Clapboard stilt homes with acai palms in their yards, centenarian ceiba trees, egrets, and an occasional ecolodge flash by as the launch jets up river in the pelting rain before entering
The rustic dolphin encounter is run by a family who live aboard an adjoining barge. Tourists, who stand on a submerged platform as several dolphins approach to eat chunks of raw fish, marvel at their rosy color.
But there's a delicate balancing act between opening up the Amazon region to more tourism and preserving the environment and resources that make it so magnificent.
"Too much visitation can play against you," said
From the air, rainforest trees look like giant heads of broccoli and they stretch as far as the eye can see. But the area has already lost about 15 percent of its forest cover due to logging, dams, oil and gas pipelines, agriculture, roads and mining projects.
Contamination of the rivers that snake through the
Even though the government considers encounters with pink dolphins, known locally as botos, to be among the greatest tourism attractions in the Amazon, their numbers have been declining dramatically in recent years.
Fueled by an appetite for piracatinga -- the vulture catfish -- in neighboring
Unlike some U.S. dolphin encounters, where swimmers are allowed to hold the mammals' fins to hitchhike a ride, contact is more limited here.
At the dolphin attraction in the middle of
Encounters are limited to 10 to 15 small groups a day, so the dolphins don't become stressed.
The Institute views interaction with the dolphins as a way of promoting conservation.
Meanwhile, the pink dolphins, which can grow up to nine feet in length and weigh as many as 300 pounds, continue to occupy a special place in the folklore of the Amazon.
"People say the botos have the ability to come out of the water and take the shape of a man and dress in clothes,'' said Gilton Barbosa Macuje, a regional tourism guide. "The boto is always dressed in white and he wears a hat to cover the blowhole on his head.
"People say he is very handsome. All the women in the village follow him and he chooses one to follow him back into the water," said Macuje. Later, he said, the woman returns with a big belly and the story is that the dolphin got her pregnant.
But despite the dolphins' perceived magical powers, they remain vulnerable. WWF is currently doing river dolphin surveys that aid in determining their status and help with research, and also has an adopt-a-pink-river-dolphin program to provide support to protect them and their habitat.
Although it has become somewhat lost amid news about delays in finishing soccer stadiums and World Cup-related protests, Brazil has made an effort to have a green World Cup. Among its initiatives is promoting sustainable tourism.
The Alliance -- working with the
One of the success stories is the Pousada Garrido in Tumbira, Sanabria said.
The pousada (lodge) is run by
The lodge also has undergone a
Ecotourism and sustainable tourism are similar in concept but ecotourism must be in a nature setting and have an educational component while sustainable tourism also can be practiced in a city or suburb.
Sanabria concedes that some businesses that throw eco into their names have little to do with sustainability. The air conditioning might blast when no one is in a room or a large excursion boat taking tourists into the heart of the Amazon might spew pollution. "I went to one so-called ecolodge where they had an alligator in a cage in the lobby. That just can't happen," he said.
To be considered sustainable, a tourism business must reduce negative impacts on the environment, benefit the local community socially and economically, enhance cultural heritage, and have an effective, long-term sustainability plans in place.
One of the next steps for the
To encourage sustainability during the World Cup, the
In the Amazon, there's a long-tradition of ecolodges. Twenty-six such lodges in the
George Sobrereira, manager of the 64-room
"People come from all over the world to be inside the forest and hear the sounds of nature at night," he said. Lodge visitors drop off to sleep to a cacophony of tree frogs, insects and an occasional howler monkey.
The lodge is located in an Environmental Protection Area where commercial hunting and fishing is prohibited. Guests don't rough it at the
Its tours include visits to local families where they learn about life on the river, how the caboclos -- people of mixed Indian and Portuguese or Spanish ancestry -- turn mandioca into flour, tap rubber trees and grow medicinal plants in their gardens.
The Ecopark also offers jungle treks, catch-and-release fishing, night-time caiman spotting and a visit to a monkey rehab center where monkeys who have been domesticated learn how to survive in the jungle again.
Among the Green Passport tours recommended by the government is a trip to the SÃo JoÃo do Tupe community along the lower Rio Negro.
Here -- about a half-hour from
After explaining his people's creation story, he beckons toward a thatched-roof long house. "Come, let us enter inside our indigenous tradition,'' he says.
For the past 16 years, he and his tribe have devoted themselves to tourism and selling handicrafts. His brother, who lives in a nearby settlement, does too. Between them, tourism supports some 50 people.
"We want people to know us as we really live, not from what they know from television," he says "We want to share our culture and our daily lives and also show that we are the guardians of nature."
Bare-breasted women -- wearing fiber skirts -- and men adorned with blue macaw feathers and sporting shakers made from animals' hooves on their ankles begin a traditional dance that Domingos says opens a bridge to the spirit world. The men play long sacred pipes that only they can touch.
But neither seems to be a concern for Chief Domingos. "We're prepared to receive visitors," he says. "They come and spend a little time and leave. It's not like they're living with us everyday. If they wanted to eat with us, it would be complicated. We don't even know the kind of food they like."
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