The Brazilian Pantanal – Wet & Wild!

4 Sep

The sun was still high in the sky as we cruised down a long, straight stretch of unpaved road taking us deep into the Brazilian Pantanal. As one of the biggest wetland areas in the world covering 230,000 square kilometres, the Pantanal is home to around one thousand different species of exotic birds and animals and is renowned for being one of the best places in the whole of Latin America to spot wildlife in its natural habitat. The Pantanal would soon start living up to its reputation as we pulled over to the side of the road to view two magnificent black bodied and bright orange beaked toucans in the trees only 10 metres away from us.

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The toucans moved between trees flapping their wings rhythmically and gliding – the weight of the beak seemed slightly cumbersome causing each bird to dip towards the earth each time it stopped flapping. A little further on after bumping through a myriad of potholes, we stared in awe at 15 or so scaly backed caimans, which are in effect small alligators. They sat motionless soaking up the sun’s warmth and every now and again flashing those pearly whites to remind us who was boss.

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The Pantanal is only 10 hours drive from Santa Cruz in the South East of Bolivia, whereas it can take up to 14 hours to get there from the coast of Brazil so many travellers take advantage and spend some time across the border.

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It was never our intention to cross into Brazil so early on in our trip but as is the beauty of independent travel and having time on our side, we made a spontaneous decision to travel from Santa Cruz in Bolivia to Corumba, just across the Brazilian border.

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From there we arranged a 2.5 day tour to the Pantanal with an agency called Indiana which instantly had us thinking about adventures (and of course whip cracking!)

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The day we arrived in Corumba coincided with the last day of the San Juan festival, which celebrates the Summer solstice, so the streets were lined with crepe paper decorations and food and drink stalls were set out along the water front.

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The larger than life locals (and of course us) dressed for the occasion, enjoyed several glasses of the Brazilian cocktail caipirinha, letting off fireworks and dancing the samba with startling natural rhythm throughout the night.

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DAY 1

We took a local bus from Corumba 2 hours to a cross roads where we joined four other people who’d travelled from Campo Grande, in the other direction. We were introduced to three girls from the UK who were studying medicine together at university and enjoying a Summer of freedom before their hospital placements started, and a guy from France who spoke several languages fluently, including English, and was on holiday from a high-flying project management job in Barcelona. We all clambered into the back of the truck which had been converted for wildlife viewing with benches either side and canvas flaps which could be rolled up if it was hot or down if it rained.

We drove straight for just over 2 hours deep into the wilderness without taking a single turn. The bridges which were all numbered became a slow form of torture as we knew we had to cross 60 of them before we reached our destination.

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In stark contrast to the mountainous, cold and dry Andes where we’d come from, this area was largely flat, warm and flooded with water. The wildlife we continued to encounter along the road took our minds off the bumps and bruises we were receiving in the back of the truck as our driver hit every mound and divot in the track head on. We saw two capybara, the world’s largest known rodent, strolling through the green foliage at the water’s edge and we stopped to take some photographs.

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Capybaras are the size of pigs but resembled guinea pigs and the two we watched, initially continued to walk casually until the biggest at the back caught our scent with his large nostrils and stood paralysed trying to work out what that terrible smell was. In one terrified moment the capybara knew…BACKPACKERS!…and made a rather undignified rush for the river followed by his partner.

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At bridge number 59 we made an unexpected stop and our hearts sank as the bridge was no longer. We all prayed that some cunning animal hadn’t been out here dismantling the wooden planks with his teeth and we’d have to retrace our steps back over all 58 bridges out of the park. But the driver seemed unphased and started helping us to unload our bags. He explained that just one month earlier a young, local couple had stopped just before the bridge to admire the views but unknown to them they’d parked next to a nest of black bees which swarmed into the open car window – accelerating to get away, they lost control of the car, taking the bridge out and crashing into the water below. Sadly the couple were killed and a memorial now lies where they left the road and, unfortunately for us, the bridge was still under repair. We quickly learnt the meaning of ‘walking the plank’ as we tottered, laden down with heavy backpacks, over slim and brittle looking chunks of wood.

