Jul 22, 2016

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My Trip to The Pantanal (in Brazil), July 2016

Posted in : Travel on by : Mike Willis

Brother and Sister Jaguars in the Pantanal

UPDATE 7/28/2016: Full picture gallery is ready! Brazil 2016 Wildlife Photos

I’m back from a roughly one-week trip to the Pantanal region in Brazil, in early July of 2016. I booked the trip through www.WildPantanal.com. I researched several Pantanal tour/safari companies while planning the trip. While many looked good, I particularly liked that Wild Pantanal was able to work with my travel schedule. Most other companies had pre-scheduled tours which I could join. That’s a bit different than what I was used to after two safaris in Africa, where you generally show up and leave according to your own schedule. Wild Pantanal was able to arrange my tour according to my own travel dates, which was very important to me since I usually only take short vacations. I did see several scheduled tours on their website as well, and I would have been happy to join them, but none of them fit my travel dates.

So, I’ve spent the last week or so reviewing and processing the thousands of pictures I took there, and finally finished the majority of the work yesterday. For those of you who aren’t aware, processing and cataloging your photography is unbelievably time consuming! Unfortunately for me, I have a habit of taking more pictures than is necessary, which means even more to review! It’s worth it though, as I now have thousands of great pictures to remind me of this great trip.

So, how was the trip, what did I do, and what did I see? Let’s get started!

Timeline Summary

I was scheduled to leave New York in the evening on Friday, 7/1/2016, and after three flights I would arrive in Cuiabá, Brazil (pronounced sort of like "koo-yaba") at about 11 AM the following morning. Unfortunately there are no direct flights, although Cuiabá is the capital city of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, it’s still relatively small and does not have an international airport. So the flight plan was: NY to Miami, Miami to Brasília (the federal capital of Brazil), and finally Brasília to Cuiabá. That was the plan…

As bad luck would have it, there was terrible weather along the east coast on the day of my flight. Maybe I’ll write up the ordeal in a separate post, but the bottom line is I spent the night on the floor of Miami international airport, and didn’t arrive in Cuiabá until about 1 AM on the morning of Sunday 7/3/2016, having missed the entire first day of my trip. Needless to say, I was very disappointed!

The original plan was for me to spend two nights at a lodge part of the way down the Transpantaneira roadway, followed by four nights on a houseboat on the Cuiabá River. Instead I would spend one night at the lodge, with the rest of the trip remaining the same. On the last morning I would go on one final boat-safari, and spend the afternoon driving back to Cuiabá.

My guide, Flavio, met me at the hotel in Cuiabá at 9 AM sharp on Sunday 7/3 to begin the tour. I couldn’t wait to see the Pantanal!

Planning

I did all of my planning and coordinating with Ric from Wild Pantanal by email, which I strongly prefer just because it’s easy for me. Ric was available by phone if I wanted to speak to him, but email is just a lot easier for me and I was really glad he was able to coordinate the planning this way. He emailed me the appropriate forms, I filled them out and signed them, took pictures with my cell phone and/or saved PDFs, and emailed those back to him. He sent invoices by email/PDF and I paid them online. I could have done bank transfers or Paypal. The whole process was very easy and Ric was great at working out a plan for my trip. I told him what I wanted to see and he set up a trip that gave me the best chance of seeing what I wanted.

I arranged my flight schedule separately on my own, and purchased separate travel insurance. I highly recommend travel insurance whenever travelling internationally! As a result of my missed first day of the trip, I’ve made a claim with my insurance agency and I expect to be partially reimbursed, which at least softens the blow a bit. Of course, the bigger reason purchase insurance is in case of a medical emergency, which thankfully I have not experienced during any of my international travels.

Weather

Beautiful evening skyI visited at the early part of the dry season. Technically it was winter in Brazil, however the Pantanal is a hotter part of Brazil, and it was always warm during the day. Nights would cool down to maybe 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with temperatures during the day rising to 90 or a bit higher. There was one evening / morning that grew cloudy and had the threat of rain, but Flavio said it would have been the first time he saw rain during the dry season in years. I was worried it would cost us a boat ride, but I shouldn’t have been concerned – not a single drop fell, and by the next day it was sunny again.

