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.
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.
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.
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.
Panatanal – South (September 2015)
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!).
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!