A Journey Into the Hot and Hotter Brazilian Amazon

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008

You need a very good reason to jump into a river swarming with piranhas, caimans, dogfish, stingrays, water snakes and electric eels.

Heat was mine.

"If I told you everything that was in the water," said guide Josh La Cruz, providing a short list of the notorious creatures populating the waterways of the Brazilian Amazon, "you'd never go swimming."

With temperatures nearing 100 degrees and humidity close to 90 percent, I opted to ignore the river's wildlife rap sheet. At that moment, boiling and sticky, I needed a dunk. So I plunged in and just as quickly scrambled out, not wishing to tempt fate. The South American sun had not driven me totally daft; I still had my fingers, toes and wits.

Brazil comprises 60 percent of the 1.4 billion-acre Amazon rain forest, and the hothouse jungle is stuck in terminal summer. "We have three seasons: hot, hotter and hell," said Joyce Fernandes, a tour guide at the Amazon Theatre in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in northwest Brazil.

I visited during "hotter," toward the end of dry season (November), when the air resembles a sauna with heat lamps cranked to high. In "hell" (August through September), it probably feels as if you're dressed in woolens and stuffed in an oven.

Of course, I'm not complaining. I soak up the sun like black asphalt and deplore weather that requires an outer layer. I prefer to roast, hate to shiver. Moreover, I can easily keep my internal thermometer in check if distracted by pink dolphins, piranha fishing, rain forest hikes and, yes, river dousings.

Most explorers start their Amazon journey in Manaus, a steamy city that offers easy access to lodges sandwiched between the jungle and the river. Visitors usually spare only a day or two for Manaus before heading deep into nature.

The Manaus of today is a gritty, chaotic mess, a disheartening decline from its former self as a high-culture outpost for Europeans who migrated here to profit from rubber trees. The boom started in the late 19th century and crashed soon after, when the industry shifted to Asia. But during that short heyday, the Old Worlders did their best to keep up with the arts.

The Amazon Theatre is the city's diva and the last shimmer of that long-gone golden age. Completed in 1896, the neoclassical building is pastel pink and topped with a tiled dome painted the colors of the Brazilian flag (green, blue, yellow). Most of the materials, inside and out, came from Europe: marble and glass from Italy, Louis XV-style furnishings from France, metal from Scotland decorating the staircase. A two-room museum upstairs displays artifacts that are decidedly European, including English porcelain spittoons. Even the first performance, Italy's "La Gioconda," was an import. However, the opera house is not completely bare of Amazonian accouterments. The wood for the puzzle-piece floors, for example, was harvested in Brazil, and the costumes for Wagner's "Ring" cycle were made in Manaus.

"Other than the rain forest," Fernandes said, "the most important postcard is this place."

In the early years, the windows were flung wide open to let in the breeze. In the 1970s, air conditioning was installed, but for some reason it was not turned on during our half-hour tour.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company