I've always been fascinated by the jungle. As a kid, I went on many camping trips, sometimes with the boy scouts, sometimes with a small group of friends. But always secretly hoping to see wild animals. Sometimes I would get "lucky" and come across a wild boar here, a monitor lizard there. But spending the last 4 days in the Pantanal - the world's largest region of marshlands, alive with all kinds of animals - is like combining all those camping trips and jacking them up with steroids. I was in camping heaven.
We went into the Pantanal having no expectations. In fact, we never even heard of the place until we started doing our research on Brazil not too long ago. Ironically, we were looking into the Amazon when we started reading on forums and blogs that if we wanted to see animals living in the wild, we should go to the Pantanal instead. So we did. And we were glad.
There were so many aspects of the trip that made it such an unforgetable experience - seeing the animals was just one of them. Here are just the top few:
1) The boat - our home for 4 days Like I mentioned, we had no expectations going into this. All we knew was that we basically had two options to do this - either stay on one of the many fazendas (ranches) and do daily boat / land trips out into the Pantanal, or go a bit more hard core and stay on the boat itself (albeit a slightly bigger one) for the entire duration so we can be closer to the action. Of course, we opted for the latter. For those of you who plan to do this, I would strongly advice to do the same. But if you expect to be staying on a luxury yacht with private rooms and hot shower, don't bother. Not unless if you pay sh*t-loads of money anyway. The boat we got was about 16 meters long and maybe 3 meters across. It consists of a dining area, a kitchen, a bathroom, a sleeping area, the cockpit and something of a veranda on the roof of the boat. We shared the boat with 2 other passengers (a Swiss couple) and 3 crew members, so 7 of us in total - not recommended for those suffering from claustrophobia. We slept on bunk beds narrower than a regular single bed. But we loved it - it really added to the experience. Not sure about the Swiss couple tho - at least, we grew up in the heat and was somewhat used to the mosquitoes (more on that later).
2) The crew We could not have asked for a better crew. Seriously. And I feel obliged to talk about each of them briefly here: Crew #1: Marcello (the guide). His knowledge of the Pantanal is incredible. If I could label his brain, I would call it "The Complete Encyclopedia of Animals of the Pantanal". He told us fact after fact about every fish, bird, reptile and mammal that we saw in those 4 days that there is simply no way of retaining everything. But what's even more amazing is his ability to detect the animals in the jungle and river, even at night. We will always remember our very first motor boat trip out (while we had the bigger boat as our base, we would take 3-4 trips per day on a smaller motor boat to get even closer to the animals...so close, we could literally touch them!). We have been cruising down the river for maybe 10 minutes when he suddenly shut the engine, stopped the boat and simply said "You guys didn't realize this but we just went past an alligator - it was hiding in the water". We almost died. After awhile, we got better at detecting the animals ourselves but nothing like him. I guess it's got something to do with the fact that he's a native Indian, grew up in the Pantanal and spent the last 35 years as a guide. Crew #2: Ekta (the cook / volunteer). She's actually British but a couple of years ago, she went on the same tour (also with Marcello as her guide) and liked it so much, she decided to volunteer as a cook on the boat and have been doing this for the last year & a half. While she's an amazing cook - she even managed to bake a cake for us with the rudimentary equipment that she had on the boat - she was also our second guide. Having been on many trips with Marcello, she has accumulated a significant amount of knowledge about the Pantanal herself and was very helpful in explaining and pointing out some of the animals. And despite us offering to help with the chores many times, she never allowed us to do anything more than clearing up the plates after each meal. Crew #3: Creoni (the captain). He probably saved our lives. I think it was the second night and like the previous night, we had docked the boat somewhere along the river and started a campfire. We were sitting around the fire (we liked the fire because it keeps us warm and the smoke keeps the mosquitoes away), when I noticed him pointing his flashlight at a nearby bush. Curiosity got the better of me so I went to check it out and quickly realized he had pinned down a snake with a stick. It was a small snake - barely a meter - and didn't look all that threatening to be honest. But noticing something I didn't, he then shouted for Marcello to help him with the snake and between the 2 of them, managed to get rid of it. We later learnt that it was a jararaca, one of the most poisonous snakes in the Pantanal. I don't know how he managed to notice it in the dark. It was only after that incident that I noticed that while we were all out enjoying ourselves, it was Creoni who was constantly patrolling the area where we stopped our boat and made camp, and making sure we were all safe. Crew #4: Mirjam (the coordinator). She didn't go on the boat with us but I need to mention her because she was the one who helped put together the entire thing for us. She hosted us on their ranch (she's also Marcello's wife) the night we got back from the Pantanal while waiting for our 2.15 am bus to our next destination. She even cooked us a nice dinner (the main dish being a delicious fish that was caught in a nearby river) and let us use one of the rooms and shower while we were there. A very, very helpful lady.