Beautiful evening skyDespite the hot daytime temperatures, evenings and mornings were downright cold, and I frequently wore my hooded sweatshirt. If I hadn’t brought that I would have been miserable and freezing for a lot of the trip. I also wore long pants and long sleeves (light weight), partially for mosquito protection but also because of the temperature. Keep in mind that during boat rides there was a constant wind blowing, which would make early morning 60 degree temperatures feel a lot colder. Even when it rose to 80 degrees, the constant breeze kept us fairly comfortable. The only time we really felt the heat was when we stopped in the sun to observe the wildlife. Afternoon boat drives would end well after sunset, and the temperature would drop again and I would be wearing my hooded sweatshirt on the drive back to the houseboat.

I brought shorts and T-shirts with me, but as it turned out I barely used them, so that’s something to keep in mind for the future. Cargo pants that convert to shorts are a perfect compromise if you’re not sure what to pack.

Guides and Drivers

Flavio speaks fluent English and was very easy to communicate with. He introduced himself and our driver, Jon (I suspect Jon’s name is spelled differently and that I even have the pronunciation wrong, but this is the closest approximation I can give you). Jon would drive us to the lodge along the Transpantaneira roadway, take us out on a night-safari drive that evening, and then the rest of the way to the end of the roadway the next day, where Flavio and I would take a small motorboat to the houseboat I would stay on. The motorboat was driven by (again, I’m sorry to say I probably have the name wrong here) a young man named Eninga. He would drive Flavio and I around the many rivers and streams in the area over the next few days, and at the end of the trip Jon would drive us back to Cuiabá.

Jon spoke only a bit of English, and Eninga even less, so Flavio would do all the communicating during my trip. I absolutely cannot say enough about how good they all were!

Jon and Eninga were both great drivers, being extremely patient while I took pictures. I was also impressed with Eninga whenever we spotted a timid animal (usually a jaguar or tapir). I saw 8 or 10 other boat drivers during my trip, and several of them would speed noisily toward a shy animal, scaring it away. This happened twice while we were observing jaguars. The first time, the jaguar was very shy and did not return. The second time was with a younger brother and sister pair, who we had spent two days quietly observing without any other boats nearby. In contrast, as soon as a timid animal was spotted, usually from very far away thanks to Flavio’s eagle-eye, Eninga would cut the motor to low power and we would approach as slowly and quietly as we could. The first time we saw the brother and sister jaguars, they were scared away even by our silent approach! Eninga and Flavio decided to quietly park the boat all the way on the other side of the river (maybe 300 feet across) and turn off the engine completely. We waited, and after 5 or 10 minutes the jaguars returned. Over the next 30 minutes we let them get comfortable with our presence, and slowly, quietly, maneuvered the boat closer to them by driving upstream and turning off the engine, and floating back down to where they were resting. In this way we were able to get much closer, without disturbing them. Flavio and Eninga knew exactly how to approach a shy animal!

Last but not least, there are no words to describe Flavio’s guiding skill! I’ve never seen so many different birds in such a short period of time (this includes Africa and the Galápagos Islands), and Flavio knew every single one of them. He spotted them from afar, no matter how small they were, and immediately identified them. I can’t imagine how he remembered all of their names! Flavio explained to me that he grew up in the Amazon (the Pantanal region is further south) and spent many hours hunting for food using a bow and arrow. He has been guiding in the Pantanal for about 16 years, and returns to the Amazon to visit his family every year or two. In the past he would guide tourists on foot in the Pantanal, sleeping in a hammock while guests slept in a tent nearby. For someone like me, with little or no instincts about surviving among pumas and jaguars, this would be very dangerous, but Flavio grew up here, and had a lifetime of experience. I was extremely confident in him when we went on several hikes at the lodge, and once or twice when we got out of our boat alongside the river. He knew this area, the rivers, streams and swamps, and the wild animals in it, like the back of his hand. If you plan your own trip to the Pantanal, I highly recommend Flavio as your guide.

Accommodations

The Pantanal is a somewhat remote region of Brazil, and you’re really not going to find a luxury resort like you might see in Las Vegas or the Caribbean, and if you’re going to the Pantanal, a luxury resort is probably not what you’re looking for in the first place.

