The Pantanal, a great alternative to the Amazon

Early on in our trip planning we made an executive decision not to venture too far into Brazil. But we did want to see the local wildlife.  The best chance of seeing animals was not in the Amazon, but in an area of wetlands in southern Brazil called the Pantanal. 

The Pantanal is the world's largest wetland, 20 times larger than the Everglades in Florida. The area spreads over three countries, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. Home to several hundred species of birds, fish (including piranhas), and other exotic animals. Sure to be a wildlife spotter's paradise.

So we found ourselves on another overnight bus to Campo Grande. Not quite the same kind of luxury we had from Buenos Aires. This bus seemed to stop at every village and town along the way. Woken from a shallow sleep every time the bus went over the speed bumps at the entrance to yet another bus station. 

At one stop we all had to disembark and watch as the bus drove off with our luggage. Whilst nervously waiting for the bus to return, we got to know some of our fellow travellers.  Thirty minutes later the bus reappeared, a small technical issue apparently. More likely the driver fancied a home cooked meal from his local girlfriend.

We arrived into Campo Grande just after daybreak. On hand to meet us the owner of Pananal Discovery, Gil. Whisked off to a city centre hostel for some breakfast and a chance to freshen up. We didn't get to see much of Campo Grande, a hot, humid sprawling city. We did however spot lots of white Kombi’s on every street corner.

After breakfast, we piled into a minibus for the 5 hour ride to the Pantanal. An uneventful journey, aside from the odd toucan flying across our bow and caymans catching rays in the shallows. Just over eight kilometres from our final destination, we were ejected from the comfort of the mini bus and tossed into the back of a lorry. The bumpy 20 minute ride just a taste of things to come. 

We had booked a three day, four night tour. Home was Lontra Pantanal Hotel. Not so much a hotel more a riverside base camp with some rustic accommodation and dining hall. Our guide for the next few days went by title of 'Professor'. He bore a striking resemblance to a slightly older Mr Chow from the Hangover movie.

Our time was mapped out with activities in, around, and on the river. First up was tubing. 

We jumped in the narrow speedboat and set off up river. En route, Professor told us about the various species of piranha in the river and then said 'jump in'. Now we've all watched more than enough James Bond movies. You know the ones where the bad guys get stripped to the bone in seconds. We were a little reluctant to get in to say the least. 

The Professor reassured us that they had not lost anybody in twenty years but there's always a first time! Piranhas have an incredible sense of smell and blood in the water turns on their feeding radar. Now we checked ourselves from head to toe, no sign of blood.

Slowly but surely everyone jumped in, but only after making sure the previous person surfaced nibble free. Eventually, all in the water we bobbed along on the current heading back to base. Just the occasional scream as somebody caught another swimmer with their foot and gave both of them the fright of their life.

Our first dinner flagged what was to be the only downside to our trip.  We were assured before booking (and by Gil in Campo Grande) that the hotel could provide vegetarian options.  No such luck.  The staff had no clue what being vegetarian meant. Every lunch and evening meal the same issue. Julie ended only being able to eat the side salad and rice. After repeatedly complaining, the staff finally made some effort and rustled up the odd omelette. Six weeks on and we are still waiting for some promised compensation.

Our first full day started at 7.11am on the dot. We piled in the boat for a river safari. The varied bird life was staggering, herons, toucans, egrets, vultures, hawks, eagles. You name it we saw it. One of the highlights of the whole tour was the incredible array of bird life. We stopped the boat several times to watch monkeys playing in the trees. On one stop we saw a huge iguana warming itself in the sun. Not sure how the Professor spotted it from the river.

After 1.5 hours in the boat, we pulled into shore and began walking the short distance to the top of one of the few hills. A short walk it might have been but it was steep, and we needed the help of some strategically placed ropes to haul ourselves up. The view from the top was majestic, a vast plain of every shade of green you could imagine. Circling overhead searching for their next meal, a kettle of black vultures.