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Our driver also shuttled across numerous bulging sacks of supplies. We waited patiently for 30 minutes and just as dusk was arriving we saw the distant headlights of a pick up truck coming our way. As it was dark and getting chilly by the time we’d loaded up, the men gallantly sat in the open pick up whilst the ladies crammed inside. We felt ever so slightly sorry for the men as they awkwardly huddled together for warmth but couldn’t hold a proper conversation because as soon as they opened their mouths, they swallowed hundreds of bugs that had appeared in the early evening.

After a further 20 minutes drive we arrived at a wide river. It was dark as we boarded the boat and we giggled like school kids as the boat bobbed and tipped. We were transported across the river to a large, grassy garden and a house built on concrete stilts.

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The bedrooms were on the first floor and underneath the house there was a kitchen, dining area and a pool table. A wooden frame around the lower level was filled with mesh to prevent mosquitos from getting inside. Dinner was already cooking and the smell of garlic and spices which filled the air was delicious. Our guide, who seemed to rule the roost, was a short, stocky man with a kind face and an excellent grasp of English (which was good as our Portuguese was non-existent). He told us to treat the house as our own and gave us a run down of the activities we’d be enjoying during our stay.

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We settled into our mixed dorm rooms and then returned downstairs for dinner – a huge buffet spread had been laid on with vegetable rice, spaghetti, beans, chicken fillets, salad, potato salad and fresh fruit – and we all tucked in eagerly, famished from a long day.

After dinner and lots of good conversation getting to know our new travel buddies, we went out on a night safari on the river. Wildlife tends to be far more active at dawn, dusk and early evening when it isn’t so hot and our guide had a spotlight at the back of the boat which looked big enough to light up Wembley Stadium so we were hopeful we’d be lucky enough to see some animals.

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The moon was nearly full, with just a slither missing, and it lit up the river as if it was day time. Beautiful layers of cloud hung above and beneath the moon and made the sky appear as if it had been painted.

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Our guide was an incredible tracker and had eyes like a hawk. Within just a few minutes he was driving us from one bank to the other where he’d spotted a giant lizard lazily hanging from a tree. Even when the boat stopped directly under the branch from which it hung we still said over and over – “what is it?”, “where is it?” – the guide must have rolled his eyes at such incompetent Gringos!

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Our next stop was to see a tiny, bright green frog with rubbery three-pronged feet and bulging eyes, clinging to a tree branch. The guide navigated the boat right next to the frog enabling us to obtain National Geographic standard photographs and the little frog never lost his composure.

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The most menacing thing we saw with the spotlight was the orange glow of eyes low in the water belonging to caimans and alligators – they were everywhere. We plunged the boat deep into the long reeds and cowered inside the boat not daring to reach a hand out to take a photograph. We found ourselves floating beside the prehistoric jaws and black soulless eyeball of a caiman. It laid half-submerged in the water, not moving and looking more like a plastic model.

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Our guide explained that despite poaching, alligators in the Pantanal numbered between 10 and 35 million. Just as we were digesting that fact, the caiman we’d been stalking suddenly jolted to life, thrashing around for a few seconds and then diving deep under the surface causing everyone in the boat to jump out of their skin.

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On our return, we encountered the very strange sight of parrots sleeping in the tree tops – sitting incredibly still, with their heads bowed and not making a sound. We’d never imagined birds like parrots sleeping in this way and we half expected them to let out a little snore or any second topple out of the trees. Those sleeping parrots reminded us that it was nearly our bed time so we headed back to the house and turned in for the night.

DAY 2

We woke at 6.30am for a buffet breakfast which exceeded our expectations in terms of size and quality.

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Feeling very full and ready to go back to bed, we left the house for another boat journey upstream to some of the small river tributaries.

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The volume and variety of birds we saw was incredible from tiny, colourful finches, graceful Tuiuiu, which are the symbol of the Pantanal, and brooding, tawny coloured hawks.

