Brazilian Pantanal 27th to 3rd of October
From Cobija we took a flight to Santa Cruz, the main city in lowland Bolivia. It has grown considerably since my previous visit, and is more pleasant than I remember, but we’re just not into cities at the moment. Another flight took us to Campo Grande in Brazil, from where we boarded an overnight bus to Cuiaba. Nancy had been dreading the journey, but it turned out to be surprisingly comfortable as the seats recline a long way and are well spaced. We both slept very well and preferred the bus to a night in a grotty hotel.
In Cuiaba we made our way to Eco Verde Hostel where we met Joel. His place is idiosyncratic to say the least but it is a quiet spot in an indifferent town. We found it difficult to find somewhere ‘nice’ to eat. After the rather bad food in Bolivia we wanted something fresh and tasty. We skipped lunch as we only found ‘all you can eat’ buffets or deep fried food. Dinner wasn’t much better as we opted for a restaurant around the trendy “Praca Popular”. The restaurant offered a fusion of oriental and something else! The mixed seafood ceviche was delicious but the salmon gyozas were just weird! Deep fried (again!) and filled with over spiced (?thyme) salmon, ? cream cheese and ? mayo. Just odd.
The hostel does have a wonderful garden with four hammocks which are very comfortable for afternoon naps accompanied by one of the small kittens! We also met Jacob and Bjarke who are two zookeepers from Denmark. They had organised a seven day trip to The Pantanal and as we all wanted the same thing…a mixed tour not “just” jaguars were decided to join up with them.
In the morning we headed off… sort of. Joel’s heart is definitely in the right place, but organisation is not his strong point. We farted around in Cuiaba for a few hours, and finally arrived for late lunch at the first lodge in the Pantanal. Anyone expecting comparison with African lodges would be sorely disappointed as they seem to be built for functionality rather than charm.
At this particular place (Canto do Arancua) we were made to feel like unwelcome house guests but the redeeming feature was the pool! With the temperatures over 40 degrees no one felt like doing much expect wallow in the pool. At around 3:30 the Danes went for a very hot horseback ride, John went for a bird walk and I sat in the shade and finished the fourth Game of Thrones book! The Brazilians in the pool had the music blaring playing the same track over and over again. Not what you would expect of a wildlife lodge. Apparently this is what happens on the weekends.
We had seen a good variety of birds on the way down (especially the beautiful yellow-billed and crested cardinals), but with dusk we started seeing our first animals – coatis, grey and red brocket deer, rabbits and capybara. It was a relatively short drive to the Pousa Alegre where we were to spend the night. On the road into the lodge we saw thousands of illuminated cayman eyes, a family of American wood storks roosting in a nest, and lovely night jars. Although the lodge is utilitarian we were very thankful for the airconditioned rooms.
For some reason, the lodges all have their breakfast at 7am, which is really to late to be practical as it is very hot by 8! We went for a short independent bird walk at about 6 and were pleased to see the Hyacinth Macaws. Jakob, our trip photographer, got some good pictures of the adults feeding their young. We set off on our guided walk at about 8am. Jakob was particularly into (dangerous) snakes, so we prodded around near the marshes, but couldn’t find anything. Nevertheless, it was an interesting stroll with new birds and insects even though we were all pretty parched by the end of the walk.
After lunch we left on the 4-hour drive to Porto Jofre at the end of the transpantaneira. You soon leave the farms behind and there is mixed scrubland and marsh. We did stop for a much needed break on the way down, and as it got dark we started spotting a few snakes on the road. One was an anaconda, but as it was only a foot long, wasn’t particularly distinctive or impressive. Unfortunately, Nancy got a piece of sharp grass in her eye as we were driving, so we rushed the last section as she was in a lot of pain. After a lot of rinsing we did get it out, but her eye remained sore for a few days.
Porto Jofre is all about getting on the river and looking for jaguars, so after the usual 7am breakfast we headed up the Cuiaba river. For nearly an hour it’s quite wide, but it then splits into a number of smaller channels. Up the first one we followed there was a family of nine giant river otters, more habituated than the ones we had seen in Manu, who hunted and ate their way through quite a few fish as they moved slowly upstream. A fantastic view of happy, fish eating, chatty otters.
We then heard that a jaguar had been seen on a nearby riverbank so we raced back downstream to find a group of maybe ten boats waiting on the bank. A couple of otters snorted warning signals, but no one could see hide nor hair of the jaguar.
So after an hour of staring at a bush we returned to the lodge for lunch. It takes about 45 mins to get to the lodge, you eat quickly and then head back out, it would’ve made more sense to pack a lunch and eat in the shade on the river. Have we mentioned that the temp is over 40?