On the way back to base we took a slight detour to the Rio Rojo where most of the group took a swim. On this occasion, we choose to chill. Further down stream we spotted several caymans sunning themselves. Tell me again why the day before we had been swimming in a river full of things with kiss-ass teeth?

After lunch, we were kitted out with some expensive and flash looking fishing gear. A bamboo cane pole, with a piece of line tied to the end and a hook. We were off piranha fishing.  Our bait was pieces of a cows heart and within seconds we were all getting bites. We pulled out nearly a dozen piranhas. Who knew there were so many species. And yes we can confirm that they have rows of razor sharp teeth. So with dinner taken care of, most of group went canoeing. We choose instead to do some washing, go figure.

After dinner (the piranha were not the main course, more of a novelty side dish), we set off down river in search of jaguars. We had the most amazing sunset as we cruised along. Once the light had disappeared from the sky, our guides used powerful torches to scan the river banks. On this occasion, we lucked out, no jaguar sightings. We did see heaps of caymans, including one that dived right under our boat. There was also a huge variety of insects, including a beetle the size of a guinea pig that careered into Julie's leg. Girls have a great ability to exaggerate the size of bugs in the same way that boys do with fish they have caught.

At 7.11am the following day, we all piled in the lorry and headed off for bush walk. One and a half hours bouncing along a dirt track shaking every filling loose. Along the way we saw a muster of black necked storks. With a wingspan of over 2 metres and standing 1.5 metres tall, an impressive sight. At every rickety wooden bridge there were caymans just waiting for the truck to slip and tumble, meals on wheels anybody.

The Professor started the bush walk with an elaborate tale about wild pigs. The pigs will attack in groups if they feel threaten. The warning was if you see several trying to flank you head for the nearest red ant laden tree. Yeah right. 

During the walk we spotted howler monkeys leaping from branch to branch. These are not called howlers for no reason; boy can they make some noise. Being at the head of the group we had great view of an armadillo that was wandering across our path. When the rest of group caught up the funky creature had disappeared into the bush. Then, we came across a large group of sleeping wild pigs. Slowly they stirred. Making a hasty retreat we didn't hang around to see whether they going to try to circle us. Where is that red ant laden tree?

After lunch back at base most of our group left having booked just a two night tour. Not long after we spotted a family of capybara in some long grass by the side of our accommodation. Crazy looking creatures to say the least. We got to watch these cute guys for several minutes before they headed deep in the wetland.

We tried our hand at canoeing in the afternoon. Incredibly unstable, we paddled in circles. Then crashed into the dense mangroves before getting our act together and heading in the right direction. Possibly the longest 60 minutes of our trip so far. Don't think we will be entering the Olympics any time soon.

Late afternoon with a new bunch of visitors we headed out for another go at tubing. This time we were the first ones in the water. Of course we checked for signs of cuts and scraps first.

For our last morning, we again boarded the luxurious lorry at 7.11am and headed off to the Pousada Ranch for a horse trek. Along the way, we spotted several hyacinth macaws to go with the red and yellow macaws we had seen the previous day. Great to see these gorgeous birds in the wild instead of in some crappy aviary or zoo.

Julie ended up with the slowest horse in the world. It had one pace and that was dead slow so she ended up at the back of the group. The trek took us through several bush areas as well as knee-deep (for horses) wetlands. We spotted flamingos, emus, a cute little owl and a lone capybara. We heard an incredible racket that sounded like thunder but was a large group of howler monkeys going off.

We had a fantastic time in the Pantanal. Our accommodation whilst basic was clean. We had nightly entertainment provided by cheeping bats in the roof space, noisy buggers. And boy did they smell. The bird life was spectacular, the activities well organised and despite not seeing the elusive jaguars we did manage to glimpse wildlife we had never seen before. 

Next Stop, Salta and a smashing time.

PS Apologies for some of the photos being a little fuzzy. Capturing the wildlife on my small Sony camera is a little hit and miss at times.