A dip into Brazil: The glorious Pantanal

Hycinth Macaws asking us to turn the heat down

Hycinth Macaws asking us to turn the heat down

September & October 2015: They say, if you want to see jungle, go to the jungle, but if you want to see animals in South America, go to the Pantanal. Although South America doesn’t have the chart topping diversity of big animals that some other continents have, the Pantanal displays what it does have in glorious quantity and boy does it make up for it in diversity of bird and insect life.

Rebecca here…

One of the better Pantanal bridges

One of the better Pantanal bridges

The Pantanal is the northern part of a huge area of flat wetlands, as big as France, extending down into central Argentina (we crossed the wetlands of Argentina during our journey south in November 2014). It’s wet and largely flooded 6 months of the year and dry for the other 6 months, leaving pools of water dotted around the place that slowly dry up. During the dry season, the rivers and slowly diminishing pools become the focus of the bird and animal life.

Two days driving around the edge to reach the northern entrance to the Pantanal was dominated by trucks

Two days of hot and boring driving around the edge to reach the northern entrance to the Pantanal was dominated by trucks

We enjoyed two visits to the region: the first in September when we travelled east from the plains of Bolivia across the Southern part, before leaving the van in Campo Grande while we travelled to Rio and back to the UK; then, after returning to Campo Grande in mid-October, we made the long loop (2 days drive from Campo Grande) up the eastern edge of the region (which has no roads within it), all the way around to the northern part. We hoped we had timed our visit well, catching the end of the dry season, when life is clinging to the remaining areas of water, making it easier to see – and our second visit, especially, in the scorching heat, certainly exceeded our expectations.

The start of the "Transpantaneira" in the north

The start of the “Transpantaneira” in the north

Both the north and the south sections have dirt roads dubbed “Transpantaneira” that take you into the region. The southern one runs across the bottom, so not penetrating very deep in, but is none the worse for it, whereas, in the north, the road runs 150kms southwards in towards the centre, although even that doesn’t penetrate very far. Being wetlands, both roads are dominated by numerous little wooden bridges of varying standard of maintenance (more than 120 of them on the northern route), crossing streams and pools, some, at this time of year, just dried up mud puddles.

Throughout our time in the region, we saw numerous beautiful Kingfishers enjoying the ample supply of fish

Throughout our time in the region, we saw numerous beautiful Kingfishers enjoying the ample supply of fish

The Caimans seemed to be enjoying themselves too!

The Caimans seemed to be enjoying themselves too!

Panatanal – South (September 2015)

A ferry instead of a bridge on the southern Transpantaneira

A ferry instead of a bridge on the southern Transpantaneira

Our time in the Pantanal didn’t get off to a great start, as we started our drive along the southern Transpantaneira a little late in the day, having spent much of the day after an overnight stay in the border city of Corumba once again trying and failing to find somewhere to fill our cooking gas canisters (a constantly repeating saga!) We intended to drive just a little way in and find somewhere to pull of the road for the night, but, to our surprise, we found fences lining the road (this region is also cattle ranching territory) and no pull-offs. We talked to the owners of one property that had a little unfenced area near the gate to ask if we might park there and were quite aggressively told to drive on to a hotel – but that was exactly what we didn’t want to do, given the hotels were all at the other end of the road and driving the Transpantaneira in the dark rather defeated the objective of wildlife spotting!

Cormorant surfacing with a large fish

Cormorant surfacing with a large fish

Finally, having driven much further than intended, we found a little area to the side of one of the small rivers to pull onto and, with relief, stepped out the van, only to find ourselves mobbed by more mosquitos than either of us had ever experienced in our lives before (including various trips to Africa). We must have parked pretty much on top of a breeding spot. Nothing to be done, but, at that stage, we hadn’t rigged up any netting across windows or doors to allow us to have the them open and insect proof – and it was really very, very hot. So, we spent a very, hot sweaty night locked away in the van with only the roof air vent for ventilation and with our well insulated van maintaining its 30 degree warmth all night despite it actually cooling down nicely outside. Clearly, something would have to be done to improve our sleeping arrangements in the tropics and, a few days later, in a much less mossie ridden campsite, we fitted some netting over the sun-roof and, thankfully, that number of mossies proved to be an anomaly. For the rest of our time in the region, it was quite adequate to simply put some long clothes on, spray ourselves with Deet and sit downwind of a mosquito coil to cope with the evening insects. When we slept with doors and windows open, we slept under a net rigged up inside.

Now that's a proper wasp sting!

Now that’s a proper wasp sting!

Next day, the wildlife viewing got started. Although the insect dramas continued when I was unceremonially stung on my ankle by a rather alarming looking black wasp when I took a pee a little too close to their nest. My swollen and rather achy ankle was temporarily forgotten when we spotted our first (of many, we would later find) Caiman and, stopping on the bridge to look at them, I leapt a little too enthusiastically from the cab and, as I landed, my stung ankle gave way. The pain from the sting was gone just a few hours later, but it left me nursing a slightly sprained ankle for the next couple of days! Luckily, our next stop turned out to be a rather wonderful campsite right on the river’s edge, so we got out our tent extension for the van (cooler to sleep in and insect proof) and stayed put there for a few days, sitting out a Brazilian national holiday weekend, enjoying the wildlife coming to our door.

