Oh… the Pantanal. We have just returned!
Preface: they Patanal is widely known and oft visited, as it is the ecological hotspot of South America (you thought it was the Amazon, didn´t you?). It has the same wildlife diversity as the Amazon, but the difference is the rainfall, humidity, and year round temp. The soul of the Pantanal carries hints of nearly every place I´ve ever been. It seemed like a deserty swamp. Or maybe a swampy desert. If NE Wyoming flooded, you´d have the Pantanal. Because the area only receives rain for half the year, it floods in the summer and dries up in the winter. Result: little islands of dense vegetation, with plenty of open areas for animal spotting in between. We visited during the best time of year, before the water is all gone, before is gets really chilly, as the mosquitos are dwindling, etc.
I have sort of mixed feelings about the experience. The only way to see the area is to go on a tour (you´re not allowed to go it alone. There are even signs along the roadways warning that all tourists are required to have a guide). I really don´t like tours, where you´re put on an the tourist assembly line and sort of run through the system like you´re not even a person. Second, the place we stayed was a ranch in the middle of the Pantanal. I´m sure this is a very unique and rustic and memorable experience for someone from never-been-out-of-the-city London or something. But, as I am from a state with more ranches than cities, instead of being novel, it just made me have nightmares about my ex-boyfriend.
We made it to the area in the afternoon, and were dropped off at a hotel first. We explored the boardwalks and rope bridges that kept us suspended above the slowly drying swamp, and after a buffet lunch based on rice and beans (I´m always hesitant with the meat. Unless it´s pot roast.), we were taken on a cheesy canoe trip. Despite making me feel like a tacky-tourist, having Pat there made things really fun. We laughed the whole way down the river, in between spotting caiman (alligators, basically),
monkeys, capybara, marsh deer (HUGE!), tuiuius (4 foot tall stork), caracaras (crazy birds of prey), toucans, and egrets. You see, the canoe was a very small, VERY tippy two person number. Pat is at least a foot taller than me, and about seven times as strong, which means he´s got nearly 100 pounds on me. They made me get in the canoe first, so my dry-life was in Pat´s hands as he tried best he could to ease into the boat. Together we probably weigh in at about 400 pounds, which left only four or five inches between the lip of the boat and the surface of the river. As a result, we had these hilarious mini-panic attacks the whole way down stream, and couldn´t stop laughing.
After our trip, we jumped in the back of a pickup complete with benches for our “safari” (i.e. the drive to the ranch). Like I said… for city dwelling folk, riding in the back of a truck is probably a thrilling, novel experience. For me, it just reminded me of being in high school and running around with my friends. The “safari” was neat, though. We spotted several toucan, caiman galore (these things are as thick as antelope are in Wyoming),
plenty of birds (this place is a bird-lover´s paradise), a coatis (like a racoon) and blue macaws as we were arriving at the ranch.
Dinner was more rice and beans (you´ll have to ask Pat about the mystery meat) with farofa (a salty, garlicy, floury substance that you mix with your food… about the consistency of corn meal). As I am quite satisfied, with rice, beans, farofa, and tomatoes, I´d probably say the food was my favorite part of the whole experience. They also fried up the pirana catches of the group that had returned shortly before dinner. Most of the tourists didn´t want to eat theirs (I guess the appeal only lies in reeling them in), so I got to try two or three. The meat on them is pretty scarce, but thanks to my dad, I knew to dig into the cheeks, which are an even bigger prize in piranas than in trout. MMMMMmmmm!!! Delicious!
We spent the rest of the evening watching a huge toad (as big as Pat´s hands) catch his evening fare, chatting with the other tourists and playing cards by candlelight after they shut off the generators. Hammocks in a giant bunk-house (room for… 50ish) made for an interesting sleep situation. The middle third of the wall was punched out with mosquito screen stapled on to keep the bugs out, making for a fantastic 360 degree view of the surrounding country. We rolled out our fleece sleeping bags by flashlight and bedded down for the night. The hammocks were suprisingly comfortable, and I slept quite well. I woke up about 5:30 to a brilliant sunrise, barking dogs, and roosters crowing.
