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.
I stayed in a suite. I wanted an idea of how luxurious a hotel can get when caimans and vipers live within crawling distance of the hotel bar. For years I have stayed at pricey American hotels during business trips, but the Ariau added a new dimension of grandeur. I was more than 100 feet off the ground in a huge octagonal room decorated with colorful carvings of jungle scenes on every door. I had a bar with four stools, a coat and hat rack, a wood dining room table and a queen-size bed. Through a door with a huge toucan painted on it was a veranda with two hammocks where I could kick back and look down at the treetops.
Most of the hotel's suites are different. Kohl's Presidential Suite comprised two floors of smaller octagonal rooms. The Cosmic Suite, where Gates stayed, has a 360-degree view and a planetarium-like ceiling. And Ariau's honeymoon suite, called Tarzan's House, is a three-story climb to a treehouse with nothing much more than, well, a bed. The standard rooms are smaller, but all come with double beds and a jungle view. As for the weather, it rained briefly each day and temperatures were in the 90s; some rooms have air-conditioning, but those that don't have ceiling fans.
I was given a suggested schedule of various activities, ranging from a sunrise pink dolphin sighting to jungle treks and piranha fishing during the day, along with a visit to an Indian village and a nighttime caiman hunt. For those interested, the hotel's nightclub also rocked to a local Indian band.
The hotel organizes tour groups roughly by nationalities; each group is given a bilingual guide, although mine couldn't quite explain how I got placed with a boatload of Italians. I later changed to a group of American tourists.
One night I got into a motorized canoe, along with 20 other guests, and with two other canoes we all went off caiman hunting. Our guide, Francisco, impressed me by catching a 2-year-old caiman, about 2 feet long. He shined his flashlight on a caiman resting on the shoreline in the weeds, and it froze, blinded by the light, like a deer. Francisco then reached over and pulled it into the boat. He taught us how to hold the caiman gently but firmly behind the neck and around the tail. We passed it up and down the boat, and enough pictures were taken to blind the poor reptile. He said that young caimans don't get agitated when handled, but the guides will not grab the older ones, which is smart, because the creatures grow to 18 feet. The week before my visit a fisherman an hour upriver from the hotel was killed by a caiman when he leaned out of his boat to wash his face.
At night, the wildlife is more abundant and the jungle takes on a dark, quiet, even romantic quality. On our ride back from caiman hunting, Francisco stopped the boat. As we floated quietly toward shore, his powerful flashlight scanned a branch no more than 20 feet above us. On it was the yellow body of a 6-foot pit viper. A few minutes later, he shined his flashlight onto another snake in a tree; it was a surucucu, whose venom some guides fear more than any creature in the jungle.
Meals at the Ariau are served in a huge dining hall. I found the food decent, not great. Breakfasts varied from eggs to muffins, cheese and fruit. Lunch was a little repetitive, with slight variations on a theme of chicken, rice and soup. For dinner there were meat and chicken dishes, with beans and salad. At meals you can buy alcoholic drinks, and the bars also sell beer, wine and hard drinks.
With all the meals included and with activities possible at nearly every hour, there is a certain similarity here to a structured Club Med vacation. But the jungle experience is what makes the Ariau truly different.
For example, consider my piranha fishing trip. As my Italian friends and I went downriver, our guide handed each of us a simple wooden stick with a wire line and a hook. He also gave us a pile of raw meat, which we attached to the hook and dipped in the water near the bank. Then our guide frantically hit the water with his pole.
"They're attracted to splashing," he explained. And within minutes the piranhas were biting. One Italian visitor caught six. A Brazilian caught five. I caught two.
There are dozens of species of piranha; the ones we caught had a black tint to them and weighed less than half a pound. My guide took the first one I caught off the hook, and I handled the second piranha myself by squeezing the jaws very carefully as I removed the hook. Like everybody in the boat, I was afraid of losing a thumb. Piranhas are not as dangerous as their reputation, but I still found them just as mean-looking as I had imagined.
The hotel staff is ready to cut off the piranha jaws and clean them so visitors can take them home. I planned to give mine away as offbeat Christmas stocking stuffers, but unfortunately, they were damaged on the trip home.
As I was leaving I remembered what Francineto Sidou, an Ariau guide, had told me: "There are so many legends about the Amazon. There are so many mosquitoes, you get yellow fever. You can't swim the river because there are so many caimans and anacondas. But it's nice to be part of nature here. We are part of nature."
Sol reminded me of that every morning.
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Getting there: There are no direct flights to Manaus, the city nearest the Ariau Amazon Towers Hotel. From LAX to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a 13-hour flight on Varig Airlines. Some flights are nonstop. You then take a five-hour flight on Varig to Manaus. Round-trip fares start at $1,173. The Ariau hotel picks up guests from Manaus airport; it's a three-hour boat ride to the hotel.
Hotel prices: The Ariau hotel offers various rates, starting at $280 a night per person. A four-day, three-night stay is $375 per person, double occupancy, for a standard room; single supplement, $60. Suites for three days, four nights start at $800 per person, double occupancy. Tower-top suites, with 360-degree views, dining room and exercise facility, are $2,000 for the first night, $1,000 thereafter. Room rates include three meals a day (alcohol is extra), guides, jungle treks and transfers from Manaus.
For more information: The Ariau Amazon Towers Hotel's U.S. sales office is at telephone (888) 462-7428, Internet http://www.ariau amazontowers.com.