Episode 4: Pantanal, Brazil
Beard length (Tom): Kenny Everett
Skin colour (both): Skimmed milk
Location: Puerto Iguaçu, Argentina
Date: 9th February 2010.
Well, we made it out of the Brazilian wetlands in one piece, though not without discovering the hard way that pasty white British flesh attracts mosquitoes like shoe shops attract my wife.
Mosquito repellent doesn’t put these guys off, we might as well have coated ourselves with something sticky and sweet and attached light bulbs to each limb – we each have approximately thirty very itchy bites, but at least it gives our skin a slightly more interesting colour than white.
The Pantanal was everything we expected. We got there the easy/hard way (depending on your perspective) by getting a morning bus from Pipa to Natal, then flying to Goiania (via Brasilia), arriving after midnight, staying in an Ibis hotel (luxury – hot water for the 1st time in 2 weeks and a bar – you can’t imagine our unbridled joy!), getting an overnight bus the following day to Campo Grande, arriving early the following morning to get a mini-bus to the Pantanal, changing to a truck for the dirt roads, then to a larger truck for the dirtier roads and finally (and slightly demeaningly), sitting cross-legged in a dusty cart, pulled by a tractor, for the last (flooded) half-mile. Honestly, this is pretty much the quickest way we could have got there!
The only place we got to look round en route was Goiania, which was unplanned and uninspiring, although we had a nice stroll through the park, a look at the cathedral and a hearty lunch (2 x steak, rice, beans, salad and beer for 4 GBP) after eating snacks of varying quality for the best part of two days whilst travelling. The museum of art was particularly impressive.
A quick note on the buses we’ve had. As I’ve said before, they really are quite comfortable, but unfortunately the roads are terrible, so it’s like mile after spine-shattering mile of cattle grids, with sleep coming at a premium. This is especially true if you are close to one of the following – even with earplugs:
- A Brazilian who instead of blowing their nose, snorts mucus loudly and regularly;
- Young men who talk loudly and incessantly, even at 4 in the morning (one of which was more of a 6 hour soliloquy than a conversation), or who sprawl into the aisle, so that to get the toilet you’re going to have to either injure them or yourself;
- The toilet for obvious reasons (it won’t happen again); or
- A Robert Kilroy-Silk lookalike who sounds like he’s about to cough up a major organ but disappointingly doesn’t.
So, to the Pantanal – again boldly going where literally thousands have gone before. We had booked with the only tour operator at Campo Grande, after reading that there would be tens of people clamouring for our business. Unfortunately this meant that we had to take what we could, which was a 3 night trip staying in a tent.
In the heat of the Pantanal, we weren’t relishing this, but with meals and excursions included and no other options, we took the plunge. Literally, as it turned out.
It’s wet season in the Pantanal, which means that much of the place is flooded, including many of the fazendas (ranches) we passed and parts of the fazenda we were staying on, hence the glamorous arrival in a cart. It also meant that the camping ground had been moved closer to the dorms and private rooms.
We met our guide (Marcelo) on the first night and got a taste of his split personality as he outlined our itinerary for the 2 days with him. When one of our group asked whether it would be possible to do piranha fishing, he said there wasn’t any point as there were no piranhas to catch after the moment.
We appreciated his honesty until a few minutes later when he realised he’d given us the wrong agenda and in actual fact our first activity the following morning would be……… piranha fishing (non-negotiable as all other activities were full up).
Standing in a foot of water with a cane in your hand in the sun is pretty pleasant actually. It didn’t have the excitement or fear factor of standing there twitching every time something passes your foot, in case it’s a row of razor-sharp teeth, and after a while you start to feel a little self-conscious knowing that your bait will be returned to the container un-gnawed and that you look a bit daft in your fishing hat.
Undeterred, we kept a keen eye out for wildlife and struck gold almost immediately when we spied a puma (one of the rarest creatures in the Pantanal) up a nearby tree.
Our disappointing morning continued when we approached this fearsome predator to discover that it was nothing more threatening than a small cat.
The morning was completed by being taken a few hundred yards up-river on a boat and floating back down on rubber-rings (which we had to share!). The excitement at this stage was hard to contain.