We had all been frustrated by the constant moving in the morning, so chose to make more photo stops in the afternoon. Though we saw no new animals, it was lovely to sit and watch the capybaras, skimmers, plus a solitary otter, without other distractions. On our return in the dusk we were lucky enough to see a tapir swimming across the river (maybe 500m at this point). It swam along the bank for a while, found an easier place to climb up and melted into the forest. Incredible. We were also treated to a beautiful sunset.
With no jaguar sightings the previous day, we actually managed to leave at about six the following morning in order to maximise our chances. The morning followed the same pattern with otter sightings and an abortive jaguar hunt. This time, however, our waiting was rewarded as a strapping male jaguar stepped out of the shade and onto the bank to survey his kingdom. Magnificent! They are so much more solid than leopards – not so sleek and beautiful, but incredibly powerful. Unfortunately, some idiot in another boat made a loud noise and after only a few seconds he returned to the shadows where he remained hidden despite our positive thoughts.
After a rushed lunch, we headed back up the hot and dusty highway, back to the Pousa Alegre. We were very surprised to find that our guide was leaving us there, so we did a night safari with another guide. We only saw potoo, brocket deer, rabbits and nightjars, but were then treated to a magnificent view of a tamandua searching for ants and completely ignoring us.
The new guide took us on an excruciatingly hot and uncomfortable horse ride the following morning much against my will by suggesting that we might see giant anteaters. The only giant things that morning were the temperature and the pain in my legs. I don’t think my (previously) torn adductor muscles helped either. Remind me never to get on a horse again – even Nancy found it extremely uncomfortable.
For the seemingly umpteenth time, our plans changed so we went back to our first lunch spot, the grumpy Canso do Arancua, for the last two nights. We did a hot walk in the afternoon and got very close to a family of brown capuchin monkeys feeding on palm nuts, plus we learned about the symbiotic relationship between one of the forest trees and red fire ants but after a few weeks of hot walks I think we’ve had enough of exercise in these temperatures.
With the lure of a boat ride however, we were out in the field again the next morning. It turned it however to be a short boat ride (yet more otters, though) and a long walk. Just before our walk the guide demonstrated native insect repellent. You stick you hand into an ants nest and then rub the ants. They will release a chemical which is the repellent. (Nancy here) If I had done exactly what I had been told to do I wouldv’e been fine but no… I flicked them off and some went up my arms and bit me! (I like insects from a distance or when I need to be the “brave one”.)
And for our next adventure…. just after seeing a lovely helmeted manakin, Nancy had the misfortune to step on a wasps nest. Having been warned about killer bees (run for the river!) it was a little disconcerting, but they turned out to be only(!) carnivore wasps. She stayed ever so “calm” (hmmmmm) and was told to RUN! All she wanted to do was take her trousers off as it felt like they were inside her trouser legs (they weren’t). We were both stung quite painfully, Nancy, on her calf (3 times) and on her bum! Me, on my bum and jaw which swelled up to make me feel like half a chipmunk. They were incredibly itchy over the next few days.
After some confusion with paddles and seats we eventually got going on our canoe trip. It was truncated by the confusion but we had a lovely, peaceful ride. More excellent views of otters eating fish. Wonderful light, especially on an iguana in a tree.
Another game drive in the evening, where we saw very little for most of the time (though the boat billed heron was good), and then suddenly saw a tapir and an armadillo just before coming back to the lodge. Nancy was very excited!
We went to sleep giggling about the fact that it isn’t everyday that we both get stung by carnivore wasps!
On our final boat ride the next morning we kept up our record of having seen otters every time we went out. These ones were much more skittish than those around Porto Jofre, but still delightful, as were the small channels we manoeuvred through. A few new bird species – Mato Grosso antbird, purple throated euphonia, campo flicker – and it was a lovely way to wind up before the hot ride back to Cuiaba.
We had had an interesting time with very fortunate jaguar and tapir sightings, and really got on well with Bjarke and Jakob, but I wouldn’t rush to go back. The accommodation is largely without charm, and while the birdlife is as interesting as Africa, the variety and quantity of animals come nowhere close. I’m very happy to have finally seen jaguar (and there’s no doubt that the Pantanal and Porto Jofre in particular is an excellent place to do that), but I don’t think we’d see a great deal different on another tour.
Seven days was good for us, but we could have coped with five – 2D/3N in Porto Jofre. Compared with other prices we were quoted, 4000 reais (about £1000 each) for 6 nights was a very good deal. The car was beat up, the guides were very good but not true experts, the organisation was haphazard, but the value was great for anyone not needing to stay on a prestige riverboat.
Tour and hostel in Cuiaba: EcoVerde Tours