3) The mosquitoes OK, so I was stretching the truth a little about us growing up being used to the mosquitoes. Because I don't think anyone can get used to the Olympic-grade mosquitoes in the Pantanal. Despite covering ourselves most of the time and slapping on tons of repellent, we each had at least 30 bites (we stopped counting after that). And I'm not kidding when I say that they are able to bite through clothing to get to their exotic food that's flowing through our veins. And the itch is so bad that we would scratch a layer of skin off, leaving scabs everywhere. As I'm tying this, we've been out of the Pantanal for 4 days and the bites are not showing any signs of subsiding. This is one thing we won't miss about the Pantanal but unfortunately, will forever be etched in our memories.
4) And finally...the animals The stars of the trip. We did our best to keep track of all the animals we saw in the 4 days but I don't think we managed to write them all down. And as much as I would like to describe each of them, I'll keep to the top-3 to avoid writing a novel about the Pantanal. Star #1: The caimans. No, they're not a kind of bird - they're actually the millions of "alligators" that live in the Pantanal. They look very similar to an alligator or a crocodile, but with 2 big differences - they are smaller (up to 1-2 meters vs 5-6 meters for its larger cousins) and they do not generally attack animals bigger than them (humans included). Those facts, plus the assurance from our guide, were the only reasons why we were willing to go up close to them in the wild - so close in fact, that I was able to touch one of them while it was swimming in the water. True story! They were definitely the highlight for me, despite seeing hundreds of them in the Pantanal. Before and after the trip, we also had the chance to sample caiman meat (it's totally fine to catch and eat them - there's so many to go around anyway). Tastes like chicken. Star #2: The giant otters. You usually hear them before you actually see them. And they usually hang out in groups. As soon as Marcello hears them, he would start to make its noises and the amazing thing is, they would almost always respond! They are very curious animals - each time they hear us approaching in our boat, a group of them would stick their heads out of the water to check us out. But only for a split second before they disappear underwater again. That's why it was so difficult to get a good photo of them. Star #3: The capybaras. Nope, we had no idea what they were also despite getting up close to them on our first day. They turned out to be, as Marcello explained to us, the largest rodents in the world. Think of a rat, but the size of a mid-sized dog, minus the tail and somewhat cuter. They can grow up to 90 kg. In fact, they're so big that they can live harmoniously with the caimans in the Pantanal. They come across as very clumsy and not so smart animals - we could get to within 5 meters from them before they decide to run and jump into the water with a big splash. Not the best way to escape a predator (like the jaguar) if you ask me. We saw so many other animals and I'm gonna attempt to list them all down here, by categories: Birds: heron, toucan, jacana, cassidy, snake bird, Jabiru stork (3rd largest flying bird in the world), parakeet, macaw (the very birds from the animated film Rio), kingfisher, night jar, black-necked hawk, vulture, pheasant Reptiles: caiman, jararaca snake, false water cobra (we saw another guide catching one with his bare hands), iguana Mammals: howler monkey, bat, deer, capybara, giant otter There were however two animals that we were hoping to see, but didn't - the jaguar (the most fearsome animal in the Pantanal) and the anaconda (the largest snake in the world). We did see (well, Marcello did and pointed them out to us) some jaguar tracks and actually tracked them into the jungle for awhile and saw some capybara bones along the way, but didn't actually see one. We also attempted to fish for piranhas (yes, the river we were on, the Rio Vermelho, is supposedly full with them), but after a few failed attempts, decided that looking for animals on our boat was more fun.
All in all, it was an experience that we'll never forget and it's been the highlight of our trip so far. For those of you reading this blog and are planning a trip to Brazil some time soon, look up ExplorePantanal on the internet - you'll not be disappointed. Well, as long as you're not hoping to see elephants and lions and tigers because those animals live in Africa and Asia, not South America.
Warning: Some videos uploaded here are not for the faint hearted, particularly if you have a certain phobia for large reptiles