly is black in satellite photos from space), the Solimoes muddier and brown (ditto in satellite shots). There were fewer palm trees on the Negro than on the Solimoes, for instance. On the Rio Negro trip, you travel 180 km, as far as Rio Puduari, stopping at five other places on the round-trip from Manaus. During the Solimoes/Amazon cruise, you travel 232 nautical miles, as far west on the Solimoes as Lake Manacapuru, as far east on the Amazon as the Lago do Rei (Lake of the King). If you take both cruises, you'll cover 465 nautical miles (535 ground miles). On the Solimoes, you will see many tiny plots of land carved out of the jungle for raising vegetables and grazing cows, something you won't see (yet) on the Negro. On the Solimoes, too, you'll see huge sections of pipe stacked up, about to go underground (and under a lake at places) to bring natural gas east to Manaus from Coari, expected to be ready by 2008.

Magnificent Expeditions

Use the Grand Amazon as a floating hotel, and take advantage of the several excursions offered each day, from bird watching at sunrise to alligator spotting after dinner. Highlights are the morning and afternoon expeditions, where you have choices of hiking in the jungle, fishing for piranha, visiting an indigenous village, seeing pink dolphins, or bird and animal watching from one of the ship's six speedy motorboats. Each trip takes about three hours except the early morning and late night excursions, which last around 60 to 90 minutes each. On every motorboat (with twin 90 hp Johnson outboards) are a local pilot and a local guide, and life vests are a must for everyone.

Each of the guides (the ship prefers to call them Expedition Team Members) is a local young man, usually from an indigenous tribe, each trained in the area's history, flora, fauna and geology, each speaking Portuguese, Spanish and English, some speaking other European languages as well (German, French, Italian, etc.) One guide, Jefferson, is said to be fluent in nine languages. The managers who trained them are no slouches at languages, either. Jort Buning, the experienced and genial General Manager, speaks five, as does his veteran Amazon expert and deputy, Winfried August. The captain and his deputy, you'll be glad to know, are also locals, well versed in the vagaries of the Amazon, the Negro and the Solimoes and their many tributaries and inlets.

Hiking

My ship offered one or more hiking excursions a day, and you should take up the offer at least once. You motorboat to terra firma, then hike for just under two hours, including time spent watching survival demonstrations. Along the way, your guides show six or seven tricks of the jungle, one or two familiar to anyone reading the Boy Scout Manual, such as making a fire with no lighter or matches, but others quite different. Our guide, Piro, demonstrated making a hammock from palm leaves, a shelter from what we dubbed a local "miracle tree" (the seemingly solid wood disintegrates into strips when shaken roughly), and heating latex from a rubber tree on a leaf until it coagulated. It soon became apparent why every guide said "Never go into the jungle without a machete," as a sharp knife seemed to solve most problems immediately.

Motorboat Tours

As fascinating as hiking may be, I believe you see more from the boat tours, since you don't have to spend every walking moment focused on your feet, avoiding the tangle of roots, vines and debris that is the jungle floor. In the Grand Amazon utility boats, you cruise slowly through fields of floating grass, right up to shorelines and into narrow inlets between the tops of partially-sunken trees, with bursts of speed between far-flung destinations.

Gliding through the sunken forest that lines the Amazon after the rainy season (roughly December to May), it is possible to spot dozens of species of birds and animals which are forced to use only the tops of trees instead of their entire structures. The difference between high water and low water can be as much as 15 meters (over 49 feet!), and in 2005 the entire Amazon Basin suffered a near drought, several sailings of the Grand Amazon being canceled due to low water. 2006 looks good, however, following an adequate rainy season this year.

Among the birds spotted were parrots, macaws, ducks, vultures, toucans, hawks, kingfishers, egrets, ospreys, herons, cormorants, owls, anhingas, crested oropendola and more. Animals and insects seen included plenty of monkeys (mostly the macaques), a nervous sloth (it moved three times during the ten minutes we watched it), a school of porpoises, white and yellow butterflies and a swarm of dragonflies, which hovered around us like so many tiny helicopters. There were termite nests in the treetops, too. I especially liked the kapok tree, its red bundles of fiber hanging like so many ornaments on a Christmas fir. Later in the year the pods will burst open and the air will be filled with floating kapok strands. One surprise was the absence of flowers, only a few small, yellow or white ones poking their heads up occasionally.

During a pitch-dark night boat excursion to spot alligators, you can be thankful the Iberostar people hire local pilots and guides, who can navigate by the stars and their own knowledge of the islands and shoreline. Some of them, the deputy manager said, have been driving boats around the area since they were five years old. Although their job descriptions calls only for them to shine a powerful flood light onto alligators when found, some have jumped into the water and wrestled with small gators to bring them back to the boat. On one such expedition, our brave guide Samuel caught two gators, one about four feet long, the other three feet, and brought them back to the boat, one in each hand, the flashlight in his mouth.

