- Associated Press - Friday, December 20, 2013

MANAUS, BRAZIL (AP) - All 12 Brazilian cities hosting World Cup games have their claims to fame. Here are three that, for one reason or another, particularly caught our eye:



When tour guides warn of fish in the river that would like to wriggle into your nose, ears or elsewhere so they can suck your blood, it immediately becomes apparent that you’ve strayed off the beaten track.

Welcome to Manaus. Of all places visited by the World Cup in 84 years of traveling the globe, the Amazon city is one of the most wild and wacky, a new frontier for soccer’s showcase.

Butterflies here are as big as an adult’s hand. Shops stocked with the things one needs for jungle living sell fishhooks the size of coat hooks to catch Amazonian fish as big as cats. Haggle in the market for souvenir piranhas, preserved and mounted, mouths agape to show off those famous teeth. Above the city of 2.2 million people, vultures circle in the thermals.

Manaus is the most remote of Brazil’s World Cup cities. The next nearest venue is Cuiaba, 900 miles due south across the rainforest. The others are at least 1,250 miles distant. Porto Alegre, in the far south, is a 4-hour, 2,000-mile flight.

Jetting over the dense jungle canopy one wonders what bugs, birds, beasts and tribes live beneath. Its enormity and lushness are humbling. In the middle of this green lung, Manaus comes as a shock with its oil refinery, industrial zone and trash-strewn slums. Impressive, too: What determination and ingenuity the city’s Portuguese fathers must have had to venture this far, what hardships they must have endured.

England and Italy will be the first of eight teams to sweat and perhaps wilt in the heat and humidity of the Arena Amazonia, with its lattice roof of diamond panels that look like snake scales and 44,000 seats in the colors of tropical fruits. Also playing here are Cameroon-Croatia, the United States-Portugal and Honduras-Switzerland, which kicks off at 4 p.m. local. The three other matches were moved to 6 p.m., when running around in the heat might be somewhat less crushing. During daylight hours, just standing still is sticky work.

The Centers for Disease Control says malaria is present in Manaus and the surrounding Amazonas state, but evaluates the risk for travelers as low. Mosquitoes are remarkably few, because their larvae don’t survive in the acidic, black waters which give the Rio Negro its name.

Manaus is built along the river’s north bank. Take a boat downriver to admire the “meeting of waters,” a natural wonder where the river and the River Solimoes come together to form the Amazon. Laden with silt and organic material picked up on their course through the jungle from Peru, the Solimoes’ waters are milk-chocolate brown, colder, denser, faster moving and less acidic. Because of those differences, their waters run side by side, two-tone, for miles before blending.

Manaus has nearly six times more homicides _ 600 this year alone _ than London, a city four times its size.

“It’s a big city with big city problems,” said Miguel Capobiango Neto, who is overseeing World Cup preparations for Amazonas state. But he said violent crime is mostly on the city limits and policing has been beefed up. The last foreigner killed here, a British woman, died in a boating accident, not from foul play, he said.

The pleasant square in front of the city’s magnificent opera house felt safe enough, with young Amazonians chatting there at dusk. A violinist played for coins. The corner shop sells sweet ices.

Built in 1896, the Teatro Amazonas is an echo of Manaus’ now long-gone rubber boom, when it got wildly wealthy on exports of the precious commodity milked from Amazonian trees. The “rubber barons” spared no expense on their vanity project, importing from Italy inlaid wood floors, crystal chandeliers and fine pillars of marble.

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