The Pantanal

Sunset in the Pantanal

We spent most of a day flying from Iguazu to Cuiaba, capital of the state of Matto Grosso, one of the states on the border with Bolivia. We had a relatively lengthy layover in Sao Paolo, but we put it to good use, using the time to play the booking.com game and take advantage in a hotel price drop for a future booking and also wrap up buying our train tickets to Machu Picchu in December. End result is that we got to Cuiaba around 6:30p and just had time to taxi to the hotel and eat dinner in the hotel restaurant before calling it a night. We were pretty apprehensive as the restaurant was completely deserted when we were checking into the hotel, but apparently it's a pretty popular place as people kept arriving at the hotel just to eat at the restaurant. We ordered a couple of varieties of local fish and came away impressed.

Ah, one more exciting travel moment. There was an enormous grocery store across the street from our hotel, so after dinner we went over to stock up on snacks and water prior to our 3 day journey into the wetlands. Unfortunately, the road between the hotel had no cross-walks or stoplights nearby and was essentially like crossing Lamar or Burnet road (two lanes each way, lots of cars going fast). The hotel clerk assured us that we could just run across. "It's just dangerous. You'll be fine." So there we went, sprinting to the median and then across, both ways, at night, in Cuiaba, Brazil. On the plus side, we were rewarded with the biggest and cleanest grocery store I think I've ever been to outside the US, complete with a whole section of gluten free food.

The caiman was one of the first animals we saw when entering the Patanal

The next morning after an early breakfast our guide for the Pantanal, Juan Paolo, picked us up from the hotel. We made it about 20 minutes down the road before realizing we left Walter's stuffed animal, Lovey, in the hotel room. So we had a nice chance to chat with Juan as we turned around and went back to get Lovey, who was waiting patiently in our room, tangled up in the bedsheets.

 

Our trooper

We stayed in the Pantanal for three days, but given our early pickup the first day and our late drop-off the last day we actually had almost 4 full days here. Each day we had 2-3 activities, including 3 jeep safaris, a hike, horseback riding, and 3 boat trips along the Rio Claro. We typically did something early in the morning (5 or 6a), then around 4p, and then perhaps again after dinner. In the middle of the day we hung out in our room and played cards or napped. Walter was a real trooper and did a fantastic job on every single activity. Though we had the occasional "when are we heading back to the lodge?" or "I'm hot!" it was never persistent and he went with the flow every time.

I would say the jeep safaris were the least favorite activity. Contrary to our expectations, while the Pantanal is a national park it was created after farms were already established throughout the area, so you don't just go driving through whatever land you choose. Rather, most of the jeep safaris are spent driving up and down the same stretch of the Transpantaneira, a 147 km gravel road built about 40 years ago to provide access to all of the farms in the Pantanal area. You still see a decent amount of wildlife; primarily caimans (small crocodiles), capybaras (largest rodent in the world!), deer, racoons, foxes, the occasional tapir, a whole mess of birds (including toucans, parrots, macaws, parakeets, herons, ospreys, storks, and cormorants), and even a tarantula! Unfortunately we did not see any of the famed Pantanal cats (jaguars, ocelots, or pumas). Another couple with the same tour company got lucky and saw quite a bit, including otters, a puma, and a couple of giant anteaters, but we were not so lucky.

The hike and horseback riding gave us a chance to see the land around our lodge at a much slower pace. We enjoyed them both, though the mosquitoes were much more vicious on the hike (I think the horses distracted them on the ride). Fortunately Chris Jones sent us well prepared with head nets and we managed to go the whole three days with just a handful (or two) of bites each. It was great to get Walter on horseback and he did really well through a 90 minute ride in more or less full sun and 90+ degree heat. And the end of the hike was especially fun as we came across a group of about 5 monkeys and I was able to capture some good photos.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the boat trips. They had small 8 person boats with a 4hp outboard motor and we would go with our guide and a driver. The first two times we went piranha fishing and then the last time we were simply out to enjoy the sunrise and see more animals. Walter had been really excited about piranha fishing since we first discussed South America. In fact, one of the primary reasons we went to the Pantanal was so that he could do it. Fortunately, the experience did not disappoint. The first day out Walter caught 8 piranhas to my 4 and he was positively giddy that he had schooled his dad so thoroughly. The next day was still fun, but he couldn't keep up with Jie: Walter caught about 12 to Jie's 15 or so. In any event, they are both much better fisherpeople than yours truly.

All in all the trip into the Pantanal was a hit. It was borderline-ridiculously expensive given the quality of the lodge we stayed in, but the enthusiasm and integrity of the guides and staff really made it worthwhile. They were genuinely interested in making sure all three of us, and especially Walter, had a great time and got to do everything we wanted to do. They helped us pace our activities so we were never exhausted but never bored. And when things went really well, like with piranha fishing, you could absolutely tell that they shared in our excitement and our fun. Hard to ask for a whole lot more than that.

All our photos can be found on smugmug at https://markandjie.smugmug.com/Gap-Year/Pantanal-Brazil