The Pantanal is a huge wetland area on the border between Brazil and Bolivia, 10 times the size of the Florida Everglades. It’s teeming with wildlife, with much of the swampland only accessible by river, and the land owned by various ecological fazendas who subsidise their ranching income (this is cowboy country) through tourism.
We didn’t have much time, so we opted for a package deal that gave us two nights at a fishing lodge on the riverbank and included a range of activities to sample nature. While we were doing this, nature also sampled us – the mosquitos are voracious, and despite DEET and long sleeves, I ended up with no fewer than 30 bites on my back alone!
Our first expedition took us on a river safari in a small motorboat for a few hours until sunset. As we cruised along, our guide pointed out innumerable birds of every shape and colour, and we gawped and snapped away on our cameras and feeling inferior to the telephoto paparrazzi madness of some of our fellow tourists. The toucans were particularly memorable, with huge orange beaks, flying surprisingly gracefully through the sky despite their apparent lack of aerodynamics. Every now and again we’d round a corner and find a huge heron basking on the riverbank before they swept into the sky when we got too close. As the sun set, the limited photographic abilities of some of our group came into focus – needless to say, if you want to take a photo of the moon at night, you probably won’t benefit from switching the flash on as one guy did!
The following morning we got to try our hand at piranha fishing. The location the guide picked for this was a bit of a surprise – the very same river we’d seen people swimming in the previous day! Not only that, but as we headed towards the bank, we spotted a huge Cayman (think alligator) basking in the sun. He moved off as we approached, but we felt less than safe as we stepped onto the ground right where he’d just been! The fishing itself consisted of us putting chunks of steak on the hook on our lines and waiting for the fish to bite; at times it seemed more like we were feeding our quarry than catching it, with the fish pretty skilful at eating the bait without getting caught on the hook. When we did finally get a catch, the piranhas really did look like the creatures of fear they’re reputed to be – a mouth packed with sharp teeth, understandably thrashing around on the end of the line. There was even a special clamp to remove them from the hook to reduce the chance of getting bitten by them. We each caught at least one fish, and then got to taste our catch later at lunch.
In the late afternoon, we went on a ‘jungle walk’, a group of us guided through the dense forest tracking various animals and trying not to tread on others. Unfortunately some of the group hadn’t quite got into the spirit of keeping quiet so we could see more, and most of the wildlife kept quite a distance. We did however see monkeys in the trees above us, thousands of large red ants emerging through holes in a branch when the guide tapped it, and as darkness fell, a herd of capybara. They’re the largest rodent on earth, a bit like a guinea pig the size of an actual pig and with dark brown fur. They also moved at speed, and as we approached and they decided to move on, it was slightly alarming to suddenly track fifteen or twenty largish creatures sprinting around us. Although we didn’t see a huge amount ourselves, you got the sense that a lot of wildlife saw us from their places of hiding; as it got progressively darker and the sun set, one couldn’t help but wonder quite how close we were to the various beasts of the jungle surrounding us in their camouflage and waiting to defend themselves if not actually pounce.
Our way back along the dirt road that cuts through this bit of the Panatanal was a ‘Night Safari’, which sounds much more exotic than the reality of effectively sitting in a wind tunnel in the darkness with bugs being blasted at you! We were seated safari-style on the back of a pickup truck, with our heads just above the top of the cabin. This meant that anything that flew towards the headlights was deflected by the airflow and ended up flying into our faces. After a few tasters we learned to use our caps to deflect most of the flying protein, but it didn’t make for that great an experience on the hour long journey home! Of the few things the guide pointed out to us with a spotlight, most memorable were the caymans bathing at the river. The animals themselves were too well disguised, but their eyes reflected the spotlight, and in one waterway alone we could make out more than 20 pairs of eyes looking back at us from the depths!
For the final morning of our time in the Pantanal, we went horseriding on a Fazenda. It was fantastic, with blue macaws in the trees around us, and the iconic bird of the Pantanal, the jabiru in some water nearby. At one point we headed out across a lake, with caiman frantically clearing out of the way as we approached, and the water coming up to our feet on the horse. We’d been warned that the horses sometimes jump around if they become aware of snakes and other dangers nearby, but we fortunately all stayed on and had a great time – absolute bliss.