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We pulled up beside a patch of small floating lily pads and watched an unusual but beautiful female bird strut around her collection of eggs and jump up and down angrily if we strayed to close.

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We watched a pair of kingfishers whose wings shimmered with oily green and blue colours as they flew back and forth collecting twigs and leaves to construct their nest.

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Mosquitos weren’t too much of a problem whilst we were on the water but when the boat ventured close to, or into, the vegetation at either side of the river we were plagued with them buzzing around our heads and plunging themselves into any piece of flesh they could land on for just a few seconds. Probably made by the Taliban in an Afghanistan cave factory, the bug spray we’d invested in for this trip was so toxic that we gasped for breath every time we sprayed it on, and when we spilled a small amount on the boat, it burnt a hole in the paint work! Nevertheless, we covered every inch of our bodies in the spray in an attempt to send the irritating critters packing. I felt a slight concern at the growing pleasure I was getting splatting them but I hoped the pulverised black bodies of the previous victims would send out a message in the mosquito community that I was not to be messed with!

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On our way back to the house we stopped at a local village which consisted of a few houses, a couple of old boats (which also looked like they were lived in), a school, a grocery shop and a bar.

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We stocked up on essential provisions at the bar – several cans of beer and a bag of crisps. The owner was very proud to have some Westerners in his bar and promptly poured us a large, complimentary shot of lemon vodka which we politely shared between us.

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We returned to the house for lunch and some time to relax. Unfortunately, the weather had turned cold and overcast so we were unable to enjoy the garden but we enjoyed the chance to take a nap and read for a while.

Our afternoon activity was another river boat trip but this time we were heading in the opposite direction in search of giant otters. We wrapped up in layers and took up our usual seats in the boat. The guide’s eyes skimmed the river from side to side looking for signs of life and in a split second he was heading for the riverbank where he’d spotted a group of chattering monkeys. They used their long tails like an extra limb and moved effortlessly through the trees whilst still holding nuts and fruit in their hands. The sound of our approaching engine scared the monkeys back into the trees but our enthusiastic guide moored the boat, jumped out and beckoned us to follow on foot. Going deep into mosquito territory was like a death march for us. We stepped over fallen logs, ducked past vines and grappled with creepers. The thrill of the chase was undeniable – stopping in silence every few paces, listening for directions and then following the monkeys grunt. As we walked it was a constant battle to swat away mosquitos, some of which we remember being the size of small birds! We felt the hot itch of bites starting to appear on ankles and exposed arms and our enthusiasm for monkey chasing began to wane. After 5 minutes, we had been outsmarted by our close relations, and had lost the trail of the monkeys. We returned to the boat with our spirits dampened – each of us had bites into double figures and a couple of us even had red lumps appearing on our necks and faces. The guide, who smiled sweetly, of course had no bites, sensed our despondency and sped us off in the direction he was certain we’d be able to spot some giant otters.

Half a dozen green Amazonian parrots flew overhead in an arrow formation – “CAW, CAW, CAAAAW” – they were a rowdy bunch and helped to raise our spirits. A little further on we slowed to a very slow crawl along the river and then close to the bank the engine was cut and we drifted in the current. We surveyed the water looking for any sign of the giant otters…just waiting quietly.

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And then, right on cue, we saw the backs of two submerged furry bodies creating a wave in the water as they swam in our direction. As the name implies, these creatures were big – about 1.5 metres long, with chunky heads and paws. Their fur was rich, shiny brown and they had substantial sharp teeth used for cracking fish bones and crustations. Our guide held tightly to a tree root which hung down to the water and held the boat still so we could observe.

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There turned out to be a whole family of otters fishing and playing in this section of the river. They moved nimbly and swiftly through the water – every few strokes their heads would break the surface to keep them informed of their surroundings and dangers.

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We saw the largest of the giant otters catch a fish and haul half of his body out of the water onto a stable rock to devour the fish in one go. We were close enough to hear the cracking and grinding of bones as the otter chomped into his dinner. Nothing was spared and even the head and tail were eaten.

