The Pantanal – Tropical Wetlands of Brazil

So Adam’s upbeat attitude paid off and we made it to the Pantanal as planned. We arrived 3 hours late and a man was there to greet us as planned: he only had to stand there for a few hours!
  Our tour group had apparently already left for the jungle, but the guy who greeted us said “no problem” he would just drive us the 5 hours into the middle of nowhere himself, then drive back to Campo Grande alone (yes, he is that nice). He said it would be no problem, because if we left right away he would be back in time to have a nap, and then head out to the clubs with one of his 7 girlfriends. Excuse me?

 

So pretty much immediately after getting off 18 hours of busses, we hop into his beat-up Fiat van and drive through the wetlands towards nowhere. We make excellent time because there is no traffic on the road, stop for lunch and make it to our checkpoint a good hour before schedule. From there we were herded into the back of a pickup truck (exactly like the death cab in Kao Sok for those of you in Thailand with us) and continue for another hour, off-roading through the jungle, towards camp.

The camp is very well put together, and much more luxurious than I would have imagined. There are tons of hammock circles covered by thatched grass roofs, a little swimming pool, beach volley ball court, a small bar, a big dining area, bungalows with dorm style beds and even a soccer field (which is totally unusable because it is filled with cows and bulls). There are a tonne of noisy parrots and unique looking birds (we even saw a great horned owl a few minutes ago). Weird looking little pigs keep roaming around our hammocks and the bugs, of course, are endless.

On our first night, after a wonderful buffet dinner, we went on a “night safari”.   We all jumped into the back of a large truck, our guide Paulo held a huge spotlight, and we drove through the jungle in search of animals!  Before we even left the camp a giant bug hit one of the girls in the chest and fell onto her lap. She started screaming and jumping around, so everyone’s flashlights quickly moved to see what was happening. There on the ground was the absolute LARGEST beetle I have ever seen in my LIFE.  The thing was a little larger than the palm of my hand, with giant pincers and thick, pointed legs! It scuttled around on the ground, freaking even the boys out, until the guide picked it up and tossed it off the side. I’m pretty sure that made everyone a little itchy and squeamish for the next hour of our excursion. Adam and I faired the best, but even the Israeli boys were a little jumpy as every few seconds another beetle hit one of us in the face or leg.
  The jungle was full of life we couldn’t see at night. Frogs, bugs, birds and what sounded like a loud dying cat filled the air with a deafening noise that almost drowned out the sound of the truck we were in! We managed to see quite a bit of wildlife in the short hour we were out. Apart from the bugs, obviously, we saw a whole load of caimans in the ponds. Their glowing eyes were actually really freaky, a good dozen of them staring back at us into the light. Next we came across a family of capybaras, the largest rodents on earth.  They are just like gophers, but are larger than most big dogs. Very weird. Then we saw a Toco toucan in one of the trees, which was really exciting. We saw a bunch of them in the bird sanctuary in Foz Do Iguassu but it was really fun to see one in the wild. We also ran across a deer (yes they are even in the Amazon!) and a fox!

 

The next morning we had breakfast bright and early at 7am. We then went horseback riding all morning! The horses were younger and had a lot more energy than the ones in Uruguay, so we had plenty of chances to gallop along the open meadows, and canter into lakes deep enough to get our feet soaked. The horses seemed particularly thrilled to run into the lakes and splash around for a while. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but the ride was amazing and we were out for a couple hours, messing around through the jungle.

After a short siesta and a wonderful lunch, we set out, in the back of the pickup once again, and towards the Parana River for a boat ride through the wetlands. We didn’t see as much unique wildlife as I had expected. Families of capybaras were fun to photograph, and the occasional caiman, but we did see ENDLESS species of birds. So many I can’t remember even a quarter of their names.  However, even though we didn’t spot the elusive jaguar, or catch an anteater, the scenery was beautiful, and the sunset on the way home was spectacular!

The next morning we were up bright and early for a 3-hour jungle trek. Honesty, I should have stayed in bed. I got very little sleep because Adam and I stayed up late drinking beers with the most interesting man in the world, and so, I was already not looking forward to a three-hour excursion. I also was NOT prepared for the number of mosquitoes that would be out at that time of day!  In the end, we didn’t see any wildlife because three of the guys we were with were so noisy. So instead of a wilderness trek, we hiked it through the dense jungle (at parts literally fighting through with a machete) and I was DESTROYED by mosquito bites. For all of you present for the bug bites Caitlin and I had in Thailand… This was worse. Fortunately, we made it home, and I cheered up a bit after a nice shower and a hearty lunch!

