IN the heart of the largest tropical jungle in the world, on the banks of the Rio Negro, there's a city of close to a million people, proud of their Amazonian heritage but also proud of their fabulous fin de si`ecle opera house, imported stone by stone from Europe and reassembled in this jungle capital. Travel just a few miles outside of the city, though, and you are in primitive Amazon jungle. It's possible to experience both the city and the jungle in one unique trip. Our plan was to do just that; so we reserved space in the Amazon Lodge, the first of the jungle lodges in the area (built six years ago) and the forerunner of several similar operations. But first, Manaus.
We wanted to see what there was to see in this city - mainly the magnificent opera house, built in 1898 and restored in 1974. Although it is once again being restored, we managed to get inside the building and were awed by the rosewood floors, the velvet-covered seats, and the original Bohemian glass fixtures. We could imagine what it must have been like at the turn of the century, when the wealthy planters brought the world's top opera stars to this jungle city to perform.
The marketplace in Manaus is a cast-iron-and-colored-glass copy of the old Les Halles in Paris. A wide variety of tropical fruit and many of the 1,500 species of edible Amazon fish were on sale, as well as oddities such as turtle perfume and dried boa constrictor skins.
Since the rubber business moved from Brazil to Malaya many years ago, the Brazilian government has made Manaus a duty-free city to prevent it from becoming a ghost town. So there are whole streets of shops selling mainly electronic equipment, but much of it is second-rate, and though the prices may be low for Brazil, they are no lower than at most discount houses in the United States.
At 6:30 the morning after our tour, our guide, Marco, picked us up at the hotel in an Amazon Lodge station wagon. At the travel agency we were advised rather ominously that we had better be ``good sports'' about the stay at this floating jungle lodge, anchored roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Manaus at Lake Juma - far enough to shake the sights and smells of the big city. Far enough for us to experience the ``real'' Amazon.
We started the five-hour journey from Manaus to the lodge by crossing the Amazon in an old ferry. Then we spent two hours in a ramshackle bus on the still-under-construction trans-Brazilian highway, riding to the tiny village of Porto Velho. There a speedboat was waiting to zoom us up the Araca and Mamori Rivers. After two more hours in the boat, interrupted by a driving rain (during which we had to take cover under a tarpaulin), we arrived at Lake Juma.
We spotted the Amazon Lodge floating on giant logs attached by ropes to the shore. A round thatched building and several adjoining floating buildings make up the enclave.
We were assigned a room in the circular building above the open-air dining room that occupied the ground level. On arrival, we discovered we were the only guests in the lodge, which can accommodate up to 14 people. Others would arrive the next day. There were four local youngsters who serve and clean up. The cook was also the manager of the lodge, which is owned by an absentee Swiss citizen.
Our guide, who would be staying with us for the three days, explained that our schedule included a motorized canoe reconnaissance of the waterways, a visit to the monkey island across the lake, an alligator hunt at night, fishing for piranhas, a visit to the neighboring caboclo (settler) families, and a jungle safari. The spring thaw in the Andes had brought the water level up close to 15 meters (50 ft.), flooding much of the woodlands and forming what the natives call the igapos, which translates as ``forests under the water.''
These underwater forests, with the above-water trees also reflected on the black, mirrorlike surface, make for what is probably one of the most magical waterscapes in the world. We spent hours just moseying through the waterways, admiring the beauty. After a dinner, we sat and watched the red eyes of the alligators in the lake as they floated silently by. Marco jokingly explained that the alligators only bother you at night and the piranhas only bother you if you're bleeding, so it is safe to swim in the lake. We decided not to try.
We retired to our room, with its fine view across the lake. Although the room was screened-in, there were large tears in the screen. But Marco informed us there were few mosquitoes. So we stretched out on our beds, exhausted from the day's excitement.
Then it started: the sound of rustling, squeaking, and munching on the thatch above us. I looked out through the screen and saw a steady stream of rats running up and down the side of the building. Suddenly the holes in the screen seemed very large, and that made sleep impossible. Especially when at around 4 a.m. there began a strange King Kong-like hum of distant monkeys howling in chorus.
We decided to get up and sit on the veranda downstairs to watch the sunrise. When our guide arrived for breakfast we informed him of the rats, and he nodded knowingly and suggested we move to one of the other rooms off to the side. The lodge would be closing next month, he explained, in order for the roofs to be rethatched. At that time a rat deterrent would be sprayed on the roofs.
All of the sightseeing promises of the lodge were fulfilled, with only occasional interruptions by rainfall. At last, we were not only seeing but living in the exotic Amazon and its rain forest. And we were learning that the life of the settlers here is stark indeed.
Most of the families are large, with 10 to 15 children. Sheep and cattle, usually one to a family, look undernourished and ragged. Whole families live mostly on the fish they catch and the fruit from the banana or mango trees that grow on their little plots of land.
On the table at the lodge we found a guestbook. I read the entries, mostly in languages other than English. A Frenchman wrote: ``Incroyable!'' A Spaniard wrote: ``Espectacular!'' The comments from Americans tended to be less enthusiastic. Several had written negatively about the accommodations, the food, and the price while raving about the sights.
What would I write? I thought of the fabulous underwater forest, the excitement of hunting alligators at night, the three hours of meandering through the lush jungle, the chance to see how the jungle settlers live. Then there was the sight of waterfowl, toucans, hummingbirds, and monkeys in their natural habitat. But then I remembered the rats, which had made that first night so long. Suddenly I knew what I could say honestly: ``An exquisite ordeal!''
If you go
The Amazon Lodge, closed temporarily for repairs charges about $325 per person for its all-inclusive, three-day package. Reservations can be booked directly at PO Box 514, 69.000, Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, or through the Abreu Tours Agency, 60 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10165, tel. (212) 661-0555.