Surprisingly, we found that a lot of people travelling here had never even heard of the Pantanal. To be fair we only found out about it a couple of months ago when planning where we wanted to visit in Brazil, but after discovering it was even better than the Amazon for wildlife spotting and home to one of the largest jaguar populations in the world it was firmly on our must see list! It’s an area of wetlands that covers the size of France and it’s extremely remote, unspoiled and un-populated.
I’m now sitting here in the 30° sun in the beautiful little town of Bonito reflecting on the past 3 nights and 4 days which we spent in the Pantanal. I’m covered head (or should I say face) to toe in mosquito bites, I haven’t had a shower in 2 days, I’ve had a blanket wrapped around me for 70% of the trip and all of my clothes stink of fire. That’s not to say I didn’t love it! Being out there in the wilderness, away from civilisation, driving miles without seeing anything but nature, parrots and toucans flying overhead and crocodiles laying in the sun by the side of the road is really amazing. It reminded me of being in the Australian outback, just a lot less dry and a fair bit colder! But there were certainly ups and downs to the trip, so here’s a little summary of how it went.
Day 1 – Our bus arrived in Campo Grande an hour earlier than expected so we had to wait in the bus station for an hour and a half before we were collected by the tour company. Usually this wouldn’t be an issue but we had spent 20 of the last 28 hours on a bus and the other 8 in a bus station so we were (OK, I was) a little bit impatient by now. Finally a lovely guy called Rodrigo picked us up and took us to the Campo Grande Hostel for a breakfast that was well needed and, in fact, the best brekkie we’d had since arriving in Brazil, as there was actually some hot food.
That was where the good part of this day ended. First of all it was so cold. Rodrigo told us that yesterday had been 35°, but for some unknown reason that was totally unexpected to everyone who lived there today the temperature had dropped down to 9°. Typical! We were taken by car to the middle of town where we transfered on to a mini bus and the driver told us we would be leaving in 20 mins as we were waiting for some more people. It turned out it was just locals that needed dropping off around town, not people coming on the tour with us – so far it looked like it was only the two of us going. On the way we stopped again and picked up a few more people who looked like they were going to be coming on the tour which gave us a little reassurance that we weren’t just being driven to the middle of nowhere and to be left there. After about 2 and a half hours of driving we pulled into a layby where there were some trucks waiting to take everyone deeper into the Pantanal to their accommodation . I kid you not they looked like the kind of trucks that are used for human trafficing, not exactly the ‘jeep safari’ type that had been advertised. Everyone from the mini bus then went off to the jeeps for their specific tour companies, none of them were with the same one as us, so then it was just the 2 of us again. One by one the other trucks started to leave. Not ours. Our driver, who didnt speak a word of English indicated we were waiting for something or someone – we had no idea what or who. So we sat in the back of the truck, freezing cold, and waited. Half an hour passed, we tried to ask him how long it would be, he didn’t understand, he just shrugged. So we sat in the back of the truck again now seriously wishing we had booked this through a more reputable company instead of making a last minute decision at the bus station yesterday. After 1 long hour of sitting there a mini bus pulled in to the lay by and 3 young guys with backpacks jumped out looking as relieved to see us as we did them. They were from Denmark and it turned out they’d had a pretty stressful time too so we formed an instant camaraderie. ‘OK great, now we can go’ we thought. Nope. We hear the driver try and start the truck without any success. He comes around the back and gestures for the guys to jump out and push. I swear you could not make this up! After they get the truck moving we start bumping our way down a dirt track, even more freezing and getting absolutely covered in dust. To be fair, if it hadn’t been so cold we could have has the sides of the truck up and saw some of the views and it may not have seemed so bad, but as it was about 9° we just sat huddled in the back praying we would arrive soon. After about a 45 minute drive down this dirt road we pulled into a farm. We met our guide, Gabriel, who looked a bit like an aged and rough action man – cut off denims, a camoflage waistcoat with no top underneath, drawn on tattoos, bare feet and a belt with a big knife attached to it. He showed us around the lodge and then to our rooms. Hallelujah we have a double bed! A small victory at the end of this pretty dreadful day. After dinner we decided to make a fire to try and heat up a bit which was nice and also some well needed heat, but after a pretty mentally exhausting day we all headed to bed early in the hope that tomorrow could only get better.
Day 2 – We awake to see the sun rising in a cloudless sky and are instantly relieved that it’s going to be a warmer day than yesterday, although it was still pretty chilly at 6:30am. Gabriel asked us if we wanted to do a trek on dry land or a trek through water today. Scott and I said we didn’t mind as we had hiking boots so didn’t mind getting wet but the boys only had trainers so we opted for the dry trek. We soon realised there are no trails in the Pantanal, we were literally walking through jungle which was pretty cool. However our ‘guide’ didn’t stop to tell us anything about the area or the wildlife, he just marched on ahead giving us no time to look around. On more than one occassion we actually lost him and were wandering around in the jungle on our own shouting on him in panic! We did managed to spot a couple of howler monkeys, some capivara and some beautiful red parrots. Gabriel now tells us matter of factly that we should have done the water trek as its much better and you see more animals and ‘thats what he had wanted to do’. Great thanks for the information now – he hadn’t said any of the above in the morning (this turned out to be a recurring theme over the next few days!)