Lodges

If you prefer to stay in one place, you should consider one of the Amazon lodges, such as those listed in our excellent Frommer's Brazil. Though the author of the Amazon chapter therein dislikes the Ariau Amazon Towers (tel. 92/2121-5000; www.ariau.tur.br; e-mail: info@ariautowers.com), and it certainly is no bargain, I have to mention that I spotted a dozen monkeys and nearly as many birds in its immediate vicinity on a brief boat ride through the precincts. Local guides said celebrities such as Jimmy Carter, Barbara Streisand and Bill Gates, Jr. have stayed here.

Manaus Sights

A rich city of 200,000 during the rubber boom of the late 19th century, Manaus today has 1.8 million inhabitants. Its activities include industries in a tax-free zone, making it a good place to shop for designer labels (maybe some of them are genuine), local handicrafts and jewelry.

The center of Manaus is its pride and joy, the Opera House, officially named the Teatro Amazonas. Built in 1896 in the heady days of the rubber boom, everything used in its construction came from Europe, some Brazilian wood even being sent to Europe for treating, then returned for the theater. It fell into disuse between 1926 and 1996, but has been refurbished and is now the site of many concerts throughout the year. (An Amazonas Jazz Festival was going on while I was in town.) There are only 700 seats, 250 of them in the orchestra, the rest in boxes, each for five persons, in the three balconies. The velour covering the chairs and drapes, etc. is in fine condition, the building now having air conditioning and being cleaned daily, they say. I liked the Noble Room, boasting a floor of 12,000 pieces of wood, which were hand worked in Europe before installation here. You can see the interior only on a tour, which costs R$10 (about US$5), and they don't raise the lights for you, so prepare for some disappointment in the gloomy theater. There's a small coffee bar at the exit.

Manaus Lodging

If you like luxury hotels, the place to stay here is the Tropical (tel. 92/3659-5000; www.tropicalhotel.com.br; e-mail: reservas.manaus@tropicalhotel.com.br; Av. Coronel Teixeira 1320, Manaus), where you have a choice of their newer Tropical Manaus Business Hotel or the Tropical Manaus itself. The Business Hotel is a sleek tower of 16 floors, with a surprisingly small lobby but a passable restaurant, a fitness center with sauna, and a big, "infinity" edged pool. Its 220 rooms are fairly big, too, and range from R$389 (about US$195) for a double according to the rack rate sheet, but from R$242, (about US$121) on the hotel's website. Breakfast is included and a buffet lunch runs R$60 (about US$30). At the Tropical itself, the rooms are more traditional and facilities include cyber cafe, pool, zoo, coffee shop and more.

You can get a much better deal and be right across the street from the Opera House in the center of everything by staying at the Manaos Hotel (tel. 92/633-5744; Av. Eduorado Ribiero 881, Manaus), where a double room goes for R$159 (about US$80) and up. There's a cozy restaurant, a nice lobby for people watching, and the usual facilities of a first-class hotel (like laundry), and room amenities (phone, air conditioning, mini bar, TV, etc.).

Manaus Dining Out

Be sure to try some local fish here, such as pirarucu. One delicious dish is pirarucu de Casaca, which includes bananas, raisins, prunes, eggs, olives, green peppers, onions and olive oil, baked in the oven.

A good place to eat near the Opera House is the open-air Ki Tempero (tel. 3633-3957; Av. Getullio Vargas 715, just across the street from the big Beneficente Hospital), where a big dish of local dourado fish goes from R$17.90 (about US$9) per person, the cod-like pirarucu from R$19.90 (about US$10) per person. But if there are two of you, order the same fish and the price for two is R$22.90 and R$24 (US$11.50 and US$12), respectively, working out to just R$11.50 or R$12 each (about US$5.75 or US$6). A big bottle (680 ml.) of tasty local Skol beer costs R$3 (US$1.50). Live music many days at lunch and dinner, and the novelty perhaps of the band's car parked right in the restaurant, as on the day I had lunch recently.

For just a snack, and a chance to use their computer, check out the Amazonas EcoShop (tel. 92/3633-3569; www.ecoshop.com.br; Rua 10 de Julho 509a, Manaus), across the street from one side of the Opera House. Grilled sandwiches (cheese at R$5, US$2.50), fresh juices, beer R$2.50, US$1.25), desserts, ice cream etc., a small bottle of mineral water costing R$1.50 (US 75 cents), for example. Computer use starts at R$10 (US$5) for half an hour. You can also buy local handcrafted items here.

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