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On our way back we called into a local farmhouse which offered the couple who lived there a very remote way of life. Their house was made of wood and built on high stilts. They explained that it was necessary for them to work very hard during the dry season to stock up for when the rains came and it was impossible to farm. The rain comes up to just below the floor of their house in the rainy season and all of the food they have in their barn has to be moved inside of the house.

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Their cattle are also moved to higher ground at this time. Their existence was simple – growing vegetables, breeding cattle for dairy and meat produce and fishing. Strips of meat hung drying under the house and the two dogs they owned constantly looked up at it trying to fathom a way to get a piece down to their level.

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When we arrived back at the house, the pool table was crying out to be played so we initiated a winner stays on game. The table felt like something the Flintstones would use with dents and slopes all over the table, cues that had no tips and a white ball which had been formed by hand with plaster of paris and baked in the oven giving us a very large golf ball.

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If we’d always wanted to play a trick shot, then this was the table to do it as we’d hit the ball in one direction and it would fly off in another! We passed a fun hour getting progressively better as we sunk a couple of cold beers in the process.

Over another filling buffet dinner our guide showed us some recent video footage he’d captured on his phone of the surprise his guests found in the kitchen one morning when they’d came downstairs for breakfast – a 15 foot anaconda! We watched the video open-mouthed as the snake’s rippling muscles pulled it up to window level and along a small ledge so when we finally turned in for the night we made sure that our bedroom room door was shut firmly behind us! Apparently we had the chance to lie in the following morning until 7.30am – ‘woo-hoo’ – thank heavens for small mercies!

DAY 3

Our morning activity on our third day was a bush walk tracking animals, which we were all very excited with. The weather hadn’t improved and it was lightly drizzling as we drove to the start of the trail. It didn’t matter too much as we had our rain jackets with us but we had always imagined Brazil to be hot and steamy all of the time. At the start of our walk we saw two enormous blue Macaws sitting high in a tree and a whole host of cackling green Amazonian parrots – the noise they made was not dissimilar to a bunch of old ladies gossiping at bingo night!

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We noticed that the guide had no shoes and socks on but we put it down to him giving us the ‘authentic tracker experience’. We walked through a wood of palms and trees with peeling beige and red bark. Our guide cast a couple of foul looks towards our group as we chatted away loudly and giggled with excitement – probably scaring away any wildlife within a hundred kilometre radius and we took the hint to walk quietly and tread carefully. Single file we followed the guide who knew instinctively which way to turn, listening for any sounds and checking the ground for markings.

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When we reached the first stretch of water covered marshland we suddenly knew why the guide was walking barefoot. We took off our shoes and socks and rolled up our trousers. We reluctantly followed the guide into the cold, murky water, feeling a little unnerved that we couldn’t see the bottom. After a few steps the guide said “Make sure you place your feet where I do so you don’t stand on a caiman”. We weren’t sure if it was his attempt at a joke but we weren’t taking any chances and didn’t put a toe nail out-of-place.

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Once we left the water at the other side of the marshland, we entered another small forest. Some of our group had cleverly brought flip-flops with them but Dan and I hadn’t so we continued on the trail barefoot. Unfortunately, our soft Western feet weren’t up to the job of stepping on sharp leaves and branches and a few whimpers and yelps went out. We stepped over a long trail of leaf cutter ants who were toiling away carrying greenery more than double their body weight in some cases – they really are the powerhouses of the insect world. We also met their rather unfriendly cousins – the red ants – which we tried to hop over like we were starting some new dance craze but inevitably the sheer number meant we couldn’t avoid them and we felt agonising nips as they crawled between our toes, up our feet and onto our ankles. We hit the ants with our shoes in retaliation but the soil was soft and the ants re-emerged and scuttled off. If only we’d had a pair of Dr Martin boots to hand – we would have shown those bastards!

