Bonito and the Pantanal

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South America » Brazil » Mato Grosso do Sul » Bonito
June 27th 2014
Published: July 19th 2014
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After a short flight with a free upgrade to the seats with extra legroom, ( the fault of the airline double booking our seats!), we arrived at the airport to the owner of our hostel with a free lift. Much to my disappointment he was not holding a card with our names on it, apparently looking out for the gringos with the backpacks finds you the right people. We had booked this hostel due to it being associated with a Pantanal tour company. The reviews we had read were not all good, and many advised staying away from the company altogether. A closer read of the reviews finds faults with the company that are completely unrelated to the tours themselves and so for ease and cost we booked a 2 night/3 day tour to the Pantanal with them. The owner also advised us on a change in our itinerary to save us time and travelling, so we ended up booking a bus to Bonito the next day (after the football of course) to spend a night there before heading to the Pantanal , a supposedly quicker journey, and it meant we could head to the Bolivian border from the Pantanal instead of coming eastwards back to Bonito.
We then had a disorganised and somewhat infuriating bus ride to Bonito that left Chris a little grumpy. The driver had arrived early whilst the match was still on, and then left us in the bus around the corner for 20 minutes while he popped in somewhere; left us again at the airport for an hour; and the final straw was being asked by the waitress at the rest stop where we were going in Bonito because the driver had no idea where to drop us! This journey was supposed to be the easy option arranged by the hostel for us, but these complications made us start to question our Pantanal tour booking. We soon forgot these worries when we arrived at the sister hostel in Bonito. It was significantly nicer and cleaner and the owner, Douglas, much less of a salesman than his colleague in Campo Grande. We had a lot we wanted to fit into the one day we had in Bonito, and Douglas soon got to work phoning around trying to book us on trips for the following day. In Bonito, the majority of activities available can only be done with a guide and these tickets have to be booked in advance at a tour agency, all prices are fixed for everyone, but there is the added cost of transport as some of the attractions are a little way out of the centre of Bonito. Douglas sorted us out with the two sites we had really wanted to visit and the next morning we headed off in our own chauffeur driven car (we were too late for the tours with minibus transport) to the first stop of the day, Gruta do lago azul, the blue caves. We donned our hard hats and started off, a short walk led us to some steep, windy steps, these led us down into the caves, until you stop and look up you don't realise what you have walked into. A ceiling of stalactites looms above you, and further below all you can see are more steps into the caves. As you descend the 'azul' part of the name becomes clearer. The water at the bottom of the cave is a shimmering, turquoise blue; the colour you would expect from the Caribbean sea, not a deep cave in Brazil. The water gets its remarkable colour from its high magnesium content, as well as from the light through the long, sloping entrance. The cave has a depth of approximately 90 metres, making it one of the world’s biggest flooded caves. Prehistoric animal bones have been found here including the sabertoothed tiger!
We then visited Nascente Azul, we had a short walk through the forest where we saw capuchin monkeys searching for the food that is provided for them, and where we learnt that the attraction is only 2 years old and the land was previously used for cattle farming. The current owners are replanting trees and trying to rejuvenate the land back to its original state. We donned our wetsuits and entered the crystal clear waters teeming with fish, including Dorado. I could have stayed in the one location for hours watching the fish as though watching through a 3D HD TV, the water was so clear. We continued floating down the river, at times skimming the riverbed where the water was so shallow.
We left knowing that Bonito had earned its name( translated to beautiful in Portuguese).
So the next morning we were off to the Pantanal! I had been looking forward to this since South America was mentioned on the itinerary. A 5 hour drive later and we were being picked up from a sandy roadside by our Jeep. We were in a group with others from Norway, Switzerland and Israel. We entered the Pantanal and the dirt track that acted as it's back bone for tours and within minutes we'd seen numerous caiman basking in the sun on the riverbed. The little critters are a favourite of mine after they took up a year of my life as the focus of my dissertation. We were gazing in awe as either side of the dirt track we were continuously seeing new views, plant life, birds, and the occasional monkey. Caiman were aplenty and I think I saw more on that two hour drive to the ranch than I did in four weeks in the Amazon. The comments we'd read about the Pantanal being the place for wildlife and the Amazon for the jungle was proving to be true.
After sunset where I saw a family of capybara's ( imagine a dog sized guinea pig ) emerge out of the water for their supper we headed out on a night drive. A few in our group later aired their grievances about not seeing much and the truck being too loud, although both were true, we didn't care. The Pantanal had sucked us in and were happy just to be there, the stars from the truck were incredible, and made us even more excited about our plans for a stargazing trip in the Atacama desert. The inhabitants were just waking up at night and we blocked out the sound of the truck to listen to the soundtrack of the Pantanal.
An early start the next morning we headed out on a boat trip, spending three hours on the river, with the vegetation either side housing howler monkeys, iguanas, hundreds of kingfishers, striped heron, a stork that's the largest flying bird in Brazil and more birds than we could identify! Our prime seats at the front of the small motor boat also led us into a nest full of baby caiman; our guide didn't seem too concerned about our safety so we tried not to be. Easier said when done, especially when you can see his eye watching you and his throat bulging as he breathed in and out. I declared to Chris this was my favourite day! It was nice to not be in a city and to see this wonderful place.
That afternoon ( after the football of course) we headed out on a trek, our guide, Nicholas, had advised us to wear sandals and shorts. Five minutes in and it was clear why, we were thigh deep in the Pantanal, we assumed piranhas and caiman swam among us. It was such an experience and we were led to land where Nicholas pointed out an armadillo, red and blue macaws, monkeys. Whenever Nicholas heard something he would head that way, completely at home in the Pantanal, knowing his way through the trees and flooded fields. He led us to some capybara splashing their way through the water. It was an amazing experience and luckily we didn't have to wait to long until we did it again. The next morning we headed out piranha fishing, with the promise we could eat whatever we caught for lunch we were raring to go. However, luck wasn't on our side. Both me and Chris felt plenty of bites but we caught nada. Nicholas decided the water there was too cold, so we left our spot upon a bridge, holding on every time a truck full of cattle drove past ( we assumed going for slaughter) and headed out to more of the flooded fields. A short paddle in knee high water again and we found a new spot. Two in our group caught piranhas, but they were so small they threw them back in. So, we didn't catch anything but the highlight for me was the jaguar footprints Nicholas spotted. There were a few of them showing his route, and we were told they were from last night. Exciting!
When we asked our guide, Nicholas, his favourite animal, we were looking forward the answer, he had the whole Pantanal to choose from. The answer he gave was not one we were expecting.....the dog. His reason? They are always your friend. Perhaps living in the Pantanal takes away it's awe.

This brought our Pantanal trip to a close, so that afternoon we bundled into the Jeep for the last time and began our journey to the Bolivian border.

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