After lunch it was time for piranha fishing. Gabriel showed us where was best to catch them and annoyingly he caught one straight away, even though he had told us it was too cold and we wouldn’t be able to catch anything – ever the optimistic guide. He then proceeded to brag that only he would be able to catch one and then he left us to it. We were determined not to go back empty handed and 3 of us managed to catch one – INCLUDING ME! I caught a piranha! Ive never been fishing in my life and I caught a bloody piranha. We took them back and he seemed deeply annoyed that we had caught some too, but he cooked them up for us and they were delicious (although a bit weird as you could still see some teeth.) He told us about 6 times while we were eating them that he had cooked the fish himself! ‘Alright Gabe, good for you mate!’
Before dinner the driver took us to a shop to get some beers and on the way back he let us sit on the roof of the truck to look at the stars. It was seriously cold but it didn’t matter in the slightest. Seeing the sky like that, millions and millions of stars is one of those things that just makes everything else seem less important and puts the world into perspective. Its mindblowing, and I forgot how it felt to be utterly mesmerized by that view! It made all the stress and anger of the day before and our insanely annoying guide fade into insignificance and for that moment this trip was worth every penny!
We made another fire that night, but this time it was more enjoyable with the addition of alcohol in our blood. We made a big pot of popcorn on the fire and laughed about all of the stupid and weird things Gabriel had said that day, one of which was that he hated the dogs and cats on the farm and he was going to kill them all by feeding them to the crocodile. Charming.
Day 3 – We woke up to a lovely clear sky and beautiful sunrise again today. We went on a boat trip down the river in hope of spotting some jaguars but Gabe didnt really stop long enough for us to even try and see anything. Yesterday he told us we would only see Jaguars if we did the ‘survival tour’, which was a 5 day tour the company offered, although none of us were told this when we booked. However, today he said that usually you can see Jaguars on the boat tour but not today as it was too cold (another habit of his – contradicting himself). I honestly think he was drunk the entire time. He stopped only for us to do some more piranha fishing, but after 3 hours of that yesterday the novelty had kind of worn off.
The 3 danish guys were leaving today after lunch as they were only doing a 2 night tour, and we almost thought about asking if we could come with them as being here for another 24 hours with only Gabriel for company just didnt sound too appealing. But we stuck it out, mainly as we were going to do horse riding the next day. That afternoon he took us on the water trek that we had passed on the previous morning. This was actually really enjoyable, even if once again he did keep walking at least 30 metres ahead of us so we didn’t get as much chance to look around as we would have liked due to constantly chasing after him or risk getting lost in the jungle. At one point when he actually stopped to show us something and when we caught up he snarled ‘you are all so lazy!’. Now I lost my shit! He probably didn’t understand my aggresive Scottish ranting but it felt good to shout at him and get out all the frustration of the last few days. The good part was we did see loads of monkeys, armadillo, toucans, deer, wild pigs and more capivaras – still no jaguars though. Walking through the jungle when you know there are no other humans around, only animals hiding in the trees, and listening to the sounds of the jungle is amazing – but also a little scary!
Day 4 – Horse Riding Day. This is what I’d been most excited about! I’d shared a horse with a friend when I was really young but hadn’t ridden for years, so was excited to get in the saddle. Scott was less excited, he said he doesn’t trust horses! Gabriel had told us we would be leaving at 7am. At 7:15am he came out and told us there was a ‘small problem’. We couldn’t do horse riding as it was full for this morning, but this ‘wasn’t his fault’. That had been another recurring theme over the past few days, anything that went wrong ‘wasn’t his fault’. For the second time, I lost my shit with him. I asked him what we could do instead. He said piranha fishing. Seriously for the third time? No fucking thank you. Scott and I were about to go for a walk on our own because if I’d had to be around him for another minute I would have grabbed the knife from the belt he was wearing and stabbed him in the leg. We were putting our shoes on when he came and said ‘OK let’s go to the horse riding’. What The Fuck? I thought we couldn’t go? ‘We will just go and see’ he said. This made no sense – could he just not be bothered taking us? Anyway we went, and guess what? ‘Conveniently’ 3 people didnt want to do it so there ended up being horses available for us. It was really good fun and I was so happy we got to go in the end. Gabriel continuously asked if we were OK and if we were happy now, as if he had done us some sort of favour. Happy that we got to do what we booked and paid for? Yes. We are.
After lunch it was time for us to leave, and as much as we had loved most parts of being here I was so happy to be in that truck driving back along that bumpy, dusty road!
Looking back now it’s actually lucky we didn’t see a jaguar, as we probably would have been eaten alive since Gabriel was so far ahead of us at all times he wouldn’t have been able to protect us. To be honest, I don’t know if he even would have had he been close by! Afterwards we went on to trip advisor and saw someone had left a review about Gabriel from 2 weeks before saying basically exactly the same as what he had been like to us. In it the lady had decribed him as ‘the simpleton who walks around with no shoes on pretending he’s Rambo’. Well I couldn’t have put it better myself.