A toucan at Pouso Alegre lodgeThe lodge I stayed at is called Pouso Alegre, and is about 33 kilometers down the Transpantaneira road. Flavio and I took several hikes around the vast property during my stay there, and Jon took us on a night-safari drive. The grounds are beautiful, with hyacinth macaws and toco toucans being spotted easily just outside the dining area. The rooms are air conditioned and cozy (yes, cozy is a polite way of saying small). Be prepared for a spider or two (or more!), but I’m happy to say there were no mosquitoes in my room. The owner of the lodge is named Luis, and is very nice and showed me a couple of small snakes he had been raising (can’t remember the species, sorry) as well as a lizard (I believe called a false chameleon) that looked like a chameleon. Pretty cool! Flavio pointed out what seemed like thousands of birds during our hikes, and we saw two species of monkeys up close, and I’m happy to say I heard the call of howler monkeys in the distance. The grounds were really amazing, ranging from marshy areas to wooded, with open grassland in some spots as well. Flavio explained that this lodge has a particularly good landscape for wildlife, and he sees more species here than at any other lodge in the Pantanal. Great!!!

House BoatThe houseboat I stayed at is mobile, and has the advantage of being able to park right where the jaguars are most often spotted. The first jaguar I saw was only about 5 minutes (by motorboat of course) from where the houseboat was parked. Again, be prepared for some spiders in your room, and it will be cozy, but it’s air conditioned and comfortable. On most nights I was so exhausted I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. The staff on the boat is very friendly, despite the fact that I speak no Portuguese and they spoke only a bit of English. They always greeted me with friendly smiles and asked if we saw jaguars on our latest boat ride, which I was usually very happy to say we did! The food was excellent, and Flavio informed me that this was true Pantanal food, the same as what the locals eat, so I got the real experience. Rice and light-brown beans were available at just about every meal, along with several meats (beef, fish – piranha or catfish perhaps, chicken, etc) and some veggies. There was usually also a side dish of fried plantains in yellow flour which was really good. Desserts were extremely sweet, perfect for me!

Meals at the lodge and the houseboat were served buffet style, all you can eat. No menus, just a bunch of great food, take what you like and leave what you don’t. Vegetarians would have a hard time here, and would need to make their tour operator aware of their requirements well in advance. If you’ve been on safari in Africa you might be familiar with the dinner routine of everyone gathering at one long table and talking about what they saw that day, sharing stories of past safaris, etc. The Pantanal is different, especially for me considering I didn’t speak Portuguese. Dining areas had multiple tables and you could sit in small groups with whoever you were with.

Quick note about internet access – the lodge had free wifi which had a pretty decent connection. No internet access from the houseboat, so I was completely unplugged for those nights. I still carried my cell phone on me because even without a network, the phone’s GPS still works, and I had that connected to my camera so all pictures from the camera were automatically geotagged.

Daily Routine

The general routine was: wake up before dawn, go on safari, eat lunch, go on safari, eat dinner, sleep. 🙂 To be more specific, days at the lodge were scheduled like so:

  1. wake up around 5 AM
  2. begin hike around 5:30 AM
  3. hike until about 9 AM
  4. breakfast (about an hour)
  5. hike again until about 12 or 1 PM
  6. lunch (about an hour)
  7. hike again until sunset, which was around 5:30
  8. dinner (about an hour)
  9. night safari drive (about an hour)

Similar on the houseboat:

  1. wake up around 5 AM
  2. breakfast around 6 AM
  3. get on the motorboat for morning safari by 6:30 AM
  4. boat safari until about 1 PM
  5. lunch (about an hour)
  6. boat safari at 2:30 PM until 5:30 or 6 PM
  7. shower etc, dinner at 7 PM
  8. by about 8 PM dinner was done and I was back in my room

As you can see, these are very busy days – I was usually so tired by dinner time that I could barely convince myself to go eat! After dinner I would transfer pictures, make sure all camera and cell phone batteries were charged, and go to sleep. If I was in bed by 10, I’d get about 7 hours of sleep. Usually I was slow though so I wouldn’t get to bed until around 11, meaning most nights I got about 6 hours of sleep.

Wildlife

Finally, what did I see??

