Brazil 5 - Pantanal

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June 25th 2016
Published: June 27th 2016
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On June 22 we woke up at 2 am (!) to fly to Cuiaba in the state of Mato Grosso. Then after arriving there we had a three hour drive to our destination,the Pousada Rio Mutum, which we reached at about 4 pm. However, we all got a second wind on the drive, because it was probably the best wildlife viewing we've had yet. Right away we saw greater rheas (large emu-like birds), and then about 40 other bird species. Somehow we were blessed with unusual sightings: a tree full of twenty blue and yellow macaws, a family of five toco toucans, capuchin and black howler monkeys together, and even a giant anteater that Wayne spotted just disappearing into the bush. It was also the brief season for tabebuia trees to be in brilliant pink flower, so some of the hillsides were a patchwork of greens and pink.

Along the way our new nature guide, Helder, gave us a brief history of the Pantanal area. The landscape looks like savannah, mostly flat with grass or scrubby vegetation broken by occasional hills with forests. Every year from about December to March the rains come and flood the plains, and then the land dries up for the rest of the year. Right now is a good time to visit, because things are still green and not terribly hot yet. In October, the temperatures can be in the 110s. We are uncomfortable enough with about 90 for a high, and we are glad that it cools off at night. The mosquitos are somewhat bothersome, not as bad again as during the wet, but the type that carries dengue fever and Zika is not here.

We are in the southwest of Brazil. All of western Brazil belonged to Spain, not Portugal in the early colonization period. But the Spaniards were not very interested in settling Mato Grosso when they didn't find gold. In 1750 they ceded it to Portugal, and Brazil became an independent kingdom in 1822. In the 1970s many displaced Italian and German settlers came here and began cattle (Brahma) ranching and also clearing the land for soy and cotton, but the part of the Pantanal that flooded regularly was safe from the clear-cutting, so it remains in a pretty natural state today and is a paradise for birds, especially water birds like herons and storks, including the 5-foot-tall jabiru stork, white with black head and brilliant red neck ring. Many species from southern Argentina and Chile winter here.

When we arrived at the pousada we were delighted to find a herd of capybaras grazing on the lawn around our bungalow (and nearly as delighted to find it air conditioned). Also right on the property is an injured blue and yellow macaw who lives in a palm tree by the restaurant, some little cavies, wild Guinea Pigs, so adorable, and many large and noisy chicken-like birds called choco chachalacas that make an incredible racket in the morning.

We had three days of activities here, much of which included riding on the nearby lake in a large outboard canoe. I'm glad we experienced the Amazon first, because that seemed to be teeming with wildlife at the time, but the numbers of animals here is staggering. Hundreds of caimans, countless herons, kingfishers, and birds of prey. The most memorable wildlife encounter was when we spotted a family of giant river otters. As we approached Helder made a mournful sort of honking sound, and the otters went crazy, answering back and swimming toward our boat, raising their long necks out of the water to see what strange otter was invading their territory!

Another highlight was piranha fishing at sunset. We had old fashioned bamboo poles baited with cow heart. Several people in our group caught five or more, but Wayne and I had no luck despite lots of powerful nibbles. After losing my bait the first two times, I decided it was more fun to feed the piranhas than to actually hook them, and I was sitting with Patricia, animal rights activist (not fishing), so I was dangling the bait just at the very surface of the water so we could see the piranhas jump for the bait, exposing their bright yellow bellies, and giving us a thrill! Every night at the restaurant we had piranha soup, and we even had a lesson from a local lady in how to prepare it the traditional way, with the slight innovation of an electric blender. Wayne was one of three "chefs" who volunteered to help with the preparation. The soup tastes fine, but I wouldn't want to try to eat a piranha filet, because they are very bony, not to mention toothy. Apparently their danger to humans has been exaggerated, because children swim in these waters all the time.

We had an hour-and-a-half horseback ride following a sandy trail that, according to our lead cowboy, had jaguar tracks, although I could not have distinguished them from our horses' prints.

OAT likes to support a good humanitarian project in each country in which it runs trips. Here we visited a community of about 300 people in an isolated area called Cuiaba Mirim. Most of the men are fishermen, with piranhas being their top catch. Some of the people also work at the pousada where we stayed. We toured a typical home, built by its owner in two weeks, hard-baked clay on a wooden frame with a corrugated roof. The yard was immaculate packed clay, swept absolutely clean and planted with banana, papaya, watermelon, and other crops. OAT and the owner of our pousada chose to help with the education of the children here, at first approaching the school chief, but soon suspecting that any money sent through the bureaucracy would not reach the children, so they came up with a plan to build a community center where they could offer supplementary lessons in reading, math, art, music, and other skills. This is especially important, because the public education in Brazil tends to be very poor, with kids passed on from grade to grade without any formal requirements. Now things are even worse with the poor state of the economy such that teachers are not being paid, and schools are closing. Several children accompanied us on our visit, and Wayne was his usual magnet for little children, with the shyest girl taking his hand!

One final memory: taking the boat out on the lake in the pre-dawn stillness, shutting off the engine, and just listening to the birds and caimans start their morning chorus with a thin mist cloaking the surrounding hills. The sky gradually took on a brighter and brighter orange hue until finally the very edge of the sun peeked above the horizon. At just that moment there was a dramatic clap of thunder, which turned out to be fireworks set off in the village to signal the start of St. John's festival day!

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