Treetop rooms set Ariau apart

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MANAUS, Brazil -- In South America, there is no shortage of Amazon lodges, but what sets the Ariau Amazon Towers apart from the rest is that it is built in the treetops.

The hotel's 260 rooms are housed in seven towers, linked by wooden catwalks, high in the jungle canopy in the heart of the Brazilian jungle.

Catwalk bridges through the trees connect the accommodations and public areas.

"People told me they wanted to come to the Amazon, but they were afraid to walk in the forest," said the resort's owner, Francisco Ritta.

"At Ariau, you can walk for more than three miles and never touch the ground."

The Ariau is not for every client; however, those who want to get closer to nature will love this jungle hideaway.

Ritta credits the late marine explorer Jacques Cousteau with having given him the idea to open the hotel, which debuted with 60 rooms in 1986, to provide a jungle spot for people to commune with nature.

"Tourists come here intending to stay one or two nights," Ritta said, "but they end up staying longer -- and they keep coming back."

Like Tibet a few years back, the Amazon has become something of a trendy destination for the rich and famous.

Compaq, Sony, Visa and IBM are among the companies that have held meetings at Ariau, and the hotel has hosted its fair share of celebrities, including Martha Stewart, Susan Sarandon, Sweden's royal family and Bill Gates, who occupied the Cosmic Suite, fitted out with computer, fax, big-screen TV and video games.

Most clients, however, will have to be satisfied with rooms that are as cramped and dark as tombs.

They will also have to learn to enjoy a cold-water shower and be prepared to read by the light of a bare fluorescent bulb.

Although Ariau may seem spartan, it is downright luxurious when compared with some jungle lodges, for Ariau has electricity and air-conditioning -- though minimal -- that is welcome after a long, sweaty day in the bush.

Do warn clients to heed signs advising them to keep their doors locked at all times, for indeed, marauding monkeys are apt to break in and trash the place.

Another item of note is the meals, which are served buffet-style, often lukewarm, and are most often uninteresting: chicken, freshly caught fish (including toothy piranha) and some sort of meat.

But who cares about rooms and food, for guests don't come to Ariau to soak up the resort atmosphere.

They come because they want to explore the most magnificent ecosystem on the planet, and Ariau offers a multitude of ways to do just that.

"We can provide you with just about any sort of jungle experience," said Michael Kartwright, Ariau's chief guide, who pointed out that, among other things, guests can:

  • Canoe down the river at dawn, when they're apt to spot sloths hanging from trees and a variety of colorful birds.
  • Visit a family of ribeirinhos (river people), who carve farms from the jungle to grow manioc, the starchy staple of Amazon cuisine.
  • Hike through the jungle and discover the Amazon's wealth of animal and plant life.
  • Go on a nighttime hunt by boat for caimans (crocodiles) or tarantulas.
  • Try to hook a piranha before one catches you.
  • Witness a torch-lighted ritual performed by body-painted Indians.
  • If you get a couple of these once-in-a-lifetime adventures under your belt, it's easy to overlook Ariau's flaws, which include plastic vines festooning public areas -- real ones attract snakes, Ritta explained; a pyramid filled with crystals for New Age meditators; a mini-zoo where a margay prowls his tiny cage and parrots squawk to be set free, and walkway feeding dishes that encourage monkeys to swoop down from trees.

    Sure, it's kitschy, but it's these sorts of contrasts that give Ariau its frontier color.

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