Camp set up next to the river for a few days of watching wildlife pass the front door

Camp set up next to the river for a few days of watching wildlife pass the front door

Such as this woodpecker that tapped away, working hard inside this hole in the tree above the van for 3 days before we finally spotted it in person

Such as this woodpecker that tapped away, working hard inside this hole in the tree above the van for 3 days before we finally spotted it in person

Several Caimans hung out along the river bank below the van

Several Caimans hung out along the river bank below the van

And a pair of XXX happily wandered through camp

And a pair of Iguanas happily wandered through camp

Each time this Toucan flew by, it was chased off and mobbed by other birds (it is an egg eater)

Each time this Toucan flew by, it was chased off and mobbed by other birds (it is an egg eater)

Not having been able to work out in advance how the wildlife watching would work in the Pantanal and getting the impression that we would need to book organised tours in advance (remember that we are often trying to plan with rather limited internet connectivity, referring to websites that review holiday activities and guidebooks written with backpackers in mind rather than drivers), we had done exactly that, pre-booked ahead a package of river tours and hotel accommodation a little further down the road, for the days after the busy holiday weekend. As it turned out, we could have done a number of much cheaper tours from the campsite we stayed at for that weekend and most of the hotels, hostals and camps are set up with packages on offer including accommodation, food and tours. To rub salt into the wound of our unnecessary outlay, just as we arrived at the hotel, the weather broke and the heavens opened. As they were pre-booked and paid for, we spent the next day trying to keep warm and dry during two long boat trips trying to spot the little wildlife that didn’t object to the rain!

Ready for our wet river tours, complete with improvised plastic bag cover for camera!

Ready for our wet river tours, complete with improvised plastic bag cover for camera!

Trying to keep dry and warm on the boat

Trying to keep dry and warm on the boat

Good weather for Capybaras (fondly known as Happy Capys by us)

Good weather for Capybaras (fondly known as Happy Capys by us)

That being said, though, the hotel stay was worth it, with a huge diversity of birds in the grounds, including an anaconda turning up one lunchtime and a family of howler monkeys living in the trees around it (and providing a very noisy early wake-up call each morning, providing an explanation for why the restaurant and bar shut so early each evening!).

An anaconda spotted creeping through the hotel grounds one lunchtime

An anaconda spotted (and caught) creeping through the hotel grounds one lunchtime

The family of Howler Monkeys that woke us up with their "singing" at crack of dawn

The family of Howler Monkeys that woke us up with their “singing” at crack of dawn

The core trio of singers in perfect (sort of) harmony - male (black) and two females (orange)

The core trio of singers in perfect (sort of) harmony – male (black) and two females (orange)

The riverfront walk by the hotel

The riverfront walk by the hotel

In Campo Grande, the nearest city with an airport, we left the van in the care of a father and son small secure airport carpark operation and, with bags on our backs, flew to Rio for a few days, then on to London for a three week visit to family.

Leaving the van for our trip back to the UK via Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia

Leaving the van for our trip back to the UK via Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia

 

Pantanal – North (October 2015)

We returned to Campo Grande in October and had a not uneventful reunion with the van when the car park owner’s car died on us on the short journey from picking us up at the airport back to the car park. Bruce and he ended up pushing the car, with me behind the steering wheel, like an oversized luggage trolley! Back at the van, we found our battery was dead (more on that later) and young guys from the street had to be gathered to help push it out of it’s tight corner in the car park so we could get jump leads to reach the engine!

Another yellow VW, this one selling pineapples in Campo Grande

Another yellow VW, this one selling pineapples in Campo Grande

The already high temperatures had reached new highs while we had been away and we were now experiencing 40 degree temperatures in the daytime, which took a little adjusting too. Fortunately, as well as getting an oil change before leaving the city, we also found a wonderful workshop specialising in air conditioning, where the manager spoke Spanish (we were dealing with another language in Brazil – Portugese, which was, frankly, Portungese to us) and we finally got our faulty air conditioning repaired. We would have struggled with some of the driving we were to do, especially in the north Pantanal, around Cuiabá (the centre of the South American continent), where it was even hotter, without it. We had also installed the 12v fan over the sleeping area in the van, which we had not had need for before during the trip. Even with that, I spent at least one night sleeping the wrong way round, with the side door of the van open and my head essentially hanging out of it. Whereas in Patagonia we had become experts in parking the van to minimise the wind, now we were searching for any trace of a breeze and maximising it’s flow through the van!

There was a little bit of interest in our strange model of van at the VW garage in Campo Grande - they had the right type of oil, but not the oil filter

There was a little bit of interest in our strange model of van at the VW garage in Campo Grande – they were the only place with the right type of oil, but not the oil filter

Hurrah - getting the long broken (we suspect) air conditioning fixed

Hurrah – getting the long broken (we suspect) air conditioning fixed

After a couple of days of rather hot and boring driving, we finally reached the northern entrance to the Pantanal and set out down the road. We stopped at a camp towards the start for a night, before heading down the route proper.

