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Escape to the Amazon

NBC’s Kerry Sanders shares the story of his visit to the hotel Ariau Towers and describes what it can offer the traveler who’d like a closer, yet comfortable, look at life on the Amazon.
/ Source: NBC News correspondent

It takes two hours on a slow moving ferry to reach the hotel Ariau Towers. Slow moving, of course, is what an escape to the Amazon is all about. Here, time is not supposed to matter, but sadly when you arrive at the sprawling hotel, 55 miles north of the jungle city Manaus, you learn while you can bury your watch in the side pocket of your luggage, you can’t escape the march of technology.


Comfort in the jungle comes at a price. To escape the humidity and heat, each room is air-conditioned. A wonderful comfort in the steamy jungle, where temperatures hover in the mid-90’s, and where the humidity is so thick, you can slice it with a machette. But to power the cooling flow of an AC, there are generators, and of course generators mean noise. It’s a trade-off: The industrial rhythm in this case competes with the natural symphony the jungle animals offer a visitor who may lie in a hammock to escape their daily life in the urban jungle.

The hotel is popular with tourists, television crews, and movie companies who travel from around the world to the Brazilian Amazon. If you saw the movie “Anaconda,” you may recognize some of the sites around the hotel. The film crew stayed here while making the flick. Luiz Malahaes, our guide says the locals howled when they saw the action adventure movie. To them, “Anaconda” was like a comedy. “Something like a giant snake on a mission to kill people is just not possible,” he says.

Ariau Towers Hotel is a good base camp for the first-time visitor to the Amazon. The hotel is set up to make sure you can relax, while at the same time feel, taste and smell the unique world that exists here. To make sure you won’t leave without seeing some wildlife, the hotel has tamed spider and squirrel monkeys. The almost human animals are happy to hang around as long as you are tossing them a papaya or a banana from the dining room. There are also toucans and macaws on the hotel property to give you the color you’d expect. In a back-room exhibit, you can see a seven-foot long anaconda. My best advice: Use the flashlight to look into the cage as it’s well camofagued and without a light you might not realize how close you really are to the snake when you peer through the wire mesh.

Tourist Debra Morrison, a financial planner from New Jersey, in the Amazon for the first time, says, “I think the discovery of the vastness of what I didn’t know, is humbling and I think the mystery is entrancing. I won’t ever be the same.”

Barbara Porter, a Montessori school teacher says the visit to this place is also a moment of self-examination. She says, “If we don’t know who we are, how are we supposed to get through the world? First we have to figure out who we are, and then we can communicate, and then we can make the world a better place.”

Three and four day tours are most common. There is a two-day, one-night tour package offered, but it’s hardly worth it after traveling so far to get here.

Tour packages include excursions that are certainly worthy of a few rolls of film. One of the most popular experiences: piranha fishing. Yes, the teeth are sharp, and yes, the stories are true: in a feeding frenzy, piranha can strip the meat off the bone of a floundering mammal. But no, you don’t need to fear on your fishing trip a piranha will jump into the canoe and begin chewing on your leg. Fishing for piranha requires a hook, a line, a small piece of red meat, and some courage, as you’ll have to unhook your catch once you have it in the canoe.

Another unusual experience also shares an element of danger: nighttime caiman sighting. Cousin to the alligator, there are several types of caiman here. Hopefully, you won’t see the “Tinga” caiman. Up to 24 feet long and more than 220 pounds, the “Tinga” is the elder statesman of the jungle, but diplomacy is not always his policy. If he’s hungry, “Tinga” takes what he wants, when he wants.

Most likely, your guide will take you to the shallows where baby “Acu” caiman are easy to spot, and for the well trained and the brave, somewhat easy to capture.

Under cover of darkness, a guide spots the caiman’s eyes by shining a bright light on the surface of the still waters. The light reflects back two red dots. You have just spotted a caiman. Your guide, with deft precision, leaps from the boat into waist deep water, grabs the caiman, and wades back to the boat. This is as close to “Crocodile Dundee,” Amazon-style, as you will find here. And it’s just fine thank you!

The cost for a four-day, three-night jungle vacation, comforts included, is $400 per person. Children up to age 12 are half price. Food, which is standard cafeteria fare, is included. The Amazon catfish is worth trying, only to see how such an ugly fish can taste. (Not bad really!) As they say in slang in this part of the rain forest: Ta Bon. Translation: Everything is great!

Kerry Sanders is an NBC News correspondent and frequent contributor to “Today.” If you’d like to find out more about taking a vacation in the Amazon and the tours Kerry describes, you can visit: