Venturing deep into the Brazilian rain forest, one Canadian discovers the wonders of MANAUS, a city that both bewilders and amazes.

The night heat hung heavy and thick as the sounds of the dark jungle rose up all around us. Pushing our narrow little boat into the middle of the Juma River — a meandering waterway that eventually flows into the Amazon — we putt-putted into the inky blackness. Our guide, Nilson Mendonça, stood in the bow, swinging the beam of his flashlight in a left-to-right pattern, sweeping the river like a lighthouse in search of our quarry. And then we saw it: the eye of a caiman, the South American cousin of the alligator, showing up red and unblinking in the center of the beam on the far side of the river. We angled toward it as stealthily as possible. Just as we entered some thick brush, a branch from a mostly submerged tree scraped my arm. I recoiled, and for a moment, I imagined that my nightmare had come true — a caiman had somehow managed to jump into our boat.

Getting ahold of myself, I watched as ­Mendonça did something astonishing. Crouching low in the bow, he played the flashlight off the riverbank with his right hand and then, faster than I thought possible, lunged with his left and grabbed the caiman with his bare hand. The reptile thrashed violently for a moment, but Mendonça quickly subdued it, dropping the flashlight to use one hand to control the tail while carefully clasping the caiman’s neck with his other hand. He then held forth a juvenile caiman, perhaps two and a half feet in length. I was incredulous, even more so when he asked, in Portuguese-accented English, “Would anyone like to hold it?” A German woman in the seat ahead of me nodded her head, and Mendonça carefully handed it to her. For a moment, all was calm, as she smiled and turned to her husband to pose for a photo with the toothy animal.

Then, all pandemonium broke out. The caiman jerked his head free — leaving the woman holding only the very tip of its tail. It writhed in all directions, its body arching and twisting, and its small but powerful jaws audibly snapped at the dark night air. I leapt up onto the back of my seat, took a sharp breath and managed — just barely — to get my arms and legs out of harm’s way.

I am near Manaus, Brazil, a city of 2.2 million people that’s surrounded in all directions by dense, impenetrable Amazon rain forest. Thousands of miles from any other major center and largely disconnected by road from the outside world, the city is something of a marvel, showcasing wonders both natural and man-made. It is the place where two mighty rivers meet — but refuse to flow together. It is home to one of the greatest opera houses of the 19th century, built mostly with materials brought through the jungle by a very slow boat, from far-away Europe. And, like the rest of this South American country, it is booming — its skyline rising and its economy strong — as the city prepares to welcome the 2014 FIFA World Cup in just four months.