The Wild Pantanal
In Brazil they say, if you want to see jungle, go to the Amazon, if you want to see animals, go to the Pantanal. Having already been to the Amazon, we of course had to head to the Pantanal. To get there it took a 13 hour overnight bus from Iguazu Falls followed by a 400km drive to the middle of nowhere. 5 hours on a proper road and then the final hour bumping along a dirt track heading deep into the swampy savannah.
We finally arrived at our destination: Santa Clara, a vast privately owned station, (as much of the Pantanal is) preserving the flora and fauna of the area but also serving as a farm with cattle, pigs and horses roaming around. Definitely in the middle of nowhere and home for the next 4 days. There are 3 levels of accommodation, camping, dorms and private rooms. We opted for the private room option, but don’t let that fool you into thinking ‘luxury’. To give you some idea, the shower didn’t even have a curtain let alone a door and each time one of us had a shower, water would make its way not only all over the bathroom, but under the door and into the bedroom! No problem, we’re getting used to rustic. What we were not used to was having a baby anaconda residing less than 10 meters from our room.
We thought the guy was kidding, but as he led us down the path to our room, he pointed out the snake and laughed at the looks of shock and horror on our faces. Then assured us that he has never attacked a visitor, he only eats birds and chickens. Oh thank you, how very reassuring!!
After checking in, we had the rest of the afternoon to explore and relax. I can tell you, there is nothing more relaxing than lying in a shady hammock on a beautifully hot day reading a book and hearing nothing but the sound of birds flying and trees swaying in the breeze. No Wi-Fi. (well none that worked) Just us and nature. I will never get tired of it.
On day one we also had our first big treat. Toucans!!! The bird I have dreamed of seeing ever since I was a little kid. Neither of us can claim to be avid bird lovers or watchers, but the birds in the Pantanal are absolutely stunning! In the first few hours, we were also shown where on the property we could see rare blue Macaws. What a sight. Photos cannot do them justice. In fact, we realized very quickly that trying to take photos of the wildlife was not only pointless but took away from the beauty of simply watching. Some things just have to be seen with your own eyes and treasured. This was definitely one of those places.
At dinner we got our first taste of what was to come for the next 4 days. An amazing spread of 8–10 dishes in an open air pavilion. DELICIOUS!!! 3 courses of awesome food 3 times a day for 4 days. Of course we over ate each time, but everyone knows how it works at a buffet, you go up with your plate, spoon on one of each thing, and by the time you’ve got around to all of them, your plate has become a small mountain, and that is just to figure out which ones you like most, so then you go back for seconds of those, and after that start the process all over again with dessert. But when food is that good, you just have to eat it!
The next morning was the first of many activities we would undertake. The days were divided into morning and afternoon activities with a long break over lunch when the sun got too hot. So the first of our activities was a wildlife spotting walk with our amazing local guide Pedro leading the way, pointing out and seeing things that we would never have noticed. He told us to wear long pants and hiking shoes, and yet what did he wear? Shorts, and no shoes at all! Yep, he walked through prickly grass, mud, countless spider webs, and god knows what else BAREFOOT! As he has been doing for decades…I won’t give a detailed description but you can well imagine just what those feet of his looked like. (Not human that is for sure!) though he was clearly very proud and in his element showing us the world where he was born and has lived his whole life.
We saw howler monkeys, caiman (which are a kind of alligator) countless types of birds and an armadillo digging a burrow, then kicking dirt our way as he disappeared telling us to get lost! So cool, and a completely different type of environment to anything we’ve experienced before.
In the afternoon it was time to spot wildlife from the back of a horse. We went riding around the Pantanal for 3 hours, with one of the property pigs joining us for company. Oddly funny, but then, nothing was normal about this place. We walked slowly so as not to scare off any animals, and 2 hours in, one of the other guys in the group let out ‘Ok, that’s enough, must protect the family jewels!’
We didn’t see a lot on the ride, but being out in the wild around lagoons and trees with birds flying around as the sun was setting was a truly beautiful sight and experience.
Shortly after getting back it was time for the nocturnal safari. We piled into the back of an open truck and set off with the spectacular milky way overhead. We saw plenty of the ever-present caiman, and fireflies flashing but I was on the hunt for one thing and one thing only. The elusive Tapir. 1/2 hour in we saw eyes…a little excited but can’t really count that. Then we saw a shape…quite excited and I thought yeah I think that counts..then the whole thing appeared! WE SAW A TAPIR!!! One of the best moments of the trip. Hard to explain, and I’m sure most don’t really care, but it’s one of those animals I would look at pictures of growing up and instantly loved it. Never in my life did I think I would see one for real in the wild. Magic moment.