In the afternoon, we were scheduled for a boat trip, but not before the heavens opened, forcing us to pack our bags and get them inside (I’m unsure of the wisdom of providing non-waterproof tents in a wetland region, but maybe that’s why I don’t own a fazenda).
The boat-trip, thankfully, was a success when we finally got going (after Marcelo had flounced off without us initially – we think he was annoyed because an Israeli couple in our group had been berating him about the agenda mix-up, not realising that he was lying in a nearby hammock and speaks almost fluent Hebrew).
We got our first sight of caiman (we would see many) – unnervingly, this was about 20 yards from where we’d been stood barefoot “fishing” that morning.
We also saw howler monkeys (some in groups with babies) and many different types of bird which unfortunately were wasted on Jane and me, but Bill Oddie’s glasses would have steamed up, such was the diversity. Satisfied that we’d had a successful afternoon, we returned to our tents to relax.
The beauty of the fazenda is that it’s right in the middle of the action, so as well as them keeping goats, horses, cows and boar, other beasts wander in. “On site” we saw a baby deer stranded by the floods (and being looked after royally by every woman in sight), a small armadillo, birds of prey, parrots and toucans – so there was always something to catch the eye.
The following day our first activity (at 7am! It’s supposed to be a holiday!) was a 4×4 “safari”, which in reality was a drive along the road that we’d come in on for a couple of hours. It was still good value – we spotted capybara (a rodent the size of a medium-sized dog), raccoons, more caiman, a blue macaw, emu-esque birds, deer and iguana.
Even though Jane and I were covered up like particularly conservative Muslim women, the mosquitoes took this opportunity to really get their teeth into us.
The afternoon was an interesting one. Once again we relaxed around the fazenda in hammocks, but the approaching afternoon rain (and wind) forced us inside (after repacking and stowing our bags again).
We were inside for about 10/15 minutes and the wind was fairly strong, but we weren’t expecting to see a tree of around 2ft diameter felled when we went outside! When the rain had stopped, I was to make my debut on horseback.
You can be the judge from the photo, but I’m almost certain that when mounting my steed and taking my first tentative steps atop “Frank”, I heard gasps of awe and whispers of “…. like a young Zorro” and “….. Lone Ranger’s brother”. Unfortunately “Frank” didn’t really live up to the billing with his gammy left ear, but at least he wasn’t afraid of water like Jane’s less-than-macho equine companion “Big Gay Bob”.
We had a pleasant afternoon on the horses, but didn’t see anything new, apart from the potential for a career as a jockey when I lose half my body-weight.
The power had been knocked out during the storm, and the tents weren’t re-erected, so after Jane’s lengthy debate with an irate manageress, we secured use of a dorm room which was empty, rather than having to share with two other couples in a VERY small dorm. This was our most comfortable night’s sleep, but with the mosquitoes and the temperatures of (we reckon) early 30s celsius at night, this was relative.
So that was the Pantanal – definitely worth a visit in spite of the lack of comfort, organisation, honesty and the difficulty getting there – the wildlife was amazing and plentiful and the food surprisingly good – lots of beans, salad and grilled meats. In fact we may be addicted to beans now and we’re slightly concerned about going to other countries where you don’t get beans with every meal.
The only downside to the food was the breakfast, which consisted primarily of (dog?) biscuits. One other plus side was the number of Westerners in our group, which meant that we got tips on where they’ve been (including one for the hostel we’re now in) from a lovely French couple.
The only annoying person in our group was the Israeli girl, whose militant photography (half an hour taking photos of a bloody armadillo), petulant attitude and treatment of wildlife (throwing fruit at a parrot, kicking her horse around its head to make it go faster etc.) was only made bearable by the fact that her name appeared to be Anus.
So, we retraced our steps to Campo Grande yesterday, got an overnight bus via Carcavel to Fos do Igauçu (Brazilian side of the famous waterfalls) and a local bus over the border to the Argentinean side this morning (where we saw moments after entering the country the first official sign saying the Falklands belong to Argentina – I’ll be buying a large marker pen, so please send suggestions for slogans to add at the bottom of the sign).
Tomorrow we head to the Argentine side of the falls and the following day we’ll do a half day on the Brazilian side, both of which we’re really looking forward to, before heading into Argentina “proper” in search of steaks the size of my head.
Anyway, that’s more than enough of my drivel. We’ll be in touch soon.