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We heard steps in the bushes close by and stood very still – who were we going to encounter all of the way out here? Then a startled squeak gave it away and the capybara turned, ran and we heard an almighty splash as it crashed into the water to escape. And we only wanted to give it a back scratch! We also saw a small rodent picking his way through a pile of leaves and several large birds feeding in the nearby reeds.

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We entered the marshes several times, feeling the silt and mud on the bed squeeze between our toes and threatening that it would not release our feet. At one point the water was up to our thighs and any chance of keeping our trousers dry had vanished. Our guide pulled his already short shorts a little too high for our liking and the girls (and guys) tried to avert their eyes but in the end couldn’t help staring!

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After our walk we stopped at a shelter which is used for Summer time expeditions into the Pantanal and where rows of hammocks swung in a circular hut. A thatched cottage provided us with the perfect venue for lunch and we relaxed on the hammocks whilst it was cooked and we were entertained by two cheeky puppies desperate for attention.

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After lunch our guide picked up 6 bamboo rods and took us to a small lake where we tried piranha fishing. We weren’t expecting to find a 2 metre alligator on the edge of the lake and we were all slightly concerned that there was more chance of it catching us rather than us catching a fish! There was a 3 metre high bank around the lake which stood between us and our reptilian friend and only a small channel through which it could have crawled out, so that offered us some reassurance but it insisted on watching us the whole time…just waiting for one of our group to lose their balance and take a tumble into his jaws. The water was murky and looked almost stagnant and we wondered if the guide was pulling our leg about finding piranhas here but we were keen to give it a try – even if the only thing we actually caught was a cold!

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The bamboo rods had a long stretch of fishing line and a sharp metal hook on the end. Our guide helped us to secure large chunks of fatty chorizo meat on the end of the line and demonstrated his technique to attract piranha. We’re certainly not experts but we know that it’s fairly typical for fisherman to spend hours and hours by a lake side in total silence trying not to scare the fish off with any sudden movements but here our guide encouraged us to slap the water vigorously with the bait which made the fish think there’s an injured bug or small animal at the surface of the water, enticing them to take a nibble.

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Piranhas are usually between 14 – 26 cm in length and have a single row of sharp teeth in both jaws which are packed tight and which interlock for fast shearing of meat. They have earned themselves a legendary reputation as cold-blooded killers and several deaths have been reported in Amazonian regions in recent years where people have entered into unknown rivers and not re-emerged. It’s not uncommon to see Piranha warnings next to certain rivers and not taking this seriously could be a grave mistake.

The fish were very cunning and even with brains the size of peanuts they too were able to out-smart us by nibbling at our bait until it was all gone but not swallowing the hook. We tried again and again using fresh bait and slapping the water frantically but to no avail. We were joined by two men who looked after the Summer shelter. They sauntered to the lake’s edge and hung off tree branches so they could cast their lines further out into the lake. Every time they felt a nibble they jerked their rods back fiercely and within just a few minutes one of them had a piranha flapping before his face.

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He passed the rod to me and shouted to the group “Look what Kate’s caught!” Everyone was very impressed until the big grin on my face gave it away and I owned up that the catch was a fraud. The silvery small fish was pretty small and would have probably fitted into the palm our hand but those razor-sharp teeth instantly increased its stature.

We all felt slightly sad when the guide bashed the fish on the head to kill it and proceeded to cut it up into pieces. We fed it to the alligator who suddenly snapped out of his catatonic state and went wild, thrashing around in the water with the pleasure of fresh meat.

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The other man who’d joined us had lost two fingers on one hand following an encounter with an unfriendly alligator and he wisely watched the feed from a safe distance. He too caught a fish that afternoon making it – Locals 2, Gringos 0 but we were pleased we’d seen the piranhas close up and had our picture taken with them.

Our time in the Pantanal was coming to an end and we shortly left the park via the same arduous road we’d arrived 2 days earlier. We’d be leaving with an insight into a different world – where animals certainly ruled the roost! Outnumbering and often outsmarting humans, we’d probably do well to study how the animals adapt so perfectly to their surroundings and how they manage to live in near harmony with one another.

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