Hyacinth macaws at Pouso AlegreDuring our hikes at the lodge we spotted thousands of exotic birds, many were very colorful. We saw two pairs of hyacincth macaws in a distant tree, toco toucans, parrots and parakeets, oven birds, and a couple of my favorites, a family of great-horned owls and a greater potoo (I can’t believe Flavio found that one!). We saw two types of monkeys (brown capuchins and black-tailed marmosets), heard howler monkeys in the distance, and spotted some capybara and marsh deer. The marmosets were very small, maybe about the size of a small poodle, with very long tails. I saw one jump from one tree to another, covering maybe 6 or 8 feet, silently and effortlessly. Really cool! On our night drive we saw two South American tapirs, which was very lucky as they are very shy. Oh, and hundreds of caiman! During our night drive we crossed a bridge over a small lake, and saw dozens and dozens of glowing pairs of eyes floating in the blackness. Before the night drive we took a short hike, and as it grew darker we saw hundreds of large bats over a marshy area. We have bats where I’m from, but not that big! Also very cool!

A beautiful young jaguarJaguars were the name of the game during my time at the boat hotel, but that’s not to say we saw nothing else. As far as jaguars go, I was unbelievably lucky. I knew before heading to the Pantanal that, although my main goal was to see a jaguar (emphasis on a jaguar, as in even one jaguar would be lucky), the chances were not great. In communicating with Ric from Wild Pantanal, he could not gaurantee a sighting of course, but felt that my chances were very good if I stayed for four nights, which I did. That being said, I have a guide book for the Pantanal which has a sentence that reads something along the lines of “when it comes to jaguars, banish all hopes of seeing one from your mind.” So although I was hopeful and Ric was confident, I knew it was entirely possible I could see not a single jaguar for the whole trip. But luck was on my side, and I saw a world-famous jaguar on my very first boat drive! If you’ve seen the youtube video of a jaguar expertly swimming up behind and killing a caiman, that’s the jaguar I saw. He’s nicknamed “Mick Jaguar” by the locals and guides because he’s missing his right eye, which he lost perhaps in a fight with another jaguar when he was only 2 or 3 years old. He’s now about 10 or 12 years old, and despite the loss of his eye, is an expert hunter. Over the course of the next few days I would see a total of seven jaguars! Some old, some young, all beautiful and amazing.

Adult female jaguarOn my last morning boat ride we saw a young female jaguar, and we followed her while she hunted over the course of about 45 minutes, as she crossed the river and stalked the shores, and finally she charged into the water and came up moments later with a small caiman in her mouth! Of course I felt bad for the caiman, it was not his day, but jaguars have to eat too. It was really cool watching her cross the river. I knew jaguars swam, but seeing it myself with my own eyes was amazing. I have to give credit again to Flavio and our driver. When we arrived at the scene, several other boats were there and had been observing the jaguar for a while. At this time she had disappeared, and the other boats started to give up and drive away. We lingered a bit longer, and Flavio saw tall grass moving off in the distance, and he said that was the jaguar. Of course I trusted his judgement by this time, after having spent so many hours on safari with him, but how could he know that some tall grass shaking is a jaguar? Couldn’t it be a capybara, a caiman, a bird, or the wind? But as I watched, I realized that the shaking grass was moving in a line from left to right, meaning something was walking there, and something big! We watched the grass as other boats continued to leave, but some saw what we were looking at and stayed. We watched, and watched some more, and eventually the shaking grass came close to shore and finally emerged a big female jaguar, shining in the sun!

Baby Caiman!So besides the beautiful jaguars, I also saw thousands of caiman, thousands of birds (cormorants and herons were the most frequently spotted, along with several raptors such as roadside hawks), hundreds of capybara (even some baby ones!), a couple of lizards called Amazon racerunners, and last but not least, several great sightings of giant river otters! We watched the otters as they hunted and ate fish, and dug burrows. They’re great at catching fish even though the water isn’t clear at all. Flavio explained that these otters are actually capable of killing a jaguar in the water, as they are great swimmers and there are many of them to attack a jaguar. I suppose that sort of thing only happens if they’re defending their burrow though, I can’t imagine that they would pick a fight with a jaguar on purpose. When they caught a fish they would find a spot near the shore where they could balance their hind legs on something underwater (tree limbs, rocks maybe) and eat the fish with their hands. It was kind of gory watching them eat, it was obvious that they really loved eating fish!

