Treasures of Amazon wait to be found

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 1994, 12:00am

THE mighty Amazon River conjures up images of adventure and mystery.

Piercing the world's largest rain-forest, the 6,700-kilometre-long river has more than 7,000 tributaries and is the largest moving liquid mass on Earth.

The Amazon's average width of 3.6 km expands to 50 km during the rains and produces one litre of water for each inhabitant of the world every 28 seconds.

European explorers found the Amazon five centuries ago, but only in recent years has it become accessible to tourists seeking one of the most exotic destinations.

Manaus, capital of Amazonas state, is the stepping-off point for a peek into this majestic jungle world.

In the heart of the Amazon, 2,000 km up river, the city - known as the 'Paris of the Jungle' - has a history as exotic as the surrounding rain-forest.

Founded in 1669 as a trading post, it generated enormous wealth during the late 19th-century rubber boom. Throughout this golden age, incongruous monuments to decadence were built that remain standing as historic monuments.

The legendary Amazon Opera House was built entirely of imported materials and took 20 years to complete. It opened in 1896 to host performances by most of the famous singers of that era.

Manaus was served by street cars and electricity. Fortunes were spent on lavish, decadent parties. Rubber barons, rich beyond their wildest dreams because of the demand for rubber in the dawn of the automobile age, built mansions and palaces.

The rubber boom is long over in Manaus, but tourism along with the establishment in 1967 of the Manaus Free Zone, offering generous tax breaks to business and industry, has sparked a revival.

They have re-created a cosmopolitan city of five-star hotels, convention gatherings, sophisticated shopping centres, an international airport and a vast range of entertainment.

The city's Olympic Village, meanwhile, boasts the best track and field facilities in South America.

However, for the visitor, the lure is always the jungle and many excursions that involve river boats, jungle hikes and overnight stays in jungle lodges are available.

For small groups with a special sense of adventure, three or four trips into the rain-forest for trekking, fishing, alligator spotting and nature watching can be arranged.

The visitor encounters the world's most complex ecosystem that is home to two million species of plants and animals (more than half of all life forms) of which only a quarter have been photographed or catalogued.

During the flood season, between March and June, much of the jungle is partially submerged, creating waterways that tourists can explore by canoe.