The Pantanal

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
Trip End Apr 30, 2013

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Mato Grosso do Sul,
Thursday, February 21, 2013

We have one more stop in Brazil before we cross the border into Bolivia. This stop is in one of the largest wetlands on the planet, an area called the Pantanal, known for displaying to the discerning watcher a greater amount of wildlife than the Amazon, it being less densely forested and massively flat and open. From Rio de Janeiro then, after a farewell lunch with our most recent gracious host Ulysses (who had looked after the majority of our luggage while we visited the beaches of Arraial do Cabo) we took a flight across the country to a small town called Campo Grande, known and visited only for its close proximity to, and ease of access into the Pantanal itself. An information booth at the airport of Campo Grande proudly handed out tourist maps with photographs of its more interesting sights, but the only thing we found worth photographing at all in this town was a phone box in the shape of a parrot. It really is a one-hit wonder of a town, but worth the one-night stay just to get a tour into the wild wetlands of central Brazil.

We arrived in Campo Grande airport at just before midnight, having made no plans of where to stay.  Luckily, fate once again took us by the hand in the form of a large round local, who was waiting at arrivals to pick up another tourist who had booked a room in his hostel. This seemed to be the only hostel in town, and the main office for booking a Pantanal tour. He told us he had a spare private room, and bid us wait ten minutes for his client to arrive, whereupon he gave us all a lift into town and to our home for the night. Sometimes traveling can be ridiculously easy.

We chose a three-night tour from this hostel, which included horse riding, piranha fishing, and general exploration of the surrounding countryside, either by foot or boat, in search of the local wildlife. We were told to be ready the following morning by ten o clock sharp, and that the minivan would leave by half past at the latest. It was no surprise then that by quarter past eleven, as a crowd of English, Irish and Israeli (to name a few) backpackers waited in the hostel's lobby with their luggage lying around their feet, that a few mumbled complaints escaped our lips. Of course we all know that some people in the developing parts of the world generally don’t have the same regard for punctuality as we might be used to, and so we kept our grumbles to a minimal murmur and patiently as we could awaited the driver to finish his breakfast, or whatever he was doing. The trip to the Pantanal started off first in the form of a four-hour minivan ride, followed by a change into an open-topped flatbed jeep with benches along the side, that bounced us around for another couple of hours down a straight rocky dirt track through flat, wide grassy fields. By sundown we had reached a river, the opposite banks of which housed our lodge and home for the next few nights, a bare but comfortable building with a beautiful view of the Paraguay River and a billion strong welcoming committee of mosquitoes.

We had read many reviews online about the tour company with which we were dealing, many negative, many positive, but it being the only one we could find at a price that suited our pockets, had decided to bite the bullet, accept whatever service we got, and make sure the biggest factor in deciding how much we enjoyed the trip was our own attitudes.  This helped a great deal. A lot of the complaints we had heard was that the guides could be sullen and disinterested. We seemed to be lucky enough then to be assigned upon our arrival the most enthusiastic, friendly and helpful guide in the whole lodge, Max, a skinny local who seemed able to spot any small animal sitting camouflaged between the leaves of any given tree within a three-mile radius. During our time wandering through the fields, boating down the river, or wading through thigh-deep bogs, he would casually say things like,
"There’s a howler monkey in that tree, you see it?"

Whereupon we would all stop, squint, shield our eyes, pull out binoculars or train our 42x zoom lens on a branch in the distance, and slowly make out a tiny black dot that eventually was agreed by all to be some kind of life form.  We did, throughout the few days, get to see a great amount of wildlife, including caiman alligators, monkeys,  deer and the largest rodent in the world, the capybara, as well as more species of birds than we might have seen in all the rest of South America put together; and of course some overly-zealous insects that loved to feast on our sweaty sun-baked skins. The most intense of these was undoubtedly the ants that occasionally attacked our bare feet as we walked across fields, stinging and burning like nothing I’ve ever known (luckily lasting only a teeth-grinding five minutes before the pain wore off), and at one point, a nest of some kind of super-hornet or killer-wasp, which attacked our group during a hot afternoon forest trek. Unfortunately one member of our group was not swift enough in responding to our guide’s sudden shout of,

“Run! Everybody run now!”