All the other tourists had to take off that morning, so it was just Pat and I for the rest of the day. After breakfast we set out on horseback for several miles, alternating between waist-deep swamp and patches of trees and dry land. Even though it was one of those terrible “trail rides” where the horses have the route brainwashed into them, we still had a lot of fun. I´ve always wanted to have horses and live the kind of life where I´d get to ride them everyday, so even being around “pre-programmed” horses is still thrilling in a way. We saw mostly birds on our ride with our guide who went about his job quite half-heartedly. Other highlights were snail eggs, wild boar holes, red macaws, and the strange skinny cattle (I think they´re Brahmas?) Of course the galloping across the wide open parts of the swamp was the most enjoyable. It´s crazy to be on a horse that´s charging through two-three feet of standing water. I felt like I was in a movie, and we got SOAKED! The horse our guide was on was pretty skittish (the caiman/gators don´t attack, but they react with their teeth, just like a dog would, if you step on them). After we crossed through the last gate, the guide was mounting his horse when it started bucking like crazy, threw him off, and then took off running. Well, since the horses are pre-programmed, the mares Pat and I were on wanted desperately to follow the leader. We tried to keep them reined in for about thirty seconds until our guide told us just to head for the ranch… he´d walk back. So we blasted across the wide open back to the ranch without our guide, a thrill all its own!]
After lunch we lazed about in our hammocks (I´m excited for the Amazon… I LOVE these things!) until it was time to go fishing for piranas. We got everything ready to go to the lake, only to discover that our guide had mis-informed us. Well, actually he hadn´t really informed us at all. He didn´t do a very good job of keeping us up to speed with the itinerary. Come to find out, the “lake” was no more than fifty feet long and thirty feet across. I suppose to make the experience seem more rustic or adventurous, they put you in a boat out in the middle of the pond, that I assume has been mostly fished out. A caiman lurked in the water near the boat the whole time, which was exciting. I tossed my meat-baited line in the water several time, and got bite after bite (I could even SEE them nibbling away half the time), but for the life of me I couldn´t set the hook. It (the hook) was huge anyway, and most the fish were quite small (three to four inches long, the biggest possible is ten), but one of the ranch staff still managed to hook a few. I gave up (patience is not my strong suit) and layed in the back of the boat swatting mosquitoes and watching the sunset. I think I will try again on the Amazon. I want to catch a pirana! We also fed the remainder of our bait to the caiman. It was cool to see him slink into the water and swim around the meat getting a good eyeball on it before he suddenly snapped it up with lightning-quick jaws.
That night before dinner, we taught Joacir (one of the staff) to play Egyptian-Rat-Slap (or Killer, or whatever you might call it). It was funny because he didn´t speak a lick of English, and we speak very little Portuguese. And, after much conversation, I finally discovered part of the difficulty stemmed from different card values. In the games Joacir plays, a King is worth the least, a jack the second most valuable, a queen the third, and an Ace means nothing. A seven is the highest point value. So, it goes without saying that confusion abounded. Funnily enough, Joacir creamed us three games in a row before dinner. Here we have a perfect example of why I hate tours. No matter what you do, you can´t really get personal with people. I thought, since we were all playing cards and being buddy-buddy, that we´d eat dinner together. Nope. When the food went on the table, all the staff disappeared to their seperate eating quarters, even though we were the only guests on the ranch. And so Pat and I ate alone in a dining room meant to hold 40. Woe.
After some fast games of Spit, some serious games of Rummy (by candlelight of course), and a little stargazing/fire-fly spotting, we slipped back to our hammocks for the night. On the last day we got up with the sun to go on a morning walk with a cacophony on birds and howler monkeys filling the air. Really neat to experience. The walk kind of sucked… seemed rather pointless. We waded through knee-deep swamp water and walked through patches of trees where fig tree roots strangled the palm trees. We saw lots of toucans and monkeys (with babies!), but that was about it. In between getting bit by mosquitos and wondering why our guide wasn´t taking more initiative to teach us about the local flora and fauna (or to even interact with us at all), we eyeballed the water for caiman lest we step on one and get our feet bit off.
We spent the rest of the morning playing cards after breakfast (complete with fresh papaya!) until it was time to shower and head out. Of course there is no hot water heater, and since the only available electricity is from the generators, it makes no sense to have an electric shower head (the average fare in all tourist accomodations in South America). So, I took a freezing shower to top off my Pantanal experienced.
We tossed our bags in the back of the truck a short while later and blasted the twenty or so miles back to the paved road just in time for the bus. After a very bumpy hour and a half complete with bi-polar airconditioning, we arrived in Corumbá to begin the next leg of our trip!