Despite having spent a lot of time in Brazil, I can’t actually say I know the country well. Every time I’ve come, I’ve only ever stayed in Rio de Janeiro. Of course, it’s an amazing city but I wanted to know the country beyond its poster girl. I’d made brief trips to Belo Horizonte to watch football during the World Cup, and had quickly passed through Foz do Iguaçu on the way to Argentina, but never really spent enough time to get the know the places properly.
Thus I decided to go somewhere else. I wasn’t sure where, but following a series of debit card fails on flights to Porto Alegre, I managed to secure one to Campo Grande via lastminute.com. For whatever reason, the websites of Gol, Azul, LatAm, and Avianca Brasil let you get to the payment page, but then give an error message upon completing the transaction. Going through, let’s say, the Avianca UK site, the prices triple, so the best way is to find a company which resells the flight at local prices, but which accept foreign cards. A good idea is to go via SkyScanner to do this as it shows a list of prices from companies offering the flights.
Not only did I spend loads of time faffing around buying flights, but looking into Pantanal tours was also proving difficult. There are scores of reviews on TripAdvisor and other such sites, but these tend to verge on the extremes of opinion. A few company names kept popping up, so I researched them, trying to find information about prices, which they don’t list on their websites. You have to get in contact with them and enquire, which is what I did. I contacted several pousadas, accommodation in the Pantanal which also run tours, as well as enquiring with agencies. I recommend the former, as they don’t charge commission, and you can save a decent whack by going direct.
The Pantanal is a swamp area comprising parts of two states, Mato Grosso, and Mato Grosso do Sul, which run along the borders with Paraguay and Bolivia. Famed for being full of exotic animals, the regions juxtaposes the verdurous green of trees with the thick red of the crumbling earth at your feet. Instead of the roar of traffic and murmur of everyday life in the city, I was looking forward to peace and quiet, interrupted by the screeching and fluttering of birds, and perhaps the odd hiss and roar of more imposing creatures.
I ended up choosing Santa Clara, firstly because they responded to me in Portuguese, and secondly because they answered my questions and annexed the information I needed instead of writing an essay trying to persuade me to go with them. I figured the ones who hooked on to the idea that I was a foreigner were giving me tourist prices. As it was, the package cost 756 reais for three nights and all of the tours that are offered by all companies. This took into consideration a 10% discount which applies to listed prices if you pay everything up front, a law in Brazil often left untold where tourists are concerned. Added to this, a minibus from Campo Grande to the pousada was 90 reais, rather steep for a 3-hour journey, but it takes away the time and effort expended in trying to use what is a limited public transport service in the region.
I was met at Campo Grande airport by Katiane, the woman with whom I’d exchanged emails, and she packed me onto the minibus, which was also carrying other tourists to Buraco das Piranhas, the point where the Transpantaneira road, which goes all the way up to Cuiabá, begins. At this point, I was met by a 4×4 from Santa Clara, and travelled as a lone passenger down a dirt track for about half an hour. On the way in, the driver, whose name I’ll conceal here, bought some beers, and proceeded to drive with one hand on the wheel/gear stick and had in the other the dirt-cheap, stomach-cleansing Schin lager. Barely had we set off than we saw alligators congregated around rivers which crossed under bridges and capivaras chilling out in the sun (at a distance from the alligators).
Given that it was low season, at the pousada there was just a Dutch couple and French guy staying in the dorms, though there is a campsite over the other side of the ranch which is cheaper and provides beds within a netted hut. Upon arriving, the guy at reception was very informative and gave me a tour of the site, explaining the program for the next few days. In terms of food, it is all-you-can-eat, three meals a day, and offered a decent range of meat, rice, pasta and vegetables. Also served on the first day was freshly-caught piranha, fished by the other guests who’d been out on the river.
One of the catetos (boar-like pigs) called Marisa got very friendly with me and in an act of apparent friendliness rubbed her head and tusks in between my shins. That said, her porcine buddies weren’t so friendly, and every time we were in the same vicinity, they grunted and looked at me menacingly.
The following day started with breakfast at 6.30am, once again a spread with ample choice of bread, fillings and cakes, along with orange juice and coffee. The first activity was a hike starting at 7.30 am with Paulo, our guide for the duration of my stay, but unfortunately it was raining (it hadn’t previously rained for two weeks, typical), so we didn’t see any animals and the focus was more on keeping warm.
The next activity was piranha fishing at 3pm (activities are always at the same time). We boarded the boat after shooing a noisy alligator into the water and went down the river to deeper waters about 20 minutes away.
