XAPURI, BRAZIL, DEC. 12 -- The victim was an international hero of the environmental movement. The accused mastermind of his murder is purportedly a sexual superman. And so as the heralded trial approached, this tiny town (pop. 6,000) at a bend of the muddy Acre River worked itself into a frenzy of anticipation. It was ready for prime time.

A house had been spruced up for Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was sure to come. As for journalists, those camera-toting, Bic-pen-brandishing oddities, they would surely descend in the thousands; accommodations were arranged. Even the Prince of Wales was expected to attend the trial of the accused shotgun slayers of Chico Mendes, the ecologist and labor organizer who brought worldwide attention to the destruction of the Amazon rain forests.

The expectations proved to be a bit inflated.

No princes made the trip, and a trio of Brasilia-based diplomats -- from Britain, the United States and Sweden -- seem to be the nearest anyone can find to international observers. The Brazilian president decided he would be represented by the camera-loving chief of the federal police, who isn't even staying overnight in Xapuri, but instead flies each evening to more comfortable lodgings in the state capital of Rio Branco, more than 100 miles away. As for reporters, a couple of hundred have shown up -- but until the trial started today, with a bombshell confession to liven things up, they spent a distressing amount of time interviewing each other. {See related story on Page A33.}

But it still adds up to the biggest thing to happen to Xapuri since the rubber boom of the Second World War, when soaring demand turned the rubber trees scattered through the dense surrounding forest into shining pylons of gold.

Xapuri made itself ready. Curbs were given a fresh coat of whitewash. Workers laboriously chopped the weeds from between the cobblestones of the streets. And Ronaldo Pereira loaded up his pickup truck and drove 50 miles from the town of Brasileia to make pizza for the invading hordes.

Pereira and his family were putting up their pizza stall yesterday, just across the street from the courthouse where Mendes' accused killers, Darly Alves da Silva and his son Darcy, are being tried. It had already become dismayingly apparent that the time had come to lower one's expectations.

"Aaah, I guess we're taking a gamble," Pereira said. "We'll see how it works out."

Everybody in town looked for an angle, and most people found one. Mendes' widow, Ilzamar, has the only Xerox machine in town and is charging 70 cents a page. Restaurants will stay open as late as you like, although all serve the same meal of rice, beans and meat. Residents eagerly turned their homes into rooming houses.

Others made the journey to Xapuri to march their causes across the world's stage. A politician named Zamir Teixeira hit on the idea that each representative of the press should plant a rubber tree or a Brazil nut tree (the journalist's choice) at selected planting sites near town; his exhibit near the courthouse is called, in English, the "Show-Room of Trees for the World Press Tree Nursery." Teixeira has a way with names: The project is named in honor of his sons, Kenedy and Onasis.

There is a display of paintings in honor of Mendes and his causes -- the destruction of the Amazon forests and the plight of rural workers, especially rubber tappers. One shows Mendes as a rubber tree, bleeding from V-shaped cuts in his abdomen like the cuts a tapper makes in a rubber tree. Almost incidentally, he is releasing a dove of peace with his right hand.

Everyone has a story about getting here from the staging point of Rio Branco, the nearest city of any size. Almost all involve cars that got stuck in the mud of the so-called road that approaches Xapuri.

Xapuri is a 50-square-block grid of pastel-colored wooden houses on low stilts, a place where the stores along the one commercial strip sell a bizarre mix of the essential and the absurd, camp stoves and broom handles vying for space with plastic floral arrangements.

It's a place that brings home the McLuhanesque reality that however remote a place may be, it is still tuned in to the global wavelength. Teenage girls walk around in Tom Cruise T-shirts. During a visit to Mendes' grave site, the soundtrack was provided by a boom box across the way playing "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman."

It's a surrealistic place, one out of Garcia-Marquez. A big, bright, shiny red firetruck was brought in for the trial, to perform some function yet unspecified. Xapuri had never seen such a firetruck. The crew has been driving the thing through the streets day and night, lights flashing but without siren, cruising up and down the potholed lanes to stop for a while here, a while there, and then to move on. It is like a character in an existential film. One turns the corner and there is the firetruck, coming from nowhere, heading wherever.

Darly Alves da Silva, the 56-year-old rancher accused of being the mastermind behind Mendes' killing, is a wiry, wizened little man with thinning hair and bad teeth. But he is said to be irresistible to women. On his ranch near here he lived not only with his legal wife, but with three other women who were his lovers. He has fathered some 30 children, by most estimates, and claims never to have gone without sex for more than 10 hours -- until he had the misfortune to be arrested.

Respected Brazilian newspapers have carried accounts of Darly's sex life, quoting his common-law wives ("In bed, he is like a donkey," said newest wife Margarete) and Darly's own denial that he relies on a specially concocted aphrodisiac for his prowess. There is hype and weirdness in Xapuri this week, but there is also passion and commitment.

Joarei Raimundo de Souza is one of the rubber tappers whose vanishing lifestyle Mendes fought to preserve. De Souza, like dozens of other tappers, decided that if a trial were to be held, he had to be here. So he walked 15 hours from his camp in the middle of the rain forest and waited until a truck came past that would take him to Xapuri.

De Souza doesn't know his neighbors in the bush -- "I don't mix with anybody" -- and doesn't care much about politics. But he knows whom he trusts and whom he doesn't.

"Whatever forest we have left to work in," he said, "we owe to the sacrifice of Chico Mendes."