I put together a spreadsheet of the animals I managed to get a good picture of, and there are 60 different species, almost all of which I’d never seen before. Actually the only one I’d ever seen before was a great egret. So 59 were completely new to me, and those are just the ones I got good pictures of. Many of the birds were just too fast for me, but at least I saw them.

Summary and Suggestions for Future Travelers

I’m extremely happy with this trip! I’d definitely recommend Wild Pantanal and Flavio to anyone who considers going to the Pantanal in the future. The wildlife was amazing, and the people were all friendly and happy. If you normally do luxury travel and wildlife is not your thing, then this might not be the trip for you, but if you’re looking for wildlife and want to experience the Pantanal, this is definitely for you. Here are some tips and suggestions:

  1. Do your best to wear long pants and long sleeves, both as sun protection and bug protection. On our hikes I saw more ticks than I’ve ever seen in my life. Luckily Flavio explained that the ticks in the Pantanal don’t carry diseases, they’re just annoying.
  2. Bring a sun hat, and make sure it has a cord to wrap around your chin so it doesn’t go flying in the wind while the motorboat is moving.
  3. Bring sunscreen – you’ll be out on a boat for hours at a time in the powerful sun.
  4. Bring lip balm that has SPF 30 or something – I made the mistake of using cherry Chapstick that (unbeknownst to me at the time) was only SPF 4. By the final day on the boat my lips were sunburned / windburned and were very swollen and sore (seriously, I looked like I’d been in a boxing match).
  5. Bring shampoo – soap is always around but shampoo was sometimes hard to find
  6. I drank bottled water and had no problems with the food, so I suggest the same if you’re worried about the water. I didn’t drink coffee
  7. There’s a small airfield at the end of the Transpantaneira roadway, and when I asked Flavio about the possibility of air-tours, he said it was something you could do. I’m sure the Pantanal is beautiful when viewed from above in a small plane, so if you have time, definitely try to schedule that.
  8. There are no gift shops anywhere near the Pantanal, so if you want souvenirs, buy them in Pocone (the closest town to the Pantanal) or in Cuiabá. I didn’t ask Flavio to find me a gift shop, but I’m sure there must have been one somewhere.
  9. Bring power adapters
  10. If you’re lucky enough to spot a tapir, or a jaguar, be as quiet as possible. Flavio explained to me that tapirs are particularly sensitive to the human voice, and will run away as soon as they hear you talk, while boat and car engines are not as frightening to them. Strange but true – so be quiet! I made the mistake of saying something like “I see him!” in a normal voice, when spotting a tapir that Flavio pointed out, and it made good on its escape. Would it have left even if I had been quiet? Maybe, but I’ll never know for sure.
  11. If you go during the dry season like I did, you probably won’t see many mosquitoes, but there will be some, so bring bug spray but don’t be terrified of them.
  12. Tell Mick Jaguar I said hello 🙂

Where the hell was I, exactly??

I love that my new camera can connect to my cell phone’s GPS and automatically geotag my pictures. It was a bit buggy, but worked fine overall. So here you go, a nice google map with some markers representing my location when I took some pictures.

And Finally…

Jaguar tracksPerhaps my favorite moment of the entire trip was when we stopped at a beach along the river to pee (hey, there are no porta potties in the Pantanal, and we were on the boat for 6 hours!), and Flavio spotted a trail of perfect jaguar tracks. He said the tracks were about two days old. There I was, thousands of miles from home, standing on a sunlit little beach, and extending before me was a trail left by a jaguar, one of the most exotic creatures on earth, who had walked in this very spot just one or two nights ago. As always, I have to point out that this was not a captive jaguar, not some poor creature in a zoo or sold on some black market, but a wild jaguar, born free, living free. There is not a zoo on earth that can replicate that experience.

"Truce!"

Comments

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  • kat March 20, 2017Reply

    Wow what an awsum trip. Im heading over in september this year and dream of seeing a jaguar. Can you tell me how much your trip roughly cost?

      Mike Willis March 25, 2017Reply

      Hi Kat – I spent around $6,000 if I remember correctly, that’s including airfare etc. I’m sure the price can also vary due to fluctuations in USD to BRL, since the price for the tour is quoted in BRL.
      Good luck in September!!!

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