Initially I wasn’t too successful with my rod, basically a bamboo stick, fishing wire and a hook, but Paulo and Thibaut, the Frenchman, gave me some tips. Firstly, you need to fold the meat (remember that piranhas are carnivores) around the hook so that it’s difficult to pull off. The river is teeming with fish, so there’s barely any delay in getting a bite, and the idea is to wait for three tugs before ripping the rod out of the water with force. On one occasion I did this so strongly that the hook ended up impaled in a tree trunk behind me, but Paulo resolved that issue. After a few attempts, I got the hang of it and managed to hook a piranha, reeling it into the boat. Unhooking the fish is quite dangerous as they have massive teeth which make a loud gnashing noise as they struggle to escape, so I left this task to Thibaut, who dealt with the unhooking despite having had his hand cut open the previous day. In the end I managed to catch about a dozen piranhas, keeping about half of them, including what was the biggest catch of the day.
Upon returning to the pousada, we threw some of the fish on the river bank for the alligators to fight over. They were surprisingly slow, but the sound of their jaws snapping into their food was certainly noisy.
Paulo ‘shaved’ the skin off the piranhas and they were sent to the kitchen to be consumed later. There is something particularly satisfying about eating your own catch, so I proceeded to eat as much of the fish as I could, leaving just the tail, eye and carcass for the resident cat. I even sucked the bones to savour as much taste as I could. Following dinner I had a shot of cinnamon and honey cachaça, which certainly helps you to sleep. Bedtime at 10pm.
It rained and thundered all night and the morning looked as if it was going to be a wet one for horse-riding. But thankfully the storm ceased after breakfast, meaning our ride was more pleasurable. My steed, Troncho, was rowdy and rickety to begin with, but the tips I’d gleaned from my horse-loving sister came in handy and I had him under control, speeding up, slowing down, stopping and turning at my command. Everything was fine and dandy until I literally got a bee in my bonnet, and despite me viciously slapping my head , I couldn’t avoid being stung a few times on my scalp. Bastards! The ride was along a relatively easy route and allowed for a different perspective of the landscape and its wonderful shades of green, though the rain still meant that animals were hiding away.
After the ride we drank some tereré, a herb drenched in water consumed via a metal straw, passed around the group in a social manner, and we discussed the debilitating effect it can have on one’s manhood if consumed with boiling water as the Brazilians from Rio Grande do Sul and Argentines prefer. Before lunch we watched a ludicrous segment of the TV programme, Pânico, which involved a man guessing which woman out of four was actually a woman and not a transvestite, and consequently having to wrestle with her in a hot-tub. He ended up choosing a man, though to be honest I think they all were. Much as I did in the spare time between excursions, I slept. One can never sleep too much.
Later on we went on the boat trip, for which the rain stayed away again, and we saw capivaras within minutes, as well as a plethora of birds which would make an ornithologist’s day. We later saw monkeys, and Paulo explained that the black ones were males and the white ones females. There came a moment where we heard an otter splashing around in the reeds on the river bank and we followed it for a while, Paulo making noises to which it replied. It swims extremely fast, but I felt a little sorry for it being chased down the river by a speedboat full of tourists poised with cameras. It was rather cold, but when the sun did come out, reflecting the surroundings against the river, it was a joy to behold.
The following tour was a night safari, which in actual fact ended up being the most disappointing of the tours. It basically involved driving down the Transpantaneira for half an hour or so with a flashlight, but the truck made so much noise that it was no wonder we only saw a deer and a pair of glowing eyes that allegedly belonged to a wolf. Apparently the night tour is usually done by boat, but on this occasion weather didn’t permit it.
Upon returning, I had another shot of cachaça as a nightcap, as well as playing MarioKart on one of the employee’s phones.
The final activity was the day jeep safari, and typically, as it was my last day at the pousada, the sun was on its way out. We went to another fazenda where we saw masses of noisy blue hyacinth macaws, which were on the verge of disappearing until only a few years ago. When investigating the problem it was discovered that in every batch of macaw chicks, there is one that grows quicker than the others and thus eats all the food, meaning that the less-developed ones die of hunger. Given that there are also predators in the area, numbers were dwindling until it was decided to monitor nests and put the big chicks together and the little ones in a different nest. In addition, I saw a small anteater in the trees as well as a pair of raccoons. We apparently also came across jaguar footprints, but how recent or genuine they were, I couldn’t tell you.
With that, we returned, had lunch and I made my way to my next destination, Bonito.
All in all, the tour had been worthwhile, although the weather did let us down somewhat. A few days later I saw a chart with animals from the Pantanal, and I realised that I had seen practically all of them except jaguars and snakes. I don’t know how much difference the price of the pousada and tour makes, but I felt that what I paid was reasonable as I heard from other tourists on other tours that their guides didn’t explain anything and their piranha fishing involved just having rods thrown at them down by the riverside and being left to their own devices. Whether paying more would entail seeing the fabled jaguars and snakes I don’t know, and perhaps the extra money shelled out would have more to do with accommodation facilities as opposed to the activities themselves.
Anyway, stage one of my Brazil tour had gone well. I’d seen some new animals, had time to relax in a very tranquil environment, and as a bonus fished and eaten piranha.
The next stop would be Bonito, where I’d hope to come face-to-face with an anaconda.