Huh? What? In confusion we scatter, to regroup a few minutes later, drawn by the sounds of crying from one poor Israeli girl who had taken a sting to the shoulder. We all gather round to eagerly examine the wound. It looks large, red and painful. The guide takes this opportunity to inform us that should he command it, we must all flee like the wind in any direction we can. Thanks Max, this information might have been appreciated beforehand, but luckily nobody needed hospitalization, and we continued the trek with wary steps. I never did get to see this dangerous enemy, nor discover exactly what form of life it was. Probably a good thing.

The most exciting moment for me personally must have come at the time when one of the guides was handling a small (comparatively) but beautiful anaconda that had been found near the lodge early one morning.

“You want hold it?” He grins at me, probably expecting a shriveling response.

“Yeah! Gimme!” I delightedly cry.

“Careful, dangerous, hold him neck tight this hand, tail other hand, no let go.”

“Whatever, just pass it over.” And grinning like a kid, swing it over my head and proudly show it off to the rest of the group. It is strong, and seems wont to cuddle my neck, but I am a big fan of this animal, and just cuddle back stronger.

Forget seeing the elusive puma (even our guide only spots about six a year maximum), and pretty much every other animal we saw - even getting close to the caiman, crouching bravely near their hordes like some kind of Australian crocodile movie guy - paled when compared to having a wild anaconda draped around my neck. This was all I wanted to make me a happy tripper, and I could leave Brazil contented.

Piranha fishing in our river was the other highlight of the trip. Kerri was the first in our group to catch one. I was second. Between us we landed six of the toothy little buggers with our bamboo pole fishing rods, and then carried them back to the lodge where the chef fried them up for our lunch.  Only two other people in our group of nine caught a fish, so we were the superstars of the fishing expedition, providing lunch for the whole group. They’re not the most delicious fish you ever ate, but are completely edible, and there’s obviously the satisfaction of knowing that in the food chain of life, humans still come out on top, whatever else stupid movies might have you believe. A few of us went swimming in this same river as we waited for the fish to be served, and nary a one received even a scratch from those famous razor-sharp teeth.  Kind of disappointing and relieving at the same time.

Our four-day jaunt was topped off on the last morning by a horse-riding tour, which included only the two of us and Max our guide. This exclusivity was due to the fact that most people only take three days, and we were the only ones in our group to pay for an extra night and the horse-riding activity. This part of the trip heralded up the most beautiful scenery of the whole trip, and was well worth the extra cash. Our horses were well-kept and obedient, and we walked, trotted and cantered them around the bush like true cowboys (and girl) of old, watching the tall grasses for anything that moved, listening to the screams of the famous howler monkeys above us, and breathing in the scents of a world untouched.

It’s time to say goodbye to Brazil. We’ve stayed as long as we can, but our overriding feeling is that there’s so much more we haven’t seen here. The people have been amazing, the food incredible, the sights, sounds and smells have moved us every step of the way.  Brazil might be the greenest country we have ever seen.  It might have the bluest skies possible. So much of its natural scenery has made us rub our eyes, check that the busses aren’t sporting some kind of magical colour-tinted windows, and sigh with wonder. It is almost upsettingly beautiful. We want to come back. We need to come back. It’s hard to describe a place like Brazil. We have loved it.  We are at the border town near Bolivia. Traveling there will be undoubtedly cheaper, but will it find that place in our hearts that Brazil has? Time will tell.
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Yolanda on

I love reading these blogs and looking at all the pics. Feels a little like I'm there too. Thanks so much for sharing your adventures!! Looking forward to the next one xxx

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