Rio de Janeiro — A few miles south of Porto Velho, a regional capital in Brazil's northwest Amazon Basin, the asphalt gives way to a pitted, gravel road hugged on either shoulder by dense bush.
It wouldn't even show up on a map in the industrialized world, but this is superhighway in gold country. Every day thousands of dewy-eyed prospectors barrel down Brazil's Highway 364 looking for a fortune in the muddy Madeira River.
From the outskirts of Porto Velho to the mountainous Peruvian border, 8,000 men, women, and children work the Madeira, combing the bottom for gold dust or tiny nuggets. They work from small rafts equipped with a giant sieve for filtering out cascalho, the gravel that signals a potential gold deposit.
Their work is tedious, slow - and dangerous. Divers, often with no experience , stay submerged for four and five hours at a time in water with zero visibility. Sometimes they don't come up.
For most prospectors, though, it's an opportunity worth its risk. All over the intractable Amazon, gold fever has taken hold of a growing number of Brazilians. Since 1979, when a lone miner discovered the Serra Pelada deposit in the state of Para, 250,000 garimpeiros, or individual miners, have swarmed to the Amazon Basin and other ore-rich areas of Brazil.
Mostly due to their toil, Brazil's annual production of gold jumped in three years from 4.3 tons to last year's 50 tons, worth $680 million. By century's end , Brazil is expected to produce 200 tons a year, nearly rivaling South Africa, the world's largest gold producer.
As Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy Cesar Cals de Oliveira is fond of saying, ''It's worthwhile to dream of gold.''
Many would agree. Two weeks ago, itinerant prospector Julio de Deus Filho went down into Serra Pelada, now a treacherous 200-foot hole, and climbed back out with the world's second-largest gold nugget. Weighing 137 pounds and dubbed Canaan, after the Biblical promised land, Filho's find sold for $1 million to the government savings bank.
A month ago, a handful of miners stumbled upon a vein of ore in Rondonia region. Within two weeks, 4,000 men had swarmed over the mine site 20 miles outside the tiny town of Jaru. Jaru mayor Leomar Baratela complained that the latest gold rush had virtually shut down his city, leaving farm plots, shops, and construction projects deserted.
Para, once a backwater town called Itaituba, has in the span of a few years become Brazil's ''gold capital,'' with dozens of powerful gold buyers lining the dusty main street and reportedly the busiest small craft airport in all Brazil.
Yet it is often no more than gilt dreams that keep a quarter of a million miners scratching away for El Dorado in the Amazon. They battle not only the elements but also gold tycoons, thieves, pirates - and, all too frequently, each other - for a small purchase on a potential motherlode.
Theirs is not the myth-steeped world of the Klondike or the San Francisco forty-niner working his stake in rugged mountains against an azure sky. Amazon gold mining is, more often than not, a rigid business proposition where a few impresarios command the lion's share of capital and the vast majority turn into wage-earners often pocketing no more than $3 a day.
Last year less than 300 people were responsible for the sale of Serra Pelada's eight tons of gold. One miner-turned-entrepreneur, Jose Candido de Araujo, claims to have moved $17 million worth of gold in August alone.
It is people like Jose Candido and Julio de Deus Filho, as rare as they are, who keep the dream alive. Yet for the average garimpeiro , life has considerably less luster. Even if he manages to survive tropical diseases and the turbulent Madeira, he still must contend with a gauntlet of hawkers along the river banks.
Catering to this captive market, merchants in improvised booths sell supplies at 400 and 500 percent above market value. A small chicken sells for $7.50; a soft drink can cost $2.
''Prices are explosive,'' said Antonio Jose, whose floating supermarket sells life vests for $60 and an aqualung regulator, that normally sells at $200, for up to $1,000.
But the remnants here of the ''Wild West'' - including free-wheeling drinking and justice by the gun barrel - may be about to run out. The money-strapped Brazilian government is trying to harness all the country's resources. Under the auspices of ''Project Garimpo,'' Brasilia plans to convert individual gold miners into small private or state-owned businesses, working gold sites in service of the patrimony.
On Nov. 15, barely two months after Julio de Deus Filho hauled up his gold nugget, Serra Pelada's 48,000 miners will be systematically replaced with the excavating machines of the Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, a huge state mining firm. The decision has embittered defenders of the miners, who rightly claim that it is individuals, not monopolies, who have uncovered most of the Amazon gold sites.
Yet certainly as long as there are swatches of the Amazon unclaimed by gold tycoons, individual miners will continue to scratch away at the jungle earth.