Our hottest night was spent by a river on the outskirts of Cuiba. We took a dip to cool off, only to find it very shallow and very warm1

Our hottest night was spent by a river on the outskirts of Cuiabá. We took a dip to cool off, only to find it was very shallow and very warm!

Enjoying a lovely camp near the top of the northern Transpantaneira

Recovering from the long, hot drive at a comfortable camp near the top of the northern Transpantaneira

Rhea passing through the ranch

Rhea passing through the ranch

Northern Pantanal sunset

Red sunsets each night in the northern Pantanal

Another anaconda encounter - this one had crept into one of the cool(er) hostel rooms at the camp

Another anaconda encounter – this one had crept into one of the hostel rooms at the camp trying to cool down

Blue and yellow macaws pause for a snack in a tree next to the van

Blue and Yellow Macaws pause for a snack in a tree next to the van

Halfway down the road, we stopped at a hotel (we needed a night of A/C by then) with a river trip that promised a visit to a local Giant Otter family, one of our wildlife targets.

An Anhinga watches for side-catch opportunities at the hotel

An Anhinga watches for side-catch opportunities at the hotel

Excitedly getting a look at our first Giant Otter - we didn't know there would be more later...

Excitedly getting a look at our first Giant Otter – we didn’t know there would be more later…

They can be up to 2m long

They can be up to 2m long

Rare spotting of one out on the bank

Rare spotting of one out on the bank

Our boat guide showing us how to catch Piranha

Our boat guide showing us how to catch Piranha

They're the ones with the teeth!

They’re the ones with the teeth!

Not such a good bridge - but they all held!

Not such a good bridge – but they all held!

A couple of days of wildlife watching and many, many bridges later, at the end of the road, the hotel at Porto Jofre was full with people on fishing trips, but is happy for campervans to stay for free by the riverside in their grounds, make use of the swimming pool (boy – did we need that each day!) and facilities, as long as the campers book one of their Jaguar spotting river tours. Well that was what we were there for anyway, so that arrangement was just fine by us! As it turned out, we were able to share the river trip costs with a retired German couple we had met at the start of the road and a young Belgian couple who slept in their little hire car.

Happy Capys crossing!

Happy Capys crossing!

Pools with many, many Caimans!

Pools with many, many Caimans!

Coati crossing the road in front of us

Coati crossing the road in front of us

Storks clearing a pool of fish

A large group of storks thoroughly clearing a pool of fish

Rhea ahead!

Rhea and family ahead!

A pair of Toucans have an altercation in a tree above us

A pair of Toucans have an altercation in a tree above us

Sunset by our river camp

Sunset by our river camp

It was an early dawn start the day of the tour, already uncomfortably hot, but the heat brings its advantages. Jaguars get hot too and, at this time of year, hang out by the river edges in the shade. Amazingly, we saw five Jaguars during our 6 hour trip, plus, a highlight for us, a family of Giant Otters who, unlike the ones a few days earlier who are perhaps a little fed up with tour boats, where happy to hang out in the open next to our boat.

Sunrise over our little camp at Porto Jofre

So hot, we’re up for sunrise!

Out on the boast soon after dawn looking for Jaguars

Out on the boast soon after dawn looking for Jaguars

The first of 5 we saw that day - this one on patrol along the rivers edge

The first of 5 we saw that day – this one on patrol along the rivers edge

Trying to keep cool by the river

Trying to keep cool by the river

Unfortunately, it was just like a safari anywhere these days - word quickly spread when a cat was spotted and the boats gathered

Unfortunately, it was just like a safari anywhere these days – word quickly spread when a cat was spotted and, even in this remote spot, the boats of wildlife spotters gathered

Following a group of Giant Otters swimming down river

Following a group of Giant Otters swimming down river

Then we sat and watched them for a little while

Then we sat and watched them for a little while

After a hot week or so enjoying the Pantanal, we checked into a hotel with A/C again in the rather lovely town of Caceres near the Bolivian border. The van’s battery had flattened on us again while parked at Porto Jofre for a few days, so, diagnosing it damaged beyond recovery, we got a new one fitted while in town. Caceres was once part of Bolivia – but that’s part of Bolivia’s story, so for the next instalment.

 

The unexpectedly pleasant colonial town of Caceres

Recuperating with an air conditioned room and a relaxing evening out in town

Recuperating with an air conditioned room and a relaxing evening out in town

Warm evening listening to live music

Warm evening listening to live music

The Yellow Van gets a new battery ready for it’s return to Bolivia

Below is a gallery of more wildlife pictures from the Pantanal – it really is a wildlife-fest, so if that’s not your thing, look away now!

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One response to “A dip into Brazil: The glorious Pantanal

  1. Pingback: Brazil’s two elegant capitals: Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia | Yellow Van Days

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