For our afternoon activity, we went piranha fishing! This was by far my favourite part of the Pantanal. We trucked out to one of the near by rivers with some bamboo rods and set up camp with a bucket full of raw steak! 
The piranhas at this time of year (end of the dry season) are starving, so it’s very easy to get a nibble. It is more difficult to pull one out, since they are very smart, and very quick! We were told to stand right up close to the river’s edge, which was slightly unnerving for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the guides apparently went into the river a couple years earlier and had a cut on her leg. The piranhas instantly started attacking her leg and she was lucky to get out before losing it. We were apparently fine, because they only attack open wounds, but I didn’t particularly want to push my luck.  Secondly, there were several caimans just a few feet in front of us that smelled the meat and wanted some food. Apparently, the caimans wont attack us, but this was told to us by our guide Paulo, who was making the caimans snap away at dead piranhas he held above their heads… and Paulo was missing a finger. So I’m not sure if he is the most trustworthy source.

Nonetheless, I stepped up to the water, Marcello baited my hook, threw it in and said “when u feel a nibble, pull straight up very quickly”. Before he even finished his sentence I said, “like this?” and jerked the rod straight into the air. The hook, with the meat still attached flew about 12 feet into the air, and a piranha, NOT attached to the hook flew right along side it. I’m pretty sure I must have shrieked a little as both of them flew towards me at a considerable speed. I let the hook swing past me, and the piranha landed at my feet. Everyone looked a little stunned. My memories of fishing in the past have been a lot of waiting around, and not a lot of nibbles, but this was VERY different. Turns out the piranha I caught was a baby, so Marcello kicked it back in (with flip flops on) and we tried again. All of us caught several fish in the short time we were there. I only caught the baby ones (and a tree at one point), and Marcello joked I was the worst fisherman he’d ever seen! Adam turned out to be the hero of the day and snagged two big ones to take home and grill up!

Ultimately, fishing was my favourite part of the Pantanal. If you ever get the opportunity to fish for piranhas DEFINITELY do it. It’s a little difficult to try to fish, while watching for flying hooks, trying to avoid the wasps that want the meat, and keeping an eye out for the caimans that will sneak up within a meter before grunting and giving away their position (and scaring the hell out of the fisherman) but it’s totally worthwhile. As Antoine, one of the French guys, put it “there are too many dangerous things all around!”  
At the end of the afternoon, Marcello and Paulo cleaned the fish, and we headed back to the pousada. For dinner that night, on top of the buffet, we were presented with a huge platter of BBQ piranhas! We each took one and they were pretty delicious! It’s a tasty white meat, but very bony. Kind of reminded me of crab, because it was difficult to get into, but worth the fight! Most of the meat was in the head, which freaked out Antoine and Francois when we ate the eyes and brains.  When in Rome, right?

Our final morning we went trekking through the forest again. I was unenthused to be eaten alive by mosquitoes again, but our guides ensured us we’d see more animals because the noisy Israeli boys had left.  So we dragged ourselves into the truck and drove out to a new trekking area. I came prepared with my bottle of mosquito repellant in hand, the longest pants I own, a long sleeved shirt, AND Adam’s long sleeved shirt on top of that (because he is impermeable to mosquitoes. Jerk.). It was so unbearably hot in the sunshine I could hardly handle it, but I then remembered how itchy I was and powered through. We did see more animals this time, including monkeys, coatis and hyacinth macaws (which are endangered, and only 4000 exist in the Pantanal) among many others. Day 2’s trek was much more worth it.

That afternoon, we packed up our things and headed back to Campo Grande. We waited a few hours at the hostel and caught the 23:25 bus to Curitiba. I took a Gravol about a half hour before the scheduled bus time, because the meds take so much longer to hit me than Adam; however, when our bus left 45 min late I was a total zombie. I could hardly stand; I dragged my feet towards the bus and climbed the steps. The whole bus wreaked of urine, but I didn’t care, I snuck in beside a random man, managed to put together my elaborate sleeping arrangement (the only way I can sleep on the bus) of a sleeping mask, sweater, coat, blow up neck pillow, sarong as a blanket, footrest down, purse tied around left leg, and water by my side. Finally, I don’t have to move for hours!  
We got no more than 10 minutes into the trip before the bus stopped for gas. Everyone had to get off the bus and wait at a checkpoint. I unhappily dragged my ass off the bus and found a bench to sit on to wait. My vision was almost blurry at this point I was so exhausted. I folded in half sitting on the bench, let my head hang between my legs and was half in and out of sleep while Adam watched for the bus. The blood rushing to my brain from being upside-down didn’t help with dizziness, so thankfully the bus came back only 15 minutes later. After setting up camp again, I passed out so fast. I woke up 8 hours later at a breakfast checkpoint and was the only person on the bus. My eyes were stinging from dehydration, and I guarantee I looked like a train wreck. So I washed up in the bathrooms and felt a little more human. It was 8:40am local time (the time zones in this area of Brazil are very confusing) and according to our tickets we got off at 9:00am. This was a pleasant surprise, because we thought it would be longer. Then a man came on the bus and announced in Portuguese that we were making excellent time, and we would arrive in Curitiba at 6:00 PM tonight. Excuse me?  Looks like our ticket was wrong: only 10 hours to go.

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