The next day we spent the morning walking and wildlife viewing in a different area to the first one and the afternoon on a serene boat tour down the river through the heart of the Pantanal, gently cruising along, eye peeled for anything that might be flying, swimming, burrowing or hiding. Pedro would point out different birds and the occasional monkey with his usual line — “oh look, its moving”.
On our last day came the activity I was looking forward to the least…yup, we went Piranha fishing! Something I never thought I’d say in my life. But it was an absolute blast!! Also slightly unnerving fishing with alligators just a few meters away from where we were standing. Pedro, was piranha fishing pro, and tried his level best to teach us his techniques. It took 10 of us 3 hours to catch 6 as he reeled in one after another after another. Myself and a Dutch guy were in competition for losing the most bait. Pedro was next to me laughing away as I would pull up my line with the empty hook time after time after time, and sweetheart that he was, he would re-bait my line for me each time as he laughed and smiled and told me I was too slow pulling the lineup. In case anyone reading this ever goes Pirhana fishing, here’s what you do, its pretty simple: Drop the line in, and the moment you feel anything at all, yank the line up as fast as possible. (This usually takes less than 30 seconds of putting the line and bait in the water). So that’s what I did..the line and bait flung all over the place as Pedro stood laughing. Then finally…I GOT ONE! And like a complete idiot, squealed as it got flung towards me, the whole episode ended with the lucky bugger getting unhooked and falling back in the water. Grrrrrr…but so much fun!!! Not long after that, Devesh, caught one! Like a total pro (and the complete opposite of me) cool, calm and collected. So excited and proud, I switched my rod for a camera to capture the awesome moment which we also go to taste later for lunch!
Now, the worst thing about fishing…getting the bait smell off your hands, and the bait we had used…rotten smelling pieces of beef was absolutely gross! First we tried soap…then we tried more soap…then we discovered detergent and thought it had worked, but nope, a few minutes later it had come back! Pedro suggested lemon to get rid of the smell…but yeah ok, where are we finding a lemon??? I spotted a bowl of oranges…they’re from the same family right?! Devesh looked at me with that familiar look that says ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’ I smooshed it and rubbed my hands with the orange while he looked on then finally said, ‘Ok fine, give me some orange too!’ Hahahaha we both sat there next to the river rubbing our hands in this orange looking completely ridiculous, and admittedly, it didn’t work much better than the rest. We went back to our room, showered and scrubbed. Finally the smell subsided. Jeff, the Dutch guy had his own plan — soap, shampoo, detergent and a brush. Funny? Yes. Did it work? No.
I made my way to the lunch area and just about had a heart attack before I got there. 10 steps from our door and OH MY GOD!!! Anaconda!!!! Every time I walked to or from the room I would glance over at the little pool where he usually is just to make sure and now on our last day in the Pantanal, our biggest fear came true. The anaconda was terrorizing the village!
He had made his way into one of the buildings…THE CHURCH!!! (of all places!) If I wasn’t so scared it would’ve been funny. Pedro was laughing as he told me. Not that he bothered to completely get rid of it. He simply moved it from the church (a tiny one room construction) and let it slide around the property. I nearly walked right into it on my way to the water cooler to fill up our bottles. Bloody hell!! Between the snake and all of the bugs and spiders living in our room, it felt like it was time to leave. A few others we were fishing with were camping at the property and told us that whenever they had to use the bathroom at night, they would walk in to see frogs and giant grasshoppers everywhere! We constantly sprayed our 98% deet bug spray which was then covered with sunscreen during the day creating a completely disgusting and sticky substance on our skin for the whole time we were there. There were insects, bugs and spiders EVERYWHERE. On the first night, we tried to kill anything we saw on the walls, the second night it was just the ones above our heads and by the third night, we even saw spiders crawling under our bed which we tried to find and kill, but after a while gave up and got under the sheet to sleep hoping nothing poisonous would bite us in our sleep! This is not to say our rooms were not clean. They were, but we were in the middle of a swamp. You open a door for 5 seconds and 20 things are going to come in..at least we didn’t have frogs in our bathroom!! Though much rather a frog than a snake.
Going into the Pantanal, we really didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t read up too much about it. We knew it was one of the best places in South America to go to see wildlife but that was about it. The station was recommended by two friends who we met along the way in Peru. It sounded awesome, so like many other things we’ve done on this trip, we booked, paid and hoped for the best.
The experience we ended up having was so unique and at times pretty nuts! Whilst we were not sad to say goodbye to the bugs (and the terrorizing snake), seeing the magnificent macaws, toucans and tapirs in their natural environment was a once in a lifetime experience that made it all worth it. And hey, how many people can say they’ve slept 10 meters from an anaconda